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Closing Remarks at High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges:
Protection and solutions in urban settings: engaging with cities

Speeches and statements

Closing Remarks at High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges:
Protection and solutions in urban settings: engaging with cities

19 December 2018

(Edited transcript of closing remarks)

It was good to start this final round of statements with a Deputy Mayor, and end with a representative of a very large and hospitable host country, so thank you all. Before closing the Dialogue, let me share a few thoughts with you.

First of all, I would like to thank you all for the very good discussions. We had more than 600 participants in this 11th High Commissioner’s Dialogue. This was the third High Commissioner’s Dialogue and I found that the level and quality of the debate, also in the various sessions, where a lot of the debate happens, was very good - perhaps the best of the three that I have participated in. So I think we are all learning and improving.

An important, practical point at the outset is that all the outcomes and summaries of the discussions that have taken place, will be placed as quickly as possible on the special website for the High Commissioner’s Dialogue, so they will be public and accessible to all participants and beyond.

If there is one general observation that I have to make, it is that there is a strong affinity – indeed, many affinities – between UNHCR and cities. As was mentioned, we have been working on these issues together for many years, but I have a feeling that, especially with the establishment of the Global Compact, we have now a more solid framework within which we discuss these same issues, and with more institutional and political commitment to make this succeed.

Because of the prominence that the refugee issue has taken in the past four or five years – sometimes negative prominence – that it has taken, this has somehow facilitated the creation of a context within which, I think, we can work concretely towards solutions. This affinity – and it’s not just between UNHCR and cities, but between all the partners gathered in this room, especially humanitarian organizations, human rights organizations, and cities and local governments – is because we are at the sharp end of the stick, are we not?

We are where refugee protection is made real. We are working where we have to confront challenges in very principled, but very pragmatic ways, focusing on delivery, focusing also in the case of refugees on that complex, delicate, sensitive relationship between refugees and host communities. This is why I think as we move towards implementation of the Global Compact cities, local governments, local institutions, together with civil society, will truly play a key role.

Many times in statements here and in debates in the breakout sessions, many of you quoted back to us the Global Compact, indicating specific paragraphs. We’re glad that you’ve read it carefully and know it well. This is a good sign and a good start. A very important message that comes from these two days of Dialogue is that most of what the compact says that cities do, or should do, comes directly from the situation they find themselves in.

The UNHCR team has been collectively reflecting today on the Dialogue. We have drawn five conclusions and five practical follow-up points from the discussions, and from the points conveyed to us through this Pigeonhole system yesterday and today.

First of all, the conclusions:

  1. Cities have a leadership role in this area.  Cities are of course very diverse, as we have seen very much yesterday and today. What was conveyed to us was a constellation of experiences and approaches. Even the cities represented here are different in size, in geographical location, and in the challenges they face. But there are some commonalities. One speaker, I quote, mentioned an eco-system of welcome. I think it’s a good expression, which captures how welcome is provided in so many different ways. So we at UNHCR really believe, even more so after this Dialogue, that cities have a key leadership role to play in shaping the narrative. This was such a strong theme, yesterday and today, about refugees, but also about migrants. We heard this in Marrakesh very strongly, and this is important.


Another important point under the first conclusion is that this leadership is underpinned by an approach that must be centred on dignity. One participant said earlier that when we talk about refugees as assets, certainly we must talk about refugees as contributors, as people that can give back, but there are also refugees who cannot do that because of the many vulnerabilities that we know. Their asset is their humanity, and this is what needs to underpin this eco-system of welcome, really founded on solidarity, beyond the very practical contributions that refugees can bring to their host societies.


  1. Inclusion is such an important word, perhaps one of the two or three most important ones in the Global Compact. As I mentioned yesterday, we cannot always get away from refugee camps, but refugee camps somehow always symbolize exclusion. Let’s move towards inclusion – all of you, in different ways, have talked about that. But it is important to flag that inclusion is not just beneficial to refugees, it can also be very beneficial to the host society.  Many examples of this – of refugees really giving back to communities who have welcomed them – have been mentioned. It was good to have refugees here amongst us and to hear that experience, because it confirms what we know about it.


