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Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the General Assembly, 65th Session

Speeches and statements

Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the General Assembly, 65th Session

2 November 2010

Agenda Item 61: 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 Tuesday, 2 November 2010, 10 a.m.

Check against delivery

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates,

In this first address to you since being re-elected in April, I would like to begin my remarks by exploring the increasing resilience of conflict and its implications for UNHCR.

Last year was the worst in two decades for the voluntary repatriation of refugees. Only some 250,000 returned home. That is about one quarter of the annual average over the past ten years.

There is a simple explanation for this. The changing nature and growing intractability of conflict make achieving and sustaining peace more difficult.

Traditionally, UN and regional peacekeeping missions were deployed when arms had fallen silent. Missions operated with the consent of the parties and their objectives were generally limited to stabilizing situations so peace could be consolidated.

Today's "blue helmets" face a different reality. They are often deployed while violence is still going on, in internal conflicts characterized by a multiplicity of actors, a proliferation of weapons and, inevitably, banditry.

Distinctions between military and non-military spheres have become blurred. As a result, both civilians and the humanitarians trying to help them, end up being targeted. This is why we continue to insist on the need to preserve the autonomy of humanitarian space.

As a result of never-ending conflicts, we are witnessing the creation of a number of quasi-permanent, global refugee populations, of which Afghans and Somalis are the most obvious.

The vast majority of Afghan refugees, 96 percent of the total, reside in the Islamic Republics of Pakistan and Iran. Both countries have demonstrated - and continue to demonstrate - extraordinary generosity.

Pakistan has been hosting Afghan refugees - currently numbering 1.7 million - for thirty years. Even the massive displacement resulting from the calamity of the recent flooding has not imperiled their welcome.

Prioritizing support for the conditions that will allow voluntary return, the Pakistani Government recently announced its Management and Repatriation Strategy for Afghan Refugees, which UNHCR is helping to implement. It foresees the replacement and extension of the Proof of Registration cards for Afghan refugees and the provision of an estimated 200,000 new cards to unregistered family members. As many as one million birth certificates are to be issued to registered Afghan children and profiling is being undertaken to identify individuals with specific protection needs, as well as the feasibility of alternative status options, such as work and study permits.

In Iran, the more than one million Afghan refugees in the country are permitted to remain on the basis of regularly conducted registration exercises. Based on a Presidential Decree issued last year, all Afghan children, whether refugees or not, are allowed to go to school. Pending their eventual voluntary return, Iran has since 2009 issued over 300,000 work permits to Afghan refugees in the country. And together with UNHCR, the Government is exploring other measures to improve the livelihood opportunities for refugees.

Distinguished delegates,

Beyond Pakistan and Iran, Afghan refugees are dispersed across 69 other countries - a third of all the States in the world.

With insecurity in many parts of Afghanistan, compounded by worsening economic and educational prospects, Afghan youth are fleeing or seeking opportunities elsewhere.

The risks to which these young travelers are exposed are extreme. They tell of being mistreated and forcibly separated from family members by smugglers,

  • of being detained, beaten and deported along their route,

  • of being held as forced labourers or passed on to traffickers,

  • of fellow travelers suffocating in the backs of trucks or drowning at sea - sometimes due to the deliberate sinking of their boats,

  • of sleeping rough and sometimes - even when they reach their destination - going without food or access to proper sanitation or medical care.

No one should have to endure these conditions - certainly no child. All minors need shelter, food, medical care, a chance to go to school, and a qualified guardian.

Distinguished delegates,

Of the nearly 700,000 Somali refugees in the world at the end of 2009, approximately half were in Kenya and a quarter in Yemen, with increasing numbers in Ethiopia and Djibouti. Every month, approximately 8,000 more flee the country.

Today, we see Somali refugees everywhere - another truly global refugee situation.

I do not believe there is any group of refugees as systematically undesired, stigmatized and discriminated against as Somalis.

