Guterres outlines challenges facing UNHCR as annual board meeting starts
GENEVA, October 2 (UNHCR) - The annual meeting of UNHCR's 70-nation governing body, the Executive Committee, began Monday with a call from High Commissioner António Guterres for concerted international action to preserve the institution of asylum while finding better ways of dealing with irregular migration, post-conflict recovery and the plight of millions of people displaced within their own countries. He also outlined plans for the agency's internal reform.
In a broad-ranging address in Geneva's Palais des Nations, Guterres said UNHCR was facing a "moment of truth" as it confronted a number of internal and external challenges. Among them is the pressing need for deep structural and management reform within UNHCR itself, a process he said was "absolutely indispensable if we are to build a stronger, more effective organisation" able to focus maximum resources on the people it cares for.
The refugee agency is engaged in a systematic internal change process aimed in part at lowering fixed costs, including staff and administrative costs, to ensure that maximum resources go to beneficiaries. Possible measures include moving field support staff closer to the point of delivery and relocating some Geneva-based activities. Guterres said support from governments was essential for success and thanked donors for their contributions over the past year.
"We cannot forget our moral obligation to the people we care for," Guterres said, adding that UNHCR's budget of about $1 billion a year is unable to provide enough help to refugees wanting to repatriate or to provide basic medical treatments. "We cannot accept that money that should be spent on the people we care for is spent unnecessarily on the organisation," he said.
"We owe it to our beneficiaries, be they refugees or the increasing numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs), to give top priority to meeting their needs."
He said another challenge was redressing one of the international community's "greatest failures," the neglect of tens of millions of IDPs who - because they remain within the borders of their own country - lack the safeguards and assistance afforded to refugees outside their homeland. In addition to its original mandate of protecting the world's refugees, Guterres said UNHCR had now become a fully-engaged partner in a new joint approach to help the estimated 24 million IDPs worldwide.
"We are now part of the collective response by the UN system and the broader humanitarian community, and in that context have assumed leading responsibility for protection, emergency shelter and camp coordination and management," he said. "Lessons learned from four pilot countries - Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Somalia - will guide us in the future."
Guterres said the new approach had been instrumental in the return of more than 300,000 IDPs in Uganda, "transforming a dramatic humanitarian situation into a potentially remarkable success story." He said UNHCR was also reassessing its IDP work in Colombia, Sri Lanka, the Caucasus and Côte d'Ivoire. Despite progress in some IDP situations, however, an estimated 2 million IDPs in Sudan's Darfur region remained in desperate need of protection and assistance.
"Faced with a situation like Darfur, the role of organisations such as ours is severely constrained," Guterres said. "In the absence of a clear framework for the exercise of the so-called 'responsibility to protect,' the international community remains basically powerless. The insecurity bred in Darfur has spread to Chad and threatens the Central African Republic."
Reviewing progress in several areas over the past year, Guterres cited the central importance of protection and asylum in a rapidly changing world.
"At a time of rising intolerance, fuelled by security concerns and confusion in public opinion between migrants and refugees, we are bound first to preserve asylum and rebuild trust in asylum systems," he said. "Critical developments are taking place - many of them deliberately encouraged by populism in both politics and the media, taking us in the wrong direction."
Preserving asylum meant opposing all forms of refoulement - or forcibly returning refugees - and ensuring respect for international refugee law, which "cannot be superseded by national legislation, extradition treaties, or redefined by bilateral arrangements."
Guterres also cited efforts with governments and other partners in addressing the protection needs of refugees among the tens of millions of migrants on the move today. In a globalised world, he said, money moves unimpeded, goods and services not as freely, and people much less so. In a global labour market, he said, supply will move to meet demand - "legally if it can, illegally if it must."
"This is why curbing illegal migration is not only a question of controlling borders, but requires a comprehensive response," he said. That response should include meaningful opportunities for legal migration, development cooperation strategies targeted at the most vulnerable situations so that people are not compelled to move out of sheer despair, and international cooperation in the management of migration flows and a convincing crackdown on smugglers and traffickers.
Focusing on regions of origin and transit and destination countries, UNHCR has proposed a 10-point plan that sets out measures which can be incorporated into migration procedures to ensure refugees are identified and protected.
"We know the difference between a migrant and a refugee, and we don't want to become a migration management agency," he said. "But we are witnessing more and more movements with the character of mixed flows, where the large majority are migrants but where there are also people in need of international protection: refugees, women victims of trafficking, unaccompanied minors. Our role is to help create the environment where these people can be detected and afforded protection."
Over the past year, UNHCR has helped find solutions for hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly through voluntary repatriation. But the sustainability of those returns to devastated countries emerging from conflict is a "dramatic concern," Guterres said. He cited the Democratic Republic of the Congo, south Sudan, Burundi, Afghanistan and Liberia as countries requiring sustained international assistance to ensure that those who have gone home can stay home.
"In any operation, the promotion of return comes only after minimum conditions are met and we are able to verify that people will be safe following their repatriation," he said. "Addressing transition problems after wars or conflict end and before sustained development is in place, is not something at which the international community excels."
The week-long Executive Committee meeting, chaired by Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki, reviews and approves UNHCR's programmes and budget, advises on protection issues and discusses a wide range of other topics.
Also featured at the opening session was Japanese optometrist Dr. Akio Kanai, who Monday evening was to receive the 2006 Nansen Refugee Award for his work in providing eye care to some 100,000 uprooted people over the past two decades. Dr. Kanai told delegates his 24 "vision aid" missions helping refugees and the displaced in Asia and Central Asia since 1983 demonstrated that individuals using their own means can still make a difference in today's world.