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Opening remarks | High-Level Segment of the 65th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme on Enhancing International Cooperation, Solidarity, Local Capacities and Humanitarian Action for Refugees in Africa, Geneva

Speeches and statements

Opening remarks | High-Level Segment of the 65th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme on Enhancing International Cooperation, Solidarity, Local Capacities and Humanitarian Action for Refugees in Africa, Geneva

29 September 2014

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to welcome you to this year's high level segment of the Executive Committee. Your presence will help us draw much-needed international attention to the complex displacement challenges facing the African continent.

There is a paradox in our debate. In relation to GDP, Africa has been the fastest-growing region in the last decade. With or without natural resources, there are remarkable economic success stories; from Rwanda to Angola, from Botswana to Ethiopia, to name just a few. Many African leaders can be very proud of how their countries have managed to overcome the obstacles created by a world economic order that was not shaped to care for African interests.

And yet, despite all this, with more than 3 million refugees, 12.5 million internally displaced, and some 700,000 stateless people, this continent represents the largest challenge for UNHCR in terms of capacity and in terms of financial requirements.

Over the past twelve months, we have witnessed a surge in new conflicts, with devastating impact on displacement within countries and across borders.

As a result of the shocking violence and intercommunal conflict that took place in the Central African Republic, nearly 500,000 people remain internally displaced today. Over 400,000 are refugees in Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. In a state that had always been a stranger to religious conflict, political manipulation created an artificial Christian-Muslim divide, threatening the unity of the country and testing the limits of humanitarian action. I strongly hope that it is not too late and that the recently deployed MINUSCA mission, together with the transitional government, will manage to restore the rule of law, address impunity, foster social cohesion and start rebuilding the State. A State that, rather than just failed, had in fact completely disappeared.

In South Sudan, the events of last December were another example of how a country's elite can fail its people. Like in CAR, it was deeply worrying to see how quickly political infighting could trigger massive ethnic confrontations. As a result, 1.3 million people are internally displaced, and nearly 450,000 fled to Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan and Kenya. Some of the new refugees I met during my recent mission had been among those whom we helped to go home nine years ago, full of dreams for their new state, after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

In northern Nigeria, continued insecurity has displaced nearly 650,000 people internally, and some 61,000 Nigerians have sought refuge in Cameroon, Niger and Chad. If this crisis is allowed to escalate, it is clear that with a country of 180 million people, we would risk a humanitarian and security disaster for the entire region.

In the Sahel, there are still nearly 140,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso. Although the number of internally displaced people in Mali has dropped by half in 2014 and spontaneous refugee returns are taking place, insecurity remains an enormous challenge. I very much hope that the talks in Algiers will help pave the way for lasting peace in this country which we would like to see, once again, become an example of democratic institutions.

I am also profoundly concerned over the current conflict in Libya, which has displaced an estimated 147,000 persons inside the country and is hindering our efforts to register and assist refugees and asylum-seekers. The worsening security situation also has a clear impact on boat departures towards Europe and the rising number of deaths at sea.

With many of these on-going conflicts, it is shocking to see how some of their protagonists show total disregard for the suffering of their fellow citizens and the forced displacement of millions. Humanitarian disasters are created with total impunity, and there seems to be no way for those responsible to be held to account.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The spate of recent emergencies threatens to dilute international focus on protracted displacement such as in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And there are many more refugee populations in Africa that are almost forgotten by the outside world - from Eritreans to Darfuris, and from Sahrawis to Ivorians, whose voluntary repatriation from Liberia was recently stopped by Ebola. Getting these operations the attention and resources they need is a struggle for us all, and drawing the spotlight on them is one of the goals of this high level segment.

The combination of new emergencies and old conflicts places an enormous stress on host governments and communities, and on UNHCR and its partners. As international response capacities are overstretched by the unprecedented rise in global forced displacement, and as media attention is focused elsewhere, Africa suffers disproportionately more than other regions as both financial and human resources are painfully insufficient to meet the needs.

This is particularly true for food security. I am pleased that the Executive Director of WFP is here with us today to speak in more detail about the severe impact which her organization's funding shortages are having on refugees and internally displaced persons across Africa.

Let me just say one thing - ignoring these shortages and failing to help us reduce refugees' dependency on food aid would be an irresponsible mistake. Hunger and malnutrition inflict enormous individual pain, put at risk the safety of families, the development of communities and the future generations of entire countries. I call on all States and other donors to help us overcome this challenge, and to ensure WFP has the resources it needs to provide the minimum nutritional requirements to refugees and other victims of humanitarian crises.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Looking at the state of refugee protection in Africa today, I am most struck by the strong African solidarity with neighbors uprooted by conflict. All host countries affected by the large crises of recent years have kept their borders open and allowed refugees to find protection on their territories. During my missions to Africa I am, again and again, deeply moved by the hospitality of communities who take in thousands of new arrivals although they themselves are often struggling to make ends meet.

This fundamental commitment to protection is clearly reflected in Africa's excellent legal framework on forced displacement. Both the OAU Convention, which came into force 40 years ago, and the ground-breaking Kampala Convention on internally displaced persons illustrate the long-standing African leadership in protection.

Similarly, African countries have made significant contributions to the positive international momentum on fighting statelessness, including 10 accessions to the relevant conventions since 2011. And Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire have made important changes to their nationality laws to prevent statelessness.

While the overall protection environment in Africa is generally one of broad respect for the institution of asylum, the region faces a number of important challenges. One is insecurity, which affects the displaced and their host communities and increasingly hampers humanitarian operations. A UNHCR staff member was brutally murdered in the Central African Republic earlier this year, and several others were attacked in Somalia and Kenya. In South Sudan, across the Sahel and in Libya, UNHCR staff and the staff of our partners are working under extremely difficult security conditions.

