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Statement to the G77 Group New York

Speeches and statements

Statement to the G77 Group New York

28 February 2017

Mr. Chairman,

Distinguished delegates,

Today 2,500 South Sudanese refugees will have crossed the border of Uganda in search of safety, as has happened, on average, for the past 7 months. As we meet here in New York, thousands of refugees - from Afghanistan, Somalia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Colombia, Myanmar and many other places - will be making difficult choices: return home to fragile situations; stay in exile, often in hardship; or move on and seek more security and better opportunities, yes, but amidst looming uncertainties and a growing sentiment of rejection by those receiving them.

Exile is one of the defining issues of our times: not only because millions have had to flee their homes; but also because refugees, regrettably, have become a crucial political issue. Today, we are at an important crossroads regarding how refugees are perceived, and how the world responds to their plight - one of the most important since my organization, UNHCR, was established by the General Assembly and started working in 1951.

My first key message is that refugees - women, men and children forced to leave their homes by human rights violations, violence and war - need international protection, more than ever. I am here therefore to recall the global reaffirmation of refugee protection and international solidarity so clearly expressed in last year's UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants, and the specific commitments made at the Leaders' Summit on the following day, here in New York.

Refugees are a global phenomenon, for which global solutions are required - all the more so in a world which is deeply interconnected, and in which how displacement is addressed in one place reverberates throughout the immediate region and beyond.

In the year since I took office, there have been important shifts in how global displacement is unfolding, and in the world's response. We have seen dramatic new outflows. The most severe displacement crisis has indeed occurred in South Sudan, where ethnic fractures and a rapid intensification of violence are fuelling a grave internal displacement crisis, and have led to an outflow of more than 640,000 refugees since last July. This is now exacerbated by famine, as livelihoods and markets are disrupted by conflict and drought takes its toll. Neighbouring countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda have stepped up to shoulder the consequences.

The crisis in South Sudan is emblematic. At a time when international attention is focused on the relatively small proportion of refugees arriving in industrialised countries, it is critical that we insist on directing global attention to the failures of political leadership, the vacuum of governance, the unchecked escalation and brutality of violence and conflict, driving tens of thousands of people from their homes around the world each day, most of them to neighbouring countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.

We estimate that more than 65 million people are currently displaced globally by conflict and persecution – either inside their own countries or as refugees. One might be tempted to conclude that the number of conflicts is increasing; in fact, evidence shows the opposite. One reputable research institution tells us that the number of active conflicts dropped from 62 to 40 between 2008 and 2015 - but the number of fatalities tripled, to almost 150,000 in 2015.

This corresponds entirely with what we at UNHCR see every day around the world - conflicts waged with a reckless disregard for human life, or in which civilians and the infrastructure needed to sustain life are often deliberately targeted, with the result that more and more people are either fleeing their homes, or are trapped and unable to do so. Conflicts today may be fewer in number, but they are broader and deeper in their human impact, and in their regional, and often international ramifications. Syria - with a staggering 60% of its pre-war population now displaced - is a striking example.

This simple truth must be constantly recalled. Refugees are fleeing instability, repression, criminality, and violent extremism, not causing them. I visited Aleppo and Homs in Syria just a few weeks ago. The degree of devastation was beyond anything I have witnessed in three decades as a humanitarian worker. That is what refugees are fleeing from. Granting access to safety and protection is therefore a fundamental humanitarian, and often life-saving act.

Mr. Chairman,

We must not forget that more than two thirds of the 65 million uprooted people are internally displaced. My second message today is that addressing state fragility and resolving the plight of internally displaced people are essential to stabilising and resolving broader population movements. In Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere, restoring rights and securing solutions for the internally displaced, and by extension to refugees hosted by neighboring countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Kenya and many others, requires humanitarian responses, but also new development instruments that can be utilized in situations for which traditional tools are inadequate. 

I hope that the important commitments made at the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan last October will be translated into action with a strong orientation towards solutions to displacement. The forthcoming IGAD Summit on Somali Refugees in the Horn and Near Region will also be an important platform for leveraging solutions for internally displaced Somalis and refugees, as well drawing the world’s attention to the devastating impact of the current drought. And the Brussels conference on Syria will hopefully maintain the momentum of last year’s London conference in supporting Syrians inside the country but also the almost five million refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

We must be alert to opportunities to build conditions that may lay the ground for eventual solutions. As I saw recently in Iraq, Syria and the Lake Chad region, shifts in the dynamics of territorial control may trigger spontaneous returns even as new displacement is taking place, and space may open up to strengthen protection in areas where communities remain fractured and affected by instability. This calls for a strong commitment by all parties to improve protection and facilitate humanitarian access, and for support from donors through adequate, flexible resources to respond to today's dynamic environments. Last week’s Oslo Humanitarian Conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region was a timely and important step in this regard.

My third message is one that my organization has been conveying for decades. The consequences of forced displacement fall disproportionately on the developing world. Many of your countries - Mr. Chairman, including your own, Ecuador - keep your borders open and generously grant protection and hospitality to hundreds of thousands of refugees, and often host them for years and even decades, and receive refugees directly from conflict zones around the world, effectively acting as shock absorbers, making an important contribution to regional and global stability, as well as to the human rights of refugees.

It is vital that this hospitality continues to be supported, and recognised as a shared responsibility deriving from the international character of the refugee problem, and of refugee protection. At a time when political discourse in many countries emphasizes national interest and responses, multilateralism remains a crucial instrument for addressing refugee flows and their broader impacts - including through UNHCR's mandated responsibilities for protection and solutions, and our role in mobilising and connecting States and others who play a role in securing these.

