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Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 61st Session, New York, 7 November 2006

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 61st Session, New York, 7 November 2006

8 November 2006
Two major challenges: 1. Reassessment of UNHCR's mission2. Need for deep structural reformCovers internal displacement, mixed migration flowsProtection must remain centralStatelessness, sustainability of returnEmergency response capacityDarfur, Somalia, IraqOrganisational change processAll this needs financial support

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates,

It is my pleasure to address this body today, under your able guidance, Mr. Chairman and I would like to express my deep gratitude for your kindness and attention.

The past year has seen a number of far-reaching developments in the political and humanitarian context in which UNHCR protects and cares for refugees. Population movements are increasingly recognized as an incontrovertible and global phenomenon, demanding that my Office takes an active role in ensuring asylum in mixed migratory flows. New forms of inter-agency cooperation are changing the way we assist internally displaced persons and how humanitarian agencies access funds. And while the number of armed conflicts is in decline, natural catastrophes, crushing poverty and other forms of insecurity have kept millions of people on the move.

The pattern and scale of change have brought the Office to a moment of truth, and have set us two major challenges.

The first is a reassessment of UNHCR's mission. We must remain, and we will remain, faithful to our mandate while meeting the demands of this changing world, with shifts as significant as the new approach to internally displaced people. The second is the need for a deep structural and management reform, which is absolutely indispensable if we are to build a stronger, more effective UNHCR able to generate and direct more resources to the people we care for.

Mr. Chairman,

A year ago, I pledged here to make UNHCR a predictable and fully-engaged partner in the new approach to situations of internal displacement.

In that time, we have become an integral part of the collective response by the UN system and the broader humanitarian community, and have assumed leading responsibility for the protection, camp coordination and management, and emergency shelter clusters in conflict-generated internal displacement situations.

Lessons learned from the implementation in the four pilot countries - Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia and Somalia - will guide us in the future. The cluster approach has opened up new opportunities for durable solutions - in Uganda, for example, it has helped, it has been instrumental in the return home of over 300,000 people so far, transforming a dramatic humanitarian situation into a potentially remarkable success story. Clusters in other countries are working together to identify gaps, coordinate assistance and plan returns.

For the new approach to be effective we have insisted strongly on three main concerns: that it be flexible and adapted to reality on the ground and, where necessary, the theory made to fit reality, and not vice versa; that its framework should be light and non-bureaucratic; and that we proceed on the understanding that all humanitarian actors need to be effectively engaged in the process as full strategic partners that think together, plan together, and act together.

In country operations which have not been slated for the roll-out of the cluster approach, we are responding according to the needs of the people and our ability. We are currently reassessing our capacities in Colombia, Sri Lanka, and the North and South Caucasus, where we have been involved for a long time, and encouraged the request by the UN Country Team of a protection cluster in Côte d'Ivoire.

Mr. Chairman,

Another issue of critical importance to our mission is the movement of populations, destined to be one of the key questions of the 21st century. Globalisation is a fact of life. But it is an asymmetric phenomenon, however, where one can exacerbate existing disparities and disadvantages. Persons do not move as freely as goods and services, or cross borders like money. But the global labour market is increasingly a force to be reckoned with, and supply will move to meet demand also in this market. Legally if it can; illegally if it must.

Curbing illegal migration is not only a question of controlling borders but requires a comprehensive response, including meaningful opportunities for legal migration, development cooperation strategies targeted at the most vulnerable situations so that people are not compelled to move out of sheer despair, and international cooperation in the management of migration flows and in a convincing crackdown on smugglers and traffickers.

Obviously, these are areas that extend far beyond UNHCR's direct responsibilities. We know the difference between a migrant and a refugee and we don't want to become a migration management agency. But we are witnessing more and more movements with the character of mixed flows, where the large majority are migrants but where there are also people in need of international protection. Our role is to help create the environment where these people can be identified and afforded protection. They must be granted physical access to asylum procedures and a fair treatment of their claims. Measures aimed at curbing illegal migration must never be allowed to call those rights into question.

Protection capacity must be built everywhere, not with the paternalistic notion that this concerns only the developing world, but with the understanding that protection is necessary in the north and south. UNHCR's 10-point plan of action, introduced in Rabat last July and designed to be piloted in the situations confronting North Africa and Southern Europe, will be the basis for us to engage in further consultations with the member states about it.

UNHCR was fully committed to the General Assembly's High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development, which met here in September. We applaud this initiative and are equally engaged with the Global Migration Group. I had the honour of chairing the last meeting of the GMG and stand ready to support any initiative of the member States and their reform.

