"Global protection challenges: What does the refugee experience teach us?" Remarks to the Institute of International and European Affairs

Dublin, Ireland

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Distinguished members of the IIEA,

Thank you for inviting me to join you today to consider how we can draw upon lessons from the recent past to protect refugees more effectively around the world. 

I am particularly pleased to be here in Ireland, a country which knows well what is meant by flight and migration.  Ireland is famous for its international engagement and being at the forefront of humanitarian action and human rights.  The Irish people have a long history of advocating strongly for the fundamental rights of all human beings, and they carry into the present and future a firm belief in the power of moral force to move mountains.  We saw this when, serving as co-chair of the UN Refugee and Migrant process last year, Ireland was an instrumental force in the adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants by 193 countries.  Ireland is also a powerful voice for the implementation of the 2013 Sustainable Development Agenda, which calls for leaving no one [including refugees] behind.   Irish staff and NGOs work with UNHCR for the protection of refugees on almost every continent, and Ireland is participating in search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean.  And now receiving 520 refugees each year through its resettlement programme, Ireland is providing opportunities for some of the most vulnerable refugees to be resettled out of precarious situations into lives where they can envision a future for themselves and their families.

This kind of commitment is urgently needed in today’s world, as we grapple with challenges on a number fronts that both contribute to growing levels of displacement and exacerbate the already difficult circumstances in which millions of refugees are trying to survive.  Situations of conflict and violence are multiplying and worsening, featuring prominently on almost every continent.  Forces of populism and xenophobia are gaining traction in many quarters.  Severe and systematic human rights abuses and often medieval practices of torture are being perpetrated against whole swathes of society, often targeting women or LGBTI individuals with impunity.  Democratic evolution is faltering as political opponents or minorities are squashed, persecuted, or branded as terrorists.  And governance structures are often severely tested in the process.  All of these phenomena have thrown people into turmoil, forcing them to flee their homes in search of safety in ever growing numbers, and wreaking havoc on the social fabric of communities, States, and international society more broadly.

We see time and again how civilians bear the brunt of this, and their displacement is often one of the first indications of the breakdown in the rule of law, as well as the slide into conflict, violence, and gross abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law.  Refugees bring home to us in the most visceral and compelling way what is happening in the world.  They remind us that our lives are deeply interconnected, and our actions can have consequences far beyond our borders.  This was brought home to me again recently when visiting Central America and learning how mining projects and the extraction industry more broadly, run by enterprises with seats in the industrialized world, are contributing to displacement.  The refugee experience also teaches us that isolationism can never be a solution.  Refugees’ stories attest to the shadow side of human society and the necessity of a legal order founded upon a common principle of humanity.  They also speak to the tremendous courage and resilience that enable people to survive in the face of enormous tragedy and often unimaginable loss. 

Today there are more than 65.3 million displaced persons, more than 21.3 million of whom are refugees.[1]  In the year previous, more than one million refugees crossed the Mediterranean, and many lives were lost along the way, as refugees were faced with a Hobson’s choice of either a life of destitution and insecurity or possible death at sea.  It does not come as a surprise that this displacement is primarily occurring in regions beset by violence and conflict. 

Countries in the global south have hosted the largest numbers of refugees, sometimes for decades, as conflicts remain unresolved, and whole generations are born into exile.  Uganda now receives some 2,200 people each day; Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan together host 5 million Syrian refugees; and Pakistan and Iran host over 2.5 million Afghan refugees.  More than half of the Syrian population is now displaced either internally within the Syrian Arab Republic, or beyond its borders, and significant numbers of people are also fleeing Nigeria, Yemen, and South Sudan.  Most refugees flee to countries within their immediate regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, parts of Asia, Latin America, and Turkey.  Many people are trapped in besieged towns and villages in the Syrian Arab Republic, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, and Libya that humanitarian actors cannot easily access. 

Solutions for those whom we can access remain dim prospects for the vast majority.  Only 123,000 refugees were able to return to their countries of origin in the first half of 2016.  Many of them found that conditions of return were inadequate and often ended up in situations of further displacement.  Opportunities for refugees to be resettled to third countries have steadily grown over the years, but still less than one per cent of refugees can benefit from this solution.  As the vast majority of refugees live in urban areas, with only around one-fifth residing in camps, local solutions, through access to livelihoods, education, and national services, would best enable refugees to become engaged and contributing members of their communities, but these are often elusive due to insufficient resources and support for the countries that host them. 

Against this background, finding solutions that can address the scale and gravity of these situations with any real efficacy is a daunting challenge.  However, if we choose to remember the past, to build upon lessons learned from recent experience in responding to refugees, there can be room for hope.  Ultimately, we must address the underlying factors that fuel violence and conflict in the first place, whether they emanate from the arms trade, extraction industries, severe inequality, authoritarianism, or environmental change and degradation.  Without addressing such root causes, flight may be the only option for survival. 

