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Remarks at the Camden Conference on Refugees and Global Migration, in Camden, Maine

Executive Committee Meetings

Remarks at the Camden Conference on Refugees and Global Migration, in Camden, Maine

19 February 2017

Thank you, Jeanne. I’d also like to thank the wonderful team at the Camden Conference, the Board of Directors, and sponsors of this unique event – not to mention my hosts Charlie and Dorothea Graham. It’s been great to see old friends and colleagues here as well. I’m also personally grateful to come back to my home state for a discussion of the issues that have subsequently consumed my career in public service.

At the beginning of this century, the Millenium Declaration unanimously recognized our “collective responsibility” to uphold certain principles. This sentiment is certainly noble, but it is also pragmatic. My remarks today focus on what that means in the context of forced displacement: where our collective responsibility comes from, how we can fulfil it, and why it is so important that we do so now more than ever.

So… from where does it come?

The Millenium Declaration itself affirms a series of “fundamental values” as “essential to international relations.” Two of these values are especially important for understanding this collective duty: solidarity and shared responsibility.

For the purposes of our discussion today, “solidarity” describes the principle that “those who suffer, or benefit least, deserve help from those who benefit most.” It challenges us to manage global problems in a way that distributes costs and benefits fairly. It means pulling our own weight, by supporting countries who benefit us all when they confront and address displacement crises.

Solidarity is most important in relation to global issues. The UN Charter mentions “international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character” because such problems can predictably spill across international borders. Since these issues have shared causes or consequences, responsibility for managing them should be “shared” as well.

But because forced displacement is one such issue that crosses national boundaries, 193 countries proclaimed in last year’s New York Declaration that we have a “shared responsibility to manage large movements of refugees and migrants in a humane, sensitive, compassionate and people-centred manner.”

To be clear, international law offers a number of other sources, much older than these two declarations, that describe a duty to cooperate to address forced displacement more fairly and effectively. Among them are: the UN Charter, UNHCR’s statute, the Refugee Convention and its Protocol, UNGA resolutions, and other international refugee and human rights instruments.

How States implement their collective responsibility in practice is also important. We see the main weaknesses of these concepts as follows: they are relatively ambiguous and, lack an immediate enforcement mechanism, which makes them difficult to implement. I’m sure we can point to countless examples of when one country arguably did not fully cooperate with its partners, or support a neighbour who struggled to cope with displacement. This is why UNHCR places so much value on maintaining open lines of communication with States, even – and perhaps especially – those that shirk their responsibilities. Persuasion including through humanitarian diplomacy is often our most potent tool for achieving real results for those we serve.

Given the nature of this responsibility, the fact that it is tested sometimes should not surprise us. On the contrary, it is notable that these principles have persisted for over 70 years despite threats and uneven implementation from time to time. Despite short-sighted political gains and other perverse incentives that tempt us to shrink from this challenge, the world continues to value solidarity enough to reaffirm it repeatedly. To understand why, we have to look back at how these values evolved in the first place.

International cooperation to benefit refugees, in the form of intergovernmental institutions, first emerged after World War 1. At the time, the break-up of large multinational empires, wars and famine in Europe and the Middle East had killed tens of millions of people and displaced millions more.

Determined that this devastating conflict would be the “War to End All Wars,” nations coalesced to create the League of Nations “to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security.” The League of Nations appointed Fridtjof Nansen as the High Commissioner for Refugees to deal with the million and a half Russians displaced by the 1917 Revolution. It soon became clear that this ‘temporary’ Office was bound to become more permanent as conflict driven population movements heightened interstate tensions and threatened state security.

Despite initial successes, the League of Nations proved unable to prevent a breakdown in cooperation among member states who retreated to traditional systems of defensive alliances and power blocks. Before long, the “War to End All Wars” was followed by a war that would eventually escalate into the deadliest conflict in human history.

