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Opening Remarks by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges for Persons of Concern in Urban Settings, Palais des Nations, Geneva, 9 December 2009

Speeches and statements

Opening Remarks by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges for Persons of Concern in Urban Settings, Palais des Nations, Geneva, 9 December 2009

9 December 2009

Honourable Ministers, Distinguished Mayors, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to Geneva for the third Dialogue on Protection Challenges, focusing on the problems confronting refugees, internally displaced people, returnees and the stateless in cities around the globe. It is a complex and engaging subject and I look forward to a thought-provoking discussion.

At this year's Executive Committee, I described urbanization as one of the mega-trends of our times. Over 50 per cent of the world's people today live in cities. Their number has grown fourfold in the last 60 years - from 730 million to 3.3 billion. Eighty per cent of the urban population will soon live in the developing world. Already, there are an estimated five million refugees under UNHCR's mandate and many more millions of internally displaced people living in urban areas.

There are a variety of factors driving urbanization in general. People struggling to live off the land in rural areas are drawn to the often better opportunities, goods and services available in urban centres. The lack of national and international actors focused on rural development accelerates this trend. While three quarters of the world's poor still live in rural areas, aid for agriculture has, according to FAO, fallen from 17 per cent of Official Development Assistance to 3.5 per cent over the last 30 years. Once people settle in cities, they have families. Natural population increase is in fact the leading cause of urban growth in many cities of the developing world.

Urbanization is compounded by influxes of displaced people obliged to abandon their homes by the threat of armed conflict, political violence, lawlessness, food insecurity, environmental degradation and natural disasters. By all indications, this dimension of urbanization will intensify in the future.

At the same time, evidence shows that high urbanization in states in conflict does not necessarily diminish when conflict ends. To rely exclusively on the traditional solution of repatriating refugees and returning internally displaced persons to their places of origin in rural areas is increasingly implausible. Through their stay in urban environments, people change. Many refugees and internally displaced people lose the skills or inclination needed to return to rural life.

This presents a significant challenge not only to UNHCR but the international community generally which have tended until now to focus on camp-based refugees and internally displaced people.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The precise number of refugees, internally displaced people, returnees and stateless persons in urban areas is extremely difficult to ascertain.

The massive outflux of Iraqis to cities in neighbouring countries, notably Damascus and Amman which between them received more than a million people, underscored the scope and speed of the phenomenon. Observations on the generous response to Iraqis in Aleppo, Amman, Beirut and Damascus, and lessons learned for similar displacements in the future are set out in the evaluation report completed by UNHCR in August of this year. The report was a true eye-opener and crucial to UNHCR's elaboration of its new urban refugee policy.

The Middle East provides the most dramatic but far from the only current example of large-scale displaced populations in urban areas. Khartoum is believed to host 1.7 million displaced people and refugees. Abidjan and Bogota have both absorbed hundreds of thousands of victims of armed conflict, swelling slums which were already poorly serviced. Former refugees returning from Iran and Pakistan and those displaced by violence in rural areas of Afghanistan have joined the even larger number of people migrating to Kabul for economic and other reasons, resulting in a several-fold increase in Kabul's population since 2001.

Urban displacement is clearly a global phenomenon but one with localized effects. It is accordingly a matter of growing concern for city authorities and central governments as well as humanitarian and development organizations. As the process of urbanization intensifies, the plight of refugees and others of concern in urban areas can not be treated in isolation but needs to be responded to in the broader context of the urban poor.

Municipal administrations have become front line actors. They require the strong support of national and international organizations and a wider engagement of the development community.

At the same time, the humanitarian community needs to reassess its paradigm of assistance in urban areas. Humanitarian actors need to analyze their engagement in urban areas and determine how community-based and bottom-up initiatives can better be supported to meet the needs of refugees and others of concern.

One valuable outcome of this Dialogue would be momentum in favour of a critical, interagency appraisal, undertaken in cooperation with central governments and local authorities, of the tools, practices and partnerships needed.

To some extent this exercise has already begun, through the Inter-Agency Task Force (IASC) on the Humanitarian Consequences of Urbanization. Working closely with UN-HABITAT, UNHCR has participated actively in this process throughout the year. Learning needs to deepen and capacities need to be expanded.

I am deeply grateful to the Mayor of Geneva and The Hague Process on Refugees and Migration for partnering with UNHCR in the organization of the very important Roundtable of Mayors which took place yesterday. The Roundtable provided an opportunity to discuss the concerns of Mayors and municipal officials and organizations, such as the Cities Alliance and Metropolis, which have also been deeply involved in the organization of the Dialogue.

I would also like to thank the Shelter Centre, sister UN agencies, in particular UN-HABITAT and UNICEF, and a wide range of other international organizations and associations (IFRC, ICRC, NRC, JRC, ICVA, InterAction, ICMC, the Women's Commission). From within UNHCR, the Division of International Protection Services, the Policy Development and Evaluation Service and the new Division for Programme Support and Management have also made substantive contributions to the preparation of the Dialogue.

Ladies and gentlemen,

UNHCR's experience with refugees, the internally displaced, returnees and the stateless in cities is not new.

