ExCom: UNHCR chief warns of rise of new semi-permanent global refugee populations
GENEVA, October 4 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres warned today that a rise in drawn-out conflict was creating new semi-permanent global refugee situations. He said this requires broader and better protection for the world's 43 million forcibly displaced people.
In a speech to the opening of the annual meeting of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee (ExCom), Guterres said that the environment for refugees, the internally displaced, asylum seekers, stateless people and others in need of help, was becoming significantly more complex.
"We are witnessing the creation of a number of quasi-permanent, global refugee populations," he said. "Last year was the worst in two decades for the voluntary repatriation of refugees … There is a simple explanation for this. The changing nature and growing intractability of conflict makes achieving and sustaining peace more difficult."
Guterres highlighted the examples of Afghanistan and Somalia, where conflict has been raging on and off for decades:
"Afghan refugees are dispersed across 69 other countries - a third of all states in the world . . . [Meanwhile, in Somalia] there seems no real prospect of peace . . . I do not believe there is any group of refugees as systematically undesired, stigmatized and discriminated against."
Guterres appealed to ExCom members to renew and broaden their support for those affected by such situations and the principles of international protection on which UNHCR's work is based. Over half of the refugees for whom UNHCR is responsible are today stuck in protracted situations, most of them in the developing world where four-fifths of the world's refugees reside.
"We need to increase international solidarity and burden-sharing,' he said. "A better understanding and recognition by the international community of the efforts of host countries is absolutely necessary."
Guterres also acknowledged the efforts of richer nations to play their parts through increased resettlement for refugees unable to repatriate or settle in countries of first asylum. Twelve additional countries have established resettlement programmes for refugees since June 2008. However, he said that despite such progress the increase in resettlement places was failing to keep pace with need.
"A huge gap remains between resettlement needs and resettlement capacity," Guterres said. "UNHCR estimates that as many as 800,000 refugees need resettlement, yet the number of places available annually is only around 10 per cent of that, and less than one per cent of the total number of refugees in the world."
Guterres also touched on the needs of other groups of forcibly displaced people beyond just refugees. These include people fleeing natural disasters, the 27 million people who today are displaced inside their own countries due to conflict, and the estimated 12 million people worldwide who are stuck in the nightmarish legal limbo of statelessness.
With natural disasters, UNHCR has found itself being called upon increasingly to help, including this year's massive floods in Pakistan. Guterres said that while UNHCR had risen to the challenge on several occasions, a less ad hoc approach to responding to natural disasters was required.
With internally displaced people, he spoke of growing cooperation between UN agencies, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and national and international NGOs. But also reminded his audience that the primary responsibility for responding to internal displacement rests with states, and called for increased ratification of the Convention on the Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons in Africa.
With statelessness, Guterres applauded the efforts of a number of countries to improve national laws to reduce statelessness risks, including Vietnam - where former refugees from Cambodia have recently been naturalized - and Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Tunisia where reforms, constitutional provisions (Kenya), and pending reform respectively recognize the right of women to confer nationality on their children on an equal basis with men. He said UNHCR would be using the occasion of its coming 60th anniversary year to push for more such progress.
"UNHCR is organizing a major effort in 2011 to advocate for legislative reforms so that mothers and fathers are equally able to pass their citizenship on to their children," he said. "I call on all states to support us in this initiative."
The UN refugee agency is funded almost entirely by direct voluntary contributions. In recent years it has undertaken a series of internal reforms aimed at improved efficiencies and effectiveness, including lowering staff costs and, in 2010, the transition to a needs-based budgetary approach geared towards more precisely reflecting the needs of people under its care.
Guterres said the organization's priorities for this year and beyond in the development of UNHCR capacity would focus on protection and emergency preparedness and response. He urged donors to recognize these priorities and support them, instead of channelling donations more narrowly:
"The Global Needs Assessment [budgetary approach] will only work as it is intended to do if donors resist the temptation to earmark contributions for activities outside established priorities," he said.
The coming year marks UNHCR's 60th anniversary, along with the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, the 50th anniversary of the Convention relating to the Reduction of Statelessness and the 150th anniversary of the birth of Fridtjof Nansen - the first High Commissioner for Refugees.
Guterres urged ExCom members to support the anniversaries with renewed commitment to helping the world's forcibly displaced people, including through stepped up accessions to the 1954 and 1961 statelessness conventions and through a new consensus on protection beyond the scope of the 1951 refugee convention.
"On the 14th of December UNHCR will turn 60. For an individual, it is not always easy to reconcile the wisdom of experience with the vitality of youth. For an organization it can be exactly the same," he said. "At 60, I hope we have achieved the wisdom expected of us, but I can assure you we have lost none of our vitality."
The week-long annual ExCom meeting reviews and approves UNHCR's programmes and budget, advises on protection issues and discusses a wide range of other topics.
Later Monday, Guterres is due to present the 2010 Nansen Refugee Award to Alixandra Fazzina during a glittering ceremony in Geneva's Bâtiment des Forces Motrices. The British photographer is being recognized for her work in documenting the suffering of the forcibly displaced in several countries around the world.
By Adrian Edwards in Geneva