Closing statement at the 70th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme
Mr. Chairman, dear Ambassador Delmi,
Thank you for having steered our discussions so skillfully this week. Your support for UNHCR throughout this year has been invaluable. I wish to also thank our Rapporteur, Farhat Ayesha, for her excellent work.
I congratulate Ambassador Geert Muylle of Belgium on his election as the new Chairperson of the Executive Committee, as well as the First Vice Chairperson Ambassador Maria Nazareth Farani Azevêdo of Brazil, and our new Rapporteur, Anne Keah of Kenya. I know that they will uphold the long tradition of a strong and active ExCom Bureau, and I look forward to working with all of you as we enter UNHCR’s seventieth year of operations in 2020.
And of course, thanks to you all for your support and encouragement, and also constructive criticism. This is very important to me and to all staff, as we continue to face difficult challenges, especially in dangerous contexts. And last but not least, thanks to all my colleagues who carry out this work.
Our discussions this week have been practical and focused. I think they demonstrated a strong awareness of the very challenging global context in which we are operating, and how important it is that we sustain the momentum that brought about the Global Compact on Refugees. We have the tools to make responsibility-sharing work; now we need to make it happen.
Events this week – this very week – show why.
Over the last 48 hours, tens of thousands of people have been fleeing their homes as a result of the escalation of conflict in northern Syria, and hundreds of thousands more are at grave risk amid active hostilities, as cold weather sets in. I have echoed the Secretary-General’s call for respect for international humanitarian law by all parties. It is important that aid agencies, including UNHCR, have access to civilians in need, to help avert a deepening humanitarian crisis.
There has also been much talk, inside and outside this room, of refugee returns. I trust that UNHCR’s position is clear – refugees have the right to return to their places of origin or choice, and they need and deserve support if they do. But it is essential that those returns are the result of their free and informed choice. This is not setting the bar too high. It is about respecting a key international protection standard, and also about making returns dignified and sustainable, in the interests of everybody.
This week also brought another tragedy on the Mediterranean. Thirteen people drowned when a boat capsized, while 22 survivors were rescued by the Italian coast guard. Another 15 – including women and children – remain missing. I want to reiterate that capacity to rescue at sea must be fully restored and supported. I am encouraged by the news that three more EU states plan to join efforts to establish urgently-needed temporary arrangements for predictable disembarkation, and hope that others will also do so.
In the Horn of Africa, too, several hundred farmers and pastoralists have arrived in Ethiopia this week, fleeing drought-induced crop failures, depletion of livestock, and Al-Shabaab extortion in Somalia. The intersection between climate change and forced displacement is a matter of the utmost importance that we have touched on repeatedly throughout our discussions. I want to reiterate it again: how we work together and with other partners to address climate-related displacement will undoubtedly be a major focus of this Committee’s work in the future.
These three very varied situations - and there are many more - show why our collective work to translate the promise of the Global Compact on Refugees into action remains so vital and urgent. The Compact is not just a piece of paper, but a highly relevant and practical set of arrangements that provide a way forward in a range of very different contexts. Burden- and responsibility-sharing are essential to sustaining protection and asylum, and to saving lives.
And another important point. During the week, many of you referred to the need to continue working on strengthening the interface between humanitarian and development action in the forced displacement context. This means supporting host countries with stronger humanitarian action that has protection at its core, complemented by the systematic inclusion of refugees and host communities in national development planning, and in development funding. We have made enormous strides on this, but we should not underestimate the challenges – in terms of modalities, timing, amount of resources, and other aspects. This will require dedicated attention from all of us, and from this Committee, although we are already seeing important results.
Take Dolo Ado, for example – the area of Ethiopia where Somali refugees have been arriving this week, and which has hosted a large refugee population for many years. This area has benefited from important investments from the Ethiopian Government, the World Bank, and the private sector that are transforming the lives of refugees and local communities. I saw it myself a few months ago. The success of those partnerships there demonstrates that the model promoted by the Compact can truly change the way we address refugee situations (especially when they are protracted) and how we support host countries and communities.
I am grateful to all of you for your strong engagement on statelessness, and the many concrete pledges that have been made. We will all take away from the debate a much deeper understanding of the causes and consequences of statelessness in people’s lives, and the very practical steps that can help resolve this deeply harmful form of exclusion. The strong commitment of the Deputy Secretary-General, of the many high-level delegations that participated in the debate, and of civil society, was evident.
I am glad to announce that we have received 316 formal pledges, from 88 governments, civil society, international and regional organisations. More were reported orally during the debate, and will be added once submitted in writing.
These included 221 pledges from 59 States. They relate to many of the actions in the Global Plan to End Statelessness, including the protection of stateless people, ratification or accession to the two statelessness conventions (or removal of reservations), naturalisation provisions, and birth registration.
They also included pledges from five States to take action in relation to gender discrimination in their nationality laws. These are enormously significant, and will help ensure a future in which no child is born stateless. I wish to strongly encourage the remaining States who still have some form of gender discrimination in their nationality legislation to address this as a matter of urgency. This is a critical issue for women, and a fundamental aspect of the #IBelong Campaign going forward.
Pledges were also made on ensuring better data, including through census exercises. These will help spur awareness and ensure that action is strategic and targeted. I was also very encouraged by the high level of media attention – including social media – which the event and our Nansen Award laureate have helped generate– giving the issue of stateless a visibility that it has never had before. I wish to thank all of you for your very strong support and engagement.
The concrete and time-bound pledges we received this week will undoubtedly help propel the second half of the #IBelong campaign forward, with positive consequences for stateless people around the world. The pledges will feed into the Global Refugee Forum outcome document and will be followed up through the mechanisms associated with it. I want to assure you of UNHCR's strong commitment over the next five years to supporting your work to implement them. To achieve these by 2024, action needs to start now, as there is much work to do.
And for those of you who did not submit formal pledges, I hope that our discussions will have inspired you to become advocates for this issue in your capitals. I understand that some states plan to announce their intention to accede to the Statelessness Conventions in the very near future, and others will do so once they have introduced the systems needed for their implementation. These will be significant and critical contributions to our collective goal to end statelessness by 2024.
Our next important milestone will be the Global Refugee Forum. This first forum will be a historic moment in which government leaders come together to lay out the building blocks for implementation of the refugee compact, together with business, international organizations, experts, civil society, and refugees. It will be a unique opportunity to put in place the elements needed to accelerate our transformation of the global response to refugee flows.
We are greatly honoured that one of the co-convenors of the Forum, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, was just now awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and wish to congratulate him and the people of Ethiopia most warmly.
I encourage you all to become champions of the Forum, and to encourage your Governments to showcase successes, speak frankly about challenges, and announce bold, new measures to ease pressure on host countries, boost refugee self-reliance, and advance the search for solutions. The scope for action is vast, and I invite all of you to truly think outside the box – to be creative, courageous and innovative.
Pledges could include financial, material and technical support to host countries; additional resettlement places, humanitarian visas, and education opportunities for refugees; changes to national laws and policies that promote refugee inclusion and self-reliance. They might also involve private sector investment, beneficial trade arrangements, expanded educational and economic opportunities for refugees and host communities. The Forum should inspire and bring about innovative partnerships. This could even take the form of joint pledges towards a common theme or situation.
We want the Forum to lay the ground for concrete responses and solutions, of course, and to chart a measurable, practical way forward. But we should also strive, please, to make it also a dynamic place, of dialogue and reflection, in which to show leadership, convey energy and tell the world that responding to – and solving – forced displacement can be done.
Because, Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, dear friends, we simply cannot give in to the narrative of impossibility. Because, in this very difficult world, protecting refugees and ensuring that they – and those who host them – are adequately supported, is a measure of our own humanity.
We cannot afford to lose it.