Mr. Chairman,

Even as we face the challenges raised by an evolving environment, our role and identity as a protection agency stands unchanged. That identity, as I said here last year, should inform everything we do. Protection is at the centre of the new emphasis given to our engagement in relation both to internal displacement and the migration-asylum nexus, where we have an obvious role to play.

At a time of rising intolerance, fuelled by security concerns and confusion in public opinion between migrants and refugees, protection also means firmly opposing all forms of refoulement and guaranteeing respect for international refugee law - international refugee law that cannot be superseded by national legislation, extradition treaties, or redefined by bilateral arrangements legislation, by extradition treaties.

Strengthening protection by building skills, institutions and coalitions cannot serve to 'outsource' protection and especially to outsource from North to South, but is rather an instrument of international cooperation and solidarity, to make real and fair burden sharing possible. We are bound to preserve asylum and rebuild trust in asylum systems.

Protection is at the centre of our concern also to reduce statelessness. Traditionally, UNHCR was focused on giving legal advice to States. And truly, we were able to resolve statelessness situations with practical assistance in the Ukraine, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Sri Lanka by helping hundreds of thousands of stateless individuals to obtain a nationality, and are involved in a meaningful cooperation programme with the Russian Federation. But such success stories have been too rare. We want to contribute to change that.

We will do so with operational support and through states and inter-agency cooperation. This will involve concrete measures to reduce and prevent statelessness, such as birth registration campaigns, population census, electoral assistance, and public awareness. Our goal is to enable these forgotten people to become nationals of a State or, at the very least, to enjoy the basic human rights conferred by a legal identity.

Our focus on protection extends to solutions and, in particular, to the sustainability of returns. Voluntary repatriation remains for us the preferred durable solution for refugees and displaced persons. But its sustainability in many situations around the world is a dramatic concern.

On a mission in March to the Great Lakes, I watched as several hundred Congolese returnees disembarked from the boat bringing them home from the United Republic of Tanzania. They were filled with anticipation and greeted with shouts and music from crowds of family and neighbours. While 120,000 Congolese refugees remain in Tanzania, 23,000 have come back to the DRC with our assistance this year, and the rate of return may increase after last week's successful elections. But enthusiasm can be short-lived when years of conflict and neglect have completely destroyed infrastructure and institutions, and insecurity and human rights violations are difficult to eradicate.

In Burundi, successful national elections a year ago buoyed expectations that the 190,000 refugees in Tanzania would soon repatriate. Until now in 2006, 33,000 Burundians have gone home, a figure which is currently growing by 2,000 a week. But a lack of viable alternatives may mean a crop failure may again condemn a family to exile.

South Sudan, an area the size of a large part of western Europe, was gutted - with its roads, schools, and hospitals destroyed and much of its human talent killed or uprooted by such a long war. Since the 2005 peace agreement, UNHCR has opened offices and actively promoted community-based projects in areas of origin. But needs are enormous and refugees remain wary of repatriating. Despite the resilience of the people, it is naïve to expect that some pots, pans and hope are enough to begin life over.

Despite many well-known difficulties, returns to Afghanistan - though lower than in previous years - have been the largest in the world for the fifth year running. But we remain deeply concerned about people who go back home full of hope and enthusiasm but in the present complex environment.

In Liberia, a very successful political transition has been achieved with remarkable political leadership now in place. But let us not forget that last year's State budget was only US$80 million - compared with US$800 million for the UN peacekeeping mission - a teacher's salary is just $20 a month. When I visited Monrovia several months ago, there was still no electricity, no running water, no working sewage system and no garbage collection. Things are improving, but the international community must understand the importance of quick wins to gain the confidence of the people in a post-conflict situation.

UNHCR only promotes return after minimum conditions are met and we are able to verify that people will be safe following their repatriation. But in doing so we - and when I say we, I mean the international community as a whole - routinely ignore a simple fact: returnees cannot live on hope alone.

Addressing transition problems after wars or conflict and before sustained development is in place is not something at which the international community excels. This is why we are so pleased with the creation of the Peacebuilding Commission and are eager to work actively with it. UNHCR is seconding a staff member to its Support Unit and will participate fully in the development and implementation of peacebuilding strategies being developed in Burundi and Sierra Leone. Our aim is to ensure that the full range of the UN's peacebuilding endeavours is brought to bear on returnee areas. This is absolutely critical for sustainability and lasting peace in countries emerging from conflict.

Mr. Chairman,

Over the past year our emergency teams have been active in Lebanon, Timor-Leste, the valleys of northern Pakistan and in northern Kenya. Quick and efficient deployment of expert staff and relief material almost anywhere in the world has been a hallmark of the Office, and we are working to reestablish that agility. We have increased the number of staff available for immediate deployment, while the emergency stockpiles have been increased to cover the needs of between 100,000 and 500,000 people. Our target is to be able to respond to an exodus of 500,000 people by 2007.

In other situations, the role of an organization like ours is severely constrained. Faced with a crisis like Darfur that reality may seem intolerable, yet our desperation is nothing next to that of the victims and millions of displaced. There is no clear framework for the exercise of the so-called responsibility to protect. The insecurity bred in Darfur has spread to Chad and threatens the Central African Republic itself.

Resignation has turned to despair in Somalia as well, where developments have driven 34,000 people into northern Kenya since the beginning of the year. With growing hopelessness, more than 3,000 Somalis have risked their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden in the last two months alone. In situations like these, the international community almost inevitably pays a higher price later.

In Iraq, we are also seeing more and more displacement prompted by the continuing violence. We now estimate at least 1.6 million Iraqis are displaced internally, and up to 1.8 million outside the country in neighbouring States. Of the internally displaced, we estimate some 425,000 Iraqis have fled their homes for other areas inside the country this year alone, and that internal displacement is continuing at a rate of 50,000 people a month. This has made us look again at our work and priorities throughout the region - from assisting returns and aiding some 50,000 non-Iraqi refugees in Iraq, to providing more help to the tens of thousands who are fleeing every month and need better assistance from the international community.

Mr. Chairman,

The second challenge I spoke of at the outset is to build a stronger, more effective UNHCR.

Earlier this year, UNHCR embarked on a structural and management change process that is essential to our long-term sustainability as an organization. The goal is to make UNHCR more flexible, more effective and results-oriented based on a thorough review and reform of its procedures and structure. The Change Process will benefit also from broader UN reform, particularly the review of governance and oversight mechanisms. As in the past, we will integrate any changes made in New York into our own rules and procedures, and we will be particularly attentive to the report of the High-Level Panel on System-Wide Coherence.

Our Change Process is reviewing our processes, structures and staffing to make sure that they are fully aligned with the challenges we face in a changing humanitarian environment. This means examining what kind of field support can be moved closer to the point of delivery, the cost effectiveness of our administrative services, and whether they should remain in Geneva or be placed elsewhere. In the Field, we are considering the way we deploy in capitals, sub- and field offices, and the balance of our workforce in operations, along with how much we do ourselves versus how much is implemented through partnerships with others.

We must be sensitive to the legitimate concerns and interests of staff beyond the full respect of their rights. The reform will also introduce a number of changes aimed at the improvement of working conditions. An annual global staff survey will soon be introduced, along with a management assessment framework. At the same time we are working on a new proposal to address the problems of staff welfare in difficult duty stations. We have taken all the decisions to guarantee that UNHCR becomes fully compliant with Minimum Operating Safety Standards, regardless of cost, and I want here to pay respect to the courage and sacrifice of our staff members who lost their lives in the past 12 months.

We cannot forget our moral obligation to the people we care for. When we cannot provide enough support for refugees wanting to repatriate, when only a fraction of refugees have access to the latest malaria protocol or antiretroviral medication and when we are unable to prevent or respond to known cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), we must ensure that we are spending only what is absolutely necessary on the organization itself.

Mr. Chairman,

None of what I have described, of course, will be possible without political and financial support.

I am pleased that several donors have raised their contributions significantly this year, and would appeal to other States which can afford to do so to give more. It is my hope and expectation that our principal donors will maintain their high level of support to the Office and the work we do. And as we continue our Change Process and devote a greater share of resources to protection, care and solutions, that they maintain - or, in light of UNHCR's enlarged role, increase - their financial commitment to UNHCR.

We have also received support in 2006 from the Central Emergency Response Fund. Since March, when the CERF added a grant facility, it has directed resources to new emergencies in Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste and the recent influx of Somali refugees in Kenya, as well as to the chronically under-funded operations in the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia and Zambia. Our supplementary budgets for repatriation operations in the DRC and Sudan and the protection of internally displaced people in Darfur have also benefited from pooled funds in the recent past.

Mr. Chairman,

"Protection is the heart of our mandate and it must remain the soul of our organization."

Refugees are the raison d'être of the UN refugee agency. We are here to serve, with humanity and efficiency. Faithful to our mandate, but as a member of a team; proud of our history and identity, but humble before the challenges we face; and a partner capable of answering new and increasingly complex challenges in a globalised context. Always unrelenting in our efforts to reach more people in need of protection. Protection is the heart of our mandate and it must remain the soul of our organization.

Thank you very much for your attention.