Statement to the International Club de La Redoute Bonn, Germany on the International Order and the Global Compact on Refugees
Thanks to the International Club de La Redoute for hosting this gathering and a special thank you to Ambassador Elfenkamper for the warm welcome, Ambassador Hubertus von Morr for all your support in making this happen, and Mr. Kay Schiller, President of the German Supreme Audit Institution, for the initial suggestion to have this conversation many months ago. This evening’s event took some time to come together and I am delighted to finally be here, as it is an especially timely moment for such a discussion.
Last December, at their Leaders’ Summit in Buenos Aires, the G20 adopted a joint communiqué affirming their commitment to “improving a rules-based international order that is capable of effectively responding to a rapidly changing world.” At the time, this was an unforeseen diplomatic accomplishment, especially as many countries’ domestic discourse is increasingly imbued by concerns about nativism, protectionism and disruption. Set against that backdrop, such symbolic declarations carry real weight in revalidating our collective commitment to the institutions, norms and practices that underpin that order.
I represent one such institution -- the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or the UN Refugee Agency – UNHCR – which remains an independent actor committed to principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality. The Office began with a temporary mandate in 1950 with the Refugee Convention adopted a year later and is therefore firmly grounded in the concept of a rules-based international order. That intersection of values and laws is at the core of our mandate, central to our raison d’etre, and the basis upon which we engage as an international organization with member states such as Germany around the world.
My address today is therefore based on the premise that there is a foundational relationship between the stability of and commitment to that order, and the future of the international refugee protection regime. But it will not be a nostalgic retrospective on past approaches to cooperation, nor a defence of our traditional role in the international arena, but rather an outline of where refugee protection is going, and how we as UNHCR are evolving to ensure refugee response is sustainable, innovative and effective in this dynamic and increasingly connected world.
To illustrate this direction I will touch upon two different developments related to global forced displacement. On one hand is the situation along the frontiers of Europe and the United States, most recently and tangibly displayed on our screens with boats in the Mediterranean and caravans in northern Central America. And on the other hand is the Global Compact on Refugees, which at its core is a new model based on equity, justice, and humanitarian values and standards.
Last month I visited Kenya and Uganda, on what was an inspiring mission to two of the largest refugee hosting countries in the world. Kenya in particular took me back to my last time in the country, nearly 30 years ago, when I worked in a small village named Molo, not far from the Ugandan border. A lot has changed since then. Visiting Kenya allowed me to see a completely changed and vibrant country, driving economic growth on the subcontinent, with East Africa more broadly a hub of energy and innovation and a youth population that can fuel the planet with its ideas and ingenuity.
Between these two country operations, I met with many of our 1000-plus team members, working to make the lives of some 1.7 million refugees hosted in the two countries, not to mention members of the host communities, better. Every stop was uplifting, dynamic and filled with stories of hope and creativity. But despite our sizeable footprint and substantial impact, both operations lack resources and struggle to secure longer-term solutions for their displaced populations. And without broad political engagement to build peace, develop institutions and foster economic development, the needs continue to be immense while prospects for solutions remain limited, given regional politics and a mix of human-made and natural factors motivating people to flee across borders.
And therein lies the challenge for my agency. While we have an emerging new model of responsibility-sharing that is being rolled out, the Global Compact on Refugees, which we will get to in a moment, the impact and sustainability of this approach worldwide risks being constrained by uneven financial support, and undermined by sensationalist political rhetoric. Put simply, we cannot and will not do it alone.
Perhaps no country is better placed to lead the charge in this new direction than Germany, which as a political advocate, a generous financial donor and welcoming host country, has accrued the diplomatic capital to build bridges between other donors and large asylum countries like Kenya and Uganda.
Today’s conflicts are increasingly complex, involving many actors. Violence is no longer monopolized only by states, but can be amassed by a range of non-state armed groups that can cross international borders and affect the stability and security of neighboring countries or even entire regions. These already complex situations are being exacerbated by a global confluence of mega-trends such as climate change, natural disasters, extreme poverty, poor governance, food shortages, and an energy crisis.
As a result, more than 70 million people are now forcibly displaced around the world, more than the population of France, the United Kingdom or Italy. Of these, 5.2 million were displaced in the first half of 2018 alone – more than the population of Berlin and Munich combined. Political solutions remain elusive, as old conflicts have persisted and continued unabated, leading the people of countries such as Somalia and South Sudan to top consistently the list of those forcibly displaced.