In the aftermath of this Second World War, tens of millions of people were displaced throughout Europe. The devastation from the conflict was made worse by significant levels of displacement. The world responded by attempting to formalize a more robust system of international cooperation – this time, under the auspices of a United Nations dedicated to respect for human rights.

Through this new institution, a diverse group of nations drew from their respective legal, religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions to give shape to this new commitment and agree upon common rules to protect everyone. This Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a remarkable statement of collective responsibility, proclaiming that “every individual and every organ of society…shall strive” to make this protection “universal and effective”. This document made clear that human rights provide an essential foundation for peace to endure between nations.

Soon thereafter, the world moved quickly to act upon the Declaration’s call to protect those rights through “progressive measures, domestic and international”. My agency – the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was founded in 1950, soon to be followed by the 1951 Refugee Convention[1]. The bedrock of international protection, this Convention also confirms the importance of international cooperation. The Preamble explains that our shared responsibility for refugees has two ends: protecting individual rights, and minimizing interstate tension.

Shared responsibility explains post-war efforts to catalyse cooperation in post-war Europe.

The United States understood well that military cooperation was insufficient if not coupled with other forms of solidarity. The Marshall Plan injected massive resources into reconstructing economies devastated by war and a European push for regional unity helped secure peace through economic and political cooperation. These actions were the clearest example of solidarity in the last century, and one which has contributed to unmistakable peace and prosperity.

So, we can see why the concept of collective responsibility persists. The world learned the hard way that without solidarity, States will race to pursue policies that benefit their short-term interests with no regard for the costs – no matter how horrifying – inflicted on others.

Collective responsibility is not just legal, but as the New York Declaration reminds that our challenge is “above all moral and humanitarian.”[2] Given what is happening in the world today, this aspect of collective responsibility is self-evident.

As you all know, we are in the midst of the largest displacement crisis on record.

Over 65 million people – equal to the population of California and Texas combined – have been forced from their homes by persecution, war, and other threats to their fundamental rights. Half of them are children.

The longer term trends are equally alarming. Forced displacement has risen sharply since 2011, and doubled in the last 20 years. It affects a higher percentage of the world population than at anytime in the last few decades.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this crisis is the lack of solutions for these people, most importantly the inability of governments to come together and find just political solutions to displacement. And at an individual level, of all refugees in 2015, barely 1% were able to return home safely. Just .2% were naturalized in their country of first asylum. And less than 1% were resettled in third countries. With the remaining 98% or so trapped in an uncertain limbo with no end to the reasons for flight, we can expect this crisis to worsen.

The need for shared responsibility is all the more apparent when we look at where these people flee.

As we have discussed, more than half of refugees are from three countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Other large populations of Colombians, Colombians, Congolese, Iraqis, Nigerians, Sudanese, South Sudanese, and Yemenis remain displaced as well.

The vast majority of refugees – 86% – live in low- or middle-income countries. These countries are struggling to provide and maintain basic infrastructure to serve their own citizens. And while hosting refugees can come at a heavy cost in the short term, they open their borders to them and do their best to meet their needs. These countries provide a “global public good” and allow access to national systems of healthcare and education, and job markets, to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. They do this despite their own limited resources.

The question remains, however, whether the rest of the world will step up to fully share this responsibility.

As an institution, UNHCR and its nearly 1,000 partners represents the world’s commitment to its collective responsibility to address and find solutions for displacement. The vast majority of our funds come from voluntary contributions, which support operations in 128 countries – 90% of our staff is in the field and nearly 50% in hardship and emergency operations.

Through us, the world is responding to emergency situations in 26 countries including in Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria as well as helping victims of longstanding conflicts such as Sudan, Columbia and Myanmar.