This requires a stronger focus on prevention, which the UN Secretary-General has set out as one of the top priorities for the UN in the coming years.  Preventive action includes building peace and social cohesion through conflict mediation, minority protection, and rights-based approaches to development.  It can further be achieved through restoring the rule of law and justice and holding perpetrators of human rights violations to account.  It must be centred around an ethic of human rights, compassion, and care.  This ethic is fundamental to the international order, starting from the Charter of the United Nations and spelled out clearly in international human rights and refugee law. 

Alongside prevention, better preparedness through early warning systems and contingency planning can help to mitigate against some of the worst humanitarian consequences of conflict and violence.  For example, had contingency planning and joined-up action guided the European responses to the arrivals of refugees across the Eastern Mediterranean, when the numbers were starting to increase, a great deal of chaos and trauma could have been avoided on all sides.  Or, if we had a mechanism to ensure early and predictable funding for humanitarian responses to large numbers of new arrivals on a country’s territory, systems could be put in place from the start to prevent urgent situations from deteriorating into emergencies.

As a part of this effort, and as long as conflict and violence persist, it is important to honour the solid international legal framework that has been in place to respond to the needs of persons who have no choice but to flee.  We have been relying upon this framework since the Second World War when the modern international refugee protection regime was created.  The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was conceived at that time as a way to repair the social order – to remedy the rupture that occurs when individuals lose or cannot obtain protection from their governments.  The 1951 Convention continues to be the embodiment of the age-old institution of asylum.  Courts the world over have repeatedly confirmed the Convention and its Protocol as living instruments that have saved millions of lives.

It is unfortunate that at a time when we need this Convention the most, there are some who question its relevance and applicability to situations today.  Contrary to such criticisms, the 1951 Convention has time and again proven to be both resilient and adaptable to contemporary situations.  Courts have been able to rely upon it to decide on issues which were not widely acknowledged or anticipated at the time of its drafting – such as persecution related to gender, age, and sexual orientation, as well as targeting of individuals by non-state actors.

Most recently, the 1951 Convention has informed UNHCR’s guidelines on dealing with people fleeing their country because of war.[2]  These guidelines advise States to consider those fleeing armed conflict and other violent crises as refugees.  The Convention has always included refugees from war, but over the years it has been inconsistently applied, resulting in some countries erroneously requiring a person to be singled out and individually targeted in order to be considered a refugee.  These guidelines are based on a thorough analysis of State practice and relevant legal developments.  They remind us that most conflicts today target groups of civilians for their real or perceived ethnic, religious, social, or political affiliation.  There is no question that those fleeing the devastating effects of armed conflict and other violent situations may indeed be refugees. 

Such legal instruments and frameworks for protection, however, can only be as strong as the commitments made to abide by them.  In this respect, the single most important challenge that we must contend with today is garnering the political leadership and international support needed to ensure respect for the rule of law and to abide by the obligations States have undertaken to protect refugees.  In democratic societies, such political leadership and commitment draws much of its strength from the civil society base which shapes it.  Hence, creating communities that are welcoming, receptive, and view refugees in a positive light is also essential. 

How can we learn from recent experience to achieve this more effectively?  We need to frame the challenges posed by refugee arrivals not as threats to our way of life or sense of identity, but as opportunities for concerted, empathic action as citizens of a global community.  We need to move away from seeing these situations as unmanageable crises to which we react in defensive, disjointed, and destructive ways in the short-term.  Instead we must move towards understanding and responding to them as phenomena that we can not only manage, but also learn and benefit from over the longer term if we take steps toward promoting their economic and social inclusion wherever they are located.  It is possible to manage large movements of people humanely when we have the right systems in place and a willingness from all levels of society to cooperate.

To promote this here in Europe, UNHCR issued a set proposals entitled Better protecting refugees in the EU and globally last December.[3]  These proposals set out our thinking about how to build trust through better management, partnership, and solidarity.  They advise stronger external engagement beyond Europe’s borders to resolve conflicts, address the drivers of displacement, and stabilize refugee situations in host countries.  They also propose internal approaches to contingency planning, common registration, more efficient asylum processing, as well as developing safe pathways for admission through resettlement, labour mobility opportunities, family reunification programmes, and student scholarships, for example.

Not only is such cooperation needed in Europe, but also globally.  The adoption of the New York Declaration by UN Member States represented a sea change in this direction.  States committed to share the responsibility for refugees more equitably from the outset of displacement situations, so that host countries in regions of conflict do not have to bear the brunt of the responsibility alone.  States also committed to finding a common approach to ensuring safe, orderly, and regular migration.[4]  This demonstrated a significant shift in thinking, as States moved from treating large-scale movements of refugees and migrants as crises to understanding them as a reality of the modern world that it is entirely possible to address when done so thoughtfully and collectively. 

