"Masses and Power: What Does the Future Hold?" Keynote Address at the Refugee Law Initiative 2nd Annual Conference

London, United Kingdom

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Distinguished guests,

It is with great pleasure that I am able to join you here today, and I would like to thank the Refugee Law Initiative for organizing this timely event on the question of mass influxes of refugees and migrants. 

Mass influx has long been a feature of refugee movements, particularly as situations of conflict around the world have multiplied and intensified.  Violence in countries such as the Syrian Arab Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, South Sudan, or Yemen, continue to generate displacement and tragedy on a growing scale, with more than 65.3 million people displaced globally, including 21.3 million refugees.[1]  Many have been displaced multiple times within their own countries before being compelled to cross international borders.  The vast majority of refugees flee to neighbouring countries in their regions, primarily in the global south, and a smaller number seek protection further afield.  We saw this in 2015 when more than one million asylum-seekers and refugees undertook desperate and dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean in search for solutions to their plight – a trend which unfortunately has not abated.

In considering the implications of these trends for how we move forward, I would like to offer here some reflections on the Conference’s theme of masses, as it is one that illuminates well both the phenomenon of refugee movements and the variety of ways in which the international community responds to them.  The notion of masses brings to mind the work of Elias Canetti who wrote about the inner workings of masses and power in his exceptional and idiosyncratic book about Crowds and Power.  When people come together around a common cause, they form a unified mass that can develop a soul and trajectory of its own.  This common cause, when based in fear or a particular conception of the other, helps to direct emotions toward a common threat.  Masses in this respect are often intrinsically linked to revolutions, upheavals, and turmoil.  Masses can be used to foment strife and incite people to violence, which not only can lead to displacement, but can also develop in response to it.  Masses have often been used by the elites and the powers that be to instigate majority-versus-minority conflicts, drive people out of communities and territories, or prevent them from entering new ones, which are often at the heart of the refugee experience.

In the refugee context, mass violence symbolizes fundamental problems of power in the country of origin.  It speaks to the need to address the root causes of conflict and drivers of displacement, whether this be related to weak governance, extreme poverty and inequality, scarce resources, exploitive extraction industries, the arms trade, climate change or natural disasters, or serious violations of human rights.  When collective expulsions and displacement, forbidden under international humanitarian and human rights law, are used to promote particular political or ideological agendas, often with impunity, masses perpetrating violence can lead to masses being displaced. 

Such large-scale movements of refugees tend to evoke biblical images of exodus and can inspire awe at the circumstances under which people are compelled to leave.   They were the impetus behind the development of the international regime to protect refugees, perhaps nowhere captured more aptly than in the famous words of the poet Emma Lazarus, whose iconic lines, "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free", are inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty.  The international refugee regime developed as a mechanism to restore the rupture between the State and the citizen, and its seeds lay in the efforts to find a solution for the 20 million Russians, Poles, Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, and Armenians displaced or subjected to population transfers during the decline of the Ottoman and the Tsarist Empires.  The international refugee regime was institutionalized under the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees during the inter-war period as the first international organization established to deal with displacement, and then following the Second World War with the 1951 Convention related to the Status of Refugees and the establishment of UNHCR. 

Now, more than six decades later, the 1951 Convention, embodying the centuries-old tradition of asylum, is needed more than ever.  It serves as the primary source for ensuring coherence in the ways that States treat and respond to refugees in an increasingly fragmented world.  Courts around the world have confirmed that the Convention and its Protocol are living instruments that continue to afford protection to millions of refugees.  It is unfortunate, then, that at a time when we need this Convention the most, there are some who question its relevance for today’s refugee situations.  Contrary to such criticisms, the 1951 Convention is both resilient and adaptable to our changing world, and decision-makers and courts around the world have relied upon it to decide on issues which were not necessarily explicitly recognized or anticipated at the time of its drafting – for instance, on questions of persecution related to gender, age, and sexual orientation, or the role of non-state actors in the context of gang violence. 