On the front lines of these crises, we work with our partners to deliver life-saving aid like shelter, food and water, help safeguard their basic rights, and develop solutions that allow them to regain control over their lives. This role is necessarily palliative, because the long-term resolution of refugee crises depends on circumstances that only States can provide, such as the political will to end an armed conflict. Our priorities are also, unfortunately, limited by persistent funding shortfalls, as we are working with roughly half of the resources necessary to meet basic needs.

We also work to align our efforts with the longer term needs of refugees and the communities that receive them. Where possible, we try to build up local systems rather than create separate, parallel systems of support. These sorts of projects in particular represent the world’s efforts to fulfil the “shared responsibility” that it described in the New York Declaration.

For example:

  • We help Greece improve its capacity to process asylum claims.
  • In Afghanistan, we provide cash grants to returnees to provide a degree of stability as they seek to rebuild their lives.
  • UNHCR support in Jordan helps its Family Protection Department to better serve children and survivors of sexual violence.
  • In Turkey, we strengthen education systems that in turn accommodate refugee children.
  • Our work in northern Uganda, where arable land is scarce, supports local infrastructure like schools and hospitals in fragile governorates.

These systems are important because such countries who deal with the immediate consequences of displacement are the best defense against further instability. This is especially true in regions where armed groups, such as the Taliban or Al Shabab, feed on such instability to recruit new members – sometimes by force – from amongst the most vulnerable in society. The world’s efforts to combat such vulnerability is key to combatting extremism.

As King Abdullah II of Jordan said last year: “If regional refugee hosts are abandoned and left to fail, the need won’t disappear. The crisis will simply spread further, prolonging the time it takes to end this ordeal.”

Through multilateral institutions, like UN agencies and their partners, governments can work collectively to do what they cannot achieve on their own.

It was the UN and its partners on the receiving end to aid and protect the two million people who fled Rwanda in aftermath of the 1994 genocide. Again, in 1999, the UN was in the former Yugoslavia to help implement a peace agreement and the eventual return of over one million refugees. More recently, the Security Council supported African regional institutions, ECOWAS and the AU, in pressuring the Gambia’s autocratic former President Jammeh to recognize his recent election loss. These examples reveals how collective action can leverage access and power that unilateral action cannot.

Collective action is also absolutely essential because the causes of forced displacement are diverse and interrelated. While armed conflict and persecution are prominent on this list, they emerge from a complex web of problems in countries and regions of origin – poor governance, exclusionary politics, poverty, natural disasters, other environmental factors, like climate change. Repeated cycles of conflict and violence are also fueled by economies of resource extraction and the global arms trade. Statelessness and human trafficking are also both causes and consequences of displacement.

These root causes represent obstacles to the human rights described in the Universal Declaration I described earlier. This is why the New York Declaration links them to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Agenda, and its Goals, is designed to address those very forces that threaten to displace even more people from their homes in the future. It is, in this sense, the most comprehensive long-term vision for our collective responsibility that we have to date.

To meet these ambitious goals, unilateral efforts are clearly not enough. We need to recognize all the factors that affect national development prospects and peoples’ access to rights in their country of origin or asylum.

This is the sort of “whole of society” approach that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights challenged us to achieve. And it is the vision that the New York Declaration seeks to inspire us to continue to pursue more completely, through something called the Comprehensive Refugee Response (CRR) framework, which Karen described yesterday. The General Assembly has tasked UNHCR with initiating and developing this framework in collaboration with States – such as Uganda, Tanzania, and Somalia – along with other partners. This process will also inform the development of a Global Compact on Refugees, to be presented to the General Assembly in 2018. This could transform the way we protect and aid the displaced.

First and foremost, this framework will translate in practical ways the key elements of an effective response to large refugee movements. It makes clear that displacement is not just a humanitarian issue involving refugees but one that affects their host communities too – therefore, it’s a development challenge too. Restoring resilience and dignity requires long-term planning for solutions from the outset of a crisis – and not as an afterthought. It outlines the respective contributions of countries of origin, host countries, and the international support required for this common effort.

