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Statement to Rice University, Baker Institute, Houston, Texas : "Refugees: Local Solutions to a Global Crisis"

Executive Committee Meetings

Statement to Rice University, Baker Institute, Houston, Texas : "Refugees: Local Solutions to a Global Crisis"

6 June 2017

Ladies and Gentlemen,

First and foremost I would like to thank Ambassador Djerejian and the Baker Institute for Public Policy, Ms. Paula Sanders and the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, and Mayor Sylvester Turner for hosting me on my first trip to Texas.This maiden voyage is a particular pleasure as I have family in Austin and Franklin, who spent a long time here in Houston, so I’ve heard much about the great state of Texas over my lifetime.Special thanks go to Oni Blair of the City of Houston Mayor’s Office of Trade and International Affairs for the inspiration to come to Texas and the effort to make this visit possible.She’s a dear friend, whom I’ve admired for years for her commitment to public service and the impact that she has personally had on the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

Before I speak to you about the current displacement crisis, outlining its scale, magnitude and the multiple aspects of our response to this, I would like to play a short film for you.This, I hope, will provide some context for our discussions, anchoring these in the experiences of flight and exile that so many people continue to endure.​

Listening to refugees is a sobering experience, one that the 15,000 people working for UNHCR and countless others working for our partner agencies do every day, here in the United States and across the globe.It is a sobering experience as it highlights stories of immense suffering and terrible hardship, and can be particularly jarring when the stories are those from children.Listening to refugees is also humbling as it highlights their tremendous strength, resourcefulness, and resilience and the yearning they have to lead peaceful lives with new opportunities in spite of past trauma.

The cost of this displacement crisis on individuals is obvious and gut-wrenching.When one considers these children as a group, whether fleeing escalating violence in the northern triangle of Central America or the conflict in Syria, which is now in its seventh year, the loss of a whole generation is real.By all accounts, countries in crisis and conflict face a mass exodus of its youth and a long-term crisis beyond immediate humanitarian impacts.Beyond the physical and psychological scars that refugee children will carry into adulthood, many are unable to attend school for long periods of time and lose out on the chance of formal education.This will have a negative impact on countries’ abilities to rebuild themselves and heal the deep wounds generated by violence and war.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Forced displacement has become a defining feature of our decade.  As old conflicts continue unabated, new conflicts have erupted, leading more than 65 million people to be now forcibly displaced.  With nearly one per cent of the world’s population displaced, this is the highest level of displacement on record, marking a two-fold increase in displacement in the last twenty years. 

Conflict, persecution, generalized violence, and violations of human rights continue to drive people from their homes, forced to flee in search of safety for themselves and their children.  Nearly a third of this population, over 20 million people, roughly equivalent to the population of Texas, have been displaced across national borders and sought shelter in other countries as refugees.

These numbers hide countless stories of hardship, grief and loss – of people compelled to leave their homes, their communities and countries, often left struggling on the margins with few prospects to rebuild their lives.

While no corner of the world has been spared, the situation in the Middle East has drawn particular attention in the last few years. The region continues to suffer heavily from the consequences of conflict and displacement and is home to close to 40 per cent of the world’s displaced.

The devastation caused by the war in Syria since 2011 has forced more than 5 million people into exile as refugees, in addition to more than 6.3 million people internally displaced inside the country. That means that at least half the pre-war population is now displaced, many multiple times. And life is dire even for those who have not been displaced: 13.5 million people require humanitarian assistance, including 4.6 million people in need trapped in besieged and hard-to-reach areas of Syria. 

In Iraq, 3 million people have been displaced across the country in just over three years, with an additional 750,000 people displaced from Mosul and surrounding areas since October 2016, when the military operation began.

And in Yemen, people are exposed to a deadly combination of conflict and economic collapse, with more than 17 million food insecure and at risk of famine. There, as in Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan, we are deeply concerned that history may be repeating itself. In 2011, a quarter of a million innocent lives were lost on account of famine. It is our collective responsibility to make sure that this does not happen again.I just returned from Ethiopia where some 800,000 people are internally displaced, including on account of drought conditions, and people continue to cross into Ethiopia from South Sudan on a daily basis in search of food.

