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Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Third Committee of the General Assembly, 69th Session, 5 November 2014

Speeches and statements

Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Third Committee of the General Assembly, 69th Session, 5 November 2014

5 November 2014

Agenda Item 61: 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, Wednesday, 5 November 2014, 10:00 a.m.

Madam Chairperson, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Global forced displacement has been rising steadily in recent years. In 2011, every single day, some 14,000 people worldwide were forced from their homes by war or violence. In 2012; 23,000 a day. In 2013; 32,000. This represents an exponential increase in displacement. At the end of 2013, over 51 million people were in displacement due to conflict and persecution, and everything indicates that this number will be even higher by December this year.

Today's multiplying conflicts, as well as the pressures of climate change, population growth, urbanization, food insecurity and water scarcity, mean that this upward trend in forced displacement and humanitarian needs will likely continue in the future. The humanitarian community is scrambling to respond, but every new crisis clearly shows that the system has reached its limits.

To those who trigger and prolong conflicts, leaving humanitarians to clean up the mess, it is time to say that this must stop. We as humanitarians can no longer pick up the pieces.

One of the reasons is that humanitarian financing is close to bankruptcy. Although funding has increased, the needs have grown much faster still, and the gap is widening. To address the growing shortfall, several measures are necessary. They include continuing the strong investments we have already been making in building our partnerships with emerging donors. It also means expanding even more the opportunities of cooperation with the private sector. But that will not be enough.

More fundamentally, we have to review the relationship between humanitarian and development funding. The totality of international humanitarian budgets reaches just 10% of what is available globally for development cooperation. But in the current context of multiplying conflict, development funds are not accessible quickly enough in many situations where they are needed, and humanitarian actors are again and again forced to act as substitutes for the absence of structural assistance. Humanitarian aid only gets a fragment of the resources, but it often has to cover things it really should not.

Development agencies, donors and international financial institutions must work together to increase flexibility and complementarity between short and longer-term interventions, and to be present on the ground from the very beginning of a crisis. It is in our common interest, and our collective responsibility, to ensure that "bridging the gap" is more than a slogan. But this requires strong political leadership to change objectives, priorities and above all, the organizational culture of development cooperation.

It is also essential to think out of the box and be more creative when it comes to funding emergency response. I believe that in the future, humanitarian response should be able to rely partially on assessed contributions, which could be envisaged to fund a kind of "super CERF" for L