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Statement to Donors' Conference by António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Speeches and statements

Statement to Donors' Conference by António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

17 May 2011

Yerevan, Armenia 17 May 2011

Check against delivery

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be with you here in historic Yerevan, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

This conference is timely and significant in seeking to generate support for a solution to a situation of displacement that began more than two decades ago.

Of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled to Armenia from Azerbaijan between 1988 and 1992 owing to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the vast majority have gone on to new lives here and in other countries.

Most have ceased to be refugees and achieved what UNHCR refers to as a durable solution to their plight. Armenia should be congratulated for its generosity in this regard.

But some 1,200 families continue to look for a solution.

In 2006, I visited a number of the centres where these people live. I was moved by the extreme difficulty of their conditions and the inevitably adverse impact living in such circumstances has on individuals' physical and mental health.

Five years have passed since then. That means some people have been displaced in unsatisfactory housing for as many as 23 years.

This is not acceptable. Every one agrees with that. But whose responsibility is it? Ladies and gentlemen,

The short answer is that it is a shared responsibility.

In the context of large influxes of refugees to countries of low and middle income, there is a joint international responsibility - and interest - in making adequate humanitarian and development assistance available.

Indeed, so central is the principle of international solidarity and cooperation that it was set out in the preamble to the 1951 Refugee Convention:

"the grant of asylum may place unduly heavy burdens on countries ... and [the] satisfactory solution of a problem ... the United Nations has recognized [as] international [in] scope and nature cannot ... be achieved without international co-operation."

Yet the Convention contains no agreed indicators for bringing the concept about in practice. In practice, ad hoc arrangements have been established to respond to a range of important and recurrent types of situations.

UNHCR has called for a "New Deal" on burden-sharing and we are working hard to try to bring it about.

Through initiatives such as the one on transitional solutions, co-led by UNHCR and UNDP and supported by a number of donor governments, we are trying to ensure that displacement needs are included on the developmental agenda.

With bilateral and multilateral assistance, humanitarian and development actors can be brought together with national governments to establish sustainable interventions and solutions for both displaced persons and local communities.

The Transitional Solutions Initiative is being piloted in Colombia, Eastern Sudan and the United Republic of Tanzania. It is expected that it will be expanded to include Afghanistan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Nepal, Pakistan, Southern Sudan and Zambia.

In the context of Armenia, we thus fully support the Government's appeal through this conference for the assistance that will make possible the definitive closure of the displacement situation still blighting the lives of 1,200 families from Azerbaijan.

Our role in this process is essentially a catalytic one. In addition to one-time support generated by this conference, we hope to see these families included in the national development programmes of the government, and international development agencies and financial institutions.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Armenia was one of the first republics of the former Soviet Union to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention, in 1993.

It has taken and continues to take its obligations to refugees seriously.

The challenges it faces for the 1,200 families are faced as well by the approximately 1,000 refugees in Armenia who are not from Azerbaijan.

The largest group among these other refugees is from Iraq. Though almost all share Armenian ethnicity, significant obstacles remain to their full integration into the Armenian national community.

Many Iraqi refugees arrived without any personal belongings - fleeing for their - and their children's - lives.

Warmly welcomed by the people of Armenia, settling in had its challenges - not least coping with winter, learning a new language and finding employment.

Through this, they have been supported by the Government, UNHCR and a network of NGOs.

Armenia has been remarkably generous in granting citizenship to tens of thousands of refugees from Azerbaijan and Iraq. We hope that a similar generosity can be shown to refugees from other countries.

In the case of Armenia, past practice is best practice.

At the same time, we recognize that integration is a two-way process, implying responsibilities as well as rights on those to whom it is offered. Local integration is ultimately an organic process by which diverse communities and cultures intermingle, adapt and change for their common enrichment.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Government of Armenia is developing and strengthening its legislative framework and the procedures and capacities for a refugee protection system fully in line with international standards.

UNHCR is assisting it in this important work. That is our fundamental business in Armenia and the other 122 countries in which we are present.

For mature situations, such as the 1,200 families from Azerbaijan, most of whom have already become Armenian citizens, we have a role in helping to galvanize the support of the international community.

There is a solution for this situation and every one agrees on what it is. It just needs to be paid for.

In this 60th anniversary year of the 1951 Refugee Convention, I can think of few more appropriate activities than a concrete pledge of support for the improvement of the living conditions of victims of this two decade-old situation of displacement.

Thank you for your attention.