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Presentation to the Swiss National Bank

Executive Committee Meetings

Presentation to the Swiss National Bank

30 August 2019


Ladies and Gentlemen,

The coming year will mark the centenary of the League of Nations, and its attempts to promote international co-operation and achieve international peace and security.  But as I speak to you here, in the very location in which delegates attended the first Assembly of the League of Nations, our world continues to see growing numbers of people forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.

Since its creation in 1950, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, has endeavoured to help millions of people forcibly displaced.  Our agency was initially created to help the millions displaced in Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War.  But our work did not stop there.

We mobilised when people fled during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution; mobilised again in the 1960s, when wars of decolonisation led to displacement across Africa, and again in the following decades, as conflicts uprooted people in Asia, Latin America, and Europe. 

The last decade has seen UNHCR respond to major refugee crises in Africa, the Middle East and Asia while we have seen the number of forcibly displaced people grow substantially from 43 million in 2009 to a record high of close to 71 million. 

This global growth in displacement has resulted in large part from the Syrian conflict, but this crisis is by no means the sole source of the increase.  Conflicts in the Middle East, in Iraq and Yemen, of sub-Saharan Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and South Sudan, and Asia, where a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar recently fled into Bangladesh, significantly contributed to this phenomenon.  Most recently, the staggering number of Venezuelans displaced by ongoing instability in the country have stretched the response capacity across the region.

There has been much attention to global refugee flows since the spill-over of the Syrian situation into Europe in the summer of 2016.  But, while the influx into Europe served to highlight the magnitude of the global displacement crisis, it is but a small manifestation of this.  The world’s least developed countries alone, including Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sudan and Yemen, host 33 per cent of the world’s refugees while being home to ‘only’ 13 per cent of the world’s population. 

Altogether, 85 per cent of the refugees live in developing regions, mostly in countries neighbouring their country of origin.  Together, these countries provide a global public good, in spite of the barriers faced to sustainable development, and the limited resources at their disposal to respond to the needs of refugees.  And many of these countries have been quietly providing support to refugees for prolonged periods of time, such as Pakistan and Iran who host 2.4 million Afghan refugees, some of who have been displaced for 40 years now.

UNHCR’s work to protect and seek solutions to the plight of displaced populations brings us to the four corners or our planet.  Our workforce is 17,000 strong and operates across 501 locations spread across 131 countries.  90 per cent of our personnel are based in the field, 39 per cent of them in hardship locations, operating in insecure environments, as I saw myself this week in Libya, where colleagues we operated in spite of daily shelling and threats from armed groups . 

Over the course of 2018, our teams responded to the needs of some 30 million people affected by new emergency situations in Cameroon, Central America and Mexico, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Venezuela while continuing to respond to emergencies in Bangladesh, Libya, Nigeria, Syria and Yemen.  We deployed over 400 personnel to lead, coordinate and support those emergency responses and ensure emergency, life-saving aid is provided to displaced populations. 

And while the organisation remains mobilised to respond to new and ongoing emergency situations, we continue to provide essential and life-sustaining support to populations facing protracted displacement situations.  This includes Afghan populations in Iran and Pakistan; Somali refugees in Kenya, and; Sudanese refugees and internally displaced populations across remote locations in eastern Chad and the Darfur regions of Sudan. 

Our response to these needs retains elements of the traditional humanitarian response, meeting the basic needs of displaced populations by providing them with shelter, core relief items, and access to clean water, medical care and education.  Increasingly, we are working to ensure that the more traditional elements of the humanitarian response benefit from new approaches, and gain in efficiency through innovations.

Examples of this include the integration of biometrics into our registration procedures, enabling a more accurate identification of individuals over time, allowing us to provide more accurate population figures, and ensuring a reliable and accurate form of identification for displaced populations. 

UNHCR has also led in the provision of cash assistance to forcibly displaced persons, replacing or complementing in-kind assistance.  Such cash based interventions allow refugees to live with greater dignity by preserving their ability to spend money and make decisions regarding their priority needs.  They help refugees to live with more stability during displacement and facilitate their return to a productive and independent life.  Importantly, when combined with new payment technologies, cash based interventions can facilitate financial inclusion, and be the mechanism for linking people to national social protection and safety net schemes.

In all of our endeavours, our teams work in tandem with a broad range of partners, governmental and non-governmental, to ensure that all avenues are pursued to provide protection and aid to displaced populations.  Our partnership network includes over 1,000 entities, including close to 700 national NGO partners, through which $1.4 billion worth of programmes were implemented in 2018. 

