Remarks by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Launch of the "State of the World's Refugees," London, 19 April 2006
Welcome, and my sincere thanks to Mr. Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for International Development. The Department for International Development is one of UNHCR's closest partners.
I am proud to present State of the World's Refugees: Human Displacement in the New Millennium. There have been four previous editions of State of the World's Refugees, which offer insights into the situation and needs of refugees, analyses of worldwide trends and a wealth of information. They reflect what we in UNHCR, as well as prominent figures in humanitarian affairs and refugee law, see as the pressing issues of the day.
Global refugee figures are at their lowest level in almost 25 years, to just over nine million at the beginning of 2005. Several sizeable repatriation operations have contributed to this decrease, led by Afghanistan where more than four million people have returned home since 2002. This is an extremely positive trend: helping people go home is one of the most noble jobs we do at UNHCR.
At the same time, we continue to watch developments in several areas with great concern. The situation in Chad and Sudan makes up the largest and most complex humanitarian problem on the globe. It has been well-covered in the international press - fortunately - but the hardships and human rights violations have gone on for so long that they begin to seem routine. Problems in other regions are developing well out of the public eye, but could also result in massive human displacement.
To celebrate repatriation, it must be sustainable. While pleased at being able to offer refugees the opportunity to repatriate, the act always gives us pause. Even if the conflict that prompted people to flee is over, too often little else is in place to help people start over. Existing links between humanitarian aid and development efforts are not sufficient. Factors like the current drought in many parts of Africa are obstacles that a returning family cannot overcome on its own, leading to new displacement.
While refugee numbers have fallen, a larger percentage of people are spending more time in exile. We call the operations and the dozens of camps where refugees have spent more than five years 'protracted situations'. Today, there are 33 cases where at least 25,000 people have spent that long in exile. The failure to find timely solutions, both political and humanitarian, for such an enormous number of people demonstrates a lack of interest in solving the problem.
"We call the operations and the dozens of camps where refugees have spent more than five years 'protracted situations'."
We must remember why refugees flee in the first place. A moment to talk with a family escaping Darfur, and you will never forget. There, as elsewhere, recurrent insecurity means rampant human rights violations and has made humanitarian interventions in many areas next to impossible. There must be concerted international efforts to protect civilians, and the commitment to intervene before it is too late.
"We must remember why refugees flee in the first place. A moment to talk with a family escaping Darfur, and you will never forget."
Security for people of concern, but also for humanitarian workers. Being where people need us means operating in insecure areas. Last month UNHCR lost a colleague after an armed attack on our office in Yei, Sudan, bringing to twenty-two the number of UNHCR staff killed in the line of duty since 1990.
While refugee figures are down, the number of people displaced within their own country by conflict or unrest has not fallen. With the increase of civil wars and internal conflicts, more people seek safety within the borders of their own country than in neighbouring states. Three conflicts alone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and Colombia, presently account for as many internally displaced - estimated to be over nine million - as there are refugees worldwide.
The humanitarian community has finally taken strides to aid IDPs. The Secretary of State is quoted here as saying: "Is it really sensible that we have different systems for dealing with people fleeing their homes dependent on whether they happen to have crossed an international border? I have my doubts." I could not agree more with the Secretary of State. Not helping people who have fled their homes because they have not run or walked far enough has been one of the humanitarian community's most glaring failures, and we are pleased to be a part of the solution. UNHCR is taking an active part in the new, more proactive approach to internally displaced people, and I wish to thank the Secretary of State for his personal engagement in bringing about this change.
As a protection agency, one of the greatest challenges we face today is the asylum-migration nexus. In the past few years asylum issues and refugee protection have become inextricably linked with the question of international migration, particularly irregular migration. Untangling the two means timely protection interventions to detect those in genuine need. UNHCR does not intend to become a migration agency. But migration requires our attention and that we be vigilant of its effects on the right to asylum. While UNHCR recognizes it is the prerogative of states to control their borders and manage migration, such measures should not preclude the right of those in real need to adequate procedures in accordance with international law.
Procedures such as refugee status determination are part of the need to preserve asylum where this is a tradition, and to nurture it where it is not. In the first category I would place the European Union, which has such a tradition and which I believe strongly must remain a continent of asylum. My recent missions to Russia and China have convinced me that those countries may also become key parts of the global asylum system.
My Office also sees worrying trends. Xenophobia, racism, fundamentalism and religious extremism have combined to put enormous pressure on asylum and protection systems. Core elements of refugee rights are being questioned. Modern societies in particular should show the way in rejecting irrational fears and populism.
I would like to issue an appeal today. All of us - civil servants, media, opinion leaders - must do our part to embrace tolerance. The fundamental principles of asylum depend on it.