Third Committee of the General Assembly, 73rd Session
Agenda Item 65: Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons and humanitarian questions
I address you today with a growing sense of urgency.
Granting asylum is one of the most ancient and shared gestures of solidarity in the history of humankind. It has helped save lives, build and rebuild nations, and preserve our sense of humanity.
But in today’s deeply divided world, humanity is losing ground.
The language of politics has become ruthless, giving licence to discrimination, racism, xenophobia.
Refugees and migrants have become the catalysts of a “dehumanization” trend - whose sole purpose is immediate political gains.
People uprooted from their homes by brutality and war are branded as a threat, instead of deserving of compassion.
The consequences are chilling. Refugees turned back at borders, imprisoned indefinitely, left to perish at sea. Entire groups of people pushed to the margins of society, their dignity denied, basic human needs for sustenance and security disregarded.
What could be more short-sighted? And what could be more dangerous for the core values that knit all our societies together?
We should rather remember – and remind politicians and opinion-makers – that refugees, if given the opportunity, can also be catalysts of humanity, solidarity, of a sense of shared purpose in society – in other words, of all that binds us together and makes us stronger in facing global challenges.
The need for common purpose is more acute than ever.
Over the last 12 months, crises have emerged, recurred, escalated, driving the number of people forcibly displaced globally to 68.5 million, including more than 25 million refugees. They have occurred in and even across continents, in truly global patterns. Political solutions to conflicts have remained largely out of reach.
The intersection of conflict and violence-related displacement with other factors such as climate change, poverty and inequality has intensified, generating population flows of a more complex nature, that are more difficult to address.
Neighbouring countries have struggled to absorb the impact of new arrivals, on their services, infrastructure, labour markets, and the environment.
Last year’s outflow of Rohingya from Myanmar into Bangladesh is a case in point. Local people were the first to respond, with profound generosity and compassion, soon buttressed by a massive humanitarian response. In the months that followed, refugees who had endured unspeakable hardship and trauma were exposed to harrowing risks as the monsoon season approached.
But shelters were strengthened, bridges built and reinforced, new land made ready, and tens of thousands of people relocated to safety.
This massive effort reaffirmed what we are collectively capable of, when people desperately need our help. Now, investments in medium term arrangements are required, to reinforce economic opportunities, local infrastructure and essential services for refugees and host communities in Bangladesh.
But solutions to this crisis lie in Myanmar. The government of Myanmar must address root causes – entrenched discrimination, arbitrary denial of citizenship, and lack of development.
Together with UNDP, we have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to support the government in this work. Although the first steps have been taken, its implementation must be accelerated in order for obstacles to return to be removed, in particular those concerning rights and freedoms for the Rohingya community.
International solidarity is needed for the people of Rakhine, on both sides of the border - encompassing bilateral and multilateral development aid and supporting inclusive and sustainable solutions.
In Syria, the conflict is moving into a new phase. The prospect of refugee returns is now emerging prominently in discussions around the future of the country.
But this cannot be driven by politics. What matters is whether the situation on the ground is able to support sustainable return. It must be safe, dignified and voluntary. When that is the case, UNHCR will accompany and support returns.
In the meantime, we continue to work along-side others to address obstacles to and create conditions for return. This includes, first and foremost, guaranteeing a safe and secure environment. It also means issuing the necessary civil documents; resolving land and property issues; granting amnesties in line with international law; and, for some, resolving citizenship issues. Unfettered access by UNHCR and humanitarian agencies will be critical to help build confidence.
Countries across the region still host 5.6 million refugees. Donors have been generous, but funding – and resettlement places – remain insufficient. Here too, reinforcing support and solidarity is vital at this important juncture.
Today’s mixed flows, in which refugees and migrants move along the same perilous routes, prey to unscrupulous traffickers and smugglers, are also giving rise to complex protection challenges.
Thousands of refugees and migrants continue to travel from Africa through Libya and across the Mediterranean - driven by despair, and exposed to unthinkable cruelty and dangers.
Libya is itself the theatre of a conflict. But international concerns have focused on reducing arrivals in Europe. The Libyan Coast Guard has been reinforced, but not other Libyan institutions.
That means more people brought back to Libyan shores, and more exposed to exploitation and detention – in horrific conditions. UNHCR and the IOM are present and active, bringing people to safety where conditions allow. But we operate in precarious, often dangerous circumstances.
Bringing stability to Libya is therefore essential. But more solutions are needed, and quickly - alternatives to detention in Libya; other evacuation options; more and faster resettlement, including from Niger; genuine, targeted investments in countries of asylum and transit; and serious, substantive efforts to tackle the root causes of these movements.