The New York Declaration called upon UNHCR to apply a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework in different situations and to develop a Global Compact on Refugees in 2018.  We are making solid progress in this direction through our work with a number of key host countries, starting in eastern Africa with Uganda, Ethiopia, and the Somalia situation, where we are building upon a good foundation of existing good practices to craft and tailor comprehensive refugee responses that can ensure host countries have sufficient resources to support refugees on their territories.  The services they provide to their own citizens need to be capacitated to extend to refugees and asylum-seekers, which is also key to fostering social cohesion and acceptance.  Through the mobilization of resources for development and humanitarian assistance that benefits host and refugee populations alike, the presence of refugees can present opportunities for social and economic engagement, interchange, and growth. 

The concept of responsibility sharing envisioned in the New York Declaration and in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development offers space for progress in this direction.  Displacement is both a humanitarian and development challenge.  We know that better, timelier, and more predictable financial support and strengthened cooperation between humanitarian and development actors can ensure that the critical needs of refugees and the communities that host them can be met, whether these be in relation to education or opportunities for livelihoods and self-reliance.  This kind of support can also better position and equip refugees – most of whom would like to return to their home countries when it is safe to do so – to engage in post-conflict reconstruction. 

In addition to UNHCR’s work with States to ensure that refugees are included in National Development Frameworks, international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, are also developing new financial instruments and concessional financing for displacement situations.  Our joint studies with the World Bank in the Sahel, the Great Lakes, Lake Chad, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey have underpinned a plethora of initiatives to foster employment opportunities in these countries, open up markets for refugee participation, and improve social cohesion.

Both the lessons learned in implementing these comprehensive refugee responses with a broad range of public and private partners in specific refugee contexts, as well as consultations with States, civil society, and other actors, will inform the development of a Global Compact on Refugees.  This Compact will include a Programme of Action setting out the concrete commitments needed to make this Compact a meaningful reality for refugees around the world.  The High Commissioner will present this Global Compact as a part of his report to the UN General Assembly in 2018.

I would like to encourage everyone engaged in these issues to remember that in spite of all the talk of a global refugee crisis today, in reality we have seen similarly high numbers in recent history.  In the 1990s, for example, we saw large movements of refugees from Afghanistan, Mozambique, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia.  The difference is that today we are at an advantage, as we have many more financial and legal tools at our disposal to assist States in addressing refugee situations.  Hence, I would argue that the crisis is not to be found in the numbers of refugees, but rather in our inability to find a way to deal with these situations in a coordinated, collective, and humane manner.  With the New York Declaration now on hand, this need not be the case in the future.

In conclusion, I would like to respond to the arguments that the conditions of refugees living far away are not our concern, or our duty.  Refugees are an international responsibility, and all countries need to share this equitably.  First and foremost, support for developing and middle-income countries hosting the largest populations of refugees is both critical and long overdue.  At the same time, industrialized countries need to both live up to their obligations to the comparatively smaller numbers of refugees arriving at their borders, and give refugees more opportunities for resettlement or admission so that they are not compelled to resort to smugglers or traffickers to find a solution.  Every country has a role to play in assuming this responsibility.  We need more global responsibility sharing at this time of soaring levels of displacement and human suffering – not less.

In this respect, it is quite fitting to recall the words of the Kerry barrister Daniel O’Connell, who was a famous progressive Irish reformer in the 19th century.  In fact, at the time, he irritated the Austrian Chancellor Count Metternich [who was quite the contrary and terribly frightened by modern ideas] so much, that the Count formally complained about him to the British Empire.  Mr O’Connell’s words were in fact recounted by the former slave Frederick Douglas, who came to Dublin and heard him speak: “My sympathy with distress is not confined within the narrow bounds of my own green island.  No – it extends itself to every corner of the earth.  My heart walks abroad, and wherever the miserable are to be succoured, or the slave to be set free, there my spirit is at home, and I delight to dwell there.”  It is in this spirit of compassion, that we must take the opportunity before us now to forge a different kind of path and way forward in our support for refugees.


[1] Including 16.1 million refugees of concern to UNHCR and 5.2 million Palestinian refugees registered by UNRWA.  See UNHCR Mid-Year Trends, 2016

[2] See UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Guidelines on International Protection No. 12: Claims for refugee status related to situations of armed conflict and violence under Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention and/or 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees and the regional refugee definitions, 2 December 2016, HCR/GIP/16/12

[3] Available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/58385d4e4.html.

[4] New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, UN Doc. A/71/L.1.