84th Meeting of the Standing Committee of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme - Opening Remarks by Ms. Gillian Triggs Assistant High Commissioner for Protection
Mr. Chair, Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you, Ambassador, for your introduction describing your Uganda mission which sets the scene beautifully for this session on protection, as you emphasised the need to find solutions and you stressed the need for equitable burden and responsibility sharing under the Global Compact on Refugees.
Since last reporting to the Executive Committee on UNHCR’s work, international protection needs have exponentially increased for people who have been forcibly displaced or who are stateless. While the world tries to recover from the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the last 18 months have brought further human misery with protracted and new conflicts and violence, compounded by rising poverty, discrimination and inequality, and the effects of global warming.
Since 2021, UNHCR has declared 42 new emergencies in 30 countries and the High Commissioner has reported that over 100 million people are now displaced globally in countries such as Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Myanmar, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The war in Ukraine has added millions to the numbers displaced: about 8 million people within Ukraine, and over 5 million refugees present across Europe. Let us remember that 90 per cent of Ukrainian refugees are women and children who are especially vulnerable to trafficking and sexual and other forms of abuse.
Each year, the UN Refugee Agency reports increased forcible displacements. Each year the numbers continue to rise. The milestone of 100 million is almost incomprehensible. It is the plight of the individual that tells the story.
A few weeks ago, with our colleagues, partners and volunteer groups, I visited the border of Poland and Ukraine.
There I saw a woman struggle across the border with 4 children, one of them a neighbour’s child. She carried plastic bags with their belongings. Initial protection was provided by UNHCR to make sure that she could find safety.
I also met a grandmother whose children and grandchildren had moved on to other parts of Europe. She would not leave the border because her two sons were fighting in the war, and she said she felt guilty that she was safe while they faced danger. Separating families and creating unspeakable trauma for them is what war does to people. And that is why protection lies at the heart of UNHCR’s responses.
Both women can now access cash assistance, medical help, psycho-social support, accommodation, and even employment through the blue dot service centres established jointly by UNICEF and UNHCR with the engagement of the host Government.
The unprecedented volume of people forcibly displaced is unsustainable and global collaboration to find solutions is urgent and a top priority. The war in Ukraine has given contemporary validity to the key principles of the Refugee Convention: the right to seek asylum under international law and the prohibition on returns to persecution and danger.
Our lode star is the Global Compact on Refugees that guides a whole of society approach including civil society, local communities, the private sector, mayors and cities, scholars, the media and faith-based groups. The Compact calls for the equitable sharing of the burdens and responsibilities of all those displaced and stateless people and is now complemented by the UN Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights and the Our Common Agenda, and supports the Sustainable Development Goals.
A significant initiative within UNHCR this year has been to update our Global Strategic Directions and to agree on 8 focused areas of actions over the next 5 years. These are to safeguard international protection, to strengthen accountability, prevent, and respond to, gender-based violence, expand resettlement and complementary pathways, mainstream development assistance, grow protection for those displaced internally in their own country, redouble efforts to end statelessness under the #iBelong campaign and mitigate the displacement impacts of climate change.
In short, we have the legal and policy tools for effective international protection. We now need the political will and financial support for concrete implementation.
Our new director of the Division of International Protection, Elizabeth Tan, whom I warmly welcome, will shortly introduce the Note on International Protection.
The Note sets out in detail the work of UNHCR and of our colleagues who have truly ‘stayed and delivered’ and it outlines the challenges involved and the strategies employed by governments, UNHCR and our partners to realize access to rights.
To recognize the many successes that are true around the world, the High Commissioner chose – very deliberately – to celebrate World Refugee Day in Cote d’Ivoire, where about 306,000 refugees have returned to safety, over 107,000 returns facilitated directly by UNHCR and our partners. A declaration of cessation of their legal status as refugees will take effect at the end of June this year. And we congratulate all the countries that have cooperated so successfully to ensure the cessation and return in safety.
While, overwhelmingly, Member States support the principles of refugee protection, many challenges and impediments remain. A few governments have declared that the international asylum system is unworkable, that returns of those not in need of international protection are close to impossible in practice, and that asylum seekers should always claim asylum in the country where they first find safety – at the so called ‘front line’ States. Sadly, deterrence for some countries has become the priority. Such concerns have stimulated efforts to externalize responsibilities by transporting them thousands of miles away to other, less well-resourced countries.