In the Northern Triangle of Central America, where the levels of violence perpetrated by criminal gangs is similar to that seen in countries facing humanitarian crises, more than 160,000 have fled and sought asylum, including more than 60,000 last year alone. This is a quiet crisis but an escalating one.

Ongoing crises in other regions do not always draw the same level of media attention but have had equally devastating effects.Since fighting broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, over 1.7 million citizens of that country have fled citing the fear of indiscriminate killings, looting of property, burning of houses, torture, rape, and arrests by government and opposition forces.Close to a million of these refugees have been welcomed in Uganda where they continue to arrive at a rate of over two thousand people per day, others to Ethiopia and other neighbouring countries who struggle to cope.

Let’s take a step back on this number to make sure this reality, that two thousand people cross into a single country every day with little more than the shirts on their back, searching for security, sinks in for all of us.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A global crisis of this scale and magnitude cannot be tackled only by the countries receiving these refugees but requires concerted action by all of us.

Countries neighbouring the conflict areas, like Turkey which hosts close to 3 million Syrian refugees, and Uganda which is the largest refugee host on the African continent with over a million refugees from a half dozen war torn countries provide a “global public good.” They do so by allowing access to asylum or international protection and grant refugees the ability to enter national systems of healthcare and education, as well as access to job markets.

Let there be no doubt, this comes at a cost to these countries with Turkey estimating that it has contributed over 20 billion dollars in support of Syrians in the country and the World Bank estimating that Lebanon, a country of 4 million people now hosting over a million Syrian refugees, has incurred losses of 13 billion dollars since the onset of the crisis.

The fact that close to 9 out of 10 refugees live in low- or middle-income countries bears mentioning.In spite of their limited resources and multiple social, economic and political challenges, some of the poorest countries on this earth are providing the greatest support to people forced to flee their homes in search of safety.

The need for solidarity and support from other countries, some of them significantly wealthier, is grounded in both our shared history as a community of nations and the international legal framework we have constructed over centuries.

International cooperation to tackle refugee crises has a long history and first emerged after the First World War.At the time, the break-up of large multinational empires, wars and famine in Europe and the Middle East had killed tens of millions of people and displaced millions more.Determined that this devastating conflict would be the “War to End All Wars,” nations coalesced to create the League of Nations “to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security.”

The League of Nations appointed Fridtjof Nansen as the first High Commissioner for Refugees to deal with the million and a half Russians displaced by the 1917 Revolution.It soon became clear that this ‘temporary’ Office was bound to become more permanent as conflict driven population movements heightened interstate tensions and threatened state security.

Despite initial successes, the League of Nations proved unable to prevent a breakdown in cooperation among member states who retreated to traditional systems of defensive alliances and power blocks.Before long, the “War to End All Wars” was followed by a war that would eventually escalate into the deadliest conflict in human history.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, tens of millions of people were displaced throughout Europe.The devastation from the conflict was made worse by significant levels of displacement.The world responded by attempting to formalize a more robust system of international cooperation - this time under the auspices of a United Nations dedicated to respect for human rights.

Through this new institution, a diverse group of nations drew from their respective legal, religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions to give shape to this new commitment and agree upon common rules to protect everyone.This Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a remarkable statement of collective responsibility, proclaiming that “every individual and every organ of society…shall strive” to make this protection “universal and effective”.This document made clear that human rights provide an essential foundation for peace to endure between nations.

Soon thereafter, the world moved quickly to act upon the Declaration’s call to protect those rights through “progressive measures, domestic and international”.My agency, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was founded in 1950, soon to be followed by the 1951 Refugee Convention[1].The bedrock of international protection, this Convention also confirms the importance of international cooperation.The Preamble explains that our shared responsibility for refugees has two ends: protecting individual rights, and minimizing interstate tension.

