Third Committee of the General Assembly, 71st Session. Statement by Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Agenda Item 60: Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons and humanitarian questions

United Nations Headquarters, New York

Wednesday, 2 November 2016


Madam Chair, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Six weeks ago, I was honoured to address the General Assembly on the occasion of the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants. Together with the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees convened the next day by President Obama, this brought the plight of those uprooted from their homes by conflict, violence and persecution back on to the global stage, serving as a stark reminder – if one was needed – that addressing their plight is truly one of the defining challenges of our time.

As an illustration of how urgent and compelling this is, let me draw your attention to the fact that in the short time since then, since that day, more than 111,000 people have fled as refugees from South Sudan to five neighbouring countries – bringing the total number to 1.13 million.

In the same period, since the Summit, the death toll of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean hit a record high, with nearly 4,000 lives now lost this year – more than the total for the whole of 2015.

Also in the same period, armed activities in the Mosul region of Iraq have already displaced more than 20,000 people, with aid agencies anticipating that hundreds of thousands more may be forced to move or would be in need of urgent assistance, in addition to the 3.3 million already displaced inside Iraq.

And the list goes on, with multiple causes interacting, such as in Yemen, in the Northern Triangle of Central America or the Great Lakes region in Africa. Not for decades have we seen so many people on the move as a result of conflict, violence and persecution, with more than 65 million now displaced internally or across borders as refugees, and the number continuing to climb.

It has become difficult, in our times, to make and build peace.  The Security Council and regional organizations seem to have lost the will to be united in addressing conflicts. The moral and legal boundaries embedded in international humanitarian law are crossed every day more deliberately, and with more impunity. Future generations, distinguished delegates, will judge with severity our collective incapacity to prevent and solve conflict, and protect people from the consequences of war.

The entangled conflicts in Iraq and Syria account for almost a quarter of the world’s displaced people, with deep sectarian divisions, religious extremism, terrorism and governance challenges fuelling and promoting conflict.

The Syria war, now in its sixth year, continues to be the cause of the biggest humanitarian crisis, with 6.5 million people internally displaced and 4.8 million refugees. States with the power to stop the fighting have been unable to find the agreement required to do so except for a few, short truces, with the result that horror, suffering and destruction continue unabated.

You know that already. You hear it all the time. Let me add one piece to this terrible puzzle: remember that Syrians, in addition to all the suffering, now find themselves also trapped inside their own country, as borders are closed or have become difficult to cross. This is most evident today in Aleppo, where civilians are being both targeted and used as pawns of war - a dramatic situation which brings to the forefront the extent of current violations of international humanitarian law. Inevitably, the number of internally displaced Syrians is destined to become greater, if hostilities do not cease. UNHCR will continue to work inside Syria, as part of a broader UN effort and along with NGOs and other partners, to alleviate the plight of those displaced or otherwise affected - at least those to whom access is possible.  But we have become so tragically accustomed to war in Syria that we sometimes forget that military outcomes will not ultimately resolve the plight of the Syrian people, nor will they create sustainable conditions for the refugees and displaced to return to their homes.

As long as this lasts we will need sustained commitments and resources both financially and in terms of resettlement and humanitarian admission quotas. To this end, world leaders at the London Conference in February raised an unprecedented US$ 12 billion to support Syria and the region until 2020, of which US$ 5.3 billion has been received. This effort must continue. Very soon it will be time to take stock, and - unless war ends - look ahead at further commitments to continue to support beleaguered Syrians.

Syria is one example of the protracted conflicts prevailing in the world today. This, as we know well, increases the impact of refugee outflows on countries next to conflict zones, with proximity the main factor in how the responsibility to receive refugees is shared. Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, but also Egypt and Iraq itself continue to host millions of Syrian refugees; just like Iran and Pakistan have hosted Afghan refugees for almost four decades, and countries in Africa such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda  continue to receive refugees from different neighbours engulfed in conflict. Eight out of ten refugees are hosted in developing countries, having to cope with the social, economic and political consequences of conflict, and whose infrastructure and public services – often already fragile before the crisis – are severely tested. Supporting countries hosting large refugee populations continues to be one of our greatest responsibilities. 

I am also deeply concerned by the fact that regional conflicts bring a range of security considerations into play, as armed groups operate across the borders that refugees are also crossing. In the Lake Chad region, for example, the insurgency centered in northeastern Nigeria has spilled across borders, with terrible consequences in neighbouring countries, and resulting in a complex mix of refugee outflows, internal displacement, and returns. Insecurity and displacement coexist in the Afghan and Somali contexts and elsewhere - and in those situations, refugees (who actually flee insecurity), are frequently and paradoxically identified as agents of instability.