We know very well from experience, as in Kakuma for example, that investments driven by refugees and by the presence of refugees can be of benefit to the economy of a city, of an urban area. One municipal representative said in one of the roundtables that shaping policies to welcome refugees has helped his city shape social policies that are beneficial to other groups, for example, the homeless. So really, I think it’s important to look at that as well. This is another way for refugees to contribute to the host society.


And, of course, cities also can allow us to carry out a much better mapping of vulnerabilities. A key conclusion on this second point is that the two-way participation of refugees and host communities in shaping this inclusion is fundamental. In this effort, the role of young refugees and young members of the host communities is equally important. I am very happy that in this Dialogue, there has been a very high participation of young people. It doesn’t always happen in this fora, but it was very visible here and I want to flag it as an important issue.


  1. The cities reminded us that we must not forget the ‘nuts and bolts’ – including the immediate and urgent pressures on infrastructures and on services. Those ‘pigeonhole’ comments that received the most votes related to shelter and housing. This is very fundamental.  We should not forget that we talk about inclusion, this calls for action on very practical issues: inclusion in education (as so many of you have mentioned), in health services, in financial services. These are fundamental pillars of access. There was a message also that access and inclusion are broader than just the hardware of inclusion; access to sports, raised in a roundtable yesterday on sports. This is very important, but also access to music, to arts, to cultural activities. This is what will allow better lives for refugees and better inclusion in host communities while they live there.  It is not just material things that make their lives better, but also those things that sports and arts allow, and help forge the fundamental human connections that were talked about.


But the ‘nuts and bolts’ mean money and resources. This is an overwhelming message that we have heard and that we must do something about. Resources are often a discussion in the refugee sphere between international organizations and governments. We must expand that discussion in order to make inclusion and welcome possible.


  1. The fourth conclusion relates to the debate about local and global. It is really a constant interaction between these two levels – local to global to local and back again. Cities pursue local efforts, but help shape a global response. Somehow, refugees bring the global dimension – for example, the global challenges that refugees represent in terms of solutions – to the local level. So this interaction between local and global is very important. Here, the issue of responsibility sharing comes to the fore very strongly.


The Compact can provide a key to how to improve responsibility sharing. But what does responsibility sharing really mean? How can we quantify it? This is particularly tough for host countries, for host cities. Responsibility sharing from their perspective is still very imbalanced and unfair, and I think that the Compact offers an opportunity to redress that imbalance slowly. It will not happen very quickly, but if we use its tools in decisive and appropriate ways, this can happen. And somehow, that international responsibility sharing which the Compact promotes has to be applied also nationally. This is a message that comes very strongly from all of you. You want more national responsibility sharing – between different cities, between the central government and the cities. As many of you have pointed out, the national governments are enablers; they have to create the right policies, and to provide the resources. I believe that responsibility sharing can also be improved on a horizontal level, not leaving some cities sharing all the burden - not leaving any mayor behind. This is really an important message. Now we have a Global Compact, perhaps we should consider something along the lines of national compacts, in line with what some participants have in effect described? We should almost go down to the city level and have local compacts between the different actors that contribute.


  1. The final conclusion is that we really must work together. This is what the Compact says, but it also became very obvious from the discussions here. In the spirit of the Compact, we must respond together to these crises, and it was good to have so many different partners around the table here. Global partners like Habitat, the World Bank, and the Member States themselves, but also national and local partners such as businesses, faith leaders, civil society, NGOs, private citizens, academia, and volunteers – many of whom were represented here. That diversity of response is vital to a more successful response to refugee crises, and it embodies the Compact.

Action points:

  1. UNHCR has an Urban Refugee Policy. It is exactly nine years old, so I think, in its tenth year, this Urban Policy will have to be reviewed, in light of many of the things that have emerged from this Dialogue and, of course, in light of the Compact. This is a commitment for UNHCR to take forward, in consultation with you as stakeholders in this matter.


