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Forced displacement in 2012: Current dilemmas for UNHCR; António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Speeches and statements

Forced displacement in 2012: Current dilemmas for UNHCR; António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

5 October 2012

This text is an edited version of the remarks delivered by the High Commissioner at the closing session of the 63rd Session of UNHCR's Executive Committee, 5 October 2012

UNHCR is currently facing a dramatic situation, as four acute refugee crises unfold simultaneously in Mali, Syria, Sudan/South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These are taking place as we strive to manage the ongoing implications of major emergencies in 2011, in Côte d'Ivoire, the Horn of Africa, Libya and Yemen, and to continue to support millions of refugees in protracted situations.

This often entails tough choices. We continue to receive strong support from our donors, but the demands on us are increasing, while the resources available remain at the same level. We are called upon to address the needs of refugees, internally displaced people and returnees, in an increasingly unpredictable and complex operating environment, at a time when we often do not have the capacity to do all that we would like to. This brings a number of significant dilemmas.

1. How do we choose between strengthening our emergency response and investing in solutions for protracted situations?

This is not a question of choosing one or the other, but of finding the right balance. This is tilted by the fact that it is possible to postpone activities aimed at securing solutions in a protracted situation, but an emergency response to a crisis in which people are forced across borders and in need of immediate assistance cannot be postponed. To ensure that this does not critically undermine our capacity to deliver solutions in protracted situations, a number of things are needed.

First, it is important to try to bring in the development community - and not just the humanitarian community - to the solutions perspective. Humanitarian funding alone will never be sufficient to address all the challenges related to the sustainability and effectiveness of solutions. As we try to support voluntary repatriation or local integration, or mechanisms for self-reliance for the people we care for, we also need to bring on board other actors, including development partners. This is the merit of the Transitional

Solutions Initiative, which we are currently piloting together with UNDP and other partners in Eastern Sudan and Colombia.

This can be a complex process, with different organizational cultures, approaches and time frames. Here, Member States can play a critical role in helping us to come together. We need to engage development actors from the early stages of a refugee crisis, and to involve them in providing support to host communities at the same time as initiating the first steps towards solutions for refugees.

It is important to incorporate a solutions orientation from the outset of an emergency. Early investments in education, livelihoods and self-reliance activities are critical, in order to avoid fostering dependency that can render solutions more difficult in the future.

2. How, in an emergency operation in which resources are scarce, do we make the choice between life-saving assistance and core protection activities?

There is no way but to do both. It is not possible to choose, because life-saving assistance is part of delivering protection, and many protection activities are clearly life-saving. To avoid recruitment of young people by armed groups, to guarantee the civilian/humanitarian character of asylum, to prevent and to respond to sexual and gender-based violence are as important as providing water or medicine in an emergency situation.

So here there is no choice, both are needed. When resources are scarce, we have to find them. I don't want to see UNHCR in a situation where we would be forced to make this kind of choice. We have been able to avoid this until now, and I hope we will be able to continue to do so. We must do both.

3. How do we prioritise between refugee operations and support for the internally displaced?

Our responsibilities for refugees are qualitatively different than for internally displaced people, because of the nature of UNHCR's refugee mandate and the distinct status of refugees in international law. For the internally displaced, the primary responsibility lies with States, and our role is part of a shared inter-agency commitment under the cluster approach, in which we have responsibility for leading the protection, emergency shelter and camp coordination and camp management clusters.

Determining whether to prioritise refugee or IDP programmes sometimes leads to very difficult dilemmas, at a time when our resources are insufficient to cover all the demands on us. But ultimately, our decisions must be driven by the overarching imperative of responding to the most acute needs. Human dignity is not dependent on status.

We need to find the right balance, taking into account both these considerations - acknowledging the difference in our responsibilities, while also recognizing the human dignity of all people affected by crises. We remain committed to ensuring that we can fully deliver our mandate in the various refugee emergencies that we are currently facing. But in 2012, we also mobilised an increased volume of un-earmarked funding for operations for the internally displaced, showing that a balanced approach is always possible.

4. How do we choose between delivering life-saving protection and assistance in very insecure environments and ensuring the security of our staff?

We will never refuse whatever resources are needed to ensure the security of our staff. From the point of view of resource allocation, staff security has been and will remain our first priority. But irrespective of the amount of resources we invest in enhancing the security of our colleagues, it is impossible to guarantee that their activities will be risk-free. So the real question is not one of risk aversion; rather, it is about risk management. It is a matter of understanding how we can create the conditions to remain, instead of defining the situations when we need to leave.

This is again a very complex situation, entailing stark choices. Here, I would like to acknowledge the courage of our colleagues. Many of them would choose, if permitted, always to go to the most dangerous situations. We sometimes need to prevent them from doing so. We also need to understand that the security risks affecting the people we care for are in many situations much more dramatic than those faced by our own staff.

We need to invest in software - training, preparation, and analysis - but the two key elements in guaranteeing the security of our staff are, first, fidelity to the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence, and, second, the capacity to reach out to communities and to the actors in a conflict in order to make them understand the real motives for our actions, which are based on the needs of people alone. Our motives have nothing to do with the causes of conflict or with political agendas. Having said that, we have witnessed the emergence of a number of actors for whom humanitarians are not to be respected, such as criminal gangs, or those who, for political reasons, consider humanitarians to be legitimate targets, forcing us to adopt enhanced security measures.