In this sobering global picture, access to protection is all too often fraught with complexities. In some instances borders have been closed, or entry restricted. People seeking refuge have been pushed back into conflict zones. Pressure for them to return home increases, even in countries with a long tradition of refugee hospitality, in circumstances in which decisions to repatriate may be less than voluntary. Those who do reach safety are often left on the margins, struggling to survive and to connect to the communities around them. They face difficulties in accessing services, leaving them unable to provide food, housing, health and care, and other basic needs for their families.  Globally, only one in two refugee children of primary school age is enrolled in school – as compared to 91% of children around the world. Over time, people fall into poverty, as their savings and other assets are exhausted. In Lebanon, for example, 70% of Syrian refugee households are now below the poverty line, up from 50% in 2014.

Given this context, compounded by inadequate support to host countries and within countries of origin, and a failure to bring about the prospect of solutions, it is perhaps not surprising that in many situations people are driven to seek protection further afield in increasing numbers. This is compounded by the broader range of factors driving human mobility today, including food insecurity, poverty, environmental degradation, climate change, inequality, and bad governance. While refugees and migrants are distinct categories - with refugees unable to return home because of conflict or persecution, and necessitating a particular legal status as a result - in practice there are many common factors, including overlapping root causes, and the risks they face from smugglers and traffickers, and from rising xenophobia.

The arrival of larger numbers of refugees and migrants in the global North has generated fear in some and even led to an erosion of key protection standards in a number of countries with a strong tradition of refugee protection and human rights.

The principle that refugees are a matter of international concern, requiring a response based on cooperation and shared responsibility was particularly tested by the inability of European states to implement a well-managed, collective response to last year's crisis – leading to a disturbing and growing emphasis on keeping people away from European borders. There is increasing confusion - sometimes deliberate confusion - between the legitimate aspiration to better manage population movements, especially those related to economic migration, and a trend to keep everybody out, including those fleeing war, violence and harsh violations of human rights. Agreements on relocation within Europe have been implemented to a minimal extent. And our calls for an expansion of legal pathways, which would avoid refugees being forced into hazardous and costly journeys, have not met the required response to be a meaningful alternative. Imbalances remain unresolved, with Italy now bearing the brunt of coping with 160,000 refugees and migrants arrived on its shores since the beginning of this year.

Madam Chair,

In this challenging and fast-evolving context, UNHCR is now pursuing five core orientations that will represent key areas of investment as we move forward.

First, and most fundamentally, we are working to deepen and make even more resolute our voice - and our actions – to embed protection at the centre of responses to forced displacement, statelessness and humanitarian crises. I was heartened by the strong language in the document concluding the Summit on Refugees and Migrants: the New York Declaration clearly reaffirms the principle of non-refoulement and the enduring value of the 1951 Convention, its 1967 Protocol and relevant regional instruments.

The international protection regime concretely balances legitimate security concerns and the imperative of providing protection to those in need. It can provide concrete, flexible tools to countries striving to uphold their responsibilities. For example, we are working on a set of practical suggestions to be offered to the European Union in support of its efforts to respond in a principled, cohesive and effective manner to refugee movements.

We are also working with states, civil society and partners to forge responses to new protection challenges and causes of displacement. In this context, I welcome the San José Action Statement, adopted in July, as a framework for regional cooperation to address the phenomenon of people fleeing brutal violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America.

But protection is not only about law, policy and systems. For UNHCR, it is underpinned by our strong operational presence and our direct engagement with displaced and stateless people – driven by the fundamental objective of saving and securing lives, and protecting rights, including resolute action to promote gender equality and eliminate gender based discrimination and violence.

The impact of displacement on children and youth is profound, and they have been a particular focus of our attention this year. Our annual NGO consultations were organized around the theme of ‘youth’ and in December our annual Dialogue on Protection Challenges will focus on “Children on the Move”.

UNHCR is also contributing to advancing legal, policy and practical solutions for the protection of people displaced as a result of climate change, environmental degradation and natural disasters - increasingly significant drivers of global displacement. We are delighted that IOM has now joined the UN family, and are intensifying our collaboration in the context of mixed migratory flows. We also look forward to contributing to the development of the Global Compact on Migration.

