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UNHCR’s Grandi on need for ‘panoramic’ approach to mixed movements

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UNHCR’s Grandi on need for ‘panoramic’ approach to mixed movements

High Commissioner's remarks at the University of Melbourne
"Displacement and Protection: Global Challenges"
21 April 2023 Also available in:

Thank you Michelle, for your introduction and thank you all for coming here today. My very special thanks go also to Erika Feller, our former colleague at UNHCR, and a dear friend, for being a driving force for this event and for my visit here to Australia. I’m very happy to be here.

I would like to show my respect and acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land, of elders past and present, on which this event takes place.

I would also like to thank the University of Melbourne for having invited me and the McMullin Centre on Statelessness, which I have just visited. I am grateful to the centre and to its benefactors, the McMullins, for their generous support to the study and eradication of statelessness. The centre is almost the only one of its kind in the world and a steadfast partner. I appreciate what is done here for stateless people and encourage your continued work in this much needed endeavour. Especially as you said Michelle, coming to the end of the I belong campaign next year, the fight doesn’t stop with the campaign.

Dear friends,

I am here as part of my first trip to Australia as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and 11 years after the last visit of a High Commissioner, my predecessor Antonio Guterres. Much has changed in the intervening period, as you all know, with the world – in many ways – more complicated and complex.

Geopolitical divisions, evident in the inability of the Security Council to prevent and resolve conflict, have aggravated the suffering of people around the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought us to a standstill.

The growing climate emergency wreaks havoc on us all, and especially those that have done the least to contribute to this global crisis.

And our economies are under pressure, deepening inequalities, anxieties and frustrations, particularly for the most vulnerable.

It is obvious that — to solve these challenges — we must work together, and that we all have very clear responsibilities in addressing them, especially those of us blessed by geography and resources.

In this, Australia is a critical player — as a dynamic UN member state, an active bilateral and multilateral partner and a generous donor to UN agencies like mine. But being part of the international community also means upholding international law and responsibilities, including when it comes to asylum seekers and refugees. The 1951 Refugee Convention is quite clear — and quite right! — in this respect: refugees are a collective, international responsibility.

I would be remiss if I did not say that in recent years we have had some tough conversations with the government of Australia on its domestic refugee policies, and especially the practice of exiling those who came by boat to distant offshore locations, placing them in open-ended detention and putting their lives literally in limbo. These policies have carried immense human and financial costs. They have caused anguish and suffering. A young survivor of these policies this morning quoted to me a verse from a poem she wrote while in Nauru: “We are under control for no crime.” Some who came in search of protection, instead tragically took their own lives. This asylum-denial practice has also set a dangerous precedent, as we feared, for other countries to follow similar objectionable paths.

While therefore we continue to disagree with this policy, we must commend some recent pronouncements of the new Australian government — namely the welcome decision to provide permanent status for those on temporary visas. I am very much encouraged by the open, frank discussions held during my visit on the complex matters of detention, and on the residual “offshore” caseload — discussions which we at UNHCR will continue to pursue in a renewed spirit of dialogue and cooperation.  I also wish to put on record my appreciation for the efforts of this government to find a better balance between its obligations and concerns, and to increase commitments to important refugee protection programmes such as resettlement and other pathways, as I heard from the Prime Minister a few days ago.


When my predecessor visited 11 years ago, there were about 40 million forcibly displaced people in the world. Today, there are more than 103 million. Last year, UNHCR declared more than 35 new emergencies - meaning an average of one roughly every 10 days. We live in a world in turmoil - and one in which threats and fragility increasingly compel people to flee.

One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is that most refugees and displaced people stay as close to their countries as possible. Because, contrary to perceptions, usually refugees want to go back home. Almost 90% of the forcibly displaced people in the world are in low- and middle-income countries. This percentage was even higher until the flight of millions of Ukrainians throughout Europe. But most Afghans, for example, are in Iran and Pakistan. Rohingyas in Bangladesh. Syrians in Turkey, Jordan and in Lebanon (where one in four people in a very small country is a refugee).

My point is that while the refugee and displacement crisis is enormous, of global importance, and requires international cooperation, the bulk of this crisis is in countries closest to those in conflict; so, it is not – despite what some media and politicians continue to repeat – it is not an “emergency” in wealthy countries. It is NOT an emergency here in Australia either.

I do not, however, understate the challenges posed by large population movements, especially “mixed” movements of refugees and others who choose to move for different reasons, for example towards the US southern border; across the Mediterranean into the European Union; into the UK; towards South Africa; or across many states in Asia. Those moving along these routes include people fleeing conflict, as well as others escaping persecution, poverty, bad governance, the effects of climate change, and so on. Often root causes are a mix of these factors. And people on the move use the same routes, and fall prey to the same traffickers and smugglers.


Not everybody on the move meets the threshold necessary for international refugee protection. All have rights, though different sets of rights. All, without distinction, have a rightful claim to dignified treatment. These mixed flows are however difficult to address. One complicating and confusing factor is that many opt to seek asylum as the only available means to obtain legal stay; as a result, asylum systems become overwhelmed. States are also often unable to return to their countries people recognized as not being in need of international protection. These are undoubtedly real challenges – but to which there are better and certainly more humane and legally sound responses than ones based purely on deterrence.

Far too often, rich countries have a myopic approach to global forced displacement and population movements, focusing overwhelmingly on border controls. Such challenges are rarely treated with the necessary strategic approach. They are seen as either someone else’s problem, or something unmanageable to deal with when it reaches domestic borders or shores. The reality is that simple slogans like “Stop the Boats” are no more effective a solution to this challenge than one that says “Let Them All In”. 

What I am therefore proposing is rather a set of policies and interventions that work together as part of an all-of-government strategy with international cooperation at its heart. None of these suggestions are – on their own – a silver bullet; nor are they simple. They will require policy makers to use different tools available both at home and abroad. And they will take, I dare say, a bit of political courage. From politicians of course, but also from organisations like mine that must remain principled in defending international law and morality, which is why we - why I, as UN High Commissioner for Refugees! – can never accept sealing borders to asylum seekers or externalizing a state’s asylum obligations. At the same time, however, we must also help states deal with these challenges in ways that are pragmatic, concrete and creative.

The foundation of this approach is that states must work together to meet their responsibilities as members of the international community. It is also crucial to address the practice that unfortunately I see too often in different countries of demonizing refugees and migrants, by portraying them as the cause – for example — of unemployment, of insecurity, of the erosion in values. Scapegoating, misinformation and hate speech are simply unacceptable. As one advocate told me here in Australia: changing how we deal with refugees starts with changing the way we speak about them.

The approach also requires — for lack of a better word — a “panoramic” view of population movements, moving away from the almost obsessive focus on just controlling arrivals at borders, to looking at their geographical complexity - literally at all steps of the long migratory routes.

Surely, movements across borders, including sea borders, will continue to be a challenge.

A big priority is to ensure the rescue of people on the move who are in distress — adrift at sea or lost in the desert. Evading responsibility and allowing people to die on route, as happens too often, is simply inhumane.

Access to seek asylum at borders (without being turned away or violently pushed back, which happens increasingly) must also be granted. For those who do seek asylum and protection, their cases must be heard and adjudicated. For countries like Australia and others, this means ensuring that the system is sufficiently resourced and that the process and procedures for deciding cases are effective.

The system, however, must be both fair and efficient, and also rigorous, — ensuring protection for those who need it and the quick return – in dignity and in compliance with their human rights – of those who do not. And in places with suitable safeguards, readmission agreements (sending refugees back to a country where they have already sought asylum) can be made.

Such a system will also restore public confidence in discredited asylum systems. It will enable states to send an important message: that while they will continue to extend international protection to those who need it, their systems are able to identify and return in a dignified manner those who do not qualify for it, thus hopefully weakening traffickers.

And another crucial point is the need — especially in industrialized countries — for an honest conversation about establishing proper, legal, substantive migration pathways to keep economies and social systems going, and to provide proper entry points for migrants without overburdening the asylum channel. I am pleased to hear that Australia is committed to reform in this area.

But contemporary population movements cannot simply be addressed when they reach the borders of rich countries. It is important to look upstream as well.

This means building and strengthening asylum systems, inclusion and sometimes integration mechanisms in countries closer to places of origin so that they can provide the protection that refugees lack at home. This, of course, is core to UNHCR’s work around the world, but it needs much more support.

And for those countries that host the bulk of refugees, most frequently next to the epicenter of the crisis, we need much more responsibility sharing from the rest of the world. This can take many forms.

Resettlement – the process of taking recognized refugees from one country of asylum to a third country – is one important and visible way to share responsibility. It establishes a life saving, life changing pathway for the most vulnerable and takes space away from the traffickers. Australia has always been a leader in resettlement, and I was pleased to hear from the government that the programme will be strengthened.  Other avenues, like scholarships, work visas, pathways for work, study, the arts and sport, as well as family reunification, should be explored with the same vigour and generosity we have seen for resettlement.

But these pathways will inevitably be limited. Most refugees will stay where they are, hence, the importance of supporting them and their host communities, especially in countries with large refugee numbers, or with help, information and assessments in transit countries. Contributions to humanitarian responses, including through UNHCR, are crucial. Donors, including Australia, have been generous, but our budget is hardly ever more than 50 percent funded.

Equally important is to include refugees in national services, for example education and health, and to properly resource those systems. Especially in countries who do not have many resources. A real game changer, especially since the launch of the Global Compact on Refugees in 2018, has been the growing involvement of major development actors like the World Bank and other international financial institutions. We estimate that they contribute more than US$ 5 billion each year in direct assistance to large refugee hosting countries that have good inclusive policies. This strengthens national services, including for host communities, and helps them cope rather than being overstretched by the additional refugee demand.

Another important development has been the involvement of the private sector, both as philanthropic givers and as real partners in the responses. The Australian private sector played a critical role in this over the past years, with our national partner, Australia for UNHCR, having recorded almost half a billion Australian donors over the past two decades as well as numerous companies that participate in real partnerships, bringing expertise and know-how to refugee responses around the world.

In fact, generations of Australians across the political spectrum and from all sections of society have been remarkably generous towards refugees, donating funds, doing volunteer work, holding out a helping hand. In other words, when people meet refugees, when they hear their stories, when they understand what they have gone through, solidarity is strong.

Civil society, in Australia and globally, plays a pivotal and catalytic role to fill gaps, including those vacated by governments, forming partnerships and promoting community understanding. Better informing the public discourse is an area that has also been well supported by academia, particularly in Australia. We saw this clearly with the broad-based engagement in advocacy and support around Afghanistan in 2021 - a true all-of-society response. Of critical importance – increasingly, I am pleased to say — is the work of refugee-led organisations that can provide much needed reality checks to our efforts.

And while all of this is vitally important, we must not forget that it is states that have the ultimate responsibility to address the root causes driving people from their homes. This means global cooperation to prevent and resolve conflicts, of course, but also urgent action to address the climate emergency, as well as to improve governance, equality, respect for human rights, and other factors of fragility.

These must be addressed in the political realm, but in the meantime there are also things we can do in countries of origin – including some that are not fully at peace – to support those who make that difficult decision to go home, even before UNHCR can encourage returns.

Think of South Sudan or Burundi. Thousands have returned to both in the past years, but what are they returning to? How sustainable can that return be when there is a lack of services like shelter, water, schools and health clinics? While we advocate return that is informed and of course voluntary, we must accept that the pull of home is strong, and we must do much more to support those who do make that difficult choice to return. This means earlier, greater – and yes, riskier – investments in countries that are still fragile. One of the greatest challenges of our time.

Complex population movements, therefore, can only be resolved through what I would call an “all of route” approach. Many of these aspects - responsibility sharing; self reliance; third country solutions; and improving conditions in countries of origin - are very important components of the Global Compact on Refugees; which will be reviewed and furthered by actions announced at December’s Global Refugee Forum in Geneva, where we will count on Australia - the government and civil society - for active support and engagement.


What I have laid out here today is not simple. It is not something that can be packaged into a soundbite that wins elections. It is even, perhaps, a little technical and boring. I appreciate that. But to quote the artist Ai Weiwei, “the refugee crisis is not about refugees, it is about us and our choices”.

So, ours is an appeal to policy makers and politicians; a set of interventions that together can help address one of the global challenges of our time – that of forced displacement. If refugees and forced displacement are complex factors – then let us embrace complexity and deal with it. Results will not be immediate, and will require courage, commitment, compassion and determination.

But it is either that or we stumble into the future unprepared.