ExCom Meeting: UNHCR chief warns that displacement crises multiplying, becoming more unpredictable

News Stories, 3 October 2011

© UNHCR/J.-M.Ferre
High Commissioner Guterres at the opening of the annual Executive Committee meeting.

GENEVA, October 3 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres warned today that an increasingly complex international environment is making it harder to find solutions for the world's more than 43 million refugees, internally displaced, and stateless people.

Speaking at the opening of the annual meeting in Geneva of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee, Guterres said the international community needed to up its collective game to prevent conflict, to adapt to climate change and to better manage natural disasters.

"Unpredictability has become the name of the game. Crises are multiplying. Conflicts are becoming more complex. And solutions are proving to be more and more elusive," he said. "In such challenging circumstances, we must recognize our shared responsibility. And we must exercise our shared commitment."

Guterres pointed to the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, describing it as the worst situation he had seen in his time as high commissioner. He spoke of a visit he had made in July to Dollo Ado, in south-east Ethiopia, where he met a woman refugee named Musleema who had lost three of her six children in the flight from Somalia. Humanitarian organizations, prevented from working in many areas of Somalia, were in little position to help.

"All of us could see this escalation coming from a long way away. Nonetheless, we, the international community, were slow to react to signs that things were starting to deteriorate," he said. "What is worse, we also didn't have the capacity to prevent them from getting this bad in the first place."

This year has seen a succession of full-blown displacement and refugee crises, from Côte d'Ivoire, to uprisings in the Arab region, to the flight of hundreds of thousands of people from and within famine-stricken Somalia. Guterres paid tribute to all countries neighbouring this year's crisis zones in Africa, Europe and the Middle East including for keeping their borders open, even under the pressure of large-scale refugee or migrant-related influxes.

But he also warned of the dangers of rising xenophobia, which he said was threatening the protection space available to refugees.

"In my view, multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious societies are not only a good thing, they are inevitable," he said. "Building tolerant and open communities is a slow and delicate process. But non-discrimination is a core human rights principle, and it is the duty of all states to acknowledge and give effect to it. Refugees cannot become collateral damage of anti-immigrant attitudes and policies."

UNHCR relies on voluntary contributions for its work. In 2010, donors provided a record US$1.86 billion in contributions, and this amount is expected to be exceeded in 2011. Guterres acknowledged that the funding environment was nonetheless becoming more difficult and said UNHCR would be intensifying its efforts to broaden its income base, including by reaching out even more to the private sector for support.

He also appealed to the Executive Committee for better understanding of UNHCR's need for flexibly earmarked funding to help the organization manage the many refugee crises it deals with in locations that receive few international headlines. Last year, 82 per cent of donor funding was partly or tightly restricted to specific situations or issues.

Guterres devoted much of his speech to the drive at UNHCR to improve efficiencies, and of efforts to strengthen the organization's capacity to respond quickly and in a more structured way to fast-breaking crises and their aftermath. Since 2006, he said, UNHCR, had reduced its headquarters costs from 14 to 9 per cent of overall expenditure and staff costs from 41 per cent to 27 per cent.

UNHCR aims to be able to respond, within 72 hours, to simultaneous emergencies affecting up to 600,000 people. To support this, the organization increased its emergency stockpiles in 2011 by 20 per cent, reinforced its capacity to deliver aid, increased the number of senior staff on standby for rapid deployment, and created new posts to help refugee protection. Guterres promised a new drive, over the next two years, to complement these measures with strengthened accountability and oversight.

Meanwhile, Tunisia's Acting President Fouad Mebazaa told delegates about the challenges faced by his country earlier this year after hundreds of thousands of people, mainly migrant workers, fled to Tunisia to escape fighting in Libya. "We believe humanitarian issues are global in nature and essence, and, as such, the challenge can be met collectively thanks to a community approach and action and a global alliance driven by the collective responsibility and the concept of sharing," he said.

2011 is a symbolically important year for UNHCR, marking the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Moreover, October 10 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Fridtjof Nansen, the League of Nations' first High Commissioner for Refugees. The annual Nansen Refugee Award will be presented on Monday evening to the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity, an aid group responsible for rescuing thousands of sea arrivals along the Yemeni shore.