These partnerships not only allow UNHCR, and others in the humanitarian community to seek synergies and ensure programmes are mutually reinforcing, they also allow us to learn from each other and innovate.  Our partnership with the IKEA foundation is a case in point.  Since 2012, a joint project run in Ethiopia, on the border with Somalia, has created opportunities for refugees and the host community to work together, learn and earn a living.  A thousand hectares of previously barren land are now farms that boast crops such as watermelon, tomatoes and corn and local businesses are flourishing thanks to access to microfinance, allowing farmers to sell their crops.  All the while, investments in education will allow future generations to sustain this initiative which has received strong support from Ethiopian authorities.

This, and other innovative projects, underscores the power of partnerships to meeting the needs of refugees and host populations.  The critical importance we place in partnerships is evident through the Global Compact on Refugees, affirmed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2018.  This document, which sets the scene for a more systematic and predictable engagement with a broader range of stakeholders from the outset, to capitalize on their respective expertise, capacities and resources, constitutes a milestone in our expanding approach to partnerships. 

And nowhere is this renewed approach clearer than in our partnership with development actors, seeking to ensure that humanitarian assistance and development aid complement each other, and promoting solutions that build on local economies and address the needs of affected host communities.  Our cooperation with the World Bank, leading to the allocation of $2 billion in dedicated funding from the World Bank’s International Development Association to help low-income countries hosting large number of refugees, is an example of how complementary partnerships can leverage additional funds to support host countries, host communities, and refugees.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Meeting the needs of a growing displaced population in an increasingly complex and interdependent world brings a number of challenges to an organisation which is overwhelmingly funded through voluntary contributions.  To meet these needs, our budget has increased from some $2.3 billion in 2009 to $8.6 billion in 2019.  In the same period our funding, unfortunately never quite matching identified needs as reflected in our budget, has expanded from $1.7 billion to $4.7 billion. 

UNHCR has sought to diversify its source of funding to meet this challenge, expanding our fundraising from the private sector which has seen an increase from just over $50 million in 2009 to over $420 million last year – putting us on track on our goal to raise $1 billion from the private sector by 2025.

But despite our efforts to diversify funding sources, much of our work continues to depend on the generous support from key governmental donors.  This includes Switzerland, one of UNHCR’s top donors and a steadfast partner which recently announced the provision of 125 million francs in funding to UNHCR over the coming four years.  The predictability provided by such forward-looking funding, and the flexibility with which we can utilise these funds, with over half of these unearmarked, is critical to ensuring that we and our partners can respond to needs when they arise.

And this funding comes in addition to other forms of support provided by the Swiss government, including support provided through the secondment of technical personnel and support received in multilateral forums and initiative, including our upcoming Global Refugee Forum which is scheduled to take place here in Geneva in December of this year.  

But the challenges we face in securing the resources required to meet the needs of displaced people pale in comparison to the greatest challenge of our times.  In 2018, close to 16 million refugees were in protracted situations, meaning that they were part of population movements in which refugees have been in exile for five consecutive years or more. 

And of these, close to 6 million people were in refugee situations lasting 20 years or more, dominated by the previously mentioned 2.4 million Afghan refugees who have been in exile in Iran and Pakistan for 40 years.  And while large populations remain in exile for prolonged periods, and ongoing conflict leads myriad others to experience displacement, few are able to access solutions. 

During 2018, fewer than 600,000 refugees were able to voluntarily return to their countries of origin, exercising their right to do so in safety and dignity.  And in the same year, we faced a dearth of resettlement places, a key mechanism for governments and communities to share responsibility for responding to increased forced displacement, and often a life-saving tool, with 81,000 places available to meet the needs of some 1.4 million refugees. 

Trends affecting internally displaced persons remained similarly negative, with an overall record level of internal displacement across the globe.  New displacement outnumbered returns in most countries, including in Colombia, Syria, Somalia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Yemen and Cameroon.

So while we remain steadfast in our efforts to respond to the needs of displaced people, and seek solutions to their plight, we are acutely aware that our response to displacement is palliative in nature.  With so many trapped in limbo, living precarious lives while yearning for an increasingly elusive return home, there is no solution to this crisis but for an end to conflict.  This alone has the power to allow the millions of displaced to return to their homes, and for the resources, both human and financial, now spent on conflict, to be redirected to peace and development. 

This requires, to quote Secretary General Guterres’ appeal on his first day in office, that we “(…) resolve to put peace first. (…) From ceasefires on the battlefield, to compromise at the negotiating table to reach political solutions… (…) Peace must be our goal and our guide.”

Thank you.