Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Conflict and Displacement: Talking about Refugees in the City of Peace

Speeches and statements

Conflict and Displacement: Talking about Refugees in the City of Peace

26 November 2016
Speech by Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Hiroshima Peace Cultural Foundation

Dear students,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am especially honoured to be here today for the first time - my heartfelt thanks go to Hiroshima City University for organising this event, and to the Hiroshima Peace Cultural Foundation for hosting us. Many thanks also to the Mayor and the city for their hospitality.  

No place in the world symbolizes humanity’s devastating relationship with war more than Hiroshima. No city speaks to us about humanity’s aspiration to peace like Hiroshima. I do not need to talk about the history of your city, because you know it better than me. But, my work, and the work of UNHCR, the organization which I lead, are about refugees: people whose fate is most frequently determined by war and peace. So I will speak from a specific perspective, that of humanity’s age-old fear of violence and need for security and protection.

Men and women (and especially men!) have waged war since the dawn of history; usually, war has been the choice of a few powerful people; for all others - millions, throughout history - war has bred death, destruction and fear, which, in turn, have caused the flight of millions more, in a desperate search for refuge and protection. (Of the 65 million current refugees and displaced people, most are fleeing war, every day, and everywhere). They are ordinary people, like you and me, like those who owned the clothes, the toys, the household objects burnt in Hiroshima and which I saw this morning at the Peace Memorial Museum and which touched me deeply.

This city knows about the fear of war, and about the plight of people for whom there is no safety - no safety, anywhere. The Museum explains this very clearly. On the morning of 6 August 1945, here in Hiroshima, there was no possibility of refuge for the people of this city as the first atomic bomb was unleashed on its inhabitants. The exodus came afterwards, as men, women and children whose lives were blighted forever fled what was left of their homes in search of shelter and protection, and black rain fell on a city strewn with corpses and disfigured beyond recognition. Never has the suffering of ordinary people as a consequence of war been so acute, so devastating, so lasting. Hiroshima knows what it means for ordinary people to be left at the mercy of absolute destruction.

But Hiroshima has also become an international symbol of hope; its citizens determined to rebuild their city, and to turn the terrible legacy of World War II into a compelling message to humankind: that securing and sustaining peace must be the driving ambition that unites us all; that - as President Obama said here in Hiroshima a few months ago - we must “define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build”. Your message of peace, including the need to free the world of nuclear weapons - as I learned this morning while visiting the Peace Memorial - is an inspiration to me and to all those whose work brings them face to face with the tragic consequences of today's conflicts, including millions of people killed, injured, trapped or uprooted from their homes across the world.   

The practice of providing protection and refuge to those fleeing in search of safety is an ancient one, found in many cultural and religious traditions and historical accounts. To ensure that all people enjoy protection - international protection when their own states fail to provide it to them - and that solutions are sought and found for people fleeing their homes, is at the core of my organization’s mission. This brings us to work - very often - on the frontlines of war. It also explains why supporting refugees is fundamentally linked to the pursuit of peace and stability.

The modern system for international refugee protection has its roots in the rise of the nation state, the disintegration of empires, and the devastating conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century. As a changed world emerged in the aftermath of World War II, and the ideological divisions of the Cold War took root, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - UNHCR - was created in December 1950. During those early years, the key focus of its work was to support refugees fleeing totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. UNHCR's first emergency operation came in 1953, in response to a refugee crisis in West Berlin. By the 1960s UNHCR was engaged in major relief operations as decolonisation spread across Africa, and millions of refugees fled wars of liberation. They were generally well received in neighbouring countries, and the majority returned home once their countries' independence was secured.

As the Cold War intensified, East and West competed for influence in the developing world, fuelling tensions, arming local groups, and triggering violent internal and regional conflicts, with devastating humanitarian consequences. People were displaced on an unprecedented scale, as wars erupted on almost every continent - in countries such as Mozambique and Afghanistan, and in Central America. Refugees from Indochina spread across Asia and beyond - with Japan itself receiving around 11,000 people through resettlement arrangements, as well as many arriving directly on boats.