By way of example, UNHCR issued in December 2016 guidelines on dealing with people fleeing conflict and violence.[2]  These guidelines are based on a comprehensive analysis of State practice and legal developments, and advise States to consider those fleeing armed conflict and other violent crises as refugees.  The Convention has always recognized refugees from war, but over time, its application to such individuals has been applied inconsistently.  This has resulted in some countries erroneously requiring a person to be individually targeted in order to be considered a refugee or limiting the notion of persecution to state-actors.  We know that most conflicts today involve non-state actors and target whole groups of civilians for their ethnic, religious, social, or political affiliation.  Our in-depth legal analysis has confirmed that persons fleeing the horrific consequences of armed conflict and other violent situations squarely fall within the refugee concept. 

These advances in the interpretation and implementation of international refugee law have been hard won through years of reflection, analysis, and advocacy.  They demonstrate the continued applicability of the 1951 Convention to contemporary situations – provided there is the political will to abide by the principles that it embodies and the humanitarian spirit in which it was conceived.  Reopening the 1951 Convention to debate in the context of today’s narrowing global protection space poses grave risks, as many of these advances would be revisited and, in the process, could be undermined at great cost to the lives and safety of people in need of international refugee protection.

The question of harnessing sufficient political will to strengthen rather than undermine the edifice of the international refugee protection regime brings me to another kind of phenomenon – that of ‘mass’ mobilization to either stem the flows [whatever that may mean] or to find more sustainable solutions in the face of the enormous tragedy that so many people who are displaced must live with today.  The field of psychology has taught us well that much of our ability to cope with extraordinary events, such as large-scale displacement, is rooted in how we perceive them.  When we frame them as overwhelming and catastrophic, and as a threat to our way of life, well-being, and continuity, we tend to experience them as traumatic and react in ways that are defensive, sometimes incoherent, and often destructive. 

We see this in Europe and other parts of the world, where some countries [although notably not all] who are confronted with the arrivals of refugees and migrants on their territories, perceive these movements as unmanageable crises, and respond with short-term and ad hoc reactions that in the end achieve very little, especially when flight offers the only chance for survival.  Closing borders and restricting access serves more to divert flows along other routes – particularly as safe and regular pathways for admission remain in short supply.  This also leads to the further entrenchment of smuggling and trafficking networks and all the risks of abuse and exploitation that this entails.  Push-backs, violence at borders, detention, substandard reception conditions, and the lack of integration opportunities further exacerbate the already precarious circumstances in which refugees are trying to survive.  And those unable to cross borders or afford smugglers are often left with no choice but to remain in increasingly untenable circumstances of instability, destitution, and disenfranchisement.  

Such restrictive reactions to refugee arrivals have gained momentum through fomenting fear, employing xenophobic and populist rhetoric that fuels, rather than deescalates anxieties.  Fear of large-scale influxes of refugees, combined with xenophobia and racism, has often been used to limit protection space and justify deterrent measures.  The cruel irony is that while refugees are often vilified in such reactionary public debates, no one knows better than refugees themselves the meaning of real fear, stemming as it does from insecurity and terrorism.  Having a ‘well-founded fear’ of persecution is indeed at the heart of the definition of a refugee in the 1951 Convention.  Refugees are the first victims of insecurity and terrorism and must live with the aftermath for the rest of their lives.

Refugee protection and national security are therefore entirely compatible.  The refugee protection regime is designed to protect individuals from persecution and contains specific provisions for ensuring that individuals who perpetrate acts of violence and terror – often those whose actions cause displacement – cannot benefit from refugee status.  The 1951 Convention is a legal instrument that has withstood the test of time, and we must always refer back to it in answering the question of how best to ensure the integrity of the asylum system.  This legal framework of course also needs to be accompanied by political and policy measures aimed at preventing terrorism, particularly through socio-economic development and the promotion of human rights.  Without these, inequality, resentment, and radicalization can flourish in marginalized communities.  Ultimately, national security depends upon human security. 

Yet, this kind of mobilization against refugees, based in a culture of fear, presents only one part of the picture.  Another kind of mobilization in response to the refugee movements has also emerged, forcefully, founded in a spirit of humanitarianism, respect, and compassion, and framing large-scale refugee movements not as traumatic events, but as phenomena that can be addressed and that we can learn, benefit, and grow from over time.  This positive sentiment and constructive ambition served as the motivation for all 193 leaders of the UN Member States to adopt the New York Declaration in 2016 – a clear statement that as an international community, we can no longer accept the status quo or rely upon short-term, short-sighted, or unilateral fixes.

