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Statement to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly

Speeches and statements

Statement to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly

3 November 2020


Madam Chair,

Distinguished Delegates,

A few days ago, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the United Nations Charter. It was a moment to pause and reflect on the accomplishments of the United Nations, and look at the challenges that - together - we must overcome.

COVID-19 has demonstrated clearly that pandemics, like the climate emergency, poverty and inequality, conflicts, and forced displacement (which is often a consequence of the others) require a collective, concrete effort to respond,  and to support those affected, especially the most vulnerable.

I am proud that my organization does its part. UNHCR – itself about to mark 70 years of work – remains on the ground, working on behalf of refugees, internally displaced, their host communities, and stateless people, around the world.

But despite decades of experience, the coronavirus emergency has been unlike any we have seen throughout our history. Never has every UNHCR office and operation faced a crisis of this magnitude, all at the same time.

UNHCR colleagues, along with government, UN, NGO and other partners stayed and delivered, often in the most difficult places on earth, far from family, friends and the comforts we all long for during this crisis. We acted quickly, developing innovative approaches. We stepped up our response in the areas of health, water and sanitation, education. We communicated extensively with displaced and host communities to provide information and advice, combat stigma and discrimination, help with mental health issues, fight gender-based violence.

While major outbreaks have been largely avoided so far in refugee settings, refugees mostly live within communities, rather than camps, and are thus subject to the same risks as their hosts. This is why we cannot and will not relent in our preparedness.

And while the health response remains the urgent priority, refugees and the displaced - like other vulnerable groups - are also being impacted by a pandemic of poverty. Lockdown measures have dramatically jeopardized the wages of informal workers and rapidly exhausted their limited savings. We have seen demand for assistance increase, even in countries that have provided sanctuary and services to refugees for decades. More than 100,000 Venezuelans, for example are estimated to have returned because livelihoods in host countries have been destroyed by lockdowns.

Pandemic-induced poverty is having a particular impact on women and girls. Reports of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, forced marriage and exploitation, are increasing.

And we are also deeply concerned by the lasting effect on education - as many as half of all refugee girls in secondary school may not return to class without greater socio-economic support to their families, WASH in schools, and catch-up learning opportunities. It has therefore been crucial to step up cash assistance, which has an immediate and positive impact.

I am most grateful to donors which responded promptly and generously to our call for COVID-specific resources. Our current COVID appeal of US$ 745 million is 62% funded and more funding will also be needed in the new year.

Yet humanitarian assistance alone is not enough. It is for this reason that we have worked with development actors to promote the inclusion of refugees and IDPs in social safety net programmes designed to respond to the economic crisis. If the displaced are included in these programmes, as they were in the initial health response (and must be in future vaccination campaigns), not only shall we mitigate their plight, but we will also relieve pressure on the societies in which they live, reducing tension and instability.

Much progress has already been achieved. The World Bank has made up to US$ 1 billion available to refugee hosting countries eligible for the IDA, so called “refugee window”, in the form of grants rather than loans; the InterAmerican Development Bank pledged, along with the World Bank, more than US$ 2 billion in support of refugees and host communities in Latin America; the African Development Bank has provided more than US$20 million to the coronavirus response for those displaced in the Central Sahel.

The early involvement of development actors in forced displacement crises is a core element of the Global Compact on Refugees, which the General Assembly affirmed nearly two years ago. Their engagement in support of host countries and communities – and that of bilateral development institutions – is transforming the way we respond to forced displacement, influencing good policies and practices and mobilizing substantive resources.

The Compact has also enabled extraordinary responses from other parts of society. More than 1,400 pledges were made at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva last December; many by new partners. The private sector and civil society stepped up with innovative pledges to support refugees and their hosts.

Yet, Madam Chair, the underlying causes of displacement have not been resolved and not even the coronavirus has stopped conflict.

As we speak, several crises - some new, some resurfacing after years - are forcing people to flee. Some 650,000 people have been displaced in the Central Sahel region this year alone, in what is perhaps the most complex regional crisis worldwide. Hundreds of thousands have escaped violence in northern Mozambique. Thousands of Ivorians have crossed into Ghana and Liberia in the past few days, fleeing tensions at home in the first reverse movement after years of repatriations. More than 100,000 Nicaraguans have left their country because of violence and human rights abuses, most of them to Costa Rica. The most catastrophic consequences on civilians of any war continue to be seen in Yemen, including many forcibly displaced. And we are deeply concerned by the escalation of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan - a conflict whose devastating impact on civilians in both countries is rising again and which - if it does not stop immediately - could displace thousands more in a fragile region.

Almost 80 million - one percent of the world’s  population -  have been forced today to leave their homes. International protection and access to asylum, therefore, continue to be life-saving for many - every day, and in many places.

Madam Chair,

I understand that the pandemic has required difficult decisions. This includes curtailing freedom of movement and placing limits on crossing borders. Clearly restrictions are needed to limit the spread of the virus. But I call again on States to uphold international human rights obligations and to ensure that those restrictions are temporary and non-discriminatory in respect of people seeking asylum. The principle of non-refoulement must not be violated.

Many states have found ways to preserve some form of access to territory for people seeking international protection despite the pandemic. Uganda, for example, has accepted thousands of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo while ensuring that necessary health measures, including quarantine, were also taken.

