Statement to the United Nations Security Council
Good morning, Mr President,
Thank you for hosting me. Thank you also for your country’s commitment to refugee protection, inclusion and solutions. Ghana is indeed an example to be followed, and I want to take this opportunity to wish you the very best for your month of presidency.
Mr President, members of the Security Council,
For one moment, please look at the multiplicity of global challenges which you know very well – growing conflicts, the climate emergency, pandemics, energy and food crises – through the eyes of the more than 103 million refugees and displaced people, who are among the most impacted by all of them. I am sure that you will feel, with desperate urgency, the need for the international community to cooperate in order to reverse the current trajectory and find solutions. Most regrettably, however, through those very eyes, you will also observe its failure to do so.
Let me offer some thoughts from this perspective.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has driven the fastest and largest displacement witnessed in decades. Some 14 million people have been forced from their homes since the 24th of February. Ukrainians are about to face one of the world’s harshest winters in extremely difficult circumstances. Humanitarian organizations have dramatically scaled up their response, but much more must be done, starting with an end to this senseless war. Unfortunately, we see the opposite, and the destruction caused by strikes at civilian infrastructure, which happens as we speak, is quickly making the humanitarian response look like a drop in the ocean of needs.
UNHCR’s focus is increasingly on helping displaced people in Ukraine, working under the government’s able leadership. Of the neighbouring countries, Moldova continues to need special attention, given its vulnerability. Meanwhile in the European Union, we have seen an open, well managed and above all shared refugee response that has proven wrong many of the statements frequently repeated by some politicians: that Europe is full; that relocation is impossible; that there is no public support for refugees.
And given the likely protracted nature of the military situation, we are maintaining a high level of preparedness for further population movements, both inside and outside Ukraine, taking into account different possible scenarios and the scope and limitations of humanitarian assistance.
But I do not need to remind you that it is not only Ukraine where conflict has driven people from their homes. In the past 12 months alone, UNHCR has responded to 37 emergencies around the world.
Yet, the other crises are failing to capture the same international attention, outrage, resources, action.
UNHCR is trying to be present wherever there is forced displacement. We are with the people of Ethiopia – more than 850,000 were displaced in the first half of the year. The recent surge in the conflict is having an even more devastating impact on civilians. Please be united in urging a positive outcome of talks between the parties in South Africa, as their failure would – no doubt – bring more death, destruction and displacement, and further restrict our already very limited ability to reach those in need, in Tigray and other regions.
We are in Myanmar, where an estimated half a million people were displaced in the first six months of this year, with humanitarian access remaining a huge challenge. And where – I must recall – conditions for the return of almost a million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, where options for them are limited, remain a very distant possibility.
We are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where brutal attacks, including revolting accounts of sexual violence against women, have added more than 200,000 people to the 5.5 million already displaced in the country. The Secretary-General on Sunday expressed deep concern about the surge in hostilities between the Congolese army and the M23 movement. I worked as a field officer in the DRC 25 years ago – it is hard to believe that the horrors I witnessed personally back then are repeating themselves, with displacement being, once again, both a consequence of conflict, and a complicating factor in the web of local and international tensions. Surely we can do better in trying to bring peace to this beleaguered region.
These crises, and many, many more — including the countless protracted situations like those of Afghan and Syrian refugees, and some of the multiple, complex population flows in the Americas — are not only fading from media attention but are being failed by global inaction.
And displacement is becoming increasingly complex. New factors are forcing people to flee, intersecting with traditional drivers of displacement: especially the climate emergency.
I am aware that the link between climate and security has been much debated. From my perspective, I simply wish to highlight a few practical points showing the intersection between climate change and displacement, which in many situations includes a clear connection with conflict as well.
We know that climate change is ravaging resources that have sustained communities for generations. This creates tensions, often of inter-communal nature, especially in already fragile contexts where governments do not have the assets (or even control of territory) to support adaptation and resilience strategies and programmes.
I fear that without more attention and much greater financing for prevention, adaptation, and development and governance support, tensions, frustrations, competition will grow and spark wider conflict, with deadly consequences – including displacement.
And what is a starker example of what we call “loss and damage” than being displaced and dispossessed from one’s home?
Last week in Somalia I met emaciated men, women and children who had walked for days to get help. Mothers whose children had died en route. People who had outlived conflict just to have their last remaining coping mechanisms – their crops, their cattle – die before their eyes. There, and elsewhere, conflict is also an obstacle to relief, as humanitarians are often prevented from helping people in their places of origin by insecurity and fighting. So, those affected are forced to move; sometimes when they are too weak to even make the journey. And sometimes across borders as well.