The end of the Cold War gave rise to a mixed picture. Under the visionary leadership of a great Japanese woman - High Commissioner Sadako Ogata - UNHCR supported millions of refugees returning home in the 1990s and contributed to reintegration and reconciliation efforts. But at the same time as millions were returning home, new, complex and deadly conflicts were emerging. Communities split along ethnic, social, and political lines, with terrible consequences. More than four million people were uprooted at the height of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia; I witnessed myself a million refugees flee across the border from Rwanda to Zaire in just four days in the summer of 1994. In some contexts, including Iraq and Somalia, the large-scale movement of refugees was seen as a threat to international peace and security, triggering international intervention. Conflicts multiplied again across all continents; the United Nations was heavily engaged in resolving major crises in Kosovo and East Timor, and UNHCR played a key role in seeking solutions to forced human displacement.

In the last quarter of a century we have witnessed dramatic shifts in the balance of international power. The fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, put an end to the bipolar equilibrium of the Cold War, and for years we lived in a world in which the United States was the dominant power. The events that took place in New York on September 11, 2001, ushered in an era in which new forms of insecurity and conflict emerged.  As old ideologies crumbled, new and deadly ones have emerged, with conflicts recurring, multiplying and becoming more intractable amidst growing uncertainty. We live in a world that is now multipolar, and in which power - and the power to harm - is more diffuse and dangerous than ever before. Wars are no longer fought between clearly-defined groups with recognisable political aims. They spill across borders, are fuelled by criminal groups, terrorism and the trafficking of drugs, people and arms. The international legal system born of World War II is especially vulnerable in this context: it has become commonplace to violate humanitarian law, refugee law and - broadly speaking - universal human rights. This has had devastating consequences on civilians in conflict situations, and has resulted in an unprecedented global displacement crisis which shows no sign of abating.

In 2015, an average of 34,000 people fled their homes every day - seeking safety from conflict and persecution within their own countries or abroad - up from 8,500 a day just a decade ago. And as I said the overall number of people displaced globally - refugees, asylum seekers and people displaced within their own countries - has now reached a record high of 65 million, more than half of whom are children. Within that figure, the number of refugees globally now stands at over 21 million - close to the figure that was reached in the early 1990s.

There are three main reasons for this. First, certain long-standing conflicts, as in Somalia and Afghanistan, are more entrenched than ever. Second, major conflicts are emerging or reigniting more frequently. Civil wars almost tripled from four in 2007 to eleven in 2014. In the past five years, conflicts have broken out in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region, Yemen, Burundi, Mali, Ukraine, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, and hundreds of thousands of people have fled urban gang violence in Central America. The crisis that has hit the headlines most dramatically - and for good reason - is of course Syria, with a refugee tally now approaching five million - almost one third of the refugees under UNHCR's responsibility globally. Millions are also displaced by the ongoing conflict in Iraq.

But the third reason - which actually underpins the first two - is that the international consensus required to prevent, mitigate and resolve conflict, and to make and build peace has weakened dramatically over the last decade. Securing solutions for refugees is ultimately linked to ending conflict - but making peace has become very difficult amidst today's tense and polarised international relations.

I have shared the overall figures to give you a sense of the scale and complexity of the displacement challenge. But it is critically important that we are able to see behind the numbers - in fact, sometimes these are so overwhelming that they generate a sense of hopelessness. Some other times, on the contrary, we feel that those events - wars, refugees - are happening far away and even that somehow “it is their fault”: implying that those fleeing conflict have brought their situation upon themselves. In other words, we are tempted to de-humanise these situations. Taken to the extreme, this can generate a backlash against refugees. In many countries, we see a steep rise in xenophobic sentiments.

