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Statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the United Nations Security Council

Speeches and statements

Statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the United Nations Security Council

30 May 2024
UNHCR logo

Thank you, Mr. President,

It is an honour to hold my (by now) traditional briefing with the Security Council during Mozambique’s presidency. As we just discussed, I visited your country in March and saw first-hand how Mozambique is grappling with many of the global challenges that the world is facing, and their impact on people’s daily lives — be it some of the most devastating manifestations of the climate emergency, violent internal conflict fueled by armed groups, and widespread forced displacement resulting from the other two. I was inspired by President Nyusi who — describing how Mozambique was addressing these problems — added that it was important that, I quote, “the current situation does not distract us from working on solutions”.

This message is for all of us and it is fitting for the Security Council, as you face today’s grave challenges to peace and security. It is a crucial message, if we are to move beyond empty talk and into solving people’s problems.

Please remember that these problems include the risk and reality of forced displacement — let me say this, as sometimes this dimension gets sidelined! The number of those who have been forced to flee their homes by war, violence and persecution reached 114 million at our latest count. Next month we will update this figure. It will be higher. The political solutions needed to solve displacement obviously continue to be absent.

Mr. President,

I last briefed this Council in October. Back then, I shared my views on several crises and warned that humanitarians, while not giving up, were near breaking point. Seven months have passed but the situation has not changed — if at all, it has grown worse. So, most regrettably, I will have to speak once again about the same crises — and of how they displaced an ever-growing number of people.

Why is this happening? The reasons are multiple, and often related to geopolitics — which is your domain, not mine! Let me however focus on one more immediate factor, that my colleagues and I — and indeed all humanitarians — witness in their everyday work: non-compliance with international humanitarian law. “Non-compliance” is a cold and technical expression: what it means, really, is that parties to conflicts — increasingly, everywhere, almost all of them — have stopped respecting the basic rules of war, and sometimes even pretending to do so; civilians are killed in growing numbers; rape and other forms of sexual violence are used as weapons of war; civilian infrastructure gets hit and destroyed; humanitarian workers become targets. You hear and discuss this every day. The President of the International Committee of the Red Cross - which is mandated to uphold this body of law – spoke to you last week on the subject. But I want you to hear it from me, too, because we at UNHCR deal with one, specific, consequence of these violations: since this brutal conduct of hostilities is meant not only to destroy but also to terrify civilians, civilians — more and more often — have no other choice but to flee, in terror.

What has happened in Gaza since the Hamas attacks last 7th October, and throughout the Israeli offensive, is a case in point. Let me add my voice to those who have been urging you to pursue an immediate ceasefire, the release of hostages, and the full resumption of humanitarian aid; and most importantly, to spare no effort to resurrect a real peace process — the only way to ensure peace and security to Israelis and Palestinians. Unfortunately, none of this has happened yet. The atrocious events in Rafah made us witness once more — and most dramatically — hundreds of thousands of people trying to avoid lethal attacks by moving frantically in the limited, constrained space of southern Gaza, reached only by a trickle of aid; with dozens losing their lives. Among the many images from this conflict that will haunt us for a long time is that of desperate people trapped and often killed inside a war zone. Their safety should be our — your — paramount concern. And while UNHCR — respecting fully its division of labour with UNRWA — is not and will not be operational there, let me say — from the perspective of my role and my mandate — that while Palestinians should be protected wherever they are, the atrocious dilemma of whether they should exit Gaza — or not — is one that Israel has the clear responsibility to avoid; because yes, there is indeed a universal right to seek asylum, so often responded to by countries neighbouring conflicts, and which I will always advocate for, as a matter of principle. But in this case, there is also — and especially — the international legal obligation of an occupying power not to force - not to force - the civilian population to flee the territory it occupies. And another forced exodus of Palestinians will only create one more intractable problem and make a solution to this decades-long conflict impossible to find.

The war in Gaza is also a tragic reminder of what happens when conflicts (and by extension a refugee crisis) are left unattended. It must also serve as a call not to forget other unresolved crises. A stark (and nearby) example is that 13 years after the start of the conflict in Syria, 5.6 million Syrian refugees remain in neighbouring countries, which have also hosted Palestinian refugees for generations, with Lebanon’s plight remaining the most worrying, and tensions over the presence of refugees in that country being again extremely acute; and Jordan, another major host of Syrians, caught squarely between two crises.

The plight of Syrian refugees however gets attention only when other factors emerge — of late, some arrivals of Syrians in EU countries have spurred a flurry of proposals on how to solve the problem, including by sending back refugees to so called “safe areas” in Syria. Let me take the opportunity to reiterate once again our position on this question: the voluntary, safe return of Syrian refugees to their homeland is the best solution and their right; though most refugees would like to return one day, very few do currently, with many expressing either fear of being targeted and lack of confidence in the Syrian government, or concern that in Syria living conditions — services, housing, work — are in an abysmal state. It is the Syrian government that is responsible for addressing the first set of obstacles; and regarding the second, we urge all donor countries to step-up support to early recovery activities as per Security Council Resolution 2642. If we are serious about solving the Syrian refugee problem — and we must be — the only way forward is to overcome political constraints and work on both tracks, with all stakeholders — as UNHCR indeed is already doing.

Meanwhile, violations of international humanitarian law have continued to have a devastating effect on millions of lives around the world, including forcing people to flee. In none — none! — of the refugee and displacement crises which I described to you last October have we seen any sign of progress in this respect.

