Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna

Speeches and statements

Statement to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna

3 March 2017
OSCE Permanent Council


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Many thanks for giving UNHCR the opportunity to address you today.  My most vivid personal experience of our collaboration with the OSCE goes back to my days in Bosnia and later in Kosovo (UN SCR 1244 (1999)), when we worked together on some of the major challenges facing countries emerging from violent conflict.  Our shared ethic of care and strong partnership with colleagues in the OSCE missions on the ground enabled us to respond to the needs of people affected by conflict in the region.  Indeed, UNHCR and the OSCE share a long-standing partnership around our common interests in displacement.  We both recognize the importance of protection and durable solutions to regional security and stability.  It is with this in mind that I would like to share with you some thoughts on how, together, we can continue to turn today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities as we move forward in the coming years.

The global picture

This past week, UNHCR released its Mid-Year Trends report,[1] which presents a picture that we have come to know too well.  The persistence and deepening of conflicts in many regions around the world has meant that the number of people forced to flee their homes and communities has continued to rise.  In the first half of 2016, the total number of refugees of concern to UNHCR grew to 16.5 million, and nearly 3.2 million people were newly displaced, including 1.5 million who fled to another country.  This was most evident in the Syrian Arab Republic, where more than half of the entire population is now displaced.  We also saw this in other countries beset by conflict, such as Nigeria, Yemen, and South Sudan.  We still see that displacement is rarely a one-time occurrence.  People are displaced internally multiple times, often eventually having to seek safety beyond the borders of their own countries.  The vast majority flee to countries in their immediate region, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, parts of Asia, Latin America, and Turkey. 

Statelessness continues to feature prominently as both a cause and consequence of displacement.  While UNHCR estimates that some 10 million people around the world are stateless, the available data from 78 countries still report around 3.5 million.  While some notable reductions in statelessness have been made, including within the OSCE region,[2] better reporting has meant that new numbers have also been added.  

Amidst these growing numbers, we have redoubled our endeavours to search for solutions.  One of the most promising developments has been the significant boost in resettlement numbers.  Resettlement plays a crucial role in protecting the most vulnerable, and demonstrates solidarity with the countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees.  Over the past decade, UNHCR referred more than one million refugees for resettlement, with the number increasing by 79 per cent in the past four years alone.  However, the needs for resettlement still outpace the places made available by States.  We need further commitments from States around the world to broaden their quotas and expand opportunities for safe pathways.

The solution most often desired by refugees – to return to their home countries – however, remains elusive.  Return must be both voluntary and sustainable.  Despite the continued rise in displacement, only 123,000 refugees returned in the first half of 2016, many of whom found themselves further displaced internally.  Despite some increases in returns to Afghanistan, albeit in less than ideal circumstances, large numbers of Afghan refugees, as well as Somali and Sudanese refugees, continue to live in situations of protracted exile.  This points to the need for us to ensure that refugees can live in safety and dignity and can get on with their lives wherever they are – be it through including them in national systems, ensuring their right to work, or facilitating their self-reliance and social inclusion.

The OSCE region

Within the OSCE area, by mid-2016, there were 10 million persons of concern to UNHCR, including 5.2 million refugees, 2.8 million internally displaced persons [IDPs], 1.7 million asylum-seekers, and more than 715,000 stateless people.  These numbers speak to the tragedy of forced displacement, not only for individuals, but also for whole communities who are often prevented from developing and meeting their full potential, as they focus on surviving from one day to the next.  Access to protection and assistance and freedom of movement for people affected by conflict in these circumstances are critical for saving lives. 

The situation of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine continue to pose some of the main humanitarian concerns in the region.  Also, protracted situations of internal displacement remained a challenge in the South Caucasus, where governments have made commendable efforts to alleviate the situation of hundreds of thousands of IDPs, pending durable solutions, which, it has to be said, also include options in addition to return.  Over the course of this year, UNHCR plans to review its engagement with persons displaced in the 1990s, notably in the Western Balkans.  It seems to us that the challenges they face can best be tackled through concerted efforts to foster development and economic opportunities, and to address the marginalization of affected minorities.  We will continue to engage in refugee and asylum issues in all OSCE countries, focusing on fair and efficient asylum systems. 