This is dangerous. Two things are extremely important. First, we should never lose sight of the human consequences of conflict, and of being forced into exile.  I started working as a young volunteer in Thailand at a time when the Indochinese refugee crisis was still ongoing. My values and convictions as a young professional were forged in those years, along with a strong belief that we all have a role to play in addressing the human dimension of wars; and that helping people affected by conflict is not a sideshow played by people who want to “do good”, but a crucial responsibility that we all share - and which in turn is a fundamental component of political solutions. And reaching out to others across cultural and historic divides – as Ambassador Komizo pointed out while we were visiting the Museum – is a key step towards building peace. 

In my current capacity, visiting field operations is the most important part of my work - sitting with refugees, talking to them of the fathers, mothers, husbands, wives and children they have lost or been separated from; of the homes, neighbourhoods and lives they have left behind; and of the extraordinary tragedy of living in a country that is not their own, with few prospects of resuming life as it was before. Refugees often speak of the failures of their political leaders, of their distrust of those who claim to speak on their behalf, but also of their hopes and their determination to build a future for themselves and their families. Our experience - and indeed, recent research - consistently show that given the right opportunities - education, access to employment and the right to move freely in the countries hosting them - refugees contribute positively to the economies and societies of those countries - and are also better equipped to contribute to building peace in their own countries, as and when they are able to return.

There is a perception that the United Nations is a bureaucratic organization made of people sitting in comfortable offices, dealing with paperwork and discussing documents. Of course, like any other large administration, the UN also does that. But in this respect, I am very proud to lead UNHCR, one of the UN agencies that has an operational mandate. The vast majority of its 15,000 staff work in the field, together with local and international partners, in border areas and conflict zones where refugees and internally displaced people are themselves living. I firmly believe that this is essential if we are to fulfil our mandate to ensure protection and support, but also to have a real understanding of the experiences of refugees, to advocate on their behalf, and to bring their voices, plight and potential to the attention of the world - not only to governments, but to all those who have the possibility to make a difference in their lives - including you.

It is extremely important to understand and acknowledge that the vast majority of displaced people remain within their own countries, or are hosted in nearby countries and communities. People arriving in large numbers in Europe, Australia and the United States in the last few years created the perception that there is a “refugee crisis” that affects the rich world. This is very, very misleading. Only 5.4 million people - fewer than 10% of the total number of those displaced - are living as refugees in industrialised states or have sought asylum there. Of that big '65 million' figure, almost two thirds are internally displaced in their own country, and of those who leave their countries as refugees, nine out of ten remain in their own region - meaning that forced displacement is a crisis affecting mostly poor or middle income countries, and communities that have scarce resources. 

Yet, when I visit our field operations, I am always struck by the extraordinary generosity and compassion of the local communities that receive and host refugees. They are often the first to provide shelter, food and support, despite enormous difficulties of their own. And although of course there are exceptions, governments of developing states who receive and host refugees usually strive to provide them with protection, to find ways to ensure their dignity, and to reconcile these obligations with their responsibilities for the security and well-being of their own populations.

However, our experience shows that if that early welcome is to be sustained, adequate international funding and other forms of support are essential. And when host states see industrialised countries closing their doors to refugees and shying away from sharing the responsibility of hosting them - as we have recently observed in several European countries, or in Australia - this sends a powerful and damaging message to the rest of the world; borders close, barriers rise, and people affected by war and fearing for their lives have nowhere to go to seek refuge and protection. Five years after the Syrian war began, for example, Syrians who remain in the country find themselves trapped as conflict escalates, with access to asylum in neighbouring countries and further afield effectively closed off.