For example, Myanmar, where since my last briefing to you more than 1.5 million people have been displaced by fighting, bringing the total to over three million, with many trying to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. The situation in Rakhine State is especially worrying. The conflict between Myanmar’s armed forces and the Arakan Army has flared up again, displacing different ethnic groups, and with the Rohingya community caught between the parties and targeted with dangerous abuse, stigmatization and forced recruitment; and with humanitarians operating in a high-risk environment, which has already compelled agencies to temporarily relocate from certain areas. I wish to reiterate here my recent appeal to the parties to ensure the protection of civilians and of aid workers; to the countries neighbouring Myanmar to allow safe access for refugees fleeing for their lives; and to you to ensure that a political process to address Myanmar’s problems is again (and seriously) placed on the international agenda, before some of the consequences further threaten the stability of the region.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo violence between men with guns is so common that no other place on earth is as dangerous for women and children as the east of that country. And my reaction is not naïve. I worked there. I know the intractable ethnic problems; the plunder of resources by a multiplicity of actors, including states; the regional ramifications; the constant disrespect of the civilian character of IDP sites by armed men, endangering both the displaced and humanitarian workers. But how can members of the United Nations, how can ‘we the peoples’ pay so little attention and have so much inaction in a place where sex with a child can be bought for less than a cold drink? What a shameful stain on humanity!

We, the humanitarians, are trying to play our part. Last year, President Tshisekedi asked UNHCR to revitalize efforts to find solutions to complex situations of forced displacement across the region’s borders, and especially between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Rwandan government agreed and we resumed dialogue, but in reality, without a broader political process — or at least a political framework — it will be difficult to make progress on the humanitarian side; and aid is increasingly hard to mobilize for the victims of this state of affairs.

Let me touch briefly on Ukraine as it is another theatre of war where international humanitarian law gets violated every day: look at the unrelenting attacks on the Ukrainian power network, which cause enormous hardship on civilians. Attacks do not spare houses and other civilian infrastructure. Last January, in the heart of winter, I met Ukrainian children going to a makeshift school in the Kharkiv underground because it was the only place that could be kept safe and warm by the local authorities. And displacement — there, too — is increasing again, mostly within the country, and mostly of elderly and other vulnerable people living near the frontlines, requiring urgent and lifesaving humanitarian and psychological support. And as you continue to deal with the war in Ukraine as a political and military issue, don’t lose focus on its deep, devastating human consequences on the people of Ukraine.

Mr. President,

The blatant disregard of international humanitarian law by parties to conflicts also makes peace much more difficult to attain. Death, destruction and displacement deepen societal divisions, tearing apart trust and making it difficult to put the pieces of a country back together.

An obvious example is Sudan, which I visited in February and where parties to the conflict keep creating additional obstacles to aid activities with their reluctance to give access to some key areas, preventing humanitarians from helping many of those in need, including through crossborder and cross-line operations, the organization of which remains extremely complicated. The political backdrop is discouraging: inadequate peace-making efforts or outright support for one of the sides, or the other, are making the conflict much worse. For both sides, disregarding all sense of humanity and consideration for their own people, the solution remains essentially a military one. As a result, there are now nine million people displaced inside Sudan or refugees in neighbouring countries — some of which, like Chad or South Sudan, are grappling with their own fragilities; a number similar to what we have observed in Ukraine but met with continued neglect and indifference by the international community. And funding remains completely inadequate. At a (very welcome) conference in Paris in April, over $2 billion in contributions were announced, but very little has materialized so far. Aid activities inside Sudan are funded at only 15% and the refugee operations at 8%. This requires no further comment.

Sudan is also an example of the broader consequences of disrespect for the rules of war and total lack of accountability. First and foremost, of course, on civilians: for instance, almost no child in Sudan has gone to school for months; and here, too, sexual violence is rife, in Darfur and other war zones. Daily, refugees arriving in Chad tell us of appalling stories of women raped in front of their children and of children murdered in front of their mothers. And I ask you: how can those who fled such horrors ever feel safe enough to return? How can they ever trust those men with guns? Beyond that, how can Sudan's middle class - the same middle class that somehow held the country together through so much turmoil over the past decades and is now being displaced or destroyed, rebuild the country after this conflict?

Nor should it be a surprise that we have seen a 500% increase in the number of Sudanese arriving in Europe in the year after the outbreak of violence. Most of them never wanted to leave home. But brutal violence has forced them to flee. And insufficient aid in neighbouring countries forced them to move again — especially to North Africa and beyond, towards Europe. Rich countries are constantly worrying about what they call “irregular movements”. But in this and other situations, they are not doing enough to help people before they entrust themselves to human traffickers. The consequences are inevitable.

So, compliance with international humanitarian law — which of course is an obligation – also has an element of self-interest. Mr. President, it is a grim political landscape the one I see around us, from my humanitarian viewpoint: short sighted foreign policy decisions, often founded on double standards, with lip service paid to compliance with the law, but little muscle flexed even from this Council to actually uphold it and — with it — peace and security.

International humanitarian law is the clearest representation of the effort to find a common ground. And if, at times of war – some of the most horrific and turbulent times humanity can experience – parties must set their differences aside and operate in a way that protects, at least, the lives of civilians (which today I urge them to do), so should you in your day-to-day work.

And you will forgive me, Mr. President, if I use strong words — it is the frustration of a humanitarian speaking here.

Last year I called on you to use your voice – not your voices.

But this Council’s cacophony has meant that you have instead continued to preside over a broader cacophony of chaos around the world.

It is too late for the tens of thousands already killed in Gaza, in Ukraine, in Sudan, in the DRC, in Myanmar and so many other places.

But it is not too late to put your focus and energy on the crises and conflicts that remain unresolved, so that they are not allowed to fester and explode again.

It is not too late to step up help for the millions who have been forcibly displaced to return home voluntarily, in safety and with dignity.

It is not too late to try and save countless millions more from the scourge of war.

Thank you.