This is not the first time that States have come together to find solutions for large-scale refugee situations.  Since the inception of the United Nations, States have joined efforts, for example, to provide resettlement for Hungarian refugees in the late 1950s, to organize two International Conferences on Assistance to Refugees in Africa, to implement the Comprehensive Plan of Action in response to the Indochinese Crisis, and to convene the International Conference on Central American Refugees.  More recently, international cooperation has been mobilized globally and regionally through mechanisms such as the Global Consultations on International Protection resulting in the 2003 Agenda for Protection; the 2007 Iraq Conference; the Refugee and Resilience Response Plans for the Syria and South Sudanese situations; the 2014 Brazil Declaration and Plan of Action; the 2015 49th Mercado Común del Sur [MERCOSUR] Summit; the Bali Process; and the 2016 Lake Chad Basin Regional Protection Dialogue.

Against this background, the New York Declaration presents an important opportunity to build upon the best of our traditions and good practices to craft responses to large-scale refugee and migrant movements that are more comprehensive, systematic, and predictable.  In the New York Declaration, States have committed to share the responsibility for refugees more equitably from the onset of a displacement situation.  They also committed to finding a common approach to ensuring safe, orderly, and regular migration.[3]  The New York Declaration is a solid recognition that mass influxes of refugees and migrants are a reality that we must grapple with in today’s world, which requires our careful and considered attention and a calm and thoughtful response, including closer attention to root causes of displacement.  The Declaration is an affirmation of our responsibility and duty toward refugees wherever they may live, however they may arrive, and regardless of how many countries they may have transited through in the process.  States have acknowledged through the Declaration that they each have a role to play – whether in living up to their obligations to receive refugees arriving at their borders, or in better supporting developing and middle-income countries who host by far the largest refugee populations in the world.

Through the New York Declaration, States also have acknowledged that the mass influxes of today often include both refugees and migrants who require responses that recognize their unique and common needs.  While refugees are in need of international protection as they fear persecution or flee violence in their country of origin, both refugees and migrants may be vulnerable on account of the specific situations in which they are traveling, particularly when moving along dangerous routes, or due to their individual circumstances.  They may be exposed to exploitation and abuse by smugglers, traffickers, recruiters, or corrupt officials.  They can risk death crossing deserts or traveling in unseaworthy vessels.  They often lack legal documentation or family support.  They may be stateless or at risk of becoming so.  They frequently have struggled to survive in countries beset by conflict, natural disasters, or other humanitarian crises.  They could be unaccompanied or separated children, have disabilities, require serious medical attention, or be survivors of trafficking, torture, or trauma. 

In such situations, the human rights of refugees and migrants must be respected and their immediate and specific needs met.  There are myriad ways to accomplish this, many of which have been successfully put into practice already.  States may consider granting these individuals international protection on a temporary or longer-term basis, or granting permission for them to remain on their territories for compassionate or practical reasons. UNHCR’s recently updated 10-Point Plan in Action on refugee protection and mixed migration,[4] sets out good practices for dealing with the phenomenon of human mobility in both its refugee and migratory dimensions.  It provides a wide range of tools for timely and effective responses, through cooperation with partners, data collection and analysis, protection-sensitive entry systems, reception arrangements, screening and referral mechanisms, and differentiated procedures, to name a few.

The New York Declaration called upon UNHCR to implement a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and to develop a Global Compact on Refugees by 2018.  UNHCR, together with States, international organizations, NGO partners, the private sector, and civil society, is making firm progress in this direction.  In piloting the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, we are working closely with host countries in different regions, starting in eastern Africa with Uganda, Ethiopia, and the Somalia situation, to develop tailored responses that ensure both that host countries have sufficient resources to support refugees and host communities on their territories, and States in the global north provide, for example, more opportunities for resettlement and other forms of admission of refugees as a further demonstration of responsibility sharing. 

The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework offers promising opportunities.  It creates the space, for instance, to further the objective of ensuring that refugees can work, farm land, own businesses, access finances, or otherwise engage in livelihoods, and that host communities can equally benefit from the infusion of funds, labour opportunities, or enhanced development cooperation.  This is essential for refugees to become self-reliant, live in dignity, and be able to care for themselves and their families – goals emanating from the right to work found in the 1951 Convention and that UNHCR has been pursuing for decades.  This is particularly critical as nearly four-fifths of the world’s refugees [and nine-tenths of Syrian refugees] live in urban areas where their economic inclusion is necessary for their survival and enables them to contribute to the local economy. 