Those two aspects of our shared responsibility bare repeating: our responsibility to protect refugees is not only the right thing to do, it is also self-serving.As King Abdullah II of Jordan said last year: “If regional refugee hosts are abandoned and left to fail, the need won’t disappear.The crisis will simply spread further, prolonging the time it takes to end this ordeal.”[2]

From the inception of the concept of asylum in antiquity[3] to the creation of institutions to address European refugee crises following the World Wars, and the response to our current displacement crisis, the world’s solidarity in responding to refugee crises follows a clear pattern.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The work of UNHCR and its nearly 1,000 partners is, in its very essence, a representation of the world’s commitment to its collective responsibility to address displacement.Our staff work across 128 countries, 90 per cent in over 450 field locations and nearly 50 per cent work in hardship locations and emergency operations.

We work to support host governments in providing protection and aid to refugees on the front lines of displacement crises.Together with partners, we deliver life-saving aid such as shelter, food and water, help safeguard refugees’ basic rights, and develop solutions that allow them to regain control over their lives.

Our work in the field includes a wide range of activities aimed to providing basic assistance to refugees. This can include the most traditional of responses: setting up camps where refugees can find shelter, food and security.

In the last decade, this approach has gradually morphed in response to a number of factors, including large scale displacement and technological advances.Today, in the Middle East, just 10 per cent of Syrian refugees live in camps with the rest living in urban areas and villages together with host communities.In response, UNHCR and partners have taken steps to modernize its response.For example, we have set up biometric registration centres and partnered with banks in the region in order to provide cash assistance to the millions scattered across cities, town and villages in the region.

We have worked with academia and other international organisations to better use the data at our disposal and ensure that we can proactively identify those most vulnerable, and most in need of aid.

And we have embraced digital platforms, setting up call centres, secure web-based information sharing platforms and text messaging systems to communicate with refugees. Facebook groups run by refugee outreach workers in Lebanon are a modern day echo of the megaphone-wielding field workers of the past, when I was a protection officer 25 years ago in Cox Bazar, Bangladesh.

While we work to embrace new technologies to communicate and engage with refugees, we are partnering with the private sector to expand access to connectivity for refugees and their host communities.If we can surmount the biggest barrier to connectivity for refugees, the often prohibitive cost of remaining connected, this has the power to transform the way we provide assistance to, and interact with, refugees.

Finally, though perhaps less visibly, much of our work is done with governments to build up and reinforce local systems rather than create separate, parallel systems of support.We’ve learned lessons of past responses, for example, those to aid Iraqi refugees where parallel systems were commonplace and unsustainable.In the short term, this benefits refugees who rely on host governments for health, education and other essential services.In the medium and long term, this benefits host communities.

Examples of such activities include Jordan, where we help the national Family Protection Department to better serve children and survivors of sexual violence, and in Turkey, where we work to strengthen education systems that in turn accommodate refugee children.

All of these activities, whether in support of refugee hosting countries or directly helping refugees, are funded through voluntary contributions from governments and, increasingly, from individual private giving.We have mobilised record levels of financial support in recent years but this has come at a time of desperate need where such need outstrips available resources.With less than half of the humanitarian funding needed to meet life-saving needs, refugees and host communities have received only a fraction of the support required not only to survive, but to thrive.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

World leaders were acutely aware of the limitations of the current response to the displacement crisis when they gathered in late 2016 at a UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants.

This summit, the first gathering of Heads of State and Governments by the United Nations General Assembly to discuss large movements of refugees and migrants, was a historic opportunity to come up with a blueprint for a better international response to such movements.

The 193 countries gathered at the Summit adopted the New York Declaration affirming our “shared responsibility to manage large movements of refugees and migrants in a humane, sensitive, compassionate and people-centred manner.”

The New York Declaration marks a political commitment of unprecedented force and resonance by the international community.It

In adopting the New York Declaration, Member States agreed that protecting refugees and the countries that shelter them are shared international responsibilities and must be borne more equitably and predictably.They also pledged robust support to those countries affected by large movements of refugees and migrants and, to this end, agreed upon the core elements of a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework; and agreed to work towards the adoption of a global compact on refugees and a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration in September 2018.