Many have perished in deserts or been shot trying to cross borders.

They can be targeted for recruitment by parties to the conflict and have in many places been subjected to security crackdowns and roundups, and xenophobic and racist attacks.

No one knows how many have drowned trying to reach safety in the Arabian Peninsula or elsewhere.

Even when they reach safety, some still go without food, shelter or other assistance. It is difficult to paint a picture more dire than that of the Somali refugee.

With prospects for a durable peace presently limited, Somalis will continue to wander the world in search of safety and a chance to provide for themselves.

States need to provide these vulnerable people with protection, in line with the updated eligibility guidelines UNHCR issued earlier this year. Given the current environment, we strongly urge States to refrain from enforcing returns to Mogadishu.

Distinguished delegates,

Somalis are by no means the only refugees unable to repatriate due to the persistence of conflict.

Over half of the refugees for whom UNHCR is responsible live in protracted situations. There are 25 such situations today, in 21 countries.

This burden is borne disproportionately by the developing world, where four-fifths of all refugees live. Combined with the continuing impact of the global financial and economic crisis, the resources of host countries are under serious strain.

A better understanding and recognition by the international community of the contribution made by host countries is needed. UNHCR's Policy Development and Evaluation Service has been tasked with commissioning an independent study to measure the economic and social impact of hosting refugees, including, as far as possible, its financial quantification.

A new deal on burden-sharing is essential to ensure that the generosity of host countries and communities is matched by solidarity from the developed world.

As our partners have observed, every protracted situation needs a comprehensive approach, with solutions tailored to the circumstances of the refugees, their host countries, and their countries of origin.

Distinguished delegates,

Resettlement is a tangible and effective example of burden-sharing. It allows refugees who cannot find safety or a durable solution in their first country of asylum, usually in the developing world, to take up residence in another country, most often in the developed world.

UNHCR made resettlement submissions for over 128,000 refugees in 2009 - more than double the number in 2005. The number of departures - that is, of refugees who traveled to their new homes - was also up, to just under 85,000.

Two dozen countries now operate resettlement programs. But a huge gap remains between the need for resettlement and available places. UNHCR estimates that 800,000 refugees qualify for resettlement, yet the number of places available annually is only about 10 percent of that, or less than 1 percent of the total number of refugees in the world.

Resettlement is a critical protection tool but also a strategic instrument for unblocking refugee situations of long duration. I appeal to countries to establish or expand their resettlement programmes.

Despite the lower number of refugees able to return to their countries in conditions of safety and dignity last year, voluntary repatriation remains a vital solution. Indeed, with major conflicts failing to resolve, it becomes all the more important to act on the opportunities which do exist for voluntary return.

Only with resettlement and voluntary return maximized, and a more equitable sharing of the responsibility for hosting refugees, can we hope to see more receptivity to local integration.

In this regard, I would like once again to acknowledge the profound generosity of the United Republic of Tanzania in granting naturalization to more than 162,000 Burundian refugees in the country since 1972. Tanzania needs and deserves our support.

Distinguished delegates,

The prevention of statelessness is an integral part of UNHCR's mandate.

At the end of 2009, there were 6.6 million persons around the world known to be stateless, though unofficial estimates range as high as 12 million.

Important efforts have been taken recently by a number of States to improve their national laws to reduce the risk of statelessness. Viet Nam has naturalized a first group of former refugees from Cambodia who were stateless, and revised its legislation to make naturalization for stateless persons and the re-acquisition of nationality by former citizens easier. A number of other countries improved their birth registration systems, which is crucial to preventing statelessness.

Bangladesh and Zimbabwe introduced reforms recognizing the right of women to confer nationality on their children on an equal basis with men. Kenya's new constitution grants women equality with men in this regard. A similar reform is pending in Tunisia. In a number of other countries, however, women remain unable to pass their citizenship on to their children. UNHCR is organizing a major effort in 2011 to advocate for legislative reforms so that mothers and fathers are equally able to pass their citizenship on to their children. I call on all States to support us in this initiative.

