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Remarks at the 'Forced to Flee' conference on forced displacement at SOAS in London

Executive Committee Meetings

Remarks at the 'Forced to Flee' conference on forced displacement at SOAS in London

7 November 2016

“Forced to Flee: With millions on the move, the world must do better. But how?”

A conference on forced displacement organized by The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), SOAS, University of London (SOAS), Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) British Red Cross and the University of Exeter


Thank you for the introduction, Ms. Taylor.

I would also like to thank the International Committee of the Red Cross, the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Red Cross, and the University of Exeter for hosting this event today and inviting us here.

I am happy to share the stage with these distinguished speakers­­­­, and look forward to a lively discussion with you all. Let me begin with a historical perspective of the New York Declaration, what it means to our world’s efforts to address forced displacement, and – most importantly – how it can inform and improve our support for the forcibly displaced individuals around the world.

Thinking of the history behind today’s displacement reminds me of how Eleanor Roosevelt once described a 1948 meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission, which was held at the former site of the League of Nations: “At first,” she wrote, “it seemed sad to me to go into that beautiful building built with love and hope by nations who thought they had found the way to peace and understanding.” Similarly, we meet today amidst inescapable reminders that forced displacement is an old and recurring problem.

This problem is so pervasive – affecting over 65 million people across the world – that it evokes comparisons with the aftermath of World War 2, when an estimated 30 million people remained displaced all over Europe. It’s a daunting prospect. But, if we look closer, it also points to a way forward.

In direct response to the scale and ferocity of the violence that characterized the war, the world’s nations did something remarkable. They united. They overcame formidable differences to devise a set of rules designed to protect everyone’s basic freedoms. This Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed that “every individual and every organ of society…shall strive” to make this protection “universal and effective”.[1] And it specified that these ideals should be pursued through “progressive measures, domestic and international.” [2]

It is easy to overlook the power of these words. Critics were quick to point out that a mere Declaration lacks binding legal force. Yet, over the years, this Declaration has proven its worth as a moral and political blueprint for domestic, regional, and international systems, such as the international refugee protection regime supervised by UNHCR. These systems have protected countless people around the world. And as envisioned, this protection they engender has developed progressively, at multiple levels of governance, and through the support of diverse stakeholders.

Still, many have suffered in spite of these principles, which are only as real as our efforts to achieve them. The UDHR would have meant little without the broader systemic changes that followed the war. In Europe, for example, the Marshall Plan injected massive resources into reconstruction and a push for regional unity helped secure the peace through economic and political cooperation.[3] Elsewhere, determined struggles for independence led to the emergence of new nations and an international consensus in support of self-determination. At each stage of this progression, a principled vision of what should be done helped guide the things that actually were done.

Two months ago, this progression reached a powerful milestone in the New York Declaration. Faced with a global crisis of forced displacement, the world’s nations reaffirmed the UDHR and the international system of human rights that grew from it. This time, nations declared their solidarity by committing to use “all the means at our disposal[4] to combat the abuses, xenophobia and exploitation suffered by refugees and migrants. One day later, at the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees organized by President Obama, fifty-two countries and international organizations took important steps to put those words into action.

It is significant that the language of the New York Declaration is all-encompassing. It covers the full cycle of forced displacement – from the root causes of flight, to emergency response, and to durable solutions and protracted situations. Such breadth is important because the sheer magnitude and complexity of the problem today is stretching the world’s evolving capacity to respond.

Humanitarian organizations like UNHCR are struggling to reach and help so many people for extended periods of time. Despite unprecedented levels of humanitarian funding, needs continue to exceed available resources. This imbalance is clearly unsustainable. This is why the New York Declaration makes repeated reference to longer term development. Dependence on humanitarian aid only prolongs poverty and exclusion. Building refugee self-reliance and resilience implies access to economic opportunities, services, and capital. It also requires enabling policy environments and effective institutions that improve the lives of refugees and their host communities. UNHCR’s strengthened collaboration with development partners like the World Bank and UN Development Programme emphasizes these common objectives.