Our second key orientation is to intensify our pursuit of solutions, to enable refugees, internally displaced and stateless people to reclaim or acquire full membership in society and build a stable future. This is essentially about fostering - and eventually restoring - connections, by linking people to the communities, services and opportunities around them (including through education and jobs), by cultivating an environment in which their rights are protected and they are able to flourish, and by implementing measures that allow them to rebuild a stable and secure future in a country where they belong. 

Solutions are of course fundamentally linked to the end of conflict, and the establishment of conditions that allow people to return to their own countries - an endeavour that is first and foremost the responsibility of political and security actors, requiring early action to address root causes and prevent unrest and violence from escalating, and strong and effective investments in making and building peace.

Viewed from this perspective, the picture is admittedly bleak. Only 126,000 refugees were able to repatriate in 2015 – around 11% of the figure ten years earlier.  And yet, there is hope.

Just last week, a first group of refugees from South-East Myanmar, who had been living in protracted exile in Thailand owing to political and ethnic violence, chose to return home - marking a new stage in their country's path towards peace and democracy.

In Côte d’Ivoire, more than a quarter of a million refugees who fled political violence have now returned home over the past five years.

And during a recent visit to Colombia and Ecuador I saw for myself how - despite subsequent but hopefully temporary setbacks - peace negotiations have brought Colombia substantially closer to ending decades of conflict and securing solutions for almost 7.5 million uprooted people.

A major challenge, however, is to explore solutions in fragile contexts in which a definitive resolution of conflict has not yet been achieved. In these situations, too, it is often possible to seek and leverage opportunities for solutions, including through return – provided that this is genuinely voluntary – and support for reintegration measures, while continuing to support the host states in maintaining international protection for those who need it.

In Somalia, progress towards stability and prosperity has been tangible if not always linear, and will continue to be characterized by both setbacks and opportunities. In Afghanistan too, the complex dynamics of ongoing conflict mean that even as some refugees and internally displaced people are returning home, still others are being displaced, often multiple times, and large numbers remain in protracted displacement. More than 300,000 registered Afghan refugees have returned home this year, largely during the past three months and almost all of them from neighbouring Pakistan; in addition to over 200,000 undocumented Afghans – that’s half a million. With the current, inadequate level of resources though, we will only be able to assist an additional 55,000 people who have registered to return in November. This surge is also impacting the very limited absorption capacity in Afghanistan, where meanwhile over 300,000 people have been freshly displaced by conflict, adding to the existing, large internal displacement crisis. We face great challenges in coping with the needs of returnees and displaced alike. The onset of winter creates an additional challenge as we rally to assist the most vulnerable families in the areas where access is possible. We need urgent funding support to address this situation.

We are also intensifying our work with states and other partners on expanding access to third country solutions for refugees, including resettlement and complementary pathways for admission.  We note the increased pledges made by States in the course of 2016, but resettlement needs continue to far outpace the number of places made available. UNHCR plans to submit at least 170,000 refugees for resettlement next year, which will be the highest number in 20 years and will more than double the submissions made since 2012. 

Our commitment to solutions also encompasses our efforts – together with partners - to prevent, reduce, and eradicate statelessness. In the two years since my predecessor launched UNHCR’s global campaign to end statelessness, tens of thousands of people have acquired a nationality or had their citizenship confirmed in countries including Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia and Thailand. There have been important regional initiatives, including the Abidjan and Brazil Declarations, and a number of ratifications of one or both Statelessness Conventions. UNHCR is committed to investing resources in this important aspect of our mandate: being without citizenship is as diminishing to one’s identity as exile and the loss of home suffered by refugees. 

A third area of focus - closely linked to solutions - is to partner more firmly with development actors in addressing displacement, building resilience and laying the ground for solutions.

This is an area in which there have been several significant advances, emerging in part from experience in the Syria situation, where UNHCR and UNDP have collaborated closely through the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan implemented in partnership with host countries.

There is a growing recognition that ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity cannot be achieved without taking into account the world’s forcibly displaced people. The principle of universality, enshrined in the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, provides a powerful platform for their inclusion - and that of stateless people - in development planning.

Several host countries are now taking unprecedented steps to include refugees and host communities in national development plans - recognising that given the right policy environment, including through access to education, freedom of movement, and livelihoods opportunities, and with appropriate development investments, refugees and internally displaced people can contribute to the communities that host them, and become socio-economic assets.