While the world has proven unable to resolve such long-standing situations, new conflicts have erupted, especially in Syria which was the main driver of displacement between 2012 and 2015. And while the growth in the number of people forcibly displaced temporarily slowed in late 2016, 2017 saw renewed large-scale displacement from Myanmar’s Rakhine state from which close to 700,000 refugees fled into Bangladesh in the span of only a few weeks. In 2018, we witnessed new emergency situations in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and Venezuela, which have only deteriorated further in the early months of this year. The consequence is that the gap between needs and aid only continues to grow.
The nature of displacement, however, has changed in some ways. When we think about large refugee operations, we tend to imagine sprawling camps in rural areas, but the fact is that the majority of refugees globally, including around 90 percent of Syrians, now live outside camps. Instead, they are in urban or semi-urban areas, residing in apartments, guesthouses and homes. And while this brings its own risks of discrimination, harassment and even forced return, this trend towards non-camp settings also creates new opportunities to capitalize on the strength and resilience and drive of refugees to provide for themselves and create new lives in spite of past trauma.
Other characteristics have remained largely consistent. For example, while western media attention is disproportionately focused on the political crisis in their own backyard, the fact remains that nine out of ten displaced people are actually in their own countries or countries next door, and the impact is massive – on refugees themselves, and on the communities that open their doors to them.
In sum, while the trend line goes one way in the global south, it seems the rhetoric is going the other way in the north. Such perspective, however, is not intended to diminish any individual story of hardship.
We have all seen the dramatic footage.
Boats landing on the shores of the Mediterranean in recent years have given us all a vivid look into how, in today’s interconnected world, crises such as the one in Syria are closer than ever. In 2015, over one million people risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of safety and protection in Europe, and it seems almost every month since we have seen another story about a deadly incident at sea. Last year it was Aquarius, which eventually docked in Spain, but even late last week attention was focused on the Palau-registered tanker Elhibu1, which eventually disembarked in Malta.
While secondary movements from Syria have declined, instability in countries such as Libya and Mali have contributed to a steady stream of dangerous rescues in the Mediterranean as boats are stranded at sea, unable to secure a place to disembark. Search and rescue capacity is seriously inadequate, and the political approach to dealing with this crisis has only made it more deadly. Last year some 2,277 people lost their lives last year; that’s around six people a day.
There are clear parallels to what we have witnessed in northern Central America, where families separated and children detained at the border with Mexico highlighted the lack of asylum space for those fleeing unspeakable violence in Central America. Too often they too have been deprived of the due process required to ensure those in need of protection (as opposed to moving for purely economic reasons) can be identified in mixed flows of migrants and asylum seekers.
As a result, we are increasingly seeing countries in the Global North respond to such situations in ways that actually weaken the rules-based international order we have collectively built. Populist politicians trade on imagined fears of invasion, unproven links to domestic problems, and the tendency of many to dismiss complex problems with nationalistic answers.
Such an approach runs contrary to the foundational norms of international protection. It forgets the ample evidence of socio-economic contributions by refugees and asylum seekers around the world when they are afforded the opportunity. And it ignores the reality demonstrated by the actual numbers, that movements in the Mediterranean have declined for four years straight – from more than one million arrivals to less than 150,000 last year - a trend likely to continue this year, and of course that the vast majority of displaced people remain in their countries or the ones that neighbour them. By contrast, around 345 new refugees arrived in Uganda every day in February.
At this time last year, I was in Central America, where we travelled from Mexico through Guatemala to Honduras, retracing the steps of asylum seekers and migrants moving north, often to the United States, but increasingly stopping, and applying for asylum in, Guatemala and Mexico. While many were on the move for a combination of different reasons, we heard absolutely jarring stories of people fleeing extreme levels of violence in countries such as Honduras and El Salvador because, as was explained to us by one family, “their community had been invaded.”
In Mexico City, we met Aldonay, a 17 year old El Salvadoran boy who greeted us with a beaming smile at the front gate of a low profile shelter in a rough neighbourhood, but later broke into tears trying to recount why he had left his mother behind in San Salvador. Later we learned that he had been recruited by a gang while in elementary school only to eventually escape to Guatemala before applying for asylum in Mexico City.