Critically, the New York Declaration emphasises that supporting refugees is not a task limited to governments and international organisations, but that civil society, volunteers, faith-based organisations, academic institutions, and the media can and should also play an important role.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

You may wonder how a crisis of such a scale and magnitude, which has engendered such debates regarding global responsibility sharing, can have local solutions.The answer lies in part in the whole of society approach emphasised by the New York Declaration.

Just as a crisis of this complexity and scale cannot be resolved by any single country, it cannot be tackled by any single actor. All segments of society have a role in seeking solutions to the crisis.

At a national level, governments have a key role to address root causes of conflict and displacement through bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.Therein lies the ultimate solution to this crisis: in reaching a resolution of existing wars and preventing the emergence of new violence and conflict.This alone has the power to allow the millions of displaced to return to their homes, rebuild their lives, and for the resources, both human and financial, now spent on war to be redirected to peace and development. We would like nothing more than to work ourselves out of a job, but that will require political solutions, which to date have been elusive.

In the meantime, the governments of those countries least affected by the crisis, many of them in the richer parts of this world, will have to continue to shoulder some of the costs of the response.As is currently done, this aid should be channelled through both bilateral and multilateral channels.

Organizations such as UNHCR or the UN Refugee Agency which I represent, need to continue both their work to protect and deliver life-saving aid to displaced people, and assist governments and communities on the front line in managing the crisis.  We also have a responsibility to ensure that the aid that we can provide has a greater impact by adopting innovative approaches to how we deliver, such as leveraging new technologies. In the last couple years we have seen the innumerable benefits of extending connectivity to refugees, especially young people, who can then access online education opportunities, open bank accounts, and eventually establish a digital identity.

We work tirelessly in pursuit of this goal of delivering better, seeking ways to improve how we work and our impact on the ground, with a commitment to ensuring the voices of displaced communities are central in the conversation to determine the nature and level of aid provided.

Civil society in countries at the forefront of the crisis and, increasingly, the private sector, play a key role in meeting the needs of displaced populations.Governments, multilateral institutions and non-governmental organisations all have important roles in meeting the needs of the displaced. But the unsung heroes of this response are the local communities that have opened their homes to refugees and welcomed them to their communities, sharing their sometimes meager resources to help others.

Nowhere was this more clearly visible than in the Somali region of Ethiopia, where I was last week.There, some two hundred thousand refugees from Somalia have settled in an already impoverished region where the local community itself is struggling to make ends meet. The government has kept the borders open to waves of displacement from war and famine condition. In spite of difficulties, host and refugee communities are sharing land and working together to grow crops to generate an income and support themselves. With strong support from the IKEA Foundation, UNHCR and government partners have put into place sustainable programs to irrigate farmlands so that refugees and Ethiopians can support themselves rather than continue to rely on international or government aid; build schools to ensure that children have a future; and look at renewable energy to protect the environment while saving resources.The many families I met in Ethiopia praised the approach and rarely have I seen such harmony in refugee and host communities in my years of travel.

As in Ethiopia and other countries receiving refugees, local communities, businesses and civil society organisations in the United States also have a critical role in welcoming refugees.For those who have been pushed out of their country by the trauma of persecution and violence, the benefits of a welcoming community is quite literally life-saving.It is the first step in the long journey to rebuilding a sense of normalcy and feeling the embrace of a society that nurtures and encourages dreams, rather than one that “throws them in the trash” as Gleidy, one of the young women we heard from earlier, said about her country of origin.

Communities in Texas have a long tradition of hospitality and the state welcomes over 10 per cent of the refugees resettled to the U.S. on annual basis.Not surprisingly, Houston itself is one of the most diverse metropolitan area in America and one in four people in Houston is foreign-born.