Distinguished delegates,

In the context of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee guidance and the humanitarian reform process, UNHCR is also at the forefront of the international community's response to people displaced within the borders of their own countries as a result of conflict.

There are an estimated 27 million persons internally displaced by conflict in the world today. For many years now, the majority of the world's uprooted have been displaced within their own countries. The primary responsibility for responding to situations of internal displacement rests with States. In many cases, however, the challenge of responding is simply overwhelming.

A remarkable and pioneering achievement was the adoption last year, at the African Union Special Summit in Kampala, of the Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa. We continue to strongly urge countries to ratify this instrument.

At the global level, the response of the humanitarian community to internal displacement continues to evolve. In this context, UNHCR has assumed responsibility for leading the response to conflict-induced internal displacement in the areas of protection, shelter and camp management.

For people displaced internally by natural disasters, UNHCR was tasked by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee to assume the lead for the protection cluster at the global level, but a gap remains at the country level.

With natural disasters becoming more frequent and more severe, an ad hoc approach to the leadership of the protection cluster at the country level is no longer sustainable.

I believe that UNHCR should, in the context of the inter-agency approach, be able to fill that gap, but in light of concerns expressed by Member States in relation to our capacity to do so, a clear set of conditions should govern UNHCR's assumption of any additional responsibilities:

  • UNHCR would only become involved with the clear consent of the State concerned;

  • Our involvement would only be undertaken if requested by the Humanitarian Coordinator, in close consultation with the Government and relevant partner agencies, allowing UNHCR to fill the gap if no other agency is better suited to do so; and

  • Resources for responding to natural disasters would not come at the expense of UNHCR's programmes for refugees or stateless persons. Indeed, the evidence to date is that our increased role with people internally displaced has increased synergies so that more resources are available for all persons of concern, including refugees.

We are not suggesting a change in UNHCR's mandate or an expanded role for UNHCR in any of the clusters where leadership is already clear. But we believe it is our duty, when and if necessary, to support Governments in the context of natural disasters, with our expertise in areas such as registration and documentation, the identification of vulnerable persons and in the prevention of and response to sexual and gender-based violence. Further informal consultations will now take place with our Executive Committee members.

Distinguished delegates,

I will now highlight some of the key results of our reform process.

In 2005, prior to the reform, we had approximately 1,000 staff in Geneva, nearly 7,100 worldwide and a total expenditure of about 1.1 billion US dollars.

Today, we have 702 staff in Geneva, about 7,200 worldwide and the total volume of our activities in 2009 was over 1.7 billion dollars. In other words, we have increased our operations by 60 per cent with approximately the same number of staff worldwide and 30 percent fewer in Geneva.

Increased efficiency translates into more resources for the people we care for. Savings in budgeted staff costs, for example, allowed us to address critical gaps in the areas of malaria, malnutrition, reproductive health, and water and sanitation, and in the prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence.

The process has not been without its hurdles, and a few reforms are still in progress. Chief among these is resolving interface problems between our key software tools in order to fully exploit the potential of results-based management. One of the lessons we have learned from the difficulties we have encountered is that we should avoid developing complex software products in-house. Currently, the Division of Information Systems and Telecoms is being comprehensively restructured, and a number of services being decentralized to bring them closer to our operations in the field.

Due to the sensitive character of reforms related to human resource policies for assignments, promotions, contracts and recruitment, a premium was placed on achieving these through a dialogue between staff and management. Following agreement in the Joint Advisory Committee, a new assignments policy was adopted in June. Discussions are well advanced on the related policy for promotions. Deliberations on recruitment, conversions, and contracts will follow.

In terms of oversight, we are establishing a fully independent Advisory and Audit Committee.

