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Keynote address to the 4th Humanitarian Congress in Vienna

Speeches and statements

Keynote address to the 4th Humanitarian Congress in Vienna

3 March 2017

We live in a world of profound contradictions, perhaps nowhere more apparent than in today’s refugee contexts.  Refugees are in some ways a microcosm of our world.  They reveal how we are increasingly interdependent –  how the actions taken at home can resonate far beyond the borders of our communities and countries.  They confront us with the stark realities and unimaginable choices that so many face in zones of conflict around the world.  They force us to ask ourselves the difficult questions about where responsibilities lie for the making and unmaking of crises and the drivers of displacement.

One of the clearest contradictions is the disproportionate number of refugees hosted in the global south where more than 80 per cent of the world’s refugees reside.  Uganda, for example, receives an average of 2,200 refugees from South Sudan every single day.  In the first half of 2016 alone, some 40,300 people from the Northern Triangle of Central America fled horrible situations of violence, clinging onto trains and risking their lives, having experienced things one would only expect to see in action movies.  Their most fervent wish is to have a normal life, go to school, and be with their loved ones.  Yet, when one country in Europe, for example, was faced with the arrival of a few thousand in a year, it shut its borders.  Last year, over 5,000 people perished in their attempts to cross the Mediterranean.  If something of that scope had happened to a luxury cruise ship, everyone would hear about it in the media for weeks.  The list of such contradictions could go on and on.

Refugees move because they can no longer count on the national protection of their country of origin.  They are mostly displaced within their own countries first – often multiple times.  Some have been stuck in enclaves or besieged areas, sometimes for years, as in the Syrian Arab Republic or Iraq.  Some may never reach safety or make it out alive.  If they do manage to cross an international border, they are rarely able to do so legally or with the required documentation.  They are left with little choice but to pay others, including criminals, smugglers, and traffickers, to help them across.  Because of conflict, violence, and persecution, they cannot go back to their countries, at least not until the situation has significantly changed.  Nor can they rely on the consular or diplomatic protection that we are mostly able to call upon if we have a problem abroad.  They become therefore a matter of international concern, which is why a solid legal and institutional framework was established for their protection.  The General Assembly of the United Nations recognized this reality in one of its first ever adopted resolutions in 1946.

What are the policy dilemmas that emerge from such contradictions?

I have provided you with a brief glimpse into the kind of world that refugees must endure.  It is a world that gives rise to some critical policy dilemmas.  While the contradictions are many, I see five key trends that we must address if we are to rectify the resulting harms and find a different way forward for the future:

First, there is uneven attention paid to the various crises around the world.  Some attract more attention, visibility, and funding than others.  Many situations in Africa, for example in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Mali, or the Lake Chad Basin, are barely known outside of humanitarian and development circles.  They remain grossly underfunded, and only 43 per cent of the overall needs in Africa were met in 2016.

Second, we do not always practice what we preach.  A group of countries cannot pursue regional containment policies while expecting others, due to the sheer coincidence of geography, to have admission policies without meaningful or sustained support.   This is a recipe for resentment, non-cooperation, and a race to the bottom.  We cannot have two sets of scales for measuring our responses to refugee influxes or long-lasting refugee situations.  We cannot hold ourselves to one set of standards and others to another. 

Third, we cannot expect refugees to stop taking the risks of dangerous onward journeys with smugglers and traffickers if we do not provide them with safer ways to access safety and solutions.  Refugees often move onward when they cannot get their needs met in their host countries, or in an attempt to join family members.  Safe pathways, through resettlement, family reunification, scholarships, or labour mobility schemes, for example, can provide meaningful alternatives to human smuggling and undercut criminal networks that exploit the desperate circumstances in which refugees are surviving.

Fourth, refugee issues sometimes get embroiled in national security debates.  There is of course a need for all governments to ensure the security of their people, but let us not confound this legitimate concern with refugees.  Refugees flee insecurity.  They are, by definition, the victims – not the perpetrators – of violence and terror.  They have often rejected extremism and ideologies of terror, and as a result, are targeted.  Refugees share the values of democracy, freedom, and tolerance.  Under international refugee law, individuals who are known to pose a threat to security are not entitled to refugee status.  Ensuring security and providing a haven to people fleeing persecution are therefore not mutually exclusive, but in fact entirely complementary. 

Fifth, within the humanitarian and human rights community, we tend to speak to the converted.  We live a bit in our own bubble.  Our communications reverberate in echo chambers that do not always reach the persons whom we wish to persuade.  Social media, with all its great advantages, does not always enable an open and free exchange of ideas, and has the effect of shielding us from others’ views.  Politicians in many parts of the world are now seizing on this trend to advance policies of exclusion that can place refugees, among others, at even greater risk.  It is a normal human tendency to operate within one’s comfort zone, so our biggest challenge is often how to engage those who do not agree with us – those who have strong emotions, are swayed by populist politics, or who simply have legitimate concerns that we do not hear anymore.  If we are to be effective, we need to broaden our interaction, dialogue, and engagement.