UNHCR and the High Commissioner have been clear. Externalization shifts the burden rather than shares the responsibility for refugees, contrary to the Refugee Compact. Shifting the burden fails to meet international refugee law, both in its letter and spirit. Externalization is not the answer to the difficulties in implementing the asylum system, as we have seen from other failed examples. Nonetheless, we take seriously concerns about the efficacy of the asylum system. UNHCR is working hard with governments, our partners and civil society to improve the speed, efficiency and fairness of asylum systems and to find durable solutions for refugees.
What then are these initiatives and solutions?
Voluntary repatriation is a solution but has become all too rare. It is well documented that most refugees want to return home and it is encouraging that in 2021 we have seen an increase of 71 per cent compared with the year before, that means some 429,000 refugees returned to their home countries.
But the volume of voluntary return however is very low, reflecting protracted conflicts, persecution of social groups, discrimination, crime, inequality, and a lack of respect for the rule of law in some refugees’ home countries. Other deterrents to returns are infrastructure that is destroyed, the inability to recover land and property or to find employment, the failure to address the root causes of inequality, especially for women.
It is a sobering fact that if lasting peace were to be achieved in a few key protracted conflicts, refugee figures could drop to around 10 million, where they stood two decades ago.
Resettlement is a solution that is reserved for those most in need. Our Chair has pointed out that we need 2 million places to meet resettlement needs over the coming year. The impact of COVID-19 remains significant as all resettlement actors struggle to regain their previous capacity, particularly of expert trained colleagues. However, with nearly 40,000 refugees departing to 20 countries, we have seen a 72 per cent increase in resettlement compared to the previous year. UNHCR is optimistic that we will meet the quotas for 2022, that is: over 112,000 submissions to resettlement countries, nearly 80,000 of them to the United States alone.
This is progress and UNHCR is committed to broaden the base for resettlement and increase places and departures in the future. Another challenge to resettlement remains, partly a reflection of COVID-19, that many countries have significant pipelines of submissions made by UNHCR, with some refugees waiting 5 or 7 years to depart, posing further protection risks to refugees and their families.
More positively, there is a heightened global support for complementary or regular pathways. Education and scholarships under the DAFI program are providing real options for young people. Labour mobility is available under new or expanded programmes in France, Australia, Canada, and the UK where labour needs are rising. Belgium, Germany, and Italy also offer humanitarian admissions and visas, importantly in addition to traditional resettlement places. Other countries are exploring community sponsorship opportunities and expanding the very significant opportunities that exist through family reunion. I recently attended the MIRPS Support Platform meeting in Ottawa to expand solution alternatives in the spirit of a collaborative, hemispheric approach towards migration and refugee protection in the Americas. It remains true, however, that the number of refugees who find a solution through resettlement or complementary pathways remains low and we need to scale up our initiatives.
To access solutions, many refugees need to be included in national systems and they need access to their rights. They must be able to make a claim to asylum and to have the full spectrum of legal and socio-economic rights – as per the 1951 Refugee Convention which was at the time a revolution – which include the right to education, freedom of movement, livelihoods, health care and accommodation.
In strengthening the resilience and engagement with local host communities, inclusion and local integration need to be further supported by the international community in the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees and the need to share the burden.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed the generosity and political will of most host nations to ensure refugee children and youths are included in education programs. Most refugees were able to access health care and vaccination programmes, and some found livelihoods.
Asylum systems, or refugee status determination processes, have, it is true, become cumbersome over the years, in effect delaying or even denying protection. We suggest the adoption of fair and fast processes and stand ready to work with states to strengthen their systems and to clear substantial backlogs with asylum claims. The Asylum Capacity Support Group under the Refugee Compact is a useful initiative to boost asylum capacity.
In some situations, an alternative to individual refugee status determination is to recognise specific groups as refugees on a prima facie basis. Most of the 109,900 newly recognized South Sudanese refugees were recognized, for example, by prima facie procedures last year in Sudan (nearly 64,00), Uganda (nearly 31,000) and Kenya (9,000).
The examples of Colombia granting a 10-year visa with full rights of inclusion and a pathway to citizenship, and of course the implementation of the Temporary Protection Directive by the EU in the context of Ukraine, are other good examples of pragmatic and inclusive responses.