Unfortunately, some 67 States have not.

I therefore reiterate to all governments that UNHCR’s expertise is at their disposal to help find practical solutions so that they can protect people at the same time against war and violence, and the pandemic.

We are also at your disposal to find pragmatic solutions to help address other protection challenges, including those presented by mixed movements of refugees and migrants. Risks are huge especially for those involved in those dangerous journeys, as we witnessed in Libya for example, but such movements pose complex challenges also to States.

Yet building walls to prevent flows, reducing rescue at sea capacity, or externalizing asylum beyond a country’s territory are not appropriate solutions. Such approaches – often suggested or implemented in opportunistic reaction to xenophobic rhetoric – can violate international law, put people in unnecessary danger, and have the potential to threaten - globally - the institution and practice of asylum, so dramatically needed today.

Madam Chair,

The Statute of my organization, adopted 70 years ago, calls upon governments to work with UNHCR also to find solutions to the plight of refugees. We continue to do so, and the Support Platforms envisaged in the Compact have been key enablers in Central America, the Horn of Africa and for the Afghan refugee situation.

I welcome those States that are pursuing voluntary repatriation arrangements through tripartite agreements and encourage all to work with UNHCR. Please consider us a partner keen to work with you to find solutions in just, sustainable, and effective manners - ensuring, whenever possible, safe, voluntary and dignified returns.

Return is indeed the preferred option for most refugees. But so long as peace remains elusive, return must also be complemented by other solutions, such as integration in countries of asylum - wherever that is possible - and resettlement to third countries. I cannot hide my disappointment with the low levels of resettlement in past years and hope that declining numbers will be quickly reversed. In that respect, last week’s decision by Canada to increase by over 4,000 places its annual resettlement programme must be hailed as a very positive example, which I hope others will follow.

We must never give up our quest for solutions for refugees and the displaced, even in difficult contexts such as the Rohingya refugee situation in Bangladesh and beyond, the protracted exile of millions of Afghans and Somalis, the Syrian refugee crisis and the multi-faceted forced displacement prevailing in the Lake Chad region - to give a few examples.

And when leaders take steps to end conflict, they must be supported. Last month the governments of Sudan and South Sudan, along with IGAD and UNHCR and with the support of the European Commission, agreed to develop and implement an initiative to find solutions for the nearly seven million uprooted Sudanese and South Sudanese. Challenges are many and difficult, but this initiative has the potential to deliver solutions and deserves international attention.

Madam Chair,

It has been a difficult year. But despite the challenges, we have witnessed extraordinary solidarity. Donors have provided some $4.5 billion to UNHCR, more than ever before. Private sector contributions are expected to exceed half a billion US dollars for the first time. New partnerships continue to grow.

Humanitarian assistance, beyond COVID, remains and will remain urgently needed by millions around the world. I appreciate that the economic fall-out of the pandemic is painful, but I would like to appeal to all donors - please, please stay the course and do not decrease humanitarian and refugee-related assistance. It is a cost-effective way to save lives and reduce suffering.

We will continue to be effective and efficient, in line with the approaches and directions set by UN reforms led by the Secretary-General, which we contribute to, and fully support.

Our stakeholders have been supportive of our key reforms, including decentralization and regionalization, which were in place just ahead of the pandemic and already demonstrated their value. We continue to simplify procedures and processes, including for our partners.

We have also launched a new initiative to promote true diversity in the organization. We know that we are not immune to racism and discrimination. And yet if we are to continue to be a rights-based organization that stands for principles, we need to ensure that we have same commitment to equality and equal rights within UNHCR.

To help with our reflections and actions – which will build on good practices and lessons learnt in our fight to eradicate sexual exploitation and abuse, and sexual harassment – I have constituted a Global Advisory Group on Inclusion and Diversity comprised of colleagues from all regions and we have launched an independent race equality and equity review that will produce recommendations by the spring.

Madam Chair,

Two weeks ago, at the opening session of this year’s UNHCR Protection Dialogue, I held a discussion with a group of young women and men, all refugees or activists, who have distinguished themselves through exceptional contributions to fellow refugees and host communities, helping them respond to the coronavirus pandemic in different, creative and effective ways - as doctors, community workers, information providers, and mobilisers.

It was an exceptionally inspiring debate - their energy, determination and enthusiasm matching their smart insights on what needs to be done to support, heal, include and unite.

What I learned in that debate - the thoughts it provoked - is what I would like to leave you today as my main message.

It is a reminder that refugees, like migrants and others on the move in this era of extraordinary human mobility, are not just vulnerable people in need of help - they are also strong, effective, courageous contributors to communities hosting them, and to societies as a whole.

We have seen it in hospitals, in old people’s homes, in supermarkets, in businesses and community organizations - on the many frontlines of this unprecedent global struggle. This is important, as it counters the toxic and unproductive narrative depicting them as a threat and a burden.

But it is also a plea that we remain committed to solidarity with those whom my organization was created by you 70 years ago to support, protect and advocate for.

For it is solidarity - inclusive solidarity - that will be more important than ever as the pandemic takes its devastating toll on the most vulnerable, everywhere, amidst all the formidable global challenges that we are called to address.

Thank you, Madam Chair