Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on Poverty Reduction and Development, at the Progressive Governance Conference, London, 4 April 2008
Ladies and gentlemen,
Some of you may be asking why the UN High Commissioner for Refugees should be making a statement on the issue of poverty reduction and development - an issue that falls well beyond the mandate of UNHCR. Let me try to explain.
First, UNHCR believes that a coherent approach to the issue of poverty reduction and development must acknowledge the fact that refugees constitute a significant proportion of the people who live outside their country of origin: some 15 million in total, if those of concern to UNHCR and UNRWA are added together. That number, and its implications for development, grows even larger if we add to it the millions of internally displaced - people who have moved to other areas of their own country, rather than abroad, in search of safety.
More significantly, perhaps, the majority of those people, around 75 per cent, are to be found in African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries that are experiencing a number of important development challenges and development constraints. We would be doing those countries a serious disservice, and missing an important opportunity, if our approach to poverty reduction and development were to ignore the presence and impact of refugees and other displaced people in these parts of the world.
Since the Millennium Summit, the nations of the world and the funds and agencies of the UN are committed to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Five years on, in 2005, UNHCR wanted to know how the populations it cares for, refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people are faring in this process: are they part of it or are they being left out? Studies of the human and development costs of the various types of forced displacement were commissioned in five countries. The results were sobering. With regard to all indicators, but in particular Goal Number 1 which aims at eradicating extreme poverty, figures showed how disadvantaged displaced populations are. For example, in Ecuador 16% of the nationals live with less than 1 US Dollar per day but among Colombian refugees there the number stands at 50%. In Sri Lanka, 53% of internally displaced fall what social scientists call the poverty gap, versus 23% of the general population.
UNHCR recognizes that these populations, especially when they are large in size and concentrated in specific locations, can have negative consequences for the development of host countries and communities. Refugee influxes and assistance programmes can damage the environment, place a strain on local infrastructures, deprive government bodies of talented personnel and disrupt ongoing development activities. At the same time, we believe that if such population movements are addressed in the correct manner, refugees, displaced and the international assistance which their presence usually attracts can contribute to the process of local and even national development.
But coherent policies are required to ensure that this objective is achieved. At a minimum, the international community must make development assistance available to refugee-populated areas - assistance that is above and beyond the development assistance that the countries in question would normally receive. And host countries must incorporate these areas into the development planning process, creating an environment which supports the livelihoods strategies of refugees. When displaced populations are confined to camps for years on end, when they are kept in isolated, barren and insecure areas, when they are excluded from the labour market and have no access to banking or credit facilities, we cannot expect them to become productive, self-reliant and an asset to the local economy.
Second, UNHCR believes that refugees and displaced people have an important role to play in the reconstruction and peacebuilding process in conflict-affected countries. In a number of recent armed conflicts - Afghanistan, Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Southern Sudan, to give just a few examples - a very high proportion of the population was displaced by the fighting. And now that those conflicts have come to an end or diminished significantly in intensity, it has become possible for very large numbers to go back to their country of origin.
Such movements represent both a developmental opportunity and a developmental risk. If addressed in a coherent and comprehensive manner, large-scale repatriation movements provide national and international actors with an important opportunity to establish new livelihoods, to reconstruct shattered infrastructures, to cement social relations amongst different groups of citizens and to underpin the transition to democratic forms of government.
But when large numbers of refugees and other displaced people go back to their place of origin in a short space of time, there is a risk that they will return to a situation where they find it impossible to find a job, where they are deprived of adequate shelter, where they do not have secure title to any land, and where groups of people who were once engaged in a violent conflict find themselves competing against each other for scarce resources and public services.
There is also a risk that the reintegration and reconstruction assistance provided by the international community will bypass official structures, add little to or even undermine local capacity, and that it will be phased out before any longer-term development programmes have been put into motion. In such circumstances, there is a very real threat of renewed social unrest and political instability, prompting another round in the cycle of violence and population displacement. A coherent approach to the issue of poverty reduction and development is one that seeks to minimize such threats and to maximize such opportunities. Solutions, such as repatriation or integration in the host country, are clearly in everyone's interest and must be made to last.
Third and finally, UNHCR believes that a coherent approach to the issue of poverty reduction and development must address the circumstances that force people to abandon their homes, to leave their own countries and to seek refuge in other states. And in that respect, we encourage the international community to interpret the notion of development in a broad, inclusive and rights-based manner, rather than using it as a simple synonym for economic growth.
According to the UN Declaration on the Right to Development, (and I quote) "the right to development is an inalienable human right, by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized." And, of course, it is precisely because they have not been able to realize their human rights and exercise their fundamental freedoms that 15 million refugees are currently obliged to live outside their country of origin.
Unless we make it possible for women, men and children to meet their needs, exercise their human rights and fulfil their aspirations in their country of origin, they will continue to move out of necessity, rather than choice.
At the risk of concluding with a platitude, allow me to suggest that a coherent approach towards development is one that seeks to avert the armed conflicts, governance failures and human rights violations that prompt people to flee their homes and to seek protection in another state. Like climate change, forced displacement and migration affect us all. Unless we make it possible for women, men and children to realize their potential, meet their needs, exercise their human rights and fulfil their aspirations in their country of origin, they will continue to move out of necessity, rather than choice.
Thank you very much for your attention.