5. How do we balance our engagement with integrated peacekeeping and political missions against the need to preserve the autonomy of humanitarian space?

In situations where a multidimensional UN peacekeeping or political mission is present, the principle of integration calls for a strategic partnership between the mission and the UN Country Team, which in many situations means the structural integration of the humanitarian coordination function within the mission. In 95 per cent of these situations there is no problem. But in the remaining five per cent, we may have peacekeeping operations in which there is no peace to keep, and peacekeepers become parties to the conflict.

We have consistently taken the position that in these situations, either the UN should not adopt the formula of an integrated mission or, if that formula becomes a kind of global choice, we need to make sure that integration is not structural, and it remains at the level of strategic discussion and consultation. It is of paramount importance to preserve the autonomy of humanitarian space and to maintain our loyalty to humanitarian values and the principles of independence, neutrality and impartiality.

This has put us in some complex situations. My deep feeling is that in case of doubt, the preservation of humanitarian space, and the autonomy of impartial, neutral, independent humanitarian action, must be the paramount criteria for decision-making.

6. How do we balance the imperative of having a very lean central organization and a decentralized, strong field operation, with the need to ensure clear strategic direction and oversight?

I don't think this is a difficult dilemma, provided that we have a clear and consistent approach. For an organization like UNHCR, our effectiveness is measured by our capacity in the field, and support to the field should be as close as possible to the point of delivery. But a strong central command structure is also needed. Here, we have to make a distinction which is not always made in international organisations: the distinction between a strong central capacity for strategic direction and oversight, and a huge bureaucracy in which time is devoted to sending emails to each other and complicating the decision-making process.

The choice here has been very clear. We have transferred out of Geneva a number of functions that should be done in less costly locations or closer to the point of delivery, through the establishment of our Budapest Global Service Centre, and more recently, the Amman Centre for information technology services.

We have also been slowly strengthening our capacity in oversight, programme control, financial management and protection, and in some technical areas, for instance water and sanitation, nutrition, and education, for which we have today in headquarters a stronger capacity than five years ago. It is not always easy to find the right balance in this respect. It is not our function to create line ministries in our central headquarters. We need to have a lean structure, but also to engage systematically with partners at headquarters and in the field, and to make sure that we have provide strong strategic and technical support, including the ability to select the right partners and to monitor their activities.

I remain very keen on keeping our central structure as lean as possible. It is my deep belief that we cannot afford to spend money within the organization that is urgently needed to address the dramatic problems of the people we care for.

7. How do we strike the balance between maintaining the integrity of UNHCR's refugee mandate, and constructive engagement in inter-agency coordination mechanisms?

Here again, I believe the balance is clear. We have a unique mandate anchored in international law which gives us specific responsibilities in relation to refugees. In a refugee emergency, or a crisis with a large refugee component, the responsibility for coordinating a refugee response rests with UNHCR. When all else fails, we remain the provider of last resort.

But we cannot do this alone, and need to draw upon the increasing range of partnerships available through the UN and broader humanitarian community, including NGOs, and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. We need to create mechanisms for coordination, information sharing, participation and strategic involvement of all partners, in order to make sure that our role in refugee situations is understood and accepted. This also includes establishing a mechanism for interaction with other forms of coordination that might be in place.

On the other hand, when we are dealing with internal displacement or another crisis that is not directly related to our refugee mandate, we are engaged as part of the broader humanitarian system. There, our role is defined by our responsibilities under the cluster approach or other humanitarian coordination mechanisms which may be in place. We have been extremely active in the development of the Transformative Agenda, and continue to work with our partners to ensure that the system is as effective as possible.

In the recent emergencies in Syria and Mali, we have been able - together with the Emergency Relief Coordinator, the UN system as a whole, and the broader humanitarian community - to strike the right balance, and to link the refugee response to other areas of humanitarian action. We need to learn from these examples in order to replicate them in the future, and to avoid this question, which in my opinion has a very easy solution in my opinion, becoming a dilemma that doesn't need to exist.

Key Principles

There are certain principles that should guide us whenever we have to make these kinds of choices, which are not always easy, and for which there may not be obvious answers.

The first principle is to put the interests of the people we care for at the centre of our decision-making. When in doubt, their needs, rights and dignity should be the paramount consideration.

A second principle is the recognition of the essential importance of partnership. Many of these dilemmas can be overcome if we are able to bring together the number of actors that are necessary to make sure that all aspects of a response can be effectively covered. The idea that we can do it alone is no longer one that we can believe in.

Third, when in doubt, adopt a principled approach. I tend to be a pragmatic person, having been in politics all my life. But at a moment of very tough decisions, when the choice is not clear, we should stick to our principles.

And finally, be accountable. Create conditions within a framework of accountability to the people we care for, to our partners, to Member States, and to the organization in itself.

I would like to close with an unorthodox opinion. With all these conditions and criteria, we will always find ourselves in moments in which the situation is so complex that there is no mathematic model that can give us an optimum solution. Whenever that happens, in the end we need to trust our intuition and our common sense, with one condition: that intuition and common sense are based on deep knowledge and sound analysis. Faced with a difficult choice, one cannot afford to be weak on details.