Failing our collective responsibility imposes dangerous costs on future generations. We can see this most directly in situations of humanitarian catastrophe where unilateral action fails. Here, collective action is required to unlock solutions.

For example, take the conflict in Kosovo that exploded into an international crisis in 1999. More than a million Kosovo Albanians fled or were deported by Serbian security forces or paramilitary groups. In Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where many attempted to flee, the government was concerned about the potentially destabilising effects of Kosovo Albanians in light of existing tensions related to its own ethnic Albanian minority. To ensure the continued admission of refugees on Macedonian soil, 28 countries – including the US – agreed to accept refugees from FYR Macedonia – a programme that ultimately benefitted nearly 100,000.

I was in Albania that same year as NATO engaged with bilateral and multilateral support of many nations. The important combination of political, military, and humanitarian engagements of the international community ensured that, in solidarity with the Government of Albania, there was collective support for the returns of over one million refugees in the course of a few weeks, the resettlement of thousands more, and the aid and protection of those who remained without a solution to their displacement.

Imperfect as the Kosovo example was in other ways, it certainly shows how international solidarity can open borders and save lives. In contrast, consider the dangerous, though unintended, effects that closed borders can have on States’ control over their territory.

Smuggling networks from Africa to Europe provide a useful example. Starting around 2013, there was a dramatic spike in irregular arrivals in Europe by Eritreans and Somalis. This could not be traced to any obvious change in their countries of origin that would compel greater numbers to move. It was not their reasons for flight that had changed, but rather their opportunities to move.

When the Syrian conflict erupted, massive numbers of Syrians began to seek safety abroad, predominantly in countries neighbouring Syria. As the conflict dragged on, refugees’ savings dwindled. There were shortfalls in support to host countries and humanitarian aid organizations, and increasing hardship faced by refugees in neighbouring countries sparked a large-scale movement to Europe and elsewhere. With border restrictions, many were forced to resort to smuggling networks operating in the Eastern and South Eastern Mediterranean. Previously ad hoc networks began to professionalize.

As this smuggling trade ballooned, the market grew highly responsive to the changing policies of European states; prices and routes quickly adapted to security measures and resettlement policies. While individual European states spent significant resources policing closed borders, criminal networks have enriched themselves by merely re-routing refugees and migrants to the next border crossing. There are indications that this “trade” resembles transnational organized crime, complete with its complex economies – sometimes embedded in state structures – to protect lucrative profits. This comes at an enormous cost… to individuals, to communities, to states and to the world. It goes well beyond humanitarian or development concerns, but indeed, strikes directly at security, stability, economic, and human interests.

It remains to be seen whether we will look back on these events as analogous to the beginnings of the transnational criminal organizations that threaten state structures elsewhere, whether in North Africa or Central America.

These examples show that, in the absence of a shared responsibility for displacement, we allow one problem to multiply. Therefore, it’s fundamentally inaccurate to discuss solidarity solely in terms of charity, as if the main question regards only whether we can afford to offer aid to other countries. The question is really whether we can afford to let displacement fester and morph into something more sinister and dangerous.

At the beginning of my remarks, I quoted the Millennium Declaration. What I didn’t mention before was how it explicitly separates this collective responsibility as something that’s “in addition to” our leaders’ responsibilities to their individual societies.

Collective responsibility is more than an uncertain obligation to help others. It is a moral imperative to address how our choices have contributed to harming innocent people, and to not stand by while immeasurable deprivation is imposed upon others.

But it is more than humanitarian, because it also helps our own long-term interests in stability and human rights. Our collective responsibility thus appeals to our moral sense and to our most selfish concerns for our own security and safety – if we take the long view. And propelled by these interests, I am hopeful this idea will endure.

Because solidarity is more than sentimental. It’s strategic.

Thank you.


[1] The US’s central involvement in this treaty is well-known. The Chairman of Style Committee that penned the final version was American, in fact.

[2] Para. 10