I met Somali refugees pushed into already drought-affected areas of Kenya, which has – despite its own challenges – provided extraordinary hospitality to refugees for generations and, as I discussed last week with President Ruto, is making a landmark shift from encampment of refugees to inclusion; a transition that I hope all will robustly support. The confluence of climate change and conflict has created very protracted displacement: therefore, inclusion and where possible integration, both in refugee contexts and situations of internal displacement, are important peacebuilding measures requiring greater international recognition and support.
There are many hotspots affected by this spiral. I am extremely worried about the situation throughout the Sahel, for example, where the convergence of climate change, poverty, and weak governance with the action of armed groups, and the often brutal reaction of governments, have already displaced three million people, including – increasingly – to coastal states like yours, Mr President, as well as to North Africa and Europe.
It is therefore clear that responses to climate change must take into account both its link to conflict, and the displacement it causes – dimensions which I hope will be in clearer focus than in the past at the upcoming COP27 and 28. On our side, we have stepped up our legal support to States; upped our operational response for those displaced by climate and conflict – like in the Horn, the Sahel, or Mozambique; we have increased efforts to reduce the environmental damage caused by the massive displacement – like, for example, in Niger or Bangladesh; and we have used artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to try and at least prepare for displacement of this nature.
But this is, clearly, not enough. I have focused on the climate emergency, and its relationship with conflict and displacement, to convey the enormous complexity of refugee crises today. I am sometimes worried that such complexity is lost in the frequently simplistic debate over population flows. Let me close my remarks, therefore, by drawing your attention to four areas.
First – we need more resources. Humanitarian aid is under enormous pressure. UNHCR, for example – despite a record level of income, including US$1 billion from private donors – faces a major funding gap this year in some – in some – of its crucial operations. Food aid for refugees, as a case in point, has been cut in many operations – despite the help of the United States and other States present here. But it has been cut in many operations for lack of funding, at a time where food insecurity is growing, also as a result of the war in Ukraine – hence the crucial importance, by the way, of the continuation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. But this is also about safeguarding development cooperation as an essential tool to make communities resilient and immune to the shocks of cyclical crises, breaking this terrible spiral of disaster, conflict and displacement.
Second – seriously strengthening peacebuilding is key, for example by reinforcing (may I say, much better than usually done) the capacity of the police, of the judiciary, of local government and overall rule of law in fragile countries. We at UNHCR have a good vantage point on this, because peacebuilding is crucial to resolving displacement (by allowing refugees to return home, for example) and of course — from your perspective! – to preventing the recurrence of conflict. And peacebuilding will fail unless development actors take more risk and boldly invest even when conditions remain fragile – Burundi being a case in point.
Third – humanitarian action must be better safeguarded, from different viewpoints.
One is straightforward security. Threats to humanitarians are increasing, with deadly consequences, as we have seen in the past days in Ethiopia. Parties to conflicts must protect our work and enable access to people in need.
Furthermore, everyone must uphold international humanitarian law and contribute to preserving the civilian character of refugee settings – an increasing challenge in many parts of the world. Armed elements must be separated from refugees and those displaced and those needing protection must not be conflated with combatants.
And another perspective on safeguarding humanitarian action: remember that according to International Committee of the Red Cross, up to 80 million people live in areas under the control of non-State actors, often vulnerable or displaced. Many are caught in highly politicised conflicts. Others live in countries under sanctions. But no matter how polarised the context, humanitarians must be able to operate everywhere lives must be saved. This may – at times – involve uncomfortable interactions with those who control territory.
If I raise this, Mr President, it is because we are often forced to negotiate humanitarian carve-outs, as they call them, case by case. I therefore welcome the current efforts in this Council to ensure greater predictability in these matters.
Fourth and last – needless to say, but allow me to repeat it, we need the international community, starting with you, members of the Security Council, to overcome your divisions and disagreements, at least when you discuss humanitarian issues, and hopefully when you address or strive to address the root causes that are displacing people around the world.
Because what I saw in Somalia last week was a condemnation of us all.
Of a world of inequality – where extraordinary levels of suffering are getting scandalously low levels of attention and resources.
Of a world where those that have contributed the least to global challenges are suffering most from their consequences.
Of a world where the dramatic rifts we witness every day in your own debates (here, in the Security Council!) are leading us all to the brink.
The suffering, loss and despair of 103 million uprooted people, and of many more, which my colleagues and I witness every day, Mr President, are not the fantasy of an idealistic humanitarian worker. They are very, very real. Allow them to be a humble, but compelling call to action.