Briefing to the United Nations Security Council
Thank you very much, Mr. President for your invitation. I am very honoured to be able to have this opportunity during Niger’s Presidency, and I apologize for not being able to be there in person to address the Security Council. It is an opportunity I think for me to highlight from my perspective, the perspective of UNHCR, the role that Niger has played in the last few years, a very exemplary role in terms of addressing forced displacement, a country with limited resources in the middle of a very troubled area, always ready to host people in distress in a good spirit of solidarity. I’m talking about both people coming from neighbouring countries and people evacuated from Libya. Just to remind everybody, only last month more than 11,000 more refugees arrived in Niger from northern Nigeria, bringing the total population of refugees and internally displaced people in this country, in Niger, the country of your chair, to 600,000.
Now people in Niger, like in many other developing countries, and I would like to remind everybody that 90 per cent of the 84 million refugees and displaced find themselves in developing countries. People in Niger face a perfect storm as the consequences of COVID-19, of climate change and conflict come together, and often create situations of forced displacement which in themselves created additional challenges.
The Sahel is perhaps the place in the world where it is more obvious that there is a direct correlation between the climate emergency, conflict over scarce resources, and forced displacement. And this underlines the importance which I know you have discussed many times of putting the climate emergency front and centre on Security Council agenda.
Now with such challenges that of course are present also in other parts of the world, the multilateral system has probably never been so important. And yet, as we sadly all know, the international system seems to never have been so prone to failure. And international failure has many faces. Instability and insecurity: these are the issues that you deal with every day. But also famine, disaster, collapse of states, which you hear very much about.
But also, and here is my message today, forced displacement, which continues to draw attention, although perhaps, a bit more intermittently, and particularly, if I may say when it impacts, when it affects countries in the Global North. This is when it hits the headlines and it attracts attention. Although it is always a consequence of all other failures. And also, forced displacement continues to be subjected to political manipulation and to generate many times overblown reactions.
We have seen a mix of all these elements very recently in the crisis that developed at the border of Belarus and some European Union countries.
Now, failure and inaction have other consequences as well. For example, they compel us, the humanitarians, to work in situations that are increasingly uncertain. That increasingly expose us to very difficult dilemmas. International failures compel us to engage with all types of interlocutors, including some that are not recognized internationally. More and more, we speak about dealing with de facto authorities in many countries, which of course we do; as humanitarians we speak to whoever is in control of the areas in which we have to operate. But this type of situation, in which we are finding ourselves, creates limitations to our very work. These situations are very often made more complicated by political difficulties, by the presence of sanctions, by other restrictions to the necessary dialogue and engagement. And this prevents the finding of solutions, and it protracts and aggravates many times humanitarian needs.
This leaves humanitarians, as has frequently been the case, alone, to work alone before the difficulties and challenges – amidst an increasing set of expectation that humanitarians can “solve” whilst it is becoming even more difficult to “save”, which is our primary responsibility.
Think of Myanmar. Think of Yemen. Think to a certain extent – we’ve seen it lately, and hopefully we’ll get out of that – in Sudan and in other places.
And most starkly we see this situation in Afghanistan. And I would like to recall things that you probably know already. There are 39 million people in Afghanistan, and 23 million of them are facing for example extreme levels of hunger. But they’re also facing other humanitarian challenges: lack of housing, poor health, lack of clean water, and a host of protection challenges. And of course, forced displacement continues to be an important feature of the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. Three and a half million people estimated to be displaced by conflict: 700,000 in recent months alone, especially just before the 15 of August.
I saw myself when I visited Afghanistan in September. I also saw humanitarian agencies stepping up. Just to give you a sense from our perspective, each week, my organization, UNHCR, is able to reach with concrete assistance, 60,000 displaced people. And the same goes for other humanitarian agencies. As you know I think we are proud of the choice we made in August to stay and deliver because that has allowed us to engage the Taliban on the very important issue of rights. Rights for women and girls, and rights for minorities, on which limited progress has occurred, but progress that we need to continue to note, build on it and push those agendas further.
One word of warning that you will have heard before however: humanitarians, in spite of the work that we do and are doing, cannot replicate the role of States. We cannot save economies. We cannot make societies fully work. We are not a replacement for real engagement and political solutions.
I fully understand the complexities of the situation. I appreciate the work that is being done with the cooperation of many of you to try to find way forward to ensure services, to ensure cash flow, to ensure the functioning of society and of the economy. But I wish to join colleagues who have already many times warned you that slow progress around this fundamental issue is very risky at this point. And from my perspective, the perspective of the refugee organization, I have to report that although certainly not dramatic and not yet a major symptom or a major consequence, but as an initial sign we have seen an uptick of Afghans trying to leave country in recent weeks. And we firmly believe, and I’ve said it many times, that a deeper and more widespread implosion of states and of the economy will almost inevitably trigger a major, a much bigger outflow of Afghans to neighbouring countries, and even beyond.
Of course, meanwhile, I can assure you once more, we will continue to use what is now a relatively safer space, safer than before, prevailing in the country. Just to give you an example, we estimated about 150,000 internally displaced [people] have actually returned to their homes following the 15th of August change in authorities. So we will continue to meet urgent needs, and prepare for winter, and try to prevent that major outflow. And we will continue to need humanitarian resources and, if I may, make a very specific appeal to the Security Council: we need the widest scope for humanitarian exception for the sanctions regime to be able to function properly. And finally, on Afghanistan, but please don’t forget, that it is important to keep a supportive eye on its neighbours and step up support that is provided to them. Iran and Pakistan have hosted Afghan refugees for generations. They continue to host millions, and enhanced aid and resettlement places are in order at this difficult time, also in the uncertainty of what may happen next in terms of outflow.
Another result, another outcome of what I called international failure that I want to bring to your attention today is the increasing politicization of humanitarian and specifically refugee work.
Now I am not naïve. I’ve learned through many years of working on these issues that we must be able as humanitarians and refugee workers to navigate very intricate political issues. What I fear more and more specifically is the paralysis that is generated also for humanitarian action by conflicting political agendas interfering with that action. And this increasingly prevents us from helping people as much as we should be able.
The situation of Syria presents some such features. The humanitarian situation inside the country, which I visited in October, is worsening as a result of conflict, of lack of resources, of the effect of sanctions, and of the political and economic crisis in nearby Lebanon. What I have observed is queues for bread and fuel for example that had not been seen in Syria for a long time, and a very severe lack of services and access to livelihoods especially outside Damascus.
Now I appreciate once more the very complex politics around this situation. But I’m also concerned that the slow progress – I think we cannot call it otherwise – towards political solutions is increasingly condemning millions to very hard lives.
And yes, I understand, “reconstruction” in the full sense must wait for a political agreement. It is important that what we define as “humanitarian” encompasses at least the basic needs, in the spirit of and as recognized by your Resolution 2585.
And it is important that this applies to all Syrians, whoever controls the area where they live, including by the way, those who choose to return, be they internally displaced people – and many internally displaced people for one reason or the other have made this choice to return – or whether they are refugees returning, and yes of course, many fewer refugees than IDPs have returned home. But those that do make that choice, and there are some that do, must be helped.
Now I know this has always been a very controversial issue, but I wish to reiterate my point: the objective here is to remove the obstacles that prevent people, discourage people from returning. Removing those obstacles, as I have discussed in Damascus and in many other capitals, will require international cooperation. The cooperation of Syria, of course first and foremost, to remove the security and the legal and human rights obstacles that may prevent people from returning. But also, the cooperation of donors in ensuring that at least basic humanitarian support is provided to those returning to their communities. Bearing in mind of course that this has to continue, has to happen in parallel to the continuation of support to the countries still hosting in the vicinity, more than five million, almost six million Syrian refugees, and Lebanon in particular.
Finally, I would like to make a point that I have made many times but that I would be remiss if I didn’t repeat here today. And this is a point that is even more directly related to your core work. The point is that the apparently growing inability of the international community to make and build peace obliges us, humanitarian organization and refugee organization, to work more and more in situations of active conflict, of rampant crisis. With rising expectations, once again, on what we can deliver but in reality, decreasing possibilities to actually deliver.
Yemen, Libya, and others are of course cases in point. Perhaps today, the most significant example of this situation is Ethiopia, which you know very well. For 13 months, we have now struggled to deliver aid to people in danger, amidst two sides that are fixated on a military outcome, but have so far been unable to achieve it, and have not heeded your appeals for political negotiations. And this has created some of the worst possible humanitarian contexts in the world.
You know the features: there are 20 million people, maybe up to a fifth of the population of this very large country, that is estimated to be in need. In Tigray of course, but also increasingly in other regions like Afar, Amhara, and beyond. Four million of these people, one fifth, at least four million are internally displaced. Access, as you know, has been very erratic, has been inadequate, has been often dangerous. And in this context, humanitarians, including United Nations organizations, including my organization, including me personally, have been unfairly accused of taking side by all sides.
Now, there have been phases in these 13 months in which we have been able to step up. And we at UNHCR, for your information, as you probably know have been focusing especially on situations of displacement, internal displacement and refugees in Ethiopia, through protection, through distribution of aid and through the quest for solutions – for example, moving people to safer areas. But I have to report that after the start of October offensive, and after this latest round of fighting and the now counter-offensive we have observed in the last few days, we are actually sliding back very quickly in the limited gains that we had made in terms of access and delivery of help.
Now, many of my colleagues have come here to speak to you about Ethiopia, so I’d like to join their calls stressing some very important points. First of all, the need to impress on the parties that they need to respect the neutrality of United Nations humanitarian organizations, of NGOs working in the humanitarian field, and ensure their safety, including of national staff of all ethnic origins, which has been an issue, as you know.
It is important not only that access is granted – much has been said, many words have been spent on that – but that access be granted, be allowed to the enablers of humanitarian operations, the use of cash for example, the availability of fuel; otherwise access alone will not be sufficient.
And of course, from my perspective a very special appeal not to lose sight of the refugee angle. Ethiopia has been for decades host to very large refugee populations, about 800,000 from most neighbouring countries. Those most at risk at this point, as you know, are the Eritreans, who were severely impacted by the conflict both in Tigray and in urban centres throughout the country, and a special appeal for protection of these groups to continue and to be granted. Without forgetting of course, and this may be an indication of things to happen in the future, that there are already about 60,000 Ethiopian refugees in Sudan, with more arriving in recent days.
And by the way, just to let you know that we hope it won’t be necessary, but we are preparing contingency plans for not only more displacement inside Ethiopia but also for the arrivals of more refugees in countries neighbouring Ethiopia, some of whom as you know are undergoing a crisis of their own.
I will conclude, Mr. President, with a couple of general points.
From what I said – and I could give you many other examples – forced displacement continues to be driven by conflict and crisis – of course mixed, as I said, with many other factors. I’m just back from 10 days in Mexico and Central America and I could see how these complex factors intertwine, intersect with each other, creating incredibly difficult phenomena of human mobility.
Now we at UNHCR understand very well – I said it many times already today – the complexity of political solutions. And this is why, while you work on those political solutions, we spare no effort in continuing to deliver humanitarian aid, often in very difficult circumstances.
Responding, however, has become very expensive. You know that OCHA has recently issued a global appeal asking for $41 billion for almost should be 200 million people in severe humanitarian needs. This very morning here in Geneva I appealed to our donors, the UNHCR donors, for $9 billion for 2022 for 84 million people that are refugees or displaced around the world.
And I can assure you that we continue to be as creative as we can in our responses. The Global Compact on Refugees, and the pledges that were made subsequently at the Global Refugee Forum, have been invaluable. We’re multiplying the channels of response and support and we continue to develop new and innovative partnerships with the private sector, with international financial institutions and with development actors. And much of this has been truly transformational.
And this is very important because lives continue in spite of the lack of political solution, and people continue to need help. They cannot wait. Saving lives cannot wait for political solutions to happen. But without those solutions, without stopping and reversing conflict and violence, without establishing those all-important foundations of peace, the efforts we humanitarians make will remain very fragile, and millions will continue to be exposed to great insecurity, uncertainty and fear.
And failure to find the solutions, I’m afraid, will contribute to more complex human mobility, to less manageable complex human mobility, a challenge that is very, very evident in many of your countries.
So, my final invitation, Mr. President, members of the Security Council, is to reflect on that. Once a year I have the privilege of coming her to brief you, of coming to brief this very important body, and it is an opportunity to ask you to reflect on this as you navigate the very complex challenges of peace and security, and as you strive — as I hope you do – to be united and coherent in this pursuit.
Merci beaucoup, Monsieur le Président.