The arrival of more than one million people in Europe in 2015 certainly placed the refugee issue on the international agenda in an unprecedented way. The vast majority of those arriving - especially from Turkey to Greece - were indeed refugees, unable to return home because of conflict and persecution, but other people - migrants, travelling for different reasons, were also part of the movement. This phenomenon of 'mixed migration' - with refugees moving along the same routes, using the same irregular channels, as migrants - is certainly not a new one. But it has accelerated over the last decade or so. With very few regular channels available, refugees place themselves in the hands of smugglers and traffickers, and are exposed to terrible risks as they move through the desert or cross the sea in fragile vessels. In the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, for example, tens of thousands of refugees from Myanmar and Bangladeshi migrants have made the dangerous journey since 2014, with over a thousand dying at sea and hundreds more found buried in unmarked mass graves. A striking number of those moving in mixed migratory movements are children or adolescents travelling alone, without their family members.

The reaction of many governments to refugee and asylum seekers arriving within mixed migratory movements by boat or by land is increasingly to try to deter people from coming - by detaining them, restricting access to asylum procedures, keeping acceptance rates artificially low, intercepting vessels and pushing them back. Undoubtedly, there are real challenges in dealing with the complex issue of mixed migration - and strong arguments for deterring people from dangerous journeys that place their lives at risk. But what is all too often missing, amidst the rhetoric and panic, and often the manipulation of unscrupulous politicians, is a clear sense of perspective, and - even more importantly - a sense of humanity and empathy for those caught up in today's global turmoil.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear students,

The 1951 Refugee Convention was drafted after World War II, at the same time as UNHCR was established. States - including Japan, who ratified the Convention in the 1980s - agreed to certain core principles and standards, underlining that refugees are a matter of international concern and must therefore be prevented from being sent back to a country where their life or freedom are at risk. As such, it provides a lifeline to those who have fled in search of safety.

But decades of experience have shown us that more is needed - concrete ways to make sure that the responsibility for refugees is shared collectively among nations. Two months ago, the United Nations General Assembly took a bold step in precisely this direction. At a high-level summit, states adopted the New York Declaration - a truly remarkable achievement in today's complex global environment. They unanimously reaffirmed the commitment to refugee protection that they had signed up to in the aftermath of World War II, and charted a new course, based on solidarity and responsibility-sharing. Before I close, let me make a few remarks about this important document.

Governments agreed to step up efforts to resolve conflicts, which are key, of course, in stopping and reversing refugee flows; and to invest much more in countries where refugees come from - to prevent conflicts escalating, provide better protection and support to internally displaced people, and actively pursue possibilities for people to return home safely and restart their lives when they are ready to do so. In UNHCR's experience, helping people return home and reintegrate in their communities is an important element of building peace.

Japan - a country deeply affected by war and a model of postwar reconstruction - has been a true, global peacebuilding champion, a role which, I trust, will be highlighted when – next month – it observes its 60th anniversary of UN membership. Japan has provided strong support in helping refugees re-establish themselves in their home countries, including through peace education and projects to foster coexistence between different groups. It attaches high priority to supporting education and vocational training for refugees - a matter of vital concern, as only 50% of refugee children of primary school age have access to education, as compared to 91% around the world. We also appreciate Japan's strong advocacy for development actors to engage in refugee situations from the very beginning - efforts which are now bearing fruit. Japan recently announced an important donation of USD 100 million to the World Bank's new Global Crisis Response Platform - a contribution which has the potential to change the lives of many refugees worldwide.

Critically, in New York, governments also agreed to increase support to refugee-hosting countries, including by investing in infrastructure, basic services and economic opportunities that benefit both refugees and host communities and help build positive relationships between them. The majority of refugees no longer live in camps, but in urban areas or rural communities, and support has to be designed accordingly. In recent years, we have seen local government officials, civil society organisations and volunteers play a key role in this regard, and solidarity networks being set up between cities. In this respect, Hiroshima has important experiences to share, based on the extraordinary achievement in fostering a network of Mayors for Peace which spans as I heard more than 7,000 cities in 162 countries.