Texas is itself on the front lines of a displacement crisis.Since 2011, we have seen a surge in arrivals of children displaced from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, many displaced by organised armed criminal groups or violence in the home.They are fleeing record high homicide rates, sexual violence, disappearances, forced recruitment into armed gangs, and extortion. A substantial number have crossed the border into Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley which has seen the arrival of many children who had fallen victims not only to violence in their countries but also to the smugglers who thrive off the human misery that conflict, insecurity and persecution generates.[4]

In a testament to the diversity and progressive nature of the city of Houston, you did not wait for this visit to adopt your own whole of society approach through the “Welcoming Houston” initiative.The plan, calling on a range of public, private and non-profit stakeholders, aims to develop best practices on how to better integrate and assist newly arrived Houstonians in the city.

As with the 1951 Convention, the initiative recognises that working together with new Houstonians, including refugees, is not only the right thing to do, it is also in the economic interests of the city, with foreign-born residents contributing more than $116 billion to the city’s economy in 2014.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I couldn’t speak here in my home country of the global displacement crisis without mentioning resettlement.

The current crisis is marked not only by the scale of displacement, but also by the lack of solutions for people forced to flee from their homes.In 2015, barely one per cent of refugees were able to return home safely; less than half a per cent were naturalized in their country of first asylum, and less than one per cent were resettled to third countries.The remaining 98 per cent of refugees, remain in limbo, with little more than the hope that conditions in their home countries will improve and allow them to return home to rebuild their lives.

While resettlement is a solution for only a tiny fraction of the world’s refugees, it is an important tool to provide protection to refugees at risk in the country where they sought asylum, or separated from family members by conflict or during their flight – it is for the most vulnerable refugees.

We often think that people who have managed to escape from persecution and war and cross into another country have made it to safety.For many this is a fact, and once in exile they can focus on settling in and re-establishing their lives, waiting the situation out until their can return home.

But many are not so lucky.For some, such as Nahas, a 28-year-old Syrian man from Idlib, in north-western Syria, leaving their country is merely the first step in reaching safety.Nahas, who is gay, had to flee Syria for fear that his own father would report him to local militia because of his sexual orientation.His story mirrors that of Brayan, who you may remember from the video at the beginning, and who fled his home country in Central America at 13 years of age for the same reason.

But members of the LGBTI community live on the margins of society throughout the world, where being gay is often illegal, and punishable in places by imprisonment or death.This is why Nahas received assistance from California-based non-profits, the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration (ORAM) and the Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay (JFCS), to resettle to the US.

For Nahas, as for many others: resettlement saves lives.

Texas is well aware of the challenges and rewards of resettlement, for both host communities and newly arrived refugees. You know how important it is not only to welcome but also integrate new families in your communities – in your schools, in your economy, in your services.The United States has a proud tradition of resettlement with lessons now being learned by other countries on its success, including the model adopted in Texas.

Let us harbour no illusions, resettlement is not the solution to the entire refugee crisis. But it is a solution, one that is locally achievable and offers tangible benefits to both refugees and the local community.Together with other actors trying to find solutions to the global crisis of displacement: local communities and businesses; governments at the national, regional and local levels; NGOs and multilateral organisations, and; the displaced themselves – it represents an important solution we have to the current crisis.

Thank you Houston for your support for refugees and thanks again to the Baker Institute and the city of Houston for inviting me here today.


[1] The US’s central involvement in this treaty is well-known.  The Chairman of Style Committee that penned the final version was American, in fact.  (…)

[2] His Majesty King Abdullah’s speech at the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, New York, 20 September 2016.

  1. Asylum, which is derived from the Greek term asulon, essentially means ‘sanctuary.’ In antiquity – before the existence of notions of the nation State and State sovereignty – it was the temple, the sacred space that provided such sanctuary to the alien, the downtrodden and persecuted. In the beliefs of the Greeks, any persecutor who forcibly removed a “refugee” from the area of the holy shrines would be considered a transgressor against the gods. See UNHCR, High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges, Background document, 29 November 2012.

[4] Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the need for International Protection, UNHCR, 13 March 2014, pg. 38.