Another growing challenge is the protection of refugees in mixed migratory flows, which is closely interlinked with the rising incidence of smuggling and trafficking in several regions on the continent. The most visible example is North Africa, where more than 3,000 people - including many children - have lost their lives or gone missing this year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. In the past nine months, over 150,000 people - half of them from Syria and Eritrea - have arrived in Europe by boat, having left mainly from Libya. Many of them are in need of international protection.

It is heartbreaking to see people fleeing a brutal war in their home country, who have no other way to find protection than by putting their lives and those of their families at terrible risk to try and reach European shores on overcrowded, unseaworthy boats run by ruthless smugglers.

UNHCR has been advocating for robust European capacity for rescue at sea, recognizing the extremely important humanitarian contribution of Italy's Mare Nostrum operation. But we are also calling for the establishment of more legal avenues to find safety in Europe, so that refugees and asylum-seekers have other options than to attempt the deadly crossing.

Looking at European demographic projections, it is clear that international migration can be an important part of the solution if it is properly managed, based on close cooperation between countries of origin, transit and destination. But migration should be an option, not a desperate attempt to survive. We all need to work to address the root causes of forced displacement, to develop protection capacity everywhere, and to better link development cooperation with human mobility, so as to guarantee that people can enjoy greater rights and opportunities in their own countries.

Other regions facing challenges due to irregular mixed migration are, for example, Sudan and southern Africa. In eastern Sudan, the authorities with support from UNHCR and IOM have managed to improve security in refugee camps and reduce the number of kidnapping and trafficking incidents. But more must be done to ensure better protection along onward routes. In southern Africa, UNHCR is working with several governments to help them establish protection-sensitive border management through training and capacity-building.

Two general aspects will continue to require close attention as we work closely with host states to improve protection. One is the need to invest in government capacity. The other is the vital contribution made, in particular, by local NGOs and civil society. Both of these aspects need to receive stronger support from international partners.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I believe that, as we go forward, the focus should be on two things: prevention and solutions. The magnitude and complexity of forced displacement on the continent are dramatic, and the international community, while always respecting African leadership, must do more to prevent conflict and displacement.

Let me give you an example: in 2011, the Special Representative of the Secretary General in CAR warned that a lack of support to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate former combatants and reform the security sector could put the country back on the "brink of disaster" with serious repercussions for the region. She appealed for some 20 million dollars to conclude this project - a tiny fraction of the cost of the recent conflict. But her call went unheard. The consequences are there, for everyone to see.

Stronger international resolve and commitment to prevent conflict and forced displacement would be in everyone's interest. This must include stronger support to the mediation and stabilization efforts of the African Union, the League of Arab States and sub-regional organizations like IGAD or ECOWAS.

One thing is clear - in the absence of the political will and foresight required for effective prevention, all that the international community can do is react to new crises, lament the suffering they cause, and try to come up with higher and higher amounts of money required to cover the resulting cost.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The second point we need to focus on, apart from prevention, is the achievement of durable solutions. There is some encouraging progress in Africa - progress that now needs to be matched with sufficient international support so as to bring several displacement situations to a sustainable end.

Just one month ago, UNHCR and the governments concerned marked the start of a new, and hopefully final, voluntary return operation of former Angolan refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, targeting over 30,000 people. The comprehensive solutions strategy for Rwandan refugees is also bearing fruit, as over 7,000 have voluntarily returned home and several host countries may offer naturalization to others. And I call on States to support the multi-year plan of action to enhance solutions for refugees from the DRC - including through resettlement and other options.

Regarding Somalia, although the situation remains challenging, the Global Initiative on Somali Refugees is a crucial effort to achieve real improvements for Africa's largest protracted refugee population. The recent ministerial meeting of the six concerned countries - Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, Uganda and Djibouti - resulted in the adoption of the Addis Ababa Commitment towards Somali Refugees. It signals a genuine regional approach to a pro-active search for durable solutions while maintaining and improving asylum space. The Ethiopian Government's out-of-camp policy and provision of university scholarships to refugees are noteworthy examples of this approach. I am pleased that the Solutions Alliance group for Somalia will build on this good work.

Solutions need to be African-led, but with much more international support than is currently the case. As the painful inadequacy of humanitarian funding becomes more visible with every crisis, so does the need to bring in development actors at an earlier stage. Livelihoods and community development programmes play a crucial role in enabling solutions. But they cannot be implemented based on humanitarian budgets alone.

The call I would like to make here today is for an enhanced compact of solidarity. For host countries in Africa to be able to continue keeping their borders open and providing life-saving asylum space, the international community needs to assume its responsibility and provide much more systematic support - not only to refugees but to host countries and local communities. This must include prevention, durable solutions, adequate humanitarian response, capacity-building and efforts to mitigate the significant environmental impact of large refugee populations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have to overcome the double standard that marks the way in which the world views humanitarian crises today. Media attention and political debates are focused on conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine. Africa is rarely covered in the news, and there is little public debate about international action. The appalling delay in mobilizing the world's support to stop Ebola is a case in point.

This lack of interest is not only unfair, it is also unwise. Let us show the commitment that is necessary to put displacement in Africa higher on the international agenda. There is a clear link today between events in Mali, Nigeria, Libya and Somalia, and what is happening in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Afghanistan. If the world goes on ignoring this link, threats of insecurity will come to everyone's door. This is not just a question of international solidarity and shared human commitment. It is also one of global peace and security, and of enlightened self-interest for everybody.

Thank you very much.