In New York, governments also committed to significantly increase the number of refugees that they would accept for resettlement, an important mechanism that allows refugees to move legally from the country in which they first sought asylum to a 'third' country - usually an industrialised state. This has enormous impact on the lives of those able to benefit, but is also a very important gesture of solidarity with host countries. In 2015, 81,000 refugees departed for resettlement with UNHCR's support - a record number, but still fewer than 1% of refugees worldwide, with the vast majority going to just a few countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia.

We are happy that Japan has started a small resettlement programe, and we hope that this will be expanded in the coming years. Japan has also announced that 150 Syrian students would be admitted in Japan, together with their families, in order to study in Japanese universities over the next five years. We hope that this programme will be further developed over time - perhaps you will even welcome some of those students here to Hiroshima! If so, they will certainly need your help and support to make their experience - and these programmes - successful ones.

The New York Declaration emphasises that supporting refugees is not a task limited to governments and international organisations, but that civil society, volunteers, faith-based organisations, academic institutions, and the media can also play an important role. Japan has a strong tradition of volunteerisim and solidarity networks, and the Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteer scheme supported by JICA makes a strong contribution in many refugee settings. Maybe some of you will one day join that programme. 

The New York Declaration also recognises the important role of the private sector - not just in terms of funding, but in shaping public attitudes and contributing ideas and innovative approaches. The Japanese company UNIQLO, for example, has provided an important model. Through their clothes recycling scheme, the employment and internship opportunities that they offer to refugees, the publicity they provide and the financial support they give to UNHCR, they raise awareness and provide tangible help. And of course, we greatly value the strong support we receive from individuals like you, and from companies in Japan, who make donations through our partner, Japan for UNHCR.

In signing the New York Declaration, governments reaffirmed the values and principles of refugee protection - including the right to seek asylum.  It is therefore important that states build and maintain fair and efficient asylum systems, so that people arriving in search of protection can have their claims fully considered, and decided upon in a fair manner. The number of people asking for asylum in Japan each year is relatively low by global standards, but is growing, and Japan must ensure that its asylum system at home is consistent with the values of compassion and solidarity that are key to its engagement with refugees overseas.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear students,

It has been a privilege to share with you today why I believe that the plight of refugees is one of the most tragic and tangible consequences of war, and why supporting and finding solutions for them is a critical aspect of building peace.

Japan is a crucial actor in the international effort to support refugees, providing funding, expertise, and leadership on displacement issues at the global level. But we also need support from civil society - from academics, students, business people and the public. My message is that building peace by supporting refugees is not an abstract concept, nor a hopeless endeavour, and while for some of you the refugee crisis may seem very far away, there are many practical ways in which you can help with those efforts. (And by the way, please sign our online petition #WithRefugees, which calls upon global leaders to increase their support for refugees around the world!)

Most importantly, I strongly urge you - and especially the young people - to study and understand refugee issues and their causes, to raise awareness amongst the student community and beyond, and to look for ways in which your university, your community and your city can welcome and support refugees and their families. Your compassion for the plight of refugees, and the understanding and commitment you bring to the pursuit of peace, are ultimately the foundation for our work - both globally and here in Japan.

The images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki annihilated by the bombs have served as a reminder to the entire world that contemporary war, in its extreme consequences, means the end of humanity: and as such have helped several generations, including mine, step back time and time again from the brink of catastrophe. True, we still live in a world where weapons, including nuclear weapons, sadly matter. But those pictures - together with the images of extermination camps in Europe – also prompted the international community in subsequent years to make some of its boldest and broadest commitments ever - the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Geneva Conventions defining International Humanitarian Law; and the Refugee Convention. 

More than seventy years have passed. But it bears repeating this here, in this place of hope and rebirth, in this city vibrant again after being reconstructed from the most tragic ruins of the last world conflict: that as long as humanity strives to build peace from the ashes of war, and to ensure that all women and men enjoy security, prosperity and happiness - as they must - those commitments to peace, cooperation and rights are as urgent and necessary as ever.

Upholding them is the responsibility of us all.