Eventually, the consequences of such contradictions – in funding, standards, expectations, and interests – will be felt on all sides.  They are likely to have ripple effects, which will be difficult to contain.  Let us not forget that the consequences of conflict and the pressures of displacement are most strongly felt in the countries in the regions where conflict and persecution persist.  As I mentioned earlier, low and middle-income countries host the vast majority of the world’s displaced people, often in remote and impoverished border areas.  As the capacity of these countries to cope with the growing numbers comes under strain, many refugees are compelled to move onwards in search of solutions for themselves and their families. 

Hence, what may be localized today could very well become a regional or even global issue tomorrow.  We have seen this already in the Lake Chad region and in the impact of the insurgency in North Eastern Nigeria on neighbouring countries and beyond.  We also have seen this in Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine State.  And we saw this in 2015 when more than one million refugees, primarily from the Syrian Arab Republic, could no longer meet their basic needs and started crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, often experiencing harm, trauma, and loss along the way.  At the time, less than half of Syrian refugee children had access to education; food rations had to be cut because of lack of funding; and child labour was a known phenomenon.  It was telling to witness these events.  While some countries found ways to deal with refugees, others chose to respond through restrictive and unilateral measures that only shifted the “problem” onto other States.  The fragmentation that resulted both exacerbated the precarious situations in which refugees were living and undermined trust and solidarity amongst States. 

The lesson we must take away from this is not to ignore simmering crises.  We must at our core be truly humanitarian and respond even when the link to other parts of the world is not immediately obvious.  It brings us back to the point that we are interdependent in a globalized world.  Sharing the benefits of globalization also means sharing its downsides.  It means finding ways to rectify the inequities, disparities, and contradictions that pervade the current global response to displacement.

Forced displacement is here to stay.  It is a reality that we need to accept and deal with head-on.  An “ostrich with his head in the sand” approach will lead us nowhere.  The past years have shown us how costly it can be – for both refugees and the communities that receive them – to ignore this reality.  So, the starting point has to be the acceptance of the reality of displacement today.  UNHCR’s Mid-Year Trends report,[1] released this past week, speaks to this fact.  As of mid-2016, the total number of refugees of concern to UNHCR reached more than 16.5 million, and the total number of internally displaced persons stood at more than 36.4 million.  Some 3.2 million people were newly displaced in the first six months of 2016 alone, of whom 1.5 million sought protection in another country. 

More than half of all those newly displaced came from the Syrian Arab Republic where also now more than half of the entire population has been displaced.  Displacement also occurred in large numbers from Nigeria, Yemen, and South Sudan.  Most people who are displaced flee within the borders of their own countries, and most of those who become refugees are hosted in neighbouring countries or in the immediate surrounding region. 

Where does this leave us, and how can we address these contradictions as we shape global policies for the future?

It is precisely to address this reality, in the spirit of equity and fairness, that collective, multilaterally agreed frameworks are needed to support countries that are more disadvantaged because of where they are located.  We need an integrated, predictable, equitable, and cooperative international framework that responds to the needs of refugees and host communities alike when they are either faced with a new influx or have lived together for decades.  This will not happen overnight.  Yet when we go through the inevitable teething problems of creating anything new, we must not give up or lose sight of the longer term.  We already have a solid international legal framework in place, and we can build upon useful past practices of comprehensive regional approaches.  

It was in recognition of this that UNHCR put forward several proposals to the EU, for example, to better manage the refugee situation.[2]  These proposals are based on a vision of an EU that is engaged beyond its borders, prepared to receive arrivals, protects refugees, integrates refugees through welcoming communities, and finds workable approaches to mixed flows of refugees and migrants.  They draw upon lessons learned, most recently from 2015, to show how it is possible to restore trust through common, better managed, and orderly asylum systems and better preparedness from the outset.  They suggest mechanisms that bring families together at an early stage, encourage safe pathways, and set out systems for supporting EU Member States receiving the largest numbers of refugees.   They also recommend external engagement and support.  Countries dealing with protracted refugee situations – sometimes for decades – need this support, particularly if local solutions are to be part of the package.  Without such functioning frameworks, and without proper support for the countries that need it most, we are not truly protecting refugees.

And indeed, at the global level, in a remarkable demonstration of unity and foresight, in September 2016, UN Member States unanimously adopted the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants.  The Declaration calls on UNHCR to propose a Global Compact on Refugees, and for the development of a Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.  The aim of the Global Compact on Refugees would be to ensure equitable and predictable responsibility-sharing arrangements to address large-scale movements of refugees, as well as protracted refugee situations – especially those that are forgotten and chronically underfunded.  It is premised on the understanding that large movements of refugees can only be adequately addressed through international cooperation.  Such cooperation is also key to ensuring global stability, building public confidence in institutions, and strengthening protection for refugees.  It is envisioned that as part of the Global Compact on Refugees, States would share responsibility for refugees in a number of areas, for example in conflict prevention and resolution, linking humanitarian and development assistance, the development of safe and regular pathways, and engaging civil society in innovative initiatives to facilitate integration and build communities.