To make asylum work in practice, an even wider coalition of support is needed: local and national authorities, international financial organizations, the private sector, and civil society actors like faith-based organizations, NGOs, and academics.

The Comprehensive Refugee Response (CRR) framework, outlined in the New York Declaration, presents such a “whole-of-society” approach. The General Assembly has tasked us with initiating and developing this framework in collaboration with relevant States and other UN agencies. This process will also inform the development of a global compact on refugees, to be presented to the General Assembly in two years’ time.

First and foremost, this framework requires a strong and inclusive consensus on the key elements of an effective response to large refugee movements. It makes clear that displacement is not just a humanitarian issue involving refugees but one that affects their host communities too. As such, it places strong emphasis on approaching displacement as a development challenge. Restoring resilience and dignity requires that long-term planning for solutions from the outset of a crisis - and not as an afterthought. It outlines the respective contributions of countries of origin, host countries, and the international support required for this common effort.

Until more effective remedies are found to address the root causes of fragility and violence, many protracted refugee situations will remain unresolved. We have to do more than wait to respond or resolve displacement. We must improve how we anticipate and prevent it.

Prevention is inherently difficult, in part because the causes of forced displacement are diverse and interrelated. While armed conflict and persecution are prominent on this list, they emerge from a complex web of problems that you know well—poor governance, exclusionary politics, poverty, natural disasters and other environmental factors, including the effects of climate change. Repeated cycles of conflict and violence are fueled by economies of resource extraction and the global arms trade. Statelessness and human trafficking are also both causes and consequences of displacement.

Root causes represent substantial obstacles to the realization of human rights. The Sustainable Development Goals target those very obstacles that threaten to force even more people from their homes in future. To meet these ambitious goals, unilateral action is not enough. Anything less than collective, comprehensive action will fall short.

A truly comprehensive approach means recognizing all the factors that affect national development prospects and peoples’ access to rights in their country of origin or asylum. Developing countries host over 86% of the world’s displaced. Their economies and their citizens bear the greatest economic and social burden. The global public good this effort represents deserves international support. This can go beyond humanitarian and development support to include greater trade and investment opportunities.

Identifying these connections allows us to imagine international solidarity in myriad forms. Bilateral trade negotiations, for example, can be opportunities to support countries of asylum. The reduction of traffic and non-tariff barriers in the developed world can help governments thousands of miles away afford greater investment in education and health. Consumer demand in North America for electronics or diamonds can impact the quality of labor rights, or even the intensity of armed conflict, on another continent. International resolve to lower transaction costs for remittances can allow diaspora communities to better support the resilience of their counterparts back home. All these elements can potentially contribute to the resolution of global displacement and merit the attention of policy makers.

With this knowledge at hand, the far-reaching commitments of the New York Declaration look to reduce burdens in addition to sharing them more equitably. They demonstrate awareness of how our choices affect others in so many ways. Our “shared responsibility”[5] for managing large movements of refugees and migrants is rooted in such awareness.

The challenges before us in today’s troubled world are formidable. They hark back to times of turmoil we believed we had overcome. Even so, the persistence of these challenges provides grounds for optimism, if we keep in mind how Eleanor Roosevelt’s sad reaction to the former League of Nations gave way to encouragement: she realized that her activity was built upon those prior attempts at solidarity. In this way, our ongoing struggles with forced displacement reflect more than past failures. It also, as she put it, proves that “[the human] spirit…is indestructible. It is set back but does not die.”

This spirit mirrors the courage and ingenuity that refugees and migrants display each day in confronting the dangers and deprivations imposed upon them. If we are to live up to the universal standards we have set for ourselves, if we are to act in genuine solidarity, we would all do well to follow their example.

Thank you.


[1] UDHR, preamble.

[2] UDHR, preamble.

[3] i.e. European Communities for coal/steel were designed to prevent war by integrating the industries that fueled it across national lines.

[4] NYD, para.10. See also paras. 7, 11, 12, 21, 37, and 43 for language related to root causes.

[5] NYD, para 11.