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Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Third Committee of the General Assembly, 67th Session

Speeches and statements

Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Third Committee of the General Assembly, 67th Session

7 November 2012

Agenda Item 62: Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons and humanitarian questions

United Nations Headquarters, New York Wednesday, 7 November 2012, 10:00 a.m.

As delivered

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates,

Our collective capacity to respond to the suffering of those uprooted by conflict and persecution is now being put to the test in unforeseen ways.

In 2011, as crises unfolded in Côte d'Ivoire, the Horn of Africa, Libya and Yemen, more than 800,000 people crossed borders in search of refuge - an average of more than 2,000 refugees every day. This was higher than at any time in the last decade.

And so far this year, more than three quarters of a million people have fled as refugees from Mali, Syria, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This enormous pressure brings tough choices, at a time when the demands on UNHCR are rising, but resources remain at the same level. How do we choose between ensuring a timely and effective emergency response to these new crises, and investing in solutions for the millions of refugees from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Myanmar, Somalia and elsewhere living in protracted exile?

In reality, it is not a question of choosing one or the other, but of finding the right balance. In a major refugee crisis, in which people are fleeing across borders and lives are at risk, the emergency response cannot be postponed. But we also cannot abandon people living in protracted despair simply because their plight has fallen off the radar of the media, because political priorities have shifted elsewhere or because their situation is seemingly less dramatic.

Our extended investment in reinforcing UNHCR's emergency preparedness and response capability is now paying dividends. The concept of corporate responsibility for emergencies has been embedded throughout the organization. Our rosters, both internal and external, have been strengthened. We are building the emergency response capacity of our national partners. And we have professionalized our supply service, including our airlift capacity. In 92% of UNHCR airlifts, delivery now takes place within 72 hours of the request being made.

At the same time, we continue our pursuit of solutions to protracted displacement. These ultimately lie in the political arena, through the resolution of conflict - a task which lies beyond the mandate of humanitarian actors. But much can be done to advance the prospect of solutions from the beginning of an emergency, including through conflict-sensitive approaches in our own operations, advocacy to highlight the humanitarian consequences of a conflict escalation, early investment in education and self-reliance, and the use of cash and voucher-based support mechanisms which empower displaced people to determine and address their own priority needs.

Early investments are needed to help refugees retain and reinforce their social and economic capital, and the skills they need to build a vision of a future. Without this, disillusionment and despair can easily set in.

We also have to remain ready to respond to windows of opportunity, especially for voluntary repatriation. The majority of those who fled the Côte d'Ivoire crisis in early 2011 have already returned home. I hope that positive developments in Somalia will also start to pave the way towards solutions for refugees from that country.

We continue to pursue new ways of placing displacement firmly on the development agenda, including through the Transitional Solutions Initiative. This is currently being piloted, together with UNDP, in Eastern Sudan and Colombia. And we are working closely with UNDP, OCHA and other partners to implement the recent decision of the Secretary General's Policy Committee on Durable Solutions.

A new Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees developed by the Islamic Republics of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, together with UNHCR, was endorsed at an international conference in May. A regional plan for the Western Balkans was also launched earlier this year. We continue to explore complementary approaches to the traditional durable solutions, including through temporary migration and other mobility-related initiatives.

In Africa, strategies for comprehensive solutions are now helping to bring the long-standing Angolan, Burundian, Liberian and Rwandan refugee situations to a close in the near future.

We also remain extremely grateful to the 26 States, led by the United States, Australia and Canada, with a growing number of European and Latin American countries, who continue to accept refugees for resettlement. Almost 80,000 refugees were admitted last year, some 61,600 with UNHCR's assistance.

It would be a tragic mistake to allow our collective commitment to solutions to lose momentum - both because of the impact it would have on the lives of those living in protracted displacement, and because ultimately, early investment in solutions reduces the human and financial costs in the long run.

And we should not forget the wide ranging consequences of unresolved refugee situations for the communities who host them. Host countries in protracted refugee situations make significant, long-term contributions which are complex and multi-dimensional, and for that reason, less visible than other forms of assistance.

I am committed to finding ways in which these contributions can be more tangibly recognized. Upholding and sustaining the right to asylum requires strong, timely and sustained international solidarity and burden-sharing, in the form of financial, technological and political support, and enhanced resettlement programmes.

* * *

Distinguished delegates,

The succession of crises currently unfolding in Syria, Mali, South Sudan/ Sudan and the DRC is radically testing UNHCR's capacity to deliver on our mandate in an increasingly demanding environment.

As well as cooperating to assist and protect the internally displaced in the countries concerned, UNHCR is leading the international refugee response in the eleven countries that surround them.

All this is occurring in the context of a global economic crisis, in which budgets are increasingly stretched. We are enormously grateful to our donors, who have demonstrated significant and consistent commitment to supporting our operations.