Distinguished delegates,

UNHCR's transition to a needs-based budget - the GNA, or Global Needs Assessment allows us to more accurately reflect the needs of the people we care for. To fully fund it, we hope to secure additional resources from traditional donors but we are also significantly reinforcing our efforts to attract new donors, and setting ambitious targets for fundraising from the private sector. Unprecedented donor support throughout my first mandate makes me optimistic in this regard.

The GNA will only work, however, if donors resist the temptation to earmark contributions for activities outside established priorities.

Having reduced Headquarters costs from 14 to 9.5 per cent of total expenditure, and staff costs from over 42 per cent to under 29 per cent, we can guarantee that a greater share of unearmarked funding is dedicated to people we care for in forgotten crises and not to cover internal costs.

Distinguished delegates,

In 2010 and beyond, our priorities in developing UNHCR's capacity will focus on protection, and emergency preparedness and response.

Protection staffing benchmarks were issued in March, to guide offices on appropriate levels of personnel for protection functions in various operational contexts.

Through the Division of International Protection and the Global Learning Centre, we will enhance protection learning opportunities for both UNHCR personnel and partners. We are expanding the range of thematic protection learning programmes, including on how to respond to people displaced internally by conflict and natural disasters, and increasing external training opportunities.

With more refugees now living in cities than camps, we issued last year a new urban refugee policy, and will be conducting a series of real-time evaluations this fall in a number of pilot countries.

At the heart of all these efforts is partnership - particularly with national partners who account for about three-quarters of all UNHCR's implementing arrangements. Over the last 15 years, our national protection partnerships have doubled.

In terms of emergency preparedness and response, our fundamental objective is to respond immediately to the needs of displaced populations by mobilizing emergency personnel and dispatching the first relief items within 72 hours. To do so, we maintain stocks of shelter and relief items for up to 500,000 people, over and above the resources required for our ongoing programmes.

The quick succession of crises this past summer in Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, together with our contingency stockpiling for situations in the east and Horn of Africa, underlined how important it has been for us to be able to respond to more than one emergency at the same time, as well as to preserve sufficient financial capacity to begin operations without having to wait for an appeal.

The Emergency roster is being reinforced with senior level UNHCR personnel and skill sets from across the organization. A comprehensive training strategy for protection, security and emergency response is already being implemented, and a Global Stock Management System and delivery plan of action have been established.

UNHCR is also developing a new set of partnerships with the corporate sector in order to define a strategy and promote a number of projects to make full use of technological innovations in refugee protection, assistance and the search for durable solutions. Presently, these efforts are focused on renewable energy and information technology and telecommunications, especially mobile systems and other devices.

Distinguished delegates,

I would like in conclusion to briefly mention the upcoming anniversaries in 2011 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and the birth of Fridtjof Nansen.

We foresee a year of activities culminating in a Ministerial level meeting of States Parties to the Refugee and Statelessness Conventions, in Geneva in December 2011. At that time, we hope States will be able to pledge concrete actions to reinforce international protection, provide durable solutions, resolve refugee situations, and to define forward-looking approaches to address new challenges.

The commemorations will provide an opportunity to step up our efforts to promote accessions to the 1954 and 1961 statelessness Conventions, and to finalize a range of advocacy, doctrinal and policy tools for combating statelessness. They will also provide a valuable platform from which to promote increased public understanding and support for forcibly displaced and stateless people.

We hope - through the commemorations - to forge a new consensus on protection, extending beyond the scope of persons covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention. We are not suggesting to revise that Convention. Rather, we want to encourage examination of the protection gaps in the context of people on the move and see if there are new ways to think about - and do - protection.

With the commitment and leadership of Member States, we have an opportunity to frame a new "protection compact," with new forms of collaboration and partnership, and possibly even new legal instruments.

Together with our partners in the non-governmental sector, who help make asylum, resettlement and repatriation possible, I believe we can make 2011 a very special year.

Thank you very much.