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Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Third Committee of the General Assembly, 66th Session

Speeches and statements

Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Third Committee of the General Assembly, 66th Session

1 November 2011

Agenda Item 62: Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons and humanitarian questions

United Nations Headquarters, New York Tuesday, 1 November 2011, 3 p.m.

Delivered version

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates,

This is an important year for UNHCR, as we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

In this moment of celebration, yesterday's deadly attack on UNHCR's office in Kandahar, , came as even more of a cruel blow to us. Three of our staff were killed and two others wounded, in the first attack of this kind on one of our offices in Afghanistan, where we have been working for nearly three decades.

Too many humanitarian workers continue to pay for their commitment with their lives. More than 50 UN staff have been killed in the world in 2011 alone, as well as 30 from implementing partners. And as humanitarian space continues to shrink, there is no indication that this new decade will be any less dangerous for aid workers than the previous one, when some 2,000 of our colleagues in the humanitarian world lost their lives while helping some of the most vulnerable people on the earth.

Distinguished Delegates,

The 21st century is proving to be a century of people on the move. Present displacement patterns are very different from what they were when the 51 Convention was created. There are likely to be further dramatic changes in the new future. Population growth, urbanization, climate change, and food, water and energy insecurity, are all interacting with each other to compound instability, to trigger conflicts and to create new patterns of forced displacement.

And there is a growing link between the movements of people forced to flee because of conflict and persecution - those considered refugees according to the 1951 Convention and other instruments of refugee protection - and those who are forced to move for other reasons or because they aspire to a better life. It is extremely important for the international community to recognize the growing complexity of this phenomenon. We should not be seeking a new convention, and we are not seeking any new UNHCR mandate. But I do believe it is very important for all of us to acknowledge that the world is changing with new trends of displacement, to recognize that protection gaps do exist, and to open the way for innovative approaches to address these gaps by the international community.

As if to exemplify all this, 2011 has also been an extremely challenging year, marked by a quick succession of three major displacement emergencies that have tested our capacities and that of our partners.

More than 200,000 Ivorians fled their country after the disputed elections, most of them to Liberia, while hundreds of thousands were displaced inside Côte d'Ivoire. Only a few months later, following the outbreak of violence in Libya, around one and a half million people crossed the borders to neighbouring countries - as many as 20,000 a day at the peak of the crisis. The majority of the Libyans who fled their country has since returned home, but some 5,000 people from war-torn countries - like Somalia - are still stranded in Tunisia and Egypt waiting for a solution, and we are promoting a resettlement programme to find solutions for them.

With these two full-blown displacement crises already on our hands in the spring, the worst was yet to come. As drought continued to worsen amid decades-old conflict in Somalia, more than 318,000 people fled, bringing the total number of Somali refugees in the region to a staggering 940,000. In Kenya, Dadaab camp has grown to five times its intended size, housing more than 460,000 people. And thanks to the generous offer of additional land that was made available by the Government of Kenya, new sites around Dadaab have opened, but people continued to arrive at a rate of a thousand a day until very recently.

Distinguished Delegates,

Displacement continues to grow worldwide as new conflicts multiply and old ones fail to be resolved. Some 43.7 million people are now uprooted due to conflict and persecution, the highest number in over 15 years. And in 2011 alone, another 750,000 people became refugees in other countries.

At the same time, it looks as though old crises never die. To give an example: continued hostilities in Sudan's Blue Nile State as well as South Kordofan and Abyei have caused the displacement of several tens of thousands of people, including new flows of 28,500 who sought refuge in Ethiopia from Blue Nile and some 19,000 who fled the Nuba Mountains to South Sudan, just in the last months.

In this scenario of drawn-out conflict, durable solutions are becoming more and more difficult to achieve. With old conflicts increasingly intractable, and new ones proliferating, voluntary repatriation figures are at their lowest in 20 years. Fewer than 200,000 refugees chose to return home in 2010, against an annual average of over a million per year in the last two decades.

Given the limited opportunities for voluntary return, resettlement into third countries has become even more vital. But the number of places available annually has remained at about 80,000 for the past three years now. Global resettlement needs surpass this annual capacity of receiving States by a ratio of ten to one. And only 73,000 refugees departed for resettlement during last year, 14 per cent less than in 2009.

The third durable solution, local integration, is a complex and sometimes slow-moving process. UNHCR continues to assist refugees to prepare for local integration in various parts of the world, including West Africa, Tanzania, Eastern Europe, and under the Cities of Solidarity initiative in Latin America.