This is why it is essential to continue to uphold the 1951 Convention and other international refugee instruments. They enshrine important values and principles, but they also fully recognise the challenges presented by large refugee movements - including national security considerations, and the implications for local economies and infrastructure – and carefully balance the rights of refugees and the interests of states hosting them.

Here I would like to reiterate my call to all states to keep their doors open to refugees fleeing conflict and persecution, and to continue to uphold the fundamental principles of refugee protection. We have observed a worrying tendency towards limitations on entry to some countries, restrictions on access to registration and other forms of protection, the re-emergence of the language of 'safe zones' (which history tells us are generally anything but 'safe'), reductions in the quality of asylum, and pressure for returns that are less than voluntary. 

We must also continue to direct international attention to the enormous consequences of large movements of refugees for the communities and societies hosting them, at the same moment in which conflict nearby is affecting, security, politics, tradeand sometimes tourism.

There is, of course, growing evidence that over time, and with the right approaches and investments, the presence of refugees can bring benefits to the communities hosting them. But fundamentally, upholding protection requires resources. Without adequate support, protection systems buckle, refugee assets are depleted, and in the absence of prospects to rebuild their lives, refugees find themselves either excluded and abandoned, or propelled into dangerous journeys alongside migrants on the move.

Mr. Chairman,

The models and partnerships through which the international community has engaged with the refugee problem have to adapt to a new reality; that humanitarian action alone cannot meet the challenge of large-scale displacement; and that development resources and approaches - targeting both refugees and host communities, and with a particular focus on jobs, education and addressing vulnerability - are critical.

In this respect, I am enormously encouraged by the growing role of the World Bank, and increasingly, regional financial institutions, bilateral development agencies and the private sector. Development outcomes for refugees and the communities hosting them go hand in hand, and an integrated focus on both is therefore vital. Grants, concessional financing arrangements and other development instruments linked to a refugee presence can provide an important boost to national development. Equipping refugees with skills and resources - especially women and young people - enables them to contribute to the reconstruction of their countries and building peace when the time comes to return.

The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework annexed to the New York Declaration, which UNHCR is now applying in a number of operations, as requested by the General Assembly - is an important mechanism for bringing these various strands together around a new way of working. It represents a critical opportunity to build on the momentum that gathered pace last year, and that must be sustained and embedded in the Global Compact for Refugees. We also look forward to contributing to the Global Compact for Migration, especially in relation to mixed movements of both refugees and migrants.

But we must remain vigilant. The New York Declaration was an important affirmation of international solidarity, but we continue to witness worrying erosions of the principle of responsibility-sharing, including in the industrialised world, and a politicisation of the refugee issue, linked in some contexts to a surge in nationalism and xenophobia.

The European response to the large number of refugees and migrants arriving in 2015 and 2016 fell significantly short of what could have been achieved through better preparedness and a stronger, more effective collective response. Measures adopted by many industrialised states, for example increased detention of asylum seekers, including children, are also worrying. And I am concerned by the sharp reduction in the refugee resettlement programme recently announced by the United States administration. The US has always been a leader in refugee protection – ensuring asylum for refugees arriving on its shores and at its borders, giving significant financial support for refugee operations around the world, and providing the largest resettlement programme globally - a lifeline for many of the world's most vulnerable refugees.

We will be working with our counterparts in the US administration to facilitate the resumption of this important programme. I also strongly encourage other countries to help increase the number of resettlement places globally, and to expand the range of opportunities available to refugees through complementary pathways, including study and migration opportunities.

I must also share my grave concerns around the current funding situation - for UNHCR, and for broader support to refugees and others affected by humanitarian crises - and to solicit your support in mobilising additional funds. Only with adequate resources can the promises of the New York Declaration be translated into concrete action.

For evident reasons, the needs of refugees and other displaced people remain significant this year. Our current 2017 budget totals almost USD 7.5 billion, and the needs will undoubtedly continue to expand as new crises emerge, or opportunities for solutions present themselves.   Yet, the financial situation for 2017 and 2018 remains worryingly uncertain. Do not forget that we depend on voluntary contributions for 98% of our funding.

Today, just 12% of our overall needs for this year are funded so far. At the same time, political realities in many of our donor countries are changing; many had elections in 2016 or will have them during 2017.  Government changes often bring policy adjustments and financial uncertainty for protracted periods.

In 2016, we received almost four billion USD in fresh revenue, but our current projections for 2017 are more than one billion lower. We therefore have been obliged to begin 2017 with a fiscally cautious approach, and to implement reductions in the budgets of many of our largest operations. These have implications for lives and wellbeing of millions of people, as our crucial field presence is reduced, protection services and other forms of support curtailed. Other agencies are also affected – the World Food Programme, for example, has been forced to reduce food rations by up to 50% in key refugee operations, especially, and regrettably, in Africa. 

We currently rely on a narrow donor base, which means that our top three donors provide more than 50% of our funding. The US has consistently been the largest donor to UNHCR and uncertainties about the new administration's funding posture in relation to the United Nations are very relevant to us. For the past several years we have been trying to expand our donor base, including through private sector fundraising. We have made considerable progress, but we are still very far from being able to compensate the impact of a decrease in funding from our traditional donors. We therefore encourage all governments to step up their contributions in this climate of high uncertainty and growing needs - including through South-South collaboration and solidarity.

Mr. Chairman,

The Secretary-General has called for a 'surge of diplomacy for peace'. I am also convinced that the time has come for a resolute push to turn the tide on the relentless escalation of forced displacement that we have observed over recent years, through concerted international action to address root causes and to forge the political settlements necessary to pave the way to safe, dignified and sustainable return. Like many of you, I will be hoping that last week's resumption of peace talks for Syria can yield results at last. And in the meantime - for the sake of the millions of people uprooted around the world, and the communities hosting them - we must sustain and expand protection and support efforts with renewed commitment.

Thank you.