But - again - host countries need support. The World Bank is now playing a critical role, under the leadership of President Kim. We have been scaling up our partnership, working together to build the evidence base on the socio-economic impact of refugees and displaced people on host communities and countries, and on regional studies and country action plans in the Middle East, Great Lakes, Horn of Africa and the Lake Chad Basin. A new World Bank global lending facility, designed to extend concessional financing arrangements to middle income countries hosting large refugee populations, and building on experience in the MENA region, is a potential game-changer.

Our fourth key orientation is to continue to reinforce and expand our capacity and expertise in emergency preparedness and response. Even as we work to engage development actors in addressing forced displacement, it is essential to maintain a strong response capacity and ensure the conditions for neutral, independent humanitarian action, driven by protection principles.

This is particularly critical in emergencies, when lives are at risk and protection needs are significant. Challenges never seem to end. Our capacity is being tested as we speak in the context of the broader UN and humanitarian response in Northern Iraq, which I visited a few days ago. I am especially keen that the organization remains quick and effective in its responses; and able to adapt to fast moving situations by continuously innovating and strengthening its response mechanisms. This demands rapidity and flexibility also on the part of donors, of course. And it requires constant vigilance regarding the safety of personnel deployed in very insecure situations: I made it a point, in my first year, to visit Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq to flag our commitment to be where our presence matters most, while ensuring staff safety through every possible means.

Let me also elaborate briefly on one key modality of response, which we are developing and expanding as it can provide greater dignity of choice to those we serve. UNHCR has recently launched its policy on adopting more systematically cash-based interventions across operations. We are already using cash in over 60 countries. In line with our commitment at the World Humanitarian Summit, we will double the amount of funds programmed for cash-based interventions by the end of 2020. UNHCR cannot achieve these objectives working alone: strengthening strategic partnerships such as with WFP and UNICEF and building new alliances in this area are paramount.

The fifth key area is a more decisive and predictable engagement with internally displaced people, within the established coordination mechanisms. This is part of a broader effort towards a more integrated approach that encompasses the entire spectrum of displacement.

We have already stepped up our capacity - including through new guidelines and the revitalization of the clusters in which we play a lead role. We have started a thorough operational review of our engagement with IDPs in order to better understand what needs to change to make it more coherent and predictable. To pursue this, we look forward to working closely with states, the Emergency Relief Coordinator and other partners.

Madam Chair,

Building on the work of my predecessor, António Guterres, who left behind a strong and effective organization, we have identified a number of areas in which our internal capacities and systems need to be further strengthened to be able to decisively pursue the core directions I have just described. Our internal processes have become heavy and compliance with multiple instructions diverts attention from our direct engagement with people. There is a very urgent need to simplify procedures and other management tools while ensuring that we maintain the highest standards of accountability. We are determined to do so in a spirit of true and bold innovation.

We have launched a review of UNHCR’s headquarters in order to better align functions to our strategic directions and provide the best possible support to field operations. We will reform our planning and resource allocation processes, and we will start an overhaul of our results based management system to provide for a more simplified framework. In line with our “Grand Bargain” commitments we are also pursuing greater efficiencies working with other agencies in needs assessments, in harmonizing and simplifying reporting requirements and in reducing procurement and logistic costs. We shall continue to invest in our workforce which now stands at more than 15,000 people, through a “People Strategy” which sets out a vision for addressing key human resources challenges over five years. 

It goes without saying that developing the strategic directions that I have described and the management tools that support them require substantial financial contributions. We value the strong support that donors provide to UNHCR. Funds available have reached all-time heights this year - close to US$ 4 billion so far. However, due to new and protracted crises, our 2016 budget has also reached a new historic high of US$ 7.5 billion, reflecting the unparalleled scale of displacement.    

This is 53% of our total funding requirements – only marginally better than the 45% reached by global UN humanitarian appeals. The shortfall in funding has an impact across all regions, but has particularly dramatic consequences in Africa – with critical situations such as Somalia, South Sudan and the Central African Republic all resourced at less than 25%. This is a most troubling disparity which I hope can be redressed as a matter of urgency.

Madam Chair,

As the end of his tenure approaches, I wish to use this podium to thank Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. In my previous work with UNRWA, and now with UNHCR, I have learned to appreciate his support for refugees, and would like to highlight the important legacy that he leaves behind in placing this issue at the centre of the international agenda by promoting the Summit on Refugees and Migrants last September.

I salute the election of António Guterres as his successor. I know that his tenure will be characterized by the same vision, drive and compassion that he brought to his work as High Commissioner for Refugees. We will have - as the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations - a person with profound knowledge and direct experience of the human consequences of war and persecution. This, no doubt, will make even more resolute his engagement in pursuing peace, development and human rights.