And self-reliance programmes are also being supported in a growing number of situations, for example the joint UNHCR/UNDP Transitional Solutions Initiative in eastern Sudan, which promises to help long-staying Eritrean refugees becoming self-sufficient in the years to come with the support of the Sudanese Government.

Distinguished Delegates,

Seventy per cent of the refugees of concern to UNHCR - more than seven million people - now live in prolonged situations of exile. And that is why I have made it a priority for UNHCR to intensify the implementation of its Global Plan of Action on protracted refugee situations.

But we need to recognize that there is no humanitarian solution for these problems - solutions have to combine humanitarian action with political initiative and economic and social development. UNHCR's mandate is non-political, but we can sometimes play a catalytic role, mobilizing other actors of the international community. A recent example is the joint strategy of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia to close the chapter of displacement of the 1990s in the Western Balkans. UNHCR was only instrumental in bringing people together and encouraging countries to take on the leadership of a political process that only they could assume. But this proves that when there is political will, there are solutions available.

As for economic and social development - we can bring people back, but if there is nothing for them to do, and no services, they will not remain in their communities of origin. Without economic development, return will not be successful and the refugees of the past will become the migrants of the future. There needs to be more focus on common strategies that bring development programmes to areas of origin, to areas of local integration and to foster the self-reliance of refugees and to support host communities, if solutions are to be sustainable.

In the world's largest protracted situation, that of Afghans, innovative responses by the concerned Governments are now creating new opportunities. In Afghanistan itself, we will have a more targeted and focused reintegration programme, run jointly with UNDP, in cooperation with the Afghan Government. In Pakistan, the Government's comprehensive Management and Repatriation Strategy for Afghan Refugees includes host community support and the development of alternative interim stay arrangements. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has made work permits available to registered Afghan refugees and, with support from UNHCR, is providing health insurance coverage to 200,000 people.

These bold, new, generous approaches should be matched by international solidarity. To this end UNHCR and the three Governments are developing a multi-year solutions strategy for Afghan refugees in the sub-region, to be presented at an international stakeholders conference in early 2012.

Another area, education and vocational training, is key for solutions. An external evaluation of UNHCR's education programmes was recently finalized, and a new strategy is now being prepared. We have made important steps forward in recent years in improving health, nutrition and water/sanitation in many dramatic refugee situations. We now also need to make education a centrepiece of our strategy for solutions, namely in protracted refugee situations.

But in all of this, we must not forget the enormous challenges that local integration and self-reliance represent for host States in the Global South in particular. Developing countries accommodate today eight out of every ten refugees today, making the most fundamental contribution to their protection.

And it has long been clear that host States in the developing world cannot be expected to carry the burden of large-scale refugee presence by themselves. We need more active solidarity with the developing world, which bears the brunt of the effects of forced displacement.

Development assistance targeting refugee-hosting areas is critical to make this work. But while funding is essential, solidarity cannot only be measured in financial terms. Resettlement is one vital form of burden-sharing. Mobility and managed migration policies are another.

Distinguished Delegates,

UNHCR's engagement with internally displaced persons continued to be an important pillar of our operations. In 2010, we provided protection and assistance to some 14.7 million in 29 countries. In most of these we led one or more of the three clusters under our global responsibility - protection, emergency shelter and camp coordination/camp management. On a positive note, some 2.9 million internally displaced were able to return to their communities last year, the highest figure in over 15 years. And most of these returns took place in Pakistan, the DRC, Uganda and Sri Lanka.

Six years after the introduction of the cluster approach, we are fully engaged in the current reform efforts led by the Emergency Relief Coordinator and OCHA. They aim to improve collective results in leadership, coordination, accountability, preparedness and communications. The steps we are taking to further strengthen our protection and emergency response capacities are well aligned with this process.

Let me take this opportunity to touch briefly on UNHCR's internal reform process. Its results speak for themselves. We have increased our efficiency considerably, with Headquarters costs reduced from 14 to 9 per cent of overall expenditure, and staff costs from 41 to 27 per cent. Savings in 2010 allowed us to make a significant investment in early 2011 to address gaps in water, sanitation, health and nutrition, benefiting some 1.3 million refugees in Africa and Asia.

Efforts are ongoing as regards the restructuring of the Division of Information Systems and Telecommunications. We will move 49 ICT positions from Geneva to a newly created Service Centre in Amman, and a few extra posts to Panama City and Budapest. On human resources, the Joint Advisory Committee of staff and management is being consulted on proposed policies for recruitment, conversions, contracts and a new strategy to reduce the number of staff in-between assignments.

But structural reform cannot be an end in itself, which is why much of our energy has been dedicated to improving our ability to deliver. Recent priorities have been strengthening our protection and emergency response capacities.