The following day we met Dailia and her family in southern Mexico, who had fled in the middle of the night from Honduras with only what they could carry. They lived in a neighbourhood of San Pedro Sula that was under gang control. When they were unable to pay the extortion fees, they were attacked and fled to Mexico to seek asylum. By the time I met them, they had been granted asylum by the Mexican government, and with cash-based support from UNHCR, had moved out of a shelter into their new home and were restarting their bakery business.
What was clear from these stories, and the dozens of others we heard, was that not only were many people fleeing violence in Central America along the same route north as many others, but they were also desperately in need of humanitarian aid and protection. And yet their stories were not divorced from socio-economic considerations.
Dailia and her family were not only grateful to escape the violence of their community, but also the opportunity to restart their business in safety. Aldonay was relieved not only to evade the grips of forced recruitment by transnational criminal gangs, but also to be back in school, with hopes for a future beyond the shelter where he currently lives.
The fact they have been granted asylum does not, and should not, deprive them of their ability to seek and pursue a better education and life. This lesson is clear in Europe as well, and this hope for opportunity in safety and dignity drives many of these movements from Central to North America, as it does from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe.
And this complex mix of dynamics and factors is by no means exclusive to American and European contexts. We see the same fluidity all over the world. What matters is how we respond.
We have already learned much, both individually and collectively, as a result of large-scale refugee movements complicated by increasingly complex and protracted emergencies over the last decade. We have learned of the limitations of our previous approach, of the global impact of a regional crisis, and of the power of the international community to negotiate transformative solutions to common challenges. And we have learned that, whether in Honduras or Syria, South Sudan or Somalia, many of these difficult individual decisions are prompted not only by survival but a drive for opportunity.
Based upon these lessons, the UN Refugee Agency has ledthe Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework Global Compact on Refugees and its Program of Action, around four key objectives.
First, to ease pressure on communities, because we know nine out of ten displaced people are in their own countries or those next door. Now when we mobilize resources to support displaced people we aim to benefit the community as a whole, including the hosts.
Second, to enhance refugee resilience and self-reliance, because empowering those displaced not only reduces the burden on host communities and mitigates the risk of instability, but can also unlock the potential of refugees to contribute in their new communities and ultimately reintegrate upon return home. There is ample evidence of socio-economic contributions by refugees and asylum seekers around the world when they are afforded the opportunity.
Third, to expand access to third-country solutions, including traditional resettlement but also alternatives to admission such as humanitarian visas, educational opportunities for refugees through grants and scholarships, and labor mobility opportunities—such as temporary work visas—through the identification of refugees with skills in demand. This is not only for symbolic burden sharing but because, as I saw in Central America with children who were hiding in clandestine shelters, sometimes a third country solution is the only viable option to ensure an individual’s long-term safety.
And fourth, to support conditions in countries of origin for voluntary return in safety and dignity, because resolving a humanitarian crisis and enabling return invariably requires a political resolution and an investment in peacebuilding. Here the connection to humanitarian diplomacy, and the importance of the leadership of countries such as Germany, is self-evident.
We have long appreciated that humanitarian action alone cannot resolve humanitarian crises, but in the past we have tended to compartmentalize emergency humanitarian response and the longer-term development response as sequential rather than interrelated and coincidental. The new model, however, calls for such linkages and cooperation from day one of a crisis, for refugees to be considered not in isolation, but rather as part of the communities in which they find safety. In other words, development should not follow or replace humanitarian response, but rather complement it.
Many of these lessons are not new but have been applied piecemeal across the globe for years. However, to build comprehensively and implement this model the world over requires a coherent framework, demands collective buy-in, and requires reliable support from the international community. This is why we need champions, because the impact and sustainability of this approach demands strong and informed public advocacy.
This emphasis on building resilience and self-reliance also obliges us to invest strongly in partnerships, not only with governments, development agencies and traditional humanitarian actors, but also with stakeholders less frequently engaged with the humanitarian sector. One such stakeholder that is key to our approach is the World Bank. As part of their increased engagement in refugee situations, they have made available $2 billion for refugees and host communities as part of their IDA funding, which is available for low-income countries. This funding, known as the refugee “sub-window,” serves as an example of a new type of development engagement in refugee response. We have already seen the impact on the ground of this combination of loans and grants in large refugee hosting countries such as Kenya, Jordan and Bangladesh. Together with other development funding and concessional loan facilities for middle-income countries, we tally some $6.5 billion in additional support to refugee impacted communities and countries.