When refugees have the means to thrive in urban areas, UNHCR’s “Urban Refugee” and “Alternative to Camps” policies can be more effectively realized.  In the early stages of an emergency, it may of course be necessary, on a temporary basis, to receive vulnerable individuals in urgent need of medical, food, and other assistance in reception centres and to establish camps.  However, the overall and longer-term policy aim is to avoid creating camps whenever possible and to work with host governments to transition from camps to more integrated arrangements – ones that facilitate refugees’ self-reliance and foster social cohesion with their host communities, as we have been doing, for example, in Chad, Rwanda, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, and Uganda. 

This new framework also creates greater latitude for bolstering support for national education, health, and public services [including documentation and birth registration to prevent statelessness] that can benefit refugees and host communities alike.  UNHCR has been a staunch advocate for the inclusion of refugees into national systems for many years, most notably in the Syria situation, although this requires resources, and the Refugee and Resilience Response Plan remains underfunded.  Focusing on education and livelihoods from the outset of an emergency also lays the groundwork for the eventual return of refugees once they are able do so, as they are better equipped to participate in post-conflict recovery and reconstruction. 

This framework also creates the possibility for mobilizing new partners, such as the World Bank and other international financial institutions, to enter the picture more easily and provide host governments with greater access to concessional financing and development support.  UNHCR has engaged in joint studies with the World Bank in the Sahel, the Great Lakes, Lake Chad, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey to provide the evidence base for new initiatives that can generate employment opportunities, open up markets, strengthen national systems, and build connections between refugees and host communities.

Development assistance and business investment can create important incentives for host countries to open their labour markets to refugees.  However, their success depends upon enabling policies and legal frameworks.  Basic infrastructure and connectivity need to be secured.  Trade and market access must be provided.  And enabling labour laws need to be passed and implemented.  As not all of these prerequisites are readily available in the places where most refugees live, the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework provides a much-needed platform for developing these enabling environments more substantially.

The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework also helps to foster complementary and coherent approaches to refugee situations when they are spread across multiple countries in a region.  Depending upon each country’s respective capacity and resources, host countries can play different roles.  For example, countries with more nascent refugee status determination systems could implement cost-effective and efficient measures such as temporary protection or prima facie status for large groups of refugees of particular profiles arriving on their territories.  Or countries of transit could help to alleviate some of the risks posed by smuggling and trafficking to refugees by offering to serve as disembarkation points for refugees rescued at sea or providing transit facilities for the most vulnerable who are in need of resettlement to a third country.  I have just witnessed myself what countries like Honduras, Guatemala, or Mexico are doing to provide protective mechanisms for people in transit and those seeking asylum.

The lessons learned in implementing these responses in refugee situations around the world, as well as the outcomes of our consultations with States, civil society, and other actors, will together inform the development of the Global Compact on Refugees, which the High Commissioner will present in his report to the General Assembly in 2018.  The Compact will include a Programme of Action setting out the commitments required to make it a meaningful and tangible reality in the lives of refugees globally. 

Coming back to the overall theme of this Conference, the adoption of the New York Declaration is the outcome of a mass mobilization of the global public and good governance in response to mounting displacement around the world.  The Declaration represents a collective commitment by States to address large-scale movements of refugees with more empathy, humanity, and generosity.  It also serves as an antidote and a counterbalance to the fear-mongering and xenophobia that have gained traction in some quarters.  The test now is whether we can build upon the political will demonstrated in the adoption of the Declaration to mobilize mass action as we take this forward.  We must translate this commitment from principle into practice – one that will enable refugees to move from surviving in situations of prolonged insecurity, fear, and instability to living in safety and dignity and with a greater sense of promise for their and all our futures.

Thank you.


[1] UNHCR Mid-Year Trends, 2016, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/statistics/unhcrstats/58aa8f247/mid-year-trends-june-2016.html.

[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, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/583595ff4.html.

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

[4] UNHCR, The 10-Point Plan in Action: 2016 Update, December 2016, www.refworld.org/10pointplaninaction2016update.html.