Earlier in 2011, UNHCR advertised 42 new structural protection posts across the globe. In addition, we had created 46 new protection posts in Sudan, South Sudan and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo to enhance our capacity for providing protection by presence.

Regarding the second priority, this year's extraordinary pressure on our emergency response capacity has amply testified our ( ... .commitment?) to the recent investments made to strengthen it. During the first nine months of 2011, we deployed more than 600 emergency staff to 36 countries. That's two and a half times as many as in previous years. At one point of time in June, some 300 people were deployed at the same time - 60 more than during the entire year of 2010.

Our emergency stockpiles and delivery capacity have also been put to the proof. We airlifted an average of 70 tons of shelter and other relief items each week in 2011, more than tripling the volume dispatched in 2010. With the full implementation of our global stock management system, we can now rely on a centrally managed network of seven supply hubs located in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. This has enabled us to make significant savings on airlifts and to respond within 72 hours to simultaneous emergencies of up to 600,000 persons.

We have broadened our staff deployment mechanisms to include all Headquarters departments and field operations in a corporate emergency roster, and created one for senior managers to provide the required leadership. Some 25 staff at the P5 to D2 level are now on standby for deployment, and six have already been so in the course of the year, including one staff member as Humanitarian Coordinator for the Libya crisis. Technical experts from all divisions and external standby partners complement this enhanced deployment staffing capacity.

Distinguished Delegates,

2011 has also clearly shown that we still need to improve.

Firstly, to enhance its organizational response to emergencies, UNHCR is developing a new staffing model to allow quicker deployments at the outset of a crisis, and a more structured transition in the post-emergency phase to make our efforts sustainable.

Likewise, we are reinforcing coordination and support capacities for more predictable and accountable inter-agency engagement in refugee outflows. Our strong, effective and credible leadership is critical for this to be possible.

A robust investment in information management capabilities is another important factor in this respect. An operational data portal in Ethiopia and Kenya for Somali refugees is already providing updated registration statistics, maps and sectoral reports in interaction with all partners. This has shown us the way to go forward, and we will now draw on OCHA's experience in this field.

As UNHCR consolidates results-based management, the second priority we have set ourselves for the coming period is improved accountability, financial and programme control, and risk management. In this context, the Executive Committee, following my proposal, recently agreed to the establishment of an Independent Audit and Oversight Committee which is expected to take up its functions by early 2012.

UNHCR's volume of activity has nearly doubled in the past five years, with only a marginal increase in staff globally and a significant reduction - 30 per cent - in Geneva. This strong focus on efficiency gains has enabled us to cope with the enormous challenges facing us, and to adapt to a changing humanitarian landscape.

But now it is time to address some of the gaps detected during this process. We need to bring our oversight mechanisms to a level that is commensurate with our significantly increased budget. We will strengthen our accountability system, equip our staff with better knowledge and capacity for sound financial management and control, and introduce a new risk management framework for the organization. However, we will deal with these important issues without building up a large administrative apparatus that would be inconsistent with the earlier successes we have achieved with our reform process.

Our efforts to keep UNHCR slim and flexible are crucial for sustaining the support we get from our donors and improve our delivery for people we care for. UNHCR has received unprecedented levels of contributions in recent years - almost US$ 1.9 billion in 2010, despite heavy budgetary pressures. We are intensifying our efforts to broaden UNHCR's income base and reach out to a wider range of donors in the public and private sectors. Contributions from the private sector are now nearly four times as high as in 2005, and our income from pooled funds and other multilateral sources has grown for the fifth consecutive year. Unrestricted or flexibly earmarked funding continues to be vital to ensure comparable levels of assistance across all operations, including those out of the spotlight.

I also wish to reiterate the importance of partnership for everything we do. The number of our implementing partners has increased to almost 900, 60 per cent of which are national NGOs. Nearly 38 per cent of our budget is now implemented by partners. That's some US$ 350 million more than in 2005.

But NGOs, as well as the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, are becoming increasingly strategic partners, not only implementing ones, from policy development to joint planning and action on the ground.

Similarly, our cooperation with other UN operational agencies continues to be vitally important for our work. At the present moment, we are working with both WFP and UNICEF to further strengthen our collaboration in refugee emergencies.

Distinguished Delegates,

In December 2011, the commemorations of the 60th and 50th anniversaries of the Refugee and Reduction of Stateless Conventions will culminate in an intergovernmental event at ministerial level in Geneva. This will be an opportunity for States to reaffirm and recommit to the principles of refugee protection by making concrete pledges to improve the international protection regime, both at home and abroad.