  1. The role of cities will be an important aspect of the Global Compact follow-up.  This is institutionalized in the Compact in paragraph 37, which specifically mentions cities and local government as key players. Some of you have mentioned the digital platform, mentioned in paragraph 106 as a place to gather good practices and facilitate exchanges. We will make sure that after this Dialogue, ‘city issues’ will be included in the digital platform. This will allow us not only to look at good practices, but also identify gaps in tools and guidance. It will also allow us to link up with other aspects in the follow-up of the Global Compact – the establishment of academic networks, networks of business organizations, sports organizations and so forth. The digital platform will be an important tool to enable follow-up on this discussion and to stay in touch.


  1. The Global Refugee Forum, which of course in itself is a key aspect of Global Compact follow-up, will be co-hosted by UNHCR next year as you know. As co-host, UNHCR does not have the final say in everything related to the content or structure of the Forum but we will endeavour to make sure that in the Global Forum, a year from now, there will be a space for city involvement, drawing on the perspective of cities, their expertise, and also on the lessons learned in the year leading to the Forum. In fact, we hope that some governments may choose to have city representatives as part of their delegations.  This would enrich the Forum and would show cohesion and unity of intent between national and local level, which is one of the strongest messages of this Dialogue.


  1. On the issue of city networks; the message came loud and clear that there are many of these, and we should not create a new one. Paragraph 38 of the Global Compact talks about existing city networks, of which there are many. We therefore need to make sure that through those of you who are members and influential in city networks, we influence the discussion of those networks. I understand that the discussion in the networks is often very much at the policy level and seldom does it go to the granular, practical level, where you need solutions, actions, and support. As such, we need to influence the debates in the networks – to forge common approaches, work on bench marks for inclusion, access issues, and also resources, because I think through these networks we can improve the manner in which local governments and city governments can also have access to international resources. This was raised by many. That access is not always easy and here, UNHCR is ready to help make that link, taking advantage of relationships we have established through the Compact with development organizations, and international financial institutions. We are ready to play that role in refugee responses carried out by cities, and networks can also be used for that purpose.


  1. Finally, the issue of communications and advocacy was actively discussed in many parts of the Dialogue. Here, UNHCR is also very committed, because the message was very strong: how can we change the narrative? The cities represented here, the participants from civil society, and indeed all of us feel very strongly about solidarity, about welcoming people, about inclusion, and about all the themes that we have mentioned. But not all cities think the same. There are many others who do not. Even as we tweet about our experience here, there are many members of civil society that are ready to provide very critical remarks. We also need to reach out to them. This is what communication is about, in order to promote more positive narratives to tackle head-on the xenophobia and other forms of hostility that are growing so dramatically in all our societies – not just in the rich world, but all over the world. We will continue to debate this internally in UNHCR, but we will also reach out to many of you, because we need your cooperation, and especially that of like-minded cities, in developing a discourse; one that reaches beyond those who are already converted, to those that may be ‘in the middle’, whose anxiety may be exploited by unscrupulous politicians. These are the people we need to reach out to.

Let me conclude with a final comment that I already touched on yesterday, but is even clearer now, having listened to all the debates. I want to pay tribute to the courage and leadership of those among you – many of you – who are really leaders in this debate. This must necessarily include those cities, those local governments, that find themselves in situations of conflict, of violence and of extreme fragility. There are many of you here around this table. This is important, because local municipal leaders in those places, public servants, civil society representatives are battling to keep those services going, and sometimes even to provide protection for people who are displaced from other, even more disadvantaged countries or places. Often this battle, with no or very few resources, goes on for years and years. To that leadership, to that courage, I want to pay tribute.

I also want to pay tribute again to all those that provide visionary, civic leadership in these matters – to those of you who have kept doors open. The doors are often first and foremost at the local level, and this is where you can close or open them. So those of you, all of you, who have kept them open in all the different ways that we have heard, I want to pay tribute. If we can show to the world that keeping the doors open is not only right, but also good, we will have made a lot of progress. And this moment – with the Global Compact and the transformative opportunity that it provides –is a good one.

So let me conclude by again thanking you and reminding you that our next appointment in a year’s time is not a Dialogue, but the Global Refugee Forum in December 2019. That year, leading to that important moment of stocktaking and forward-looking commitment, starts today.

Thank you all.