Rescue at sea has been taken hostage by politics, and must be restored - underpinned by a predictable disembarkation arrangement based on shared responsibility across the region. And of course, preserving asylum in Europe is equally crucial.
In the Americas, too, approaches are needed that encompass work in countries of origin, and strengthening asylum and migration management in countries of transit and destination. Here, the regional application of the Comprehensive Refugee Response framework – the MIRPS – is proving its value in the context of the complex flow that has been affecting northern Central America for some time, driven by poverty, exploitation and gang violence.
Regional cooperation is equally essential in the Venezuela situation. Some 5,000 people are now leaving Venezuela daily – the largest population movement in Latin America’s recent history and a powerful example of protection challenges amidst complex population flows. With more than 1.9 million people having left the country since 2015, a non-political and humanitarian approach is essential.
I visited the region a few weeks ago, and saw how countries there have generously kept their borders open, providing access to asylum or other protection-based stay arrangements. I welcome the regional approach adopted in the Quito Declaration.
Together with IOM, UNHCR has established a regional inter-agency coordination platform. We have also appointed a Joint Special Representative, Eduardo Stein, who will work with Governments and partners, to build regional alliances and foster support for hosting countries.
Common purpose and international cooperation are also critical to the quest for solutions.
Peace has remained largely elusive in recent years. It is seldom achieved in a thorough, complete way, and where greater stability emerges, this is often linked to military or security operations that are not always accompanied by measures that address root causes.
Pursuing a constellation of solutions, and building the resilience that can pave the way towards these, are therefore important elements of the Comprehensive Refugee Response model. This has inspired a regional application for the Somalia situation, which is already securing important advances. Attention to other protracted situations, including Afghanistan, must also be sustained.
As I have noted in relation to Syria, it is essential that refugee returns are not driven by politics. But of course, political developments shape the space in which solutions can emerge. Political agreements can pave the way to greater stability. And refugee participation in political processes - peace negotiations and elections - can help restore connections with their countries.
I hope that next year's anniversaries - of the OAU Refugee Convention and the Kampala Convention on internal displacement - will help further galvanise work towards solutions in Africa.
In South Sudan, for example, the revitalised peace process re-opens the door for some hope. The recent dialogue in Khartoum between South Sudanese refugee representatives and signatories of the peace agreement was encouraging, and must continue. I also welcome recent developments in the Horn of Africa, including dialogue between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and hope that this will provide a context in which solutions to displacement in that region will be expanded.
Resettlement, too, must be restored and reinforced - as a tool for solutions, and an instrument for international responsibility sharing. The drop in available places is of deep concern. We need to seize this moment to make resettlement a truly global instrument.
And of course we must follow through on our commitment to end statelessness. I wish to congratulate Spain on its accession to the 1961 Convention on Statelessness, and Haiti, which has acceded to both statelessness conventions.
UNHCR’s capacity to adapt to new dynamics and opportunities in the field, and to catalyse the engagement of a range of actors, is critical to our ability to leverage protection and solutions in these and other displacement crises.
The first phase of our reform process, to realign Headquarters functions in support of the field, is well under way.
We have just embarked on a decisive new phase, moving towards a decentralised model over the next two years. Its main purpose will be to build strongand empowered country offices, by moving authority closer to the point of delivery.
Regional Bureaux will be moved from Geneva to their respective regions, and key systems and processes will be realigned and simplified.
This work is in line with broader UN reforms, and our strong commitment to the Grand Bargain. In 2017, 21% of our programme expenditure was allocated to local and national responders – up from 19% in 2016.
And in the broader context of UN reform, I am pleased to co-chair the Business Innovations Group with the World Food Programme Executive Director. We are striving to transform UN business operations and back offices to create efficiencies and re-focus resources on our core work.
UNHCR is a value-based agency, with a strong commitment to integrity. But we operate in fluid, high-risk environments, in which the potential for fraud, corruption, exploitation and abuse is sometimes heightened. I am firmly committed to tackling these and other forms of misconduct - robustly, transparently and effectively.
This year, we launched a new initiative that temporarily embeds additional risk management expertise in selected operations. We have also continued to improve our oversight architecture.
We have intensified our emphasis on ethical conduct in UNHCR - striving to embed values such as tolerance, respect, diversity, gender equality into our institutional culture and personal attitudes.
Tackling sexual exploitation and abuse, and sexual harassment, has been a key pillar of this work.
I am personally committed to steering real change on these matters. Our working environment must not be defined by the use of power, which legitimizes abuse, but by the exercise of authority, which is founded on respect.
Amidst so much adversity, multilateralism has – for now – held its ground; but as the Secretary-General has repeatedly said, we must reinvigorate it. This applies also to issues of forced displacement.