UNHCR has already made an enormous effort this year to put statelessness more prominently on the international agenda. The lack of a nationality remains a fundamental problem, yet it is still far too often overlooked. For the estimated 12 - some even say 15 - million people affected worldwide, the consequences of statelessness can be devastating in some circumstances: social exclusion, the denial of human rights, barriers to education and development, or heightened vulnerability to abuse and trafficking.

The number of States Parties to the statelessness conventions continues to grow, with four new countries already having acceded to one or both of these instruments since January 2011. I am optimistic that many States will announce steps to address statelessness at the Ministerial meeting in December.

Distinguished Delegates,

The multitude of refugee crises this past year has tested the commitment to provide protection space to those seeking safety across borders. The test has shown that refugee protection is very much alive. All countries neighbouring this year's crises zones deserve the gratitude and solidarity of the international community for their enormous generosity, and their respect for the values of international protection.

Liberia, Ghana, Guinea and Togo all kept their borders open when more than 200,000 Ivorian refugees fled their country. There indeed, the fundamental human values of solidarity and hospitality still run strong.

All the countries bordering Libya showed the same firm commitment to providing protection space when hundreds of thousands fled that conflict. Even throughout the most fragile period of their own transitions, Tunisia and Egypt kept their borders open.

Without wanting to enter the European debate on migration and the future of the Schengen regime, it is important to recognize that Italy and Malta also received nearly 30,000 people who fled from Libya across the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian Guardia Costiera and Guardia di Finanza deserve particular praise for their admirable work in rescue at sea, which saved thousands of lives in 2011 alone.

Further east, Turkey and Lebanon also kept their borders open for all those who crossed them in search of refuge.

And the list goes on. As they have been doing for two decades, Somalia's neighbours - Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen - have continued to take in people seeking safety and survival. Their generosity testifies to the strength of their long-standing dedication to refugee protection.

Even in countries that continue to experience dramatic internal turmoil, refugee protection has been preserved. In the Syrian Arab Republic, UNHCR and its local partners have been able to continue programmes for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees. Nor has Yemen changed its policy of granting prima facie refugee status to all Somalis arriving on its shores.

The principles enshrined in the Refugee Convention, and reflected in the strong value of solidarity in various cultures and religions, have withstood some very tough tests this year. I am encouraged to see so many States upheld these principles even under the most difficult circumstances.

Having said that, however, there is a worrying trend in many parts of the world that continues to threaten the protection space available to refugees. Racism and xenophobia are not the preserve of extremists or homicidal individuals. Similar sentiments are expressed by populist politicians and some irresponsible elements of the media - sentiments that are not always opposed with sufficient energy and courage by mainstream political and social movements.

In anxious times such as these, messages of "otherness" and exclusion play on common fears of the new and unfamiliar. High levels of anti-foreigner feelings in many States where they arrive pose a real threat to the lives and well-being of refugees, and undermine the universal values of tolerance and respect for human dignity. Governments need to address the legitimate security, social and economic concerns of their citizens. But if there is a message for us to get across it is surely that human rights are for all, including the forcibly displaced.

In my view, multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious societies are not only a good thing, they are inevitable. Building tolerant and open communities is a slow and delicate process. But non-discrimination is a core human rights principle, and it is the duty of all States to acknowledge and give effect to it. Refugees cannot become collateral damage of anti-immigrant attitudes.

In conclusion, let me return to the Horn of Africa, where the humanitarian crisis has reached unimaginable proportions. It is the worst I have seen in my time as High Commissioner - the result of decades of conflict, drought and food insecurity in a region increasingly impacted by the effects of climate change.

All of us could see this escalation coming from a long way away. Nonetheless, we, the international community, were slow to react to signs that things were starting to deteriorate. What is worse, we also didn't have the capacity to prevent them from getting this bad in the first place.

The prevention of conflict, adaptation to climate change, and risk management of natural disasters are all areas in which the international community needs to do much more. The failure to do so will only cause further dramatic suffering, inevitably forcing increasing numbers of people to flee.

We live in a dangerous world. Intractable conflict is compounded, if not exacerbated by the simultaneous impact of the factors I mentioned: population growth, urbanization, climate change and food, water and energy insecurity. And at the same time, the world lacks the governance capacity to deal with these challenges.

Unpredictability has become the name of the game. Crises are multiplying. Conflicts are becoming more complex. And solutions are proving to be more and more elusive. In such challenging circumstances we must recognize our shared responsibility. And we must exercise our shared commitment.

Thank you very much.