Regularization is key to long-term solutions, including access to the job market, which in turn promotes self-sufficiency and contributes to the host’s post COVID-19 socio-economic recovery. While on official mission this year, I saw efforts to find solutions, for example, for the Sri Lankan refugees who have been generously hosted by the state of Tamil Nadu in India for close to forty years.
Delivering solutions at the regional level is also the aim of the three support platforms, launched at the Global Refugee Forum in 2019 – a fourth support platform is now planned for the Central African Republic.
In addition to a protection mandate for people forcibly displaced, UNHCR has a mandate to ensure that people who are stateless are granted the legal right to nationality. Today, at least 4.3 million people globally are estimated to be stateless or of undetermined nationality – doubtless a very significant undercount in many countries. The i#Belong campaign to end statelessness by 2024 is of course ambitious but some progress has been made over the last few years, although much more remains to be done.
Indeed, an end to statelessness is now a strategic action priority for UNHCR and for the Global Community under the Our Common Agenda initiative. More than 50 States continue to hold nationality laws which do not allow women and men to acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis and 25 States have nationality laws that deny women the opportunity to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis with men.
For stateless people, enjoyment of the right to nationality is the only sustainable solution. Nationality and documentation provide a pathway to other treaty rights including equality and non-discrimination, the right to be registered at birth and socio-economic rights.
UNHCR continues its efforts to combat racism, discrimination, and persecution that all too often lead to violence against certain social groups. UNHCR calls upon governments to provide safe, legal access to people seeking asylum, regardless of their nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation or sexual orientation or gender identity.
While the rights of a refugee who has sought protection across national boundaries are well recognized, the protection needs of a staggering 60.1 million people internally displaced in 2022 are much less visible. The IDP population has increased during nine of the last ten years, rising more than three-fold from 17.7 million in 2012, to the highest levels ever recorded.
As escalating conflict and humanitarian emergencies resulted in surging displacement, UNHCR strives to stay and deliver life-saving protection and assistance, while joining in advocacy and diplomacy to protect civilians and the displaced, especially in populated urban areas. Over half of course being women and girls, over 12 per cent of IDPs living with a disability, both physical and mental, and over 6 per cent older people at risk.
Solutions to internal displacement remain elusive, requiring better protection on the ground and all stakeholders, including states and humanitarian and development actors, to work together. More than 3.7 million IDPs did return to their villages and homes in 2021, with millions more included in national programming.
UNHCR supports skills-building for IDPs and grants for new businesses, the reconstruction of infrastructure in Colombia, the Philippines, and South Sudan, direct cash assistance in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others, and takes an area-based approach to assist the local community affected by a crisis.
Over the past years, UNHCR has sought solutions to displacement by working with International Finance Institutions and development actors. Many states hosting large numbers of displaced people are also the ones most affected by fragility, conflict, and climate change, especially at community levels. Development finance needs urgently to reach these host communities. The war in Ukraine has led to high commodity prices and food insecurity in many low and middle-income host countries that now need development financing to ensure refugees have access to social safety nets, education, accommodation, and livelihoods.
We need bold, creative thinking to advance development financing and we hope that the High Commissioner’s Dialogue, on 7-8 December this year, will stimulate fresh collective action to inform pledge cultivation in preparation for the next Global Refugee Forum in 2023.
In seeking solutions, we need also, and most importantly, to listen to the voices of those who are or have been forcibly displaced or stateless. Two weeks ago, we had the first global NGO in-person consultations since the pandemic. And a recurrent theme was the need to include, in meaningful ways, refugee-led groups, especially women-led refugee organizations, in the spirit of the call for “Nothing about us without us”.
At UNHCR we have heard this plea and we recommit to ensuring that refugees and the communities that support them are more fully integrated in designing our work and that they contribute directly to solutions.
In conclusion, solutions and access to rights are fundamental. The Global Compact on Refugees provides practical, concrete strategies for sustainable solutions for those forcibly displaced or stateless. While we struggle, admittedly, to scale up solutions to the rising global needs, the principle of equitable sharing of responsibility remains the key aspiration that informs the work of UNHCR. May I finish by saying how very grateful we are at UNHCR for the support we have had over recent months from our Member States.