Two years ago, the General Assembly asked UNHCR to consult with Member States to forge a global compact on refugees.
If ever there was a need for such an instrument, that moment is now.
The application of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, which I have mentioned, in 15 countries and through two regional approaches, is already bearing fruit. It has become a rallying-point for solidarity – drawing in a much broader range of actors and approaches than in the past, to intensify support for refugees and their hosts. And the global compact on refugees will frame and accelerate this transformation - placing the dignity, rights and aspirations of refugees and their hosts at the centre of a fairer, better, more predictable response.
I have already referred to sobering examples of refugees and asylum-seekers being excluded and pushed away. Yet this is not the only story.
Countless local communities around the world - often in remote, underserved, border areas - continue to offer protection and support in spite of their own limited means, driven by compassion and fundamental human values – away from the glare of international media attention and political grandstanding.
The global compact on refugees starts with them. In delivering protection and support, host countries and their citizens act on behalf of us all – delivering a global public good, contributing to regional and international peace and security, and helping refugees find a degree of stability that can avert risky onward journeys.
Refugees are an international concern, and a shared responsibility. In the compact, we will for the first time have a practical, workable model – a set of tools that translates this principle into action.
Decades of keeping refugees apart, consigned to camps, or on the margins of society, are giving way to a fundamentally different approach: of including refugees in national systems, and the societies and economies of their host countries, for the time that it is necessary; and enabling them to contribute to their new communities and secure their own futures, pending a solution to their plight.
I wish to acknowledge the many States which have taken humane and sometimes courageous decisions to review their laws and policies, reinforce refugee rights, expand access to national programmes, labour markets and social protection systems.
The leadership and expertise of the World Bank have also been vital, helping trigger a fundamental change in how development entities engage.
The IDA18 refugee sub-window, and the Global Concessional Financing Facility are trailblazing. And other investments by bilateral development entities and regional and international financial institutions are also growing.
Through these collective efforts, some 6.5 billion USD of development funding have been mobilised, from which millions of refugees and members of local communities stand to benefit. The full effects will take time to emerge, but some changes are already visible.
The private sector is also playing a prominent role, along with faith groups, sport organisations, and cities. There has been important progress on financial inclusion, as the financial sector increasingly recognises that refugees offer a viable market for services such as bank accounts, business loans, remittance and savings facilities.
On refugee education, progress has also been notable – thanks to the many states who have opened access to their national systems, and to innovative initiatives that have mobilised resources and support.
These investments must be sustained and accelerated. Primary school enrolment for refugee children rose from 50% in 2015 to 61% last year. But this is still far below the global rate of 92%.
Development resources are and must remain additional to humanitarian funding. I am deeply grateful for the strong confidence that UNHCR continues to receive from its donors. However the gap between requirements and available resources continues to grow and will reach 45% this year. Major crises in Africa – including in Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and South Sudan, are particularly affected.
This global compact on refugees will be the first of its kind in more than half a century – a powerful expression of multilateralism in today’s fragmented world.
It reflects a realistic balance of the interests and aspirations of host countries, of donors and of others, and is informed by decades of experience in addressing refugee crises.
Refugee issues, by nature, have always been related to broader political dynamics. But more and more frequently, refugees and migrants have become targets and casualties of divisive political agendas, of complex bilateral relations between states, and of regional and international politics around major crises.
We must find a way to shake off the politics – and bring attention back to what matters – dignity, rights, and shared humanity.
The compact can help us do just that – as a call to action, and a practical, concrete instrument in which responsibility is shared through predictable arrangements and tangible contributions.
I urge you to give it your strong support as we move forward to implementation.
Over the past months, I have met many refugees and displaced people, and have been constantly reminded of why this is such a compelling priority.
Refugees and local people in Kalobeyei, Kenya, sharing services, land, and economic opportunities in a new, inclusive arrangement that provides opportunities for investment and makes them partners in a shared future.
Internally displaced people returning each day to the rubble of Eastern Ghouta, Syria, rebuilding their homes, brick by brick.
Refugee entrepreneurs in Iran, creating jobs for refugees and local people through their ingenuity and application.
A community of Colombians – themselves displaced – opening their homes to Venezuelans crossing the border.
Their courage, resilience, and determination to overcome adversity and build a future must be our inspiration.
I hope that they will look back and see a moment when life changed for them. A moment when practical people came together to chart a course towards a better, fairer, more equitable response to refugee crises, shielded from the vagaries of politics, adapted to our challenging world.
It will be up to all of us to make it work; to ensure that its promise becomes a reality for them, and the millions of refugees and displaced people around the world who are counting on us.