Fortunately, we ended 2011 in a very solid financial situation. We spent $2.18 billion last year, with an implementation rate of 96% of the operating level determined by the budget committee. The carry over into 2012 was almost exactly equal to that with which we started the year, a clear indication of financial stability at that time.

Thanks to our donors' generosity, we are now projecting for 2012 a level of voluntary contributions similar in dollar terms to 2011.

But the problem is that we are now at a moment when the demands upon us are rising, while the means available to respond have remained at the same level.

For several years until late 2010, the biggest humanitarian emergencies were the result of natural disasters, such as the Haiti earthquake and the Pakistan floods, or large-scale man-made internal displacement, such as in Sri Lanka, the DRC and Pakistan.

But in 2011 and 2012, the most significant crises have been refugee emergencies, or have had a large refugee component. In these emergencies, the distinct responsibilities attached to our refugee mandate require us to assure the global coordination role, and to step in as provider of last resort if all else fails. This puts enormous pressure on our human and financial resources.

Even with a conservative estimate of remaining needs for the last two months of 2012, our total expenditure will exceed last year's one, while our resources have remained the same. In 2013 we will have to continue to manage the ongoing implications of recent crises alongside our regular operations, while maintaining the capacity to respond to new emergencies. In today's unpredictable operating environment, this is a matter of deep concern as we were forced to exhaust in 2012 our reserves that had been accumulated in recent months.

At this time of economic crisis, I am aware of the pressures on humanitarian aid budgets. Yet curtailing humanitarian assistance will turn out to be more costly in the long run. I have therefore appealed to all our donors in the Executive Committee - both traditional and non-traditional donors - for additional support at this critical juncture, in which our financial capacity has been stretched to the limit.

* * *

Distinguished Delegates,

In the course of 2012, we undertook a series of reviews to ensure the most responsible and efficient use of our resources taking into account the very stretched financial situation. We took measures that led to $60 million in additional savings in Headquarters and in our regular operations, being able to divert these to new emergencies.

This of course entailed difficult dilemmas, as we sought to sustain the key pillars of our ongoing operations at the same time as responding to the new demands upon us. We took care to ensure that our investment in life-saving services and key protection priorities was not affected, and that our commitments to Government and NGO partners were maintained. We also undertook a robust review of procurement plans, and placed controls on stockpile replenishment. In 2013, we will undertake a limited workforce reduction, and will continue to apply cost-saving measures.

The recent crises highlighted the value of our multi-year investment in institutional reforms, aimed at improving our organizational performance, efficiency and delivery. These enabled us to drive down costs with a slimmer and more streamlined headquarters - headquarters costs came down in five years from 14 percent to less than nine percent of our total costs - and with a sharper focus on strategic direction, accountability and control, and strengthened operational capacity in the field.

We are now investing significantly in measures to improve our financial management and programme oversight capability, to professionalize our approach to risk management, and to place accountability in the heart of our operations.

The value of un-earmarked funding has also become increasingly apparent. Un-earmarked funds are critical in enabling us to prioritize compelling protection needs which might otherwise go uncovered, and give us the flexibility to respond swiftly to new emergencies. Thanks to the structural reforms I mentioned, only 13 percent of un-earmarked funds are now spent in headquarters - those were the figures of 2011 - and the largest proportion of un-earmarked funding is going into the Africa operations.

* * *

Distinguished Delegates,

As we strive to manage the implications of the new emergencies, we have also sought to maintain our commitment to strengthening UNHCR's own protection capacity. But we recognize that the key role in protection is played by Member States.

In all the major refugee emergencies in 2011 and 2012, neighboring States kept their borders open and respected the principle of non-refoulement. They also provided a safe haven and allowed refugees to stay. This is a very visible and profound statement of their commitment to refugee protection, and underscores that the right to asylum remains a core common value.

Their commitment is particularly striking in view of the wide-ranging consequences which the large-scale arrival of refugees entails for the communities receiving them, especially in the developing world. For host countries, this has a significant social and economic impact, on top of the political and security implications of a conflict nearby. It makes major demands on local infrastructure and the environment.

Distinguished Delegates,

The commitment of Member States to refugee protection was also highlighted in the landmark ministerial meeting which we hosted in December last year. This commemorated the anniversaries of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1961 Convention on the reduction of statelessness. Ninety-two countries made pledges in relation to refugees and asylum-seekers, including on durable solutions, and twenty-two on the protection of the internally displaced.

A number of States, led by Norway and Switzerland, also undertook to initiate a global debate on how to address protection gaps in relation to cross-border displacement linked to sudden-onset disasters, including those triggered by climate change. And very significantly, sixty-one countries made pledges in relation to statelessness, resulting in a series of accessions to the Statelessness Conventions already this year.

We need decisive action to resolve the situation of millions of people around the world who have been stateless for generations, with profound implications for their human rights. Solutions are needed now. Working together, I believe that we can bring an end to statelessness within the next decade.