Through the New York Declaration, States made clear a commitment to address the root causes of refugee situations and to find solutions – not only the traditional durable solutions of resettlement, voluntary repatriation, and local integration, but also wider-reaching solutions focused on integrating refugees in development planning and aimed at preventing or resolving conflicts.  They have emphasized the importance of early crisis prevention through preventive diplomacy, as well as peaceful conflict resolution.  They have recognized that the promotion of the rule of law and protection of human rights are essential aspects of conflict prevention and resolution.  This focus on prevention is also a central guiding principle for action envisioned by the UN Secretary-General.

States also called for further coordination of humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding efforts, recognizing the importance of forging linkages with the development world to build longer-term resilience among displaced people and their host communities.  Local solutions, if combined with a development approach that benefits refugee and host communities alike, can be turned into a success story.  Uganda, for instance, recently integrated refugees into its national development planning. 

Solutions may also be provided through safe, regular pathways that can provide a viable alternative to irregular onward movements with smugglers and traffickers.  For refugees, this is about resettlement, humanitarian admission, and simpler processes for family reunification.  UNHCR has submitted the cases of more than one million refugees for resettlement in the past ten years, increasing submissions by 79 per cent over the past four years alone.  Yet this still falls far short of the high levels of need.  We need to find ways to ensure that this number can continue to grow – that resettlement and other safe pathways can continue to provide opportunities for the most vulnerable refugees to rebuild their lives in safety and dignity, and also alleviate some of the pressures on the countries that host the largest numbers.  Similarly, we need more regular migration channels for non-refugees, as well.  Otherwise, they may enter asylum processes that are not meant for them.

Solutions may also be found in strengthening institutions and partnerships to facilitate integration and opportunities for self-reliance, such as in the recent initiatives by the ILO and OECD.  The World Bank, the IMF, and the OECD all agree that integration is essential for social cohesion, and investments in economic and social integration need to be made early in the process.  Successful integration starts with language training, opportunities to improve capabilities and potential through education and training, and access to the labour market.  I remember in the 1990s in Europe, for example, we did not really engage with the trade unions on these issues, which would have been the right thing to do at the time and could have established a more solid foundation of refugee protection today.  Facilitating family unity is also key, since it is easier to integrate when you do not have to worry about the plight of your loved ones abroad.   The overwhelming majority of persons granted refugee status and welcomed into new countries are a benefit to their new communities.  They often give back to local economies over the longer-term much more than they receive in initial support.  In this respect, early investment can yield long-term dividends – both socially and economically.

States cannot accomplish all of this alone, however.  The role of civil society is key, and a whole-of-society approach will need to frame our efforts.  We need to remain constantly vigilant and proactive in mitigating the damage wrought by populist politics, xenophobia, isolationism, and repression to refugees, migrants, and hosting communities.  In response to the refugee influx that we saw in Europe in 2015, it was heartening to see how parts of a society, including many volunteers, provided first line support to arriving refugees.  It showed that most citizens want their governments to address refugee situations positively, and many people want to help, but do not know how to do so.  There is a silent majority in favour of refugees and motivated to be supportive.  

The real challenge before us is indeed how to ensure that a refugee response becomes a whole-of-society undertaking that deals also with the fears and the legitimate concerns of host communities about security or integration, for instance.  Opinion research by groups like Purpose and the Tent Foundation has found that attempting to persuade with direct counterarguments often reinforces negative frames.  What works, they say, is positive storytelling that resonates with specific audiences, builds empathy, and appeals to their core values and sense of identity.  For example, we could give more visibility to the many success stories of how refugees can and do integrate successfully and give back significantly to their host societies, especially when provided with the right support from the outset.

We can also help meet the goals of the New York Declaration through new forms of governance and democratization that can complement State efforts without reducing State accountability.  We are already seeing the potential that such an approach can have, as the private sector and community organisations have mobilized to facilitate solutions for refugees – through private sponsorship, labour mobility schemes, new platforms for development financing, or special funds for education in emergencies, to name a few promising examples. 

It is here that I would like to invite your thinking and participation as we move forward in translating the commitments in the New York Declaration into concrete and meaningful action.  The ultimate gauge of success will be the impact that the New York Declaration and the Global Compact on Refugees will have on the lives of the people we serve, and we are counting on your support, innovation, and action to make these commitments a reality.

Thank you.


[1] UNHCR Mid-Year Trends, 2016, available at:…- 2016.html.

[2] See, for example, UNHCR, Better Protecting Refugees in the EU and Globally: Proposals to rebuild trust through better management, partnership and solidarity, available at: