Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Current trends in forced displacement and humanitarian action: challenges and opportunities confronting UNHCR; António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees; 2010 Harrell-Bond Human Rights Lecture

Speeches and statements

Current trends in forced displacement and humanitarian action: challenges and opportunities confronting UNHCR; António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees; 2010 Harrell-Bond Human Rights Lecture

13 October 2010

Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, 13 October 2010

Check against delivery

Distinguished faculty members, ladies and gentlemen,

Let me begin by saying what a pleasure and privilege it is for me to be with you and to present the annual Harrell-Bond Human Rights Lecture.

I am very pleased that Dr. Harrell-Bond is able to be with us this evening. As many of you know, she has played a pioneering role in relation to refugees and the defence of their human rights, combining combined academic research and analysis with advocacy and activism.

UNHCR, of course, has not been spared her critical gaze but I can assure you that we appreciate the many insights she has brought into our organizational culture and operational activities. It is for exactly that reason that we have established a cooperation agreement with the Refugee Studies Centre and have been working closely together on some of the key policy issues currently confronting us, including the human consequences of climate change and the role of mobility and migration in the search for solutions to refugee problems.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to make use of this rare opportunity to share some thoughts with you on some current trends in relation to forced displacement and humanitarian action, with a specific focus on the challenges and opportunities confronting UNHCR.

I will keep my remarks as brief as I can in order to allow as much time as possible for discussion. Having met a group of Oxford students earlier in the day, I know that we can anticipate a very lively exchange of views.

The first issue that I would like to address, and perhaps the most preoccupying challenge for UNHCR, is the intractable nature of armed conflict and the diminishing space in which we and other humanitarian organizations are obliged to operate.

Major crises such as those in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, all of which have generated huge numbers of refugees and displaced people, show no signs of being resolved.

Battle zones are now characterized by a multiplicity of actors, including national armies, rebel groups, ethnic and religious militias and, sometimes, UN or regional peacekeepers who have been dispatched to maintain a peace that does not exist, between parties who may not have accepted their presence.

As these situations demonstrate, deadly weapons are increasingly cheap and easy to procure and banditry has become endemic. In many conflicts, some of the protagonists appear to be motivated as much by the desire to gain access to resources and to accumulate wealth as they are by political or ideological objectives.

It is equally disturbing to note that the traditional distinction between military and humanitarian action is not always being upheld, undermining the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence on which our work is based.

As a result, humanitarian personnel are deliberately targeted and subjected to threats, intimidation, kidnapping and murder. UNHCR, for example, lost three staff members in separate attacks in a single operation in the space of six months last year.

State concerns about national sovereignty and national security are aggravating the problem of shrinking humanitarian space.

Humanitarian organizations such as ours are denied access to affected populations and risk being expelled from countries where our presence is not welcomed for one reason or another.

We are under growing pressure to limit or even halt contacts with non-state actors, despite the necessity of such relationships if we are to provide protection and support to people in need living in areas that are contested or outside government control.

A number of countries have also indicated a desire to end - or at least to reduce - the peacekeeping operations established on their territories.

In light of these developments, it is clearly time we re-examined the way in which the international community structures its peacekeeping operations.

Given the complexity of today's conflicts, no single model will meet the needs of every situation. In some circumstances, we are going to require robust forces that are empowered to enforce peace. In others, we will need missions with a lighter footprint and more carefully calibrated mandate, focusing on the protection of civilians and the preservation of humanitarian space.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me now turn to two major manifestations of the growing resilience of conflict found in so many parts of the world: first, the inevitable increase of protracted refugee situations as the availability of solutions declines; and second, the creation of quasi-permanent, and global refugee populations.

Last year was the worst in two decades for the voluntary repatriation of refugees. Only 250,000 people were able to return to their country of origin - just a quarter of the annual average over the past ten years.

With fewer refugees able to go home, the length of time people remain as refugees will grow. Already, more than half of the refugees for whom UNHCR is responsible have been in exile for more than five years, with no immediate prospect of a durable solution to their plight. There are currently 25 such situations in 21 countries across the globe.

Contrary to what populist politicians might have us believe, the burden of hosting these refugees is borne very predominantly by the developing world, where, indeed, four-fifths of all refugees live.

To determine the relative impact of hosting refugees, we can look at the relationship between the number of refugees that a country hosts and its per capita Gross Domestic Product. By this measure, the 25 countries most seriously affected by refugee presence are all in the developing world - 14 of them being classified as Least Developed Countries.

Pakistan is the most heavily burdened state in the world, with 745 refugees per one US dollar of GDP per capita. The first developed country on the list is Germany, with 17 refugees per one US dollar of GDP per capita. The United Kingdom has seven refugees (per one US dollar of GDP per capita).

The resources of the developing countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees are under serious strain.

They have been dealt a serious blow by the global financial and economic crisis. They are increasingly affected by climate change, as well as the growing scale and intensity of natural disasters. Food, energy and commodity prices remain volatile, a situation that has already prompted social and political unrest in some urban areas.

In this context, UNHCR has called for a new deal on burden-sharing, to ensure that the generosity of host countries and communities is matched by solidarity from the developed world. Today's level of financial support to host countries captures only a proportion of the social and economic impact of hosting large numbers of people.

The resettlement of refugees is another tangible and effective form of burden-sharing. Resettlement countries, of which there are now 24, including the United Kingdom, received more than 128,000 submissions from UNHCR last year. That is more than double the number in 2005.

The number of resettlement departures - that is, the number of refugees who traveled to their new homes - was also up, to just under 85,000.

Nevertheless, there is still a significant gap between resettlement needs and resettlement capacity. We estimate that as many as 800,000 refugees need resettlement, yet the number of places available annually is only about 10 per cent of that number.

In Europe, where I believe resettlement should be a cornerstone of refugee, asylum and international cooperation policy, some important if tentative steps have been taken towards the establishment of an EU-wide resettlement programme.

Europe currently provides around 6,000 resettlement place a year, or about 7.5 per cent of the total worldwide. A larger programme would provide very much needed solutions to refugees currently without them, and demonstrate to major host countries in the South that Europe is ready to increase its solidarity with them.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen,

The other principal implication of intractable armed conflict is to be found in the emergence of global refugee populations seeking protection and opportunities not available to them in their country or region of origin.

Refugees, asylum-seekers and other people on the move from countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia are the most obvious examples of this phenomenon.

Afghanistan is the leading source country of refugees in the world. Of these approximately 2.9 million people, the vast majority - nearly 96 per cent - reside in either Pakistan or Iran. The remainder are dispersed across a third of the countries of the globe.

With insecurity in many parts of Afghanistan worsening and with limited economic and educational prospects, young Afghans in particular are fleeing or seeking opportunities elsewhere.

Last year, more than 6,500 Afghan children - mostly boys - applied for asylum in Europe. This represents about half of all the asylum applications submitted in Europe last year by unaccompanied children. Many more Afghan youth are on the move but did not apply for asylum.

These young travelers are exposed to extreme risks, often at the hands of unscrupulous human smugglers.

A recent UNHCR study, Trees only move in the wind, was based on interviews in six European countries with 150 Afghan boys between the ages of 9 and 18. Many of these youngsters told dreadful stories of mistreatment, including being forcibly separated from family members.

They described being detained, beaten and deported by police in countries along their route and being held as forced labourers or passed on to other smugglers or traffickers for cash, when they or their families were unable to pay for the next stage of their journey.

They saw fellow travelers injured or suffocated locked in the back of lorries, or drowned at sea - sometimes through the deliberate sinking of their boats.

No one should have to endure these conditions. Certainly no child.

While many Afghan children and youth receive asylum, or are allowed to remain on humanitarian grounds in the countries where they sought protection, others are less fortunate.

With the welfare and human rights of those children in mind, UNHCR has recently outlined the safeguards it believes should be put in place when states are considering the return of unaccompanied young Afghans to their country of origin.

We feel that it is essential for any decision in this respect to be based on a formal procedure which takes full account of both their protection needs and their best interests. Family tracing needs to be undertaken and arrangements for reception, care and guardianship, as well as a plan for the future, have to be put in place.

Let me now turn to Somalia.

Of the nearly 700,000 Somali refugees in the world at the end of 2009, approximately half were living in Kenya and a quarter in Yemen, with increasing numbers in Ethiopia and Djibouti. Every month the number of refugees is swelled by about 8,000.

Eight of the nine other states hosting Somali refugee populations of at least 5,000 are in the industrialized world. But Somali refugees are everywhere - from Costa Rica to Nepal.

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

Many have perished in deserts or been shot while crossing borders. No one knows how many have drowned attempting to cross the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Peninsula.

They can be targeted for recruitment by parties to the conflict and have in many places learned to live with the threat of security crackdowns and roundups, and xenophobic and racist attacks.

Some Somalis have even been deported to Mogadishu - a capital subject to nearly continual shelling, from which more than 200,000 people have fled this year.

In short, it is difficult to conceive a situation more abject than that of the Somali refugee. At present, there appears little prospect of peace in Somalia. Without a political breakthrough, Somalis will continue to wander the world in search of safety and the chance to rebuild their lives.

In May this year, UNHCR released eligibility guidelines for asylum seekers from Somalia.

With the continuing deterioration of the situation in the capital, these were supplemented in July by a plea to states not to enforce returns to Mogadishu - a request I repeated last week at the annual meeting of member states of UNHCR's Executive Committee. Mogadishu is, obviously, not a place we can ask people to call home.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would in the time remaining to me like to address another issue of great concern to us: the threat to asylum space, particularly in the developed world.

The picture is not entirely bleak and I want to make that clear. While it is true that 80 per cent of the world's refugees are in the developing world, asylum in the industrialized world continues to provide protection and solutions for tens of thousands of refugees.

Taking Europe, North America and Oceania together, approximately 120,000 persons were granted refugee status or a complementary form of protection on an individual basis last year.

Most of these refugees are able to access the social and economic rights guaranteed by the 1951 Refugee Convention, while many have the opportunity to become naturalized citizens of the state that has offered them protection. They are thus able to find a durable solution in the most fundamental sense of the word.

The establishment of the European Asylum Support Office in Malta and the early steps towards the establishment of an EU-wide resettlement program, which I mentioned earlier, represent important progress towards the goal of a Common European Asylum System.

Overall, however, there is still no true European asylum system but a patchwork of different national ones, making the situation totally dysfunctional. In 2009, for example, the recognition rate for Somali asylum-seekers in EU member states ranged from 4 percent to 90 percent. The result is a multiplication of secondary movements and, with Eurodac and Dublin II regulations, the compelled frustration of protection.

At the same time, it has become more difficult for people seeking refugee status to have access to the territory of the industrialized states. Particularly for asylum-seekers traveling by sea, we have seen the introduction of policies emphasizing the potential threat that such arrivals present to national security and identity, but which give inadequate attention to the need for protection. We need to examine carefully whether asylum-seekers should be treated differently, according to their mode of arrival.

UNHCR does not dispute the right and indeed the obligation of countries to control their borders. But this must be done in full respect of international human rights obligations. Border management must be protection-sensitive and not block access to protection for persons who need it.

We need to avoid as well the premature removal of people to places such as Baghdad or Mosul in Iraq. Our updated eligibility guidelines set out a number of areas where we believe involuntary returns ought not at present to take place.

The message that forced repatriation sends to countries such as Syria and Jordan, which host the largest numbers of Iraqi refugees, is unhelpful. Were those countries to adopt such an approach, a new outflow could be triggered many times greater in magnitude than the current numbers in Europe.

We are of course living in difficult economic times and people everywhere are feeling insecure. As a former politician, I know very well how tough the policy choices can be in such an environment and how easily inflamed the discussion can become.

In my own view, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious societies are not just good but inevitable. We need politicians everywhere to recognize and extol this situation, unapologetically endorsing the values of diversity, tolerance and solidarity.

Such references are all too frequently missing from today's discussions of refugee, asylum and migration issues.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have concentrated until now on the challenges confronting refugees who, together with stateless people, are at the heart of our work. I would like to turn now to some other groups of people who are of concern to UNHCR and who form an increasingly important part of the organization's mission.

An estimated 27 million people are forcibly displaced within their own countries today - nearly twice as many as the number of refugees under the responsibility of UNHCR and UNRWA put together.

UNHCR has already assumed responsibility for leading the international response to conflict-induced internal displacement in the areas of protection, shelter and camp management. In natural disasters, we lead the so-called protection cluster at the global level and have offered, subject to certain conditions, to lead it at the field level as well.

For some of our partners, this represents a risk to our mandate, the fear being that an increased responsibility for internally displaced people and natural disaster victims will dilute our attention and limit the protection and resources that we are able to provide to refugees and stateless people.

To this wholly legitimate concern, I have two very straightforward responses. First, the available evidence does not support this fear. Second, the world is changing, and UNHCR must also evolve to take account of the new trends in forced displacement.

With respect to the evidence, I would like to mention a report entitled Earth, wind and fire, which sets out the results of an independent review of UNHCR's role in recent natural disasters.

The report confirms that our increased involvement in situations of internal displacement and natural disaster has not been to the organization's financial detriment. We have always said that we would safeguard resources for our refugee and statelessness programmes, and that is precisely what we have done. Our budget structure guards against the diversion of resources from refugees and the stateless and, in any event, funding for natural disasters comes from different sources.

In terms of our core mandate, nobody defends it as jealously as I. We have a very strong mandate, reflecting the complexity of refugee protection in the broader context of international relations. We do not want - and I will not allow - that mandate to be diluted.

At the same time, I am confident that UNHCR's enhanced role in situations of internal displacement and natural disaster provides us with additional influence and capacity when it comes to defending the rights of refugees in the same countries.

With respect to our changing world and UNHCR's role in response to the new trends in forced displacement, I would like to say a few words about a visit I recently made to the district of Charsadda, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as North West Frontier Province, in Pakistan.

Nearly two months after the floods first struck, Charsadda remained a scene of utter devastation. The area was strewn with flattened mud-brick houses and rubble.

A terrible smell emanated from the many puddles of stagnant water, while hundreds of people queued up at a UNHCR distribution centre, waiting to receive basic items such as quilts, mats, buckets and soap.

Local populations, Afghan refugees and Pakistanis displaced by fighting in the Swat Valley and Federally Administered Tribal Areas in 2008 and 2009, share the same tragedy and the same pressing needs.

Charsadda is increasingly typical of the environments in which UNHCR and its humanitarian partners work. In Colombia, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Somalia and in Yemen, we see similarly complex emergencies - emergencies which raise some important questions with respect to the labels that we attach to people who find themselves in need of protection and humanitarian assistance.

Let me be very straightforward on this matter. I see absolutely no contradiction between UNHCR's protection mandate and its determination to ensure that uprooted people and the communities that host them all benefit from our humanitarian response.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today's megatrends - population growth, urbanization, food and energy insecurity, water scarcity, and, particularly, climate change, are interacting in ways that oblige people to leave their homes, including by exacerbating conflict.

We have increasingly employed the phrase 'people on the move' to encapsulate the difficulty of sustaining the traditional distinction between refugees and migrants, and between voluntary and forced movements.

Responding effectively to the needs of people on the move poses a twin challenge. First, for UNHCR, we need to adjust the way we provide protection and assistance to reflect the changes in the composition and location of refugee flows. I noted earlier that most refugees live in protracted situations. Just as importantly, more refugees now live in cities than do in camps, where they tend to be more dispersed, more diverse in terms of nationality, and more frequently in situations of irregular stay than refugees living in camps.

A number of pilot sites have been identified for the implementation of our new urban refugee policy, released last year. I have asked our Policy Development and Evaluation Service to review the progress that we are making in these cities and the head of the service, who is with me in Oxford this evening, will be happy to provide you with more details of this exercise.

Second, we need to examine how to provide protection to the people who need it but who do not fall within the existing definitions of refugee. This will be the main theme of our Dialogue on Protection Challenges in two months' time, which will feed into next year's commemorations, culminating in a Ministerial level meeting in December 2011.

Last week, I asked the member states of UNHCR's executive committee to consider what concrete measures they could take to improve the quality of protection available to those who need it.

A similar process of reflection and discussion needs to take place in civil society. How can we build up the institutions of asylum and ensure the widest replication of good practice? How can we improve border management so that security does not come at the price of access to asylum? How do we reach out more effectively to forcibly displaced populations outside camps and in urban settings?

Through the commemorations, we are presented with an opportunity to frame a new "protection compact," with new forms of collaboration, partnership and possibly even legal instruments.

* * *

Faculty members, ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to conclude my remarks by returning to my earlier comment on the importance we place on UNHCR's relationship with the academic world.

Oxford is privileged to have three separate research centres dealing with refugee, asylum and migration issues. It is of great concern to me that many cities throughout the world, especially those in developing countries that are home to the largest number of refugees and displaced people, have no institutes of this type.

I would therefore like to propose that we join forces in an attempt to ensure that that Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America can also benefit from the type of research, analysis and study that are undertaken here in Oxford, thereby promoting a better awareness and understanding of refugee protection issues in those regions.

I would also urge you to maintain the tradition of combining academic analysis with activism. I am aware of the dangers of this approach, and there is of course a need to ensure that refugee research is undertaken in a rigorous manner, rather than being used to support preordained positions and conclusions. But at the same time, I find it entirely consistent that those who study the lives of refugees should also be advocates for their rights.

Finally, recalling the Dialogue on protection gaps this December and next year's commemoration activities, I wanted to acknowledge the importance of original and creative new thinking on the policy issues with which we are confronted.

The commemorations are not an end in themselves. They are an opportunity to broaden and renew support for the principles of international protection upon which our work depends. We have a rare opportunity to forge a new consensus on protection. You, our partners in academia, are critical to defining and achieving it.

Thank you very much.