In addition to the ministerial meeting, we also co-organized an International Ministerial Conference on Refugees in the Muslim World, together with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Government of the Republic of Turkmenistan. This took place in Ashgabat in May.

And in December, our Dialogue on Protection will focus on Faith and Protection, building on the importance of shared common values in all religious traditions and the valuable role played by faith communities in caring for displaced and stateless people.

In the coming year, we will continue to work with States to address critical protection gaps. We have just issued updated guidelines on detention of asylum seekers and refugees, which emphasize that it should be used only as a last resort, and we will work closely with Governments to promote their application. We also plan to launch a process of consultation on the concept of temporary protection, to explore further its potential role in addressing contemporary cross-border protection challenges.

We are also actively reinforcing UNHCR's own protection capacity and delivery. There has been an increase of 70% in the number of UNHCR protection positions worldwide since 2005, and protection staff now constitute 26% of our workforce, as against 19% seven years ago.

We are currently focusing on a number of key protection priorities, including the roll-out of an updated strategy on preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence, our new child protection framework, and a new five-year education strategy. We are also committed to implementing our urban refugee policy.

* * *

Distinguished Delegates,

Partnership remains a cornerstone of UNHCR's work. In recent years, the capacity and architecture of the humanitarian system has evolved significantly. This has presented strengthened opportunities for a range of partnerships with governments, national and international NGOs, UN sister agencies, the International Organisation for Migration, and the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement. We see these partnerships as more and more strategic in nature.

We remain actively engaged in the development of the Transformative Agenda, under the leadership of the Emergency Relief Coordinator, and maintain our commitment to the enhanced responsibilities we have assumed in relation to the protection of the internally displaced, under the cluster approach.

In 2012, despite the growing number of refugee emergencies, we mobilized an increased amount of un-earmarked funding for operations for the internally displaced.

Our responsibilities for refugees are qualitatively different from the responsibilities for internally displaced people, because of the nature of UNHCR's refugee mandate and their distinct status in international law. For the internally displaced, the primary responsibility, of course, lies with States, and our role is part of a shared inter-agency commitment under the cluster approach.

Determining whether to prioritize refugee or internal displacement programmes sometimes leads to very difficult dilemmas, at a time when our resources are insufficient to cover all the demands on us. But ultimately, our decisions must be driven by the overarching imperative of responding to the most acute needs. Human dignity is not dependent on legal status.

We remain focused on seeking synergies between refugee coordination mechanisms under UNHCR's leadership and broader humanitarian coordination, as happened for example, in the Syria and Mali crises, and to explore opportunities for our partners to play a stronger and more predictable role in planning, coordination and delivery in refugee emergencies.

* * *

We also continue to invest in robust measures to enable our staff to operate safely. Tragically, two UNHCR staff have lost their lives in 2012, one in Syria and one in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I would like to express my profound solidarity with their families, and to recognize the very tangible contribution they made to the protection of the people we care for.

Today's aid workers are exposed to increasing insecurity - in part because of the indiscriminate nature of violence, and in part because of the changing nature of conflict, in which criminal motivations and radical foreign-sponsored ideologies become entwined with political aspirations.

We go on investing in protective hardware and equipment, staff training, and working to ensure that our cohort of field safety staff has the necessary analytical and communication skills. But the best way to ensure staff safety remains by cultivating positive relationships with the communities we serve, and by adhering strictly to the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence.

* * *

Distinguished Delegates,

We live in dangerous times, in an unpredictable world. More and more people are forced to flee in search of refuge.

Why are we seeing the proliferation of largely unanticipated crises?

The roots lie in part in a series of inter-connected global trends - accelerated demographic, climatic, social and economic change, incomplete democratization processes, a failure to address marginalization and inequality, and competition for scarce resources.

But they also lie in the limited capacity of the international community for the prevention and timely resolution of conflict.

I began my engagement in Portuguese politics when we were living in a bipolar world. When I held office in my country, the unipolar world reached its apex. There was never a true global governance system, much less a democratic one, but there were clear power relations.

Today the world is no longer bipolar or unipolar, but neither are we witnessing a structured multipolar world. We still do not have an effective global governance system, but power relations have become unclear.

As a result, conflicts emerge where they are least expected. Unpredictability has become the name of the game. Violence erupts, often under the most chaotic of circumstances, wreaking havoc and tearing whole societies apart.

And in the absence of a strong and effective international consensus aimed at their prevention and early resolution, new crises multiply and chronic ones persist. The humanitarian consequences are increasingly dramatic.

We all know that there is no humanitarian solution to a displacement crisis. The solution is always political. But current gaps in the collective capacity to generate sustainable political solutions mean that humanitarian action is needed more than ever.

I urge all Member States to renew their commitment to addressing the plight of all those who find themselves uprooted from their homes and communities, as the crises of today and tomorrow continue to unfold.

Thank you very much.