Many local and national governments are also translating this shift into concrete steps to include refugees in their societies through greater access to work, education and national services. This is potentially life-changing policy that needs to be supported and reinforced. We know that refugees want to, and are fully capable of, being drivers of their own futures if we just give them the tools. Legal work opportunities are critical to this goal, as is education for refugee children of all ages. But host countries will only make these opportunities available if doing so is not seen as counter to the interests of their own populations, which is why they need greater support as well.
In Kenya and Uganda hundreds of thousands of refugees, mainly from South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have settled in already impoverished regions of the two countries, in which the local communities are also struggling to make ends meet. In spite of these difficulties, and in line with the commitments, host and refugee communities are living and working together to generate income - through agriculture or business – and thus improve their socio-economic situations.
The Kalobeyei Integrated Socio-Economic Development Programme in Kenya and the Refugee and Host Population Empowerment (ReHoPE) in Uganda exemplify the new approach towards refugee assistance, envisioned in the Global Compact on Refugees by exploring opportunities that benefit both refugees and the communities that host them, by bridging the gap between humanitarian and development interventions.
Many of the building blocks of this
Such initiatives also advance our approach to protection, aid and resilience. In countries and regions where we have set up biometric registration centers, we have partnered with banks to provide cash assistance to millions of refugees scattered across the cities, towns and villages. Having more reliable and detailed data at our disposal helps ensure that we can proactively identify those most vulnerable and in need of aid.
We also believe technology is a great enabler, with immense potential to engage, educate and empower refugees. By working with the private sector to expand access to internet connectivity for refugees and host communities, individuals can not only communicate with friends and family, but also enroll in online universities. By setting up call centers, secure web-based information sharing platforms and text messaging systems, we can expand and accelerate feedback between refugees and UNHCR and its partners. For the refugees themselves, having a digital identification, access to the Internet, a bank account and online payment providers can be the key to financial inclusion and a transition out of traditional humanitarian aid and development provisions.
Rolling this model out across the globeseeking safety and security will continue to move further afield, in search of opportunity and a future.
It is in this spirit that the G20 noted in its communiqué that in order to address large movements of refugees, we must “emphasize the importance of shared actions to address the root causes of displacement and to respond to growing humanitarian needs.”
The Global Compact strikes a delicate balance between the voluntary nature of the process and the request by many major host countries for more robust, predictable, and equitable burden and responsibility sharing. With all its aspirations and potential, it concretely provides a chance for a more sustainable response to forced displacement and will touch the lives of refugees and the people hosting them.
It requires us to maintain our focus on contributing to the desired outcomes for refugees, not attempting to deliver it all by ourselves. Host countries are not only more capable of delivering aid, but increasingly willing to lead in this regard.
It requires us to continually invest in partnerships, not only with governments and traditional humanitarian actors, but also with stakeholders less frequently engaged with the humanitarian sector, including development actors and the private sector.
And it requires us to champion a practical approach to solutions, because without effective, comprehensive responses, those seeking safety and security will continue to move, as they do from Central America to Mexico and the United States, and from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe.
Here I think the lessons we have and are learning from the Comprehensive Response can be extrapolated to broader conversations about how we should work together to improve the rules-based international order.
First, while UNHCR and its core donors may have been the principal architects of the international protection regime, we do not dominate this sphere any longer. For UNHCR, we welcome the proliferation of partners engaged in refugee response and embrace our increasingly varied role as catalyst, provider and advocate.
Second, the answers to many of these challenges begin with concrete policy change, and shaping the policymaking process requires constructive engagement with states. Just as some would suggest the grievances of the middle class are the root cause of many domestic challenges in Western countries today, the prospect for refugee resilience, self-reliance and solutions are invariably tied to domestic policies related to freedom of movement, the right to work and access to documentation.
And third, the international refugee regime, like the rules-based international order, did not happen by accident but required considerable effort over a long period of time. It is nearly 70 years old.For this new approach to deliver on its promise of reform, renewal and transformation, it will require the same leadership, passion and commitment from countries like Germany that built the system in the first place.
The adoption of the Global Compact is not the end, but rather the beginning of a process. Its development will launch us into a new epoch of transformative change and I would encourage governments and the broader public to engage in the building process of this new approach to how the international community collectively responds to large-scale displacement.
So to conclude, as Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, herself the child of refugees, has said, “nobody is ever just a refugee. Nobody is ever just a single thing.” They are also students, farmers and bakers. They are also resilient, capable and driven. They are not only fleeing violence but also seeking an opportunity. Let’s give it to them to make a safer and more humane world.