UNHCR chief opens international meeting in Geneva on urban refugees

News Stories, 9 December 2009

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
Overview of delegates at the opening today of the High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges in the Palais des Nations,

GENEVA, December 9 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Wednesday opened a two-day international dialogue that will focus on the pressing problems faced by the increasing numbers of refugees and other forcibly displaced people living in cities and towns around the world.

Guterres, addressing more than 300 delegates in Geneva's Palais des Nations at the opening of his third annual Dialogue on Protection Challenges, said growing urbanization was "compounded by influxes of displaced people obliged to abandon their homes by the threat of armed conflict, political violence, lawlessness, food insecurity, environmental degradation and natural disasters. By all indications, this dimension of urbanization will intensify in the future.

"At the same time, evidence shows that high urbanization in states in conflict does not necessarily diminish when conflict ends. To rely exclusively on the traditional solution of repatriating refugees and returning internally displaced persons to their places of origin in rural areas is increasingly implausible."

The High Commissioner said this trend "presents a significant challenge, not only to UNHCR but the international community in general, which have tended until now to focus on camp-based refugees and internally displaced people."

He noted that more than half of the world's people now live in cities, while "there are an estimated 5 million refugees [out of 10.5 million] under UNHCR's mandate and many more millions of internally displaced people living in urban areas." Guterres said he hoped this year's Dialogue "will encourage policymakers to consider afresh the wisdom of encampment as a policy where and when other solutions may be better for the refugees and the host countries themselves."

Recognizing the growing importance of cities for its work, UNHCR last September issued a new policy on refugee protection and durable solutions in urban settings. The report drew much from the agency's experience helping Iraqi refugees in the Syrian and Jordanian capitals, Damascus and Amman.

"The new, more clearly rights-based policy emphasizes the fact that UNHCR's mandated responsibilities towards refugees are not affected by their location. It recognizes that cities and towns are legitimate places for refugees and displaced populations to reside and to enjoy their basic human rights," Guterres told the delegates, including mayors and other municipal authorities, aid workers, experts, refugees, and representatives from member states of UNHCR's governing body and countries with a special interest in this year's topic.

"The policy does not intend to disregard or subordinate national laws. Quite the opposite, the policy is built upon national legal structures, fully cognizant of the national legal and policy frameworks in which it has to be implemented. The policy aims both to encourage and contribute to the progressive development of these frameworks to ensure that refugees and others of concern in urban areas can be integrated into the social fabric of cities and towns in an appropriate, rights-respecting way," he added.

But Guterres stressed that the policy "is not an endorsement for all refugees to move to cities." He also noted that the policy, which will be implemented in a phased approach, "commits UNHCR to advocating for the expansion of 'protection space' in urban areas and affirms our commitment to designing urban programmes based on principles of age, gender and diversity mainstreaming."

The High Commissioner concluded that a new approach, based on three closely related principles, was needed to meet the challenge of urban displacement. "First, the new approach cannot be undertaken in isolation from the broader context of marginalized populations in urban settings. We must give particular attention to protecting the rights of poor and disadvantaged communities, empowering them to make full use of their proven resourcefulness," he said.

"Second, the approach must be both developmental and relief-based one that addresses long-term as well as immediate needs and supports the broader process of urban planning and poverty reduction. Finally, the approach must be inclusive. It cannot done by UNHCR alone. It requires establishing and strengthening partnerships with central governments, municipal and local authorities, NGOs, the private sector and especially the marginalized populations themselves."

This year's informal Dialogue included a mix of plenary and key working group, or "breakout," sessions. Reports from the four working groups will be presented in a plenary session, which will be followed by an exchange of ideas. Guterres will present his own conclusions before the meeting ends on Thursday.

The Dialogue was preceded on Tuesday by a roundtable meeting at the Palais of mayors from more than 20 towns or cities. Geneva Mayor Remy Pagani, co-organizer of yesteday's gathering, said it was "an absolute success."

Nairobi's Mayor Geoffrey Majiwa, who is attending the Dialogue, said Tuesday's meeting "was quite productive because we reached a situation where all the mayors agreed that we need to become partners in raising issues to do with refugees in our cities and we need to work as a team to make sure that the refugees are protected."

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Urban Refugees

More than half the refugees UNHCR serves now live in urban areas

High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges

Two-day international discussion focuses on protection gaps and responses.

The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented Sister Angélique Namaika of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award at a gala ceremony in Geneva on Monday night.

Sister Angélique, through her Centre for Reintegration and Development, has helped transform the lives of more than 2,000 women and girls who had been forced from their homes and abused by fighters of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) or other armed groups. Many of those she helps suffered abduction, forced labour, beatings, murder, rape or other human rights abuses.

The Roman Catholic nun helps survivors to heal by offering them the chance to learn a trade, start a small business or go to school. Testimonies from these women show the remarkable effect she has had on helping turn around their lives, with many affectionately calling her "mother."

The Award ceremony featured a keynote speech from best-selling author Paulo Coelho and musical performances by singer-songwriter Dido, Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna and Grammy-nominated Malian musicians, Amadou and Mariam.

2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

2014 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented the Colombian women's rights group, Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future, with the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday night.

The volunteer members of Butterflies risk their lives each day to help survivors of forced displacement and sexual abuse in the Pacific Coast city of Buenaventura. This city has some of the highest rates of violence and displacement due to escalating rivalries between illegal armed groups.

Drawing on only the most modest of resources, volunteers cautiously move through the most dangerous neighbourhoods to help women access medical care and report crimes. This work, deep inside the communities, helps them reach the most vulnerable women, but also brings with it danger and threats from the illegal armed groups.

The Award ceremony, in its 60th year, was held in Geneva's Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, and featured musical performances by UNHCR supporters, Swedish-Lebanese singer-songwriter Maher Zain and Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. The Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela also performed at the ceremony.

2014 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

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On 1 August, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres travelled to northern Burkina Faso with the United States' Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BRPM), Anne Richard. In Damba camp, they met with Malian refugees who had fled northern Mali in the past six months to escape the ongoing conflict and political instability. To date, more than 250,000 Malian refugees have fled their homes and found refuge in neighbouring countries, including 107,000 in Burkina Faso alone. The UN refugee agency has only received one-third of the US$153 million it needs to provide life-saving assistance such as shelter, water, sanitation, health services, nutrition and protection to the refugees. UNHCR fears that the volatile political and humanitarian situation in Mali could lead to further outflows to neighbouring countries.

UNHCR chief meets Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

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