Madam Chair,

The experience of flight and exile and the tradition of hosting those in need of protection are part of the shared heritage of humanity. Perhaps because of this – and despite the sobering context that I have described - the international refugee protection regime has nonetheless demonstrated its resilience. Many states next to conflict zones have kept their borders open, and most are genuinely striving to find a way to reconcile the imperative of providing refuge to those in search of protection, with domestic social, economic and security concerns.

But the scale and complexity of displacement today have highlighted as never before that countries hosting significant numbers of displaced people cannot be left alone to shoulder the consequences. This is more than a moral obligation. The principle that refugees are a matter of international concern, calling for a collective response based on solidarity and shared responsibility, is a fundamental element of the legal framework embedded in the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the bedrock upon which international protection is built.

And this, distinguished delegates, gave voice to the New York Declaration of last September: a critical recognition and reaffirmation that cooperation lies at the heart of the refugee protection regime, and which - if implemented with commitment, resolution and concrete investments - can provide a powerful platform for change. The very important Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework described in the Declaration sets out a predictable blueprint for how the international community should deal with large refugee flows.

This framework, the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, is essentially the mechanism through which the refugee commitments in the Declaration will be delivered in practice. It has huge potential - for a more predictable, systematic, better resourced, more connected response, shaped by protection principles and standards - provided that the political will that has been articulated over the past months can now be marshaled and translated into action.

I am honoured that you have requested UNHCR to initiate and develop the framework, by steering its application in a range of situations, and by building on this experience to elaborate a Global Compact on Refugees, to be presented in 2018. This will be a central priority for UNHCR in the next two years.

The framework aims to ease the pressure on host countries through a more decisive and predictable definition of the contributions required by a broader range of partners, and the international support needed to leverage progress towards solutions from the beginning.

It provides for robust, early engagement by both humanitarian and development actors - with a strong sense of common purpose, from the outset of crises, and with a particular focus on building refugee self-reliance and bringing benefits to host communities. It incorporates early support to improve conditions in countries of origin to enable safe and dignified return. It reflects an awareness of the need to accelerate and expand access to third country solutions, including resettlement and complementary pathways for admission, from a much earlier stage in a crisis.  

It represents a reinvigorated commitment to partnerships and alliances, shaped by the outcomes of the World Humanitarian Summit, within and beyond the United Nations system, through a ‘whole of society’ approach – including national and local institutions and non-governmental organisations, academia, the media, community and faith-based organisations.   

It also seeks to mobilise an increasingly informed, engaged and influential private sector, bringing diverse forms of investment and opening up opportunities and jobs - an area that I am particularly keen to develop as it will help strengthen our own innovation capacity.

Together, I believe that these elements – if systematically applied and resourced - will constitute a major shift in the international response to new refugee crises and to some of the more protracted regional situations, and to accelerate and consolidate emerging opportunities for solutions.

Immediately after the summit, I established a dedicated UNHCR Task Team to take forward the application of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework over the next two years. The Task Team will draw on external expertise through secondments and other arrangements.  It has already undertaken intensive bilateral consultations on the piloting of the framework with governments, United Nations agencies, civil society and the private sector. An advisory group composed of the former, present and future chairs of UNHCR’s Executive Committee was established in September, and a number of pilot situations are now being identified, with Uganda the first to be confirmed, and others being discussed with host countries.

We will draw on these experiences in elaborating, eventually, the Global Compact on Refugees – engaging with states and consulting with all relevant stakeholders. In this regard we will ensure outreach to member states, including through meetings of our Executive Committee and its Standing Committee. Consultations with international organisations, civil society and the private sector have started and will be central to this process. Next year’s annual consultations with NGOs will have this process as their overarching theme, and the High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges in December 2017 will be dedicated to the Global Compact on Refugees.

Madam Chair, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Refugees are at the centre of political attention for the first time in decades. But addressing the global displacement crises rests fundamentally on the engagement and determination of states across the broad spectrum of human displacement: to prevent fault lines from deepening into conflicts which become ever more intractable; to stem the terrible violations of the laws of war that take the lives and blight the futures of so many; to provide refuge to those fleeing in search of safety, and to marshal the determination to find definitive, political solutions to crises. 

This is a moment of historic opportunity, which - together - we must grasp and translate into concrete action in support of refugees and the communities and states that host them.

UNHCR stands ready to work with you on making this happen.   

Thank you.