What is new is the appreciation that increasingly cities will be the main site of humanitarian response to the needs of this population. To discharge our mandate effectively, however, we have to improve our performance in urban settings and recalibrate our approach, with an enhanced focus on partnerships, with particular attention to the role of local authorities.

We do not wish to encroach upon the work of development actors but we do want to spur on these efforts and coordinate our own activities with them. We will need to work hard with governments, local authorities and through UN Country Teams to raise awareness that poverty alleviation, disaster-risk reduction, slum-clearance and similar initiatives must respond to the needs of all marginalized urban populations, including those of concern to UNHCR.

Recognizing the growing importance of cities for our work, UNHCR issued in September a new policy on refugee protection and durable solutions in urban settings. The new, more clearly rights-based policy emphasizes the fact that UNHCR's mandated responsibilities towards refugees are not affected by their location. It recognizes that cities and towns are legitimate places for refugees and displaced populations to reside and to enjoy their basic human rights.

The policy does not intend to disregard or subordinate national laws. Quite the opposite, the policy is built upon national legal structures, fully cognizant of the national legal and policy frameworks in which it has to be implemented. The policy aims both to encourage and contribute to the progressive development of these frameworks to ensure that refugees and others of concern in urban areas can be integrated into the social fabric of cities and towns in an appropriate, rights-respecting way.

UNHCR understands the security and other concerns that have led some States to require refugee populations to live in camps. UNHCR will not abandon camp-based populations. However, the policy recognizes that neither UNHCR's nor a State's obligations towards refugees and internally displaced people ought to be conditioned on their residing in camps.

While concentrating refugee or internally displaced populations in one location may temporarily facilitate protection and service delivery, camps may also create or compound problems, for instance, through the exacerbation of tensions with members of local communities who may not enjoy access to the same level or quality of services as provided in the camps.

Obviously, the policy is not an endorsement for all refugees to move to cities. It is rather a response to the fact that people, including refugees, are moving and will continue to move to cities and we need to be able to respond to their needs.

The visionary framework for refugee protection in Latin America set out in the Mexico Plan of Action of 2004 discourages States from opening refugee camps and legitimizes cities as spaces for protection through its Ciudades Solidarias component, one of the plan's three pillars.

It is very much my hope that this Dialogue will encourage policymakers to consider afresh the wisdom of encampment as a policy where and when other solutions may be better for the refugees and the host countries themselves.

Ladies and gentlemen,

UNHCR's new urban refugee policy commits UNHCR to advocating for the expansion of "protection space" in urban areas and affirms our commitment to designing urban programmes based on principles of age, gender and diversity mainstreaming.

Within any refugee population there are individuals and groups with different needs, vulnerabilities, capacities and interests. Identifying and responding to these is absolutely vital. With the help of many of those here today, we have ensured that the rights of women and children are central to the new urban refugee policy, and we are committed to their being at the heart of its implementation.

The new urban refugees policy will be implemented in a phased approach, according to capacity and resources. A number of UNHCR offices have already included initiatives for urban-based populations - such as community outreach, documentation, and support for health, education and livelihoods - in their Global Needs Assessment submissions for 2010.

We will reinforce these efforts in a number of key offices around the world by sitting with beneficiaries, governments, municipal authorities, UN and other partners to ensure that needs are identified and the policy is mainstreamed in 2011.

For that purpose, I have already asked the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection to lead a Working Group and develop a plan of action for the strengthening of UNHCR's protection capacity, including training, recruitment and cooperation with partners. We want to improve the ability of all UNHCR staff to contribute to the achievement of the organization's protection objectives. Increasing our protection capacity and improving our performance will depend in part on the availability of financial resources.

In relation to internal displacement in urban areas, UNHCR remains fully committed to working with governments and our UN and other partners, including the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, in the context of the cluster approach to define the policies needed to jointly respond to the challenge.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Many of the people who move to urban areas in the developing world to escape life-threatening situations continue to live in extremely hazardous conditions. Settling in overcrowded slums and shanty towns, most are obliged to eke out a living in the informal sector of the economy, where they are subject to exploitation and have to compete with other marginalized populations for the few income-generating opportunities available.

Their arrival places additional strains on scarce public resources such as health and education, and may lead to increases in the price of basics such as food and accommodation. As a result, the potential for social tension, crime, communal violence and political instability is reinforced.

The traditional response to large-scale population displacements by establishing parallel structures in shelter, education and health is not viable in urban settings. It is essential to adopt a new approach to the challenge of urban displacement, one based on three closely related principles.

First, the new approach cannot be undertaken in isolation from the broader context of marginalized and poor populations in urban settings. We must give particular attention to protecting the rights of poor and disadvantaged communities, empowering them to make full use of their proven resourcefulness.

Second, the approach must be both developmental and relief-based - one that addresses long-term as well as immediate needs and supports the broader process of urban planning and poverty reduction.

Finally, the approach must be inclusive. It cannot done by UNHCR alone. It requires establishing and strengthening partnerships with central governments, municipal and local authorities, NGOs, the private sector and especially the marginalized populations themselves.

I look forward to a thoughtful and vigorous Dialogue and thank you for your attention.