We will also further our efforts to prevent and resolve statelessness, in line with the Zagreb Declaration.  We have already seen some successes, for example in documentation for persons at risk of statelessness in Montenegro, and with the Handbook on Statelessness in the OSCE Area: International Standards and Good Practices, which UNHCR developed together with ODIHR and the HCNM, and which I look forward to launching later today.  To date, 40 out of the 57 OSCE participating States are parties to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and 33 are parties to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.  This is excellent progress, in line with the #IBelong Campaign to end statelessness by 2024.[3]  We hope very much that all OSCE countries would become party to both statelessness instruments.  This would send a strong signal worldwide and could make the OSCE the first regional grouping to achieve accession in an often-neglected area.

The need for a common response

Let me now turn to the situation in Europe more broadly.  Displacement primarily affects countries in the regions of origin experiencing prolonged conflict and systematic human rights abuses.  Let us not forget that, as we speak, Uganda, for example, is receiving an average of 2,200 South Sudanese refugees each day.  Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country, with 2.7 million – mostly from Syria, but also Iraq and Afghanistan.  Displacement has also recently been felt in Europe when more than one million arrived on Europe’s shores in 2015.  We all remember the heart-breaking images and stories of refugees who risked everything to travel on dangerous journeys across sea and land in search of a solution.  Yet the responses we saw in Europe were mixed.  Initial outpourings of generosity were frequently tempered by resistance to a joined-up analysis and response.  While some made efforts to welcome refugees, others attempted to restrict access to territory, thereby shifting responsibilities onto other States.  The difficulties that resulted from this fragmented approach exacerbated the already precarious circumstances in which refugees and migrants were arriving, leading to seemingly intractable policy dilemmas.

In hindsight, clearly, better preparedness and a common, cooperative regional approach would have been key.  Recognizing this, UNHCR put forward a number of proposals, most recently also to the EU in December 2016.[4]  These proposals focus on external engagement aimed at finding solutions to conflicts and other root causes of displacement – an area also of great interest to the OSCE with its proper expertise in this domain.  The proposals recommend more predictable support to countries hosting the largest populations of refugees to help stabilize their situation.  They also set out internal approaches that would better prepare States to receive refugees through contingency planning, common systems for registration, and more efficient asylum processing.  They further advocate for the development of safe pathways that can serve as realistic alternatives to human smuggling, for example through humanitarian visas, scholarships, family reunification, or labour mobility schemes.  Taken together, these proposals present a principled, pragmatic, and common approach to refugee and migrant situations that can be made to work, provided of course that they are accompanied by the required priority-setting.  This kind of forward thinking in Europe is not without precedent, and we only need to look back to the formation of the OSCE itself, as well as the EU, as examples of strong regional and transatlantic cooperation.

Future directions

At the global level, there similarly has been a growing recognition of the need for humane, considered, and comprehensive approaches to displacement.  We saw this most recently in the adoption of the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants on 19 September 2016.  The New York Declaration calls on UNHCR to propose a Global Compact on Refugees, and for the development of a Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.  The Global Compact on Refugees would aim to provide more equitable and predictable responsibility sharing arrangements among countries to address large movements of refugees and protracted refugee situations.  Only through such international cooperation and greater responsibility sharing can these transnational challenges be addressed adequately.  This is a pressing priority to ensure global stability, restore public confidence, and ensure that the rights of individuals are protected. 

UNHCR has built upon these objectives in the development of its strategic directions over the next five years, which we issued earlier this year.[5]  UNHCR seeks to help shape the global response by putting people first, strengthening and diversifying partnerships, working across the entire spectrum of displacement, and providing support to States.  It will lead efforts to ensure that people are better protected in emergencies and beyond, included in national development planning, provided with opportunities for self-reliance, and empowered to find solutions that enable them to live with dignity, stability, and a sense of future.

The New York Declaration particularly embodies the determination by States to address the root causes of large movements of refugees and migrants.  It speaks to the need for early prevention of crisis situations, as well as the peaceful resolution of conflicts.  It calls for greater coordination of humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding efforts.  It also encourages the promotion of rule of law and protection of human rights.  The focus on preventing and resolving conflict and crisis is also a priority of the UN Secretary-General. 

These initiatives cannot be timelier as we are confronted with a deficit in peace.  Syria, in particular, is living proof of this.  The people of Syria have been waiting too long.  While courage, strength, and resilience characterize the people of Syria and their hosting countries, refugees have grown increasingly vulnerable – more than half live below the poverty line, with a third living in extreme poverty.  We must cement the concept of responsibility sharing and provide continued support to frontline States and their generous communities.  We need increased funding for the humanitarian response and development support for refugee hosting countries.  We also need tangible, safe pathways for refugee movements beyond the region.

OSCE cooperation

There are foreseeably many opportunities for our organizations to work together in furthering the commitments set out in the New York Declaration.  In this respect, UNHCR welcomes the OSCE Informal Working Group’s focus on the issue of migration and refugee flows over the last year, which led to the adoption of Decision 03/16 on OSCE’s Role in the Governance of Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants at the Ministerial Council in Hamburg in December 2016.[6]  We encourage OSCE to continue linking up with other regional organizations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on these issues,  as refugee movements have impacts far beyond regional boundaries.

From UNHCR’s perspective, the OSCE can add particular value in the areas of conflict prevention and resolution.  The numbers of refugees and IDPs in the region point to the importance of implementing peace agreements.  Peace and stability in Europe are also dependent on constructive engagement and peace at the global level.  Many of our recent joint initiatives already demonstrate how the commitments to conflict prevention and resolution, set out at the global and regional levels, can be translated in practical terms.  Conflict prevention depends on an accurate and timely flow of information and analysis.  We have seen how this can work in practice, as the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities has helped to identify and mitigate tensions, which could otherwise have led to conflict and displacement.  In the South Caucasus, UNHCR appreciates the role of the OSCE in its conflict resolution endeavours and is prepared to play a part in the humanitarian aspect of conflict resolution processes.  A positive example currently underway is the close cooperation between UNHCR and the OSCE within Working Group II of the Geneva International Discussions.  In the Western Balkans, we have seen the recent establishment of a Ministerial-level Coordination Team for Monitoring the Rights in the Implementation of Annex VII of the Dayton Peace Accords and a technical level Consultative Working Group.  We have collaborated closely in the Regional Housing Programme (RHP) in the implementation of the so-called “Sarajevo Process”.   Also, to facilitate the “Skopje Process”, we have jointly worked with representatives from Pristina, Podgorica, Skopje, and Belgrade since November 2014 to tackle the remaining obstacles related to displacement from Kosovo (UN SCR 1244 (1999)), and hope for more commitments to resolve current obstacles.

The OSCE can also be instrumental in advancing one of the objectives of the New York Declaration to ensure better border management while upholding human rights of persons crossing or seeking to cross international borders.  Border management is an important element of security for States. A strong example of our cooperation has been our work with Central Asian governments in preparedness and contingency planning to ensure that security and asylum are addressed hand-in-hand.  It is also important to further systems for responding to mixed movements of migrants and refugees that would ensure fair and efficient approaches to screening for specific needs and vulnerabilities and to asylum processing.  UNHCR’s 10-Point Plan of Action on refugee protection and mixed migration could provide important input in this regard.[7]

The OSCE can play an important role in combatting trafficking and smuggling in human beings, promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, and facilitating integration.  Our excellent relationship with the OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings has resulted in the project “Combating Trafficking along Migration Routes”, which was launched in June 2016 in Vicenza, Italy.  The ODIHR hate crime report and the EU-funded ODIHR project on hate crimes, in which we are engaged, offer concrete ways to counter xenophobia against refugees and migrants.  We would encourage more consolidated work on the rights of particular minority groups, such as the Roma, and promoting social cohesion to address and prevent displacement.  Also, the OSCE-UNHCR Protection Checklist has helped to integrate protection considerations in training and strategies developed by the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine [SMM].[8]   The OSCE is unique in dealing with the various dimensions of security, peace, and stability, and we hope that its role can be strengthened in spite of the current difficulties.


The OSCE is an important facilitator and example for regional cooperation on conflict prevention and resolution, and its good practices can help further the goals of the New York Declaration and feed into the wider prevention agenda that the UN Secretary-General seeks to pursue.  From the perspective of those uprooted by conflict or living in exile for years on end, prevention of future causes of displacement would certainly be the best cure.  This will not happen overnight, but we must give it our undivided attention to free future generations from the turmoil that conflict, violence, and displacement engender.

Thank you.


[1] UNHCR Mid-Year Trends, 2016, available at:

[2] For example, on 12 December 2016, Turkmenistan granted Turkmen citizenship to 1,381 persons.

[3] See

[4] UNHCR, Better Protecting Refugees in the EU and Globally: Proposals to rebuild trust through better management, partnership and solidarity, available at:

[5] UNHCR’s Strategic Directions 2017-2021, available at:

[6] Available at:

[7] For more details, see Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action, available at: and The 10 Point Plan in Action, available at:

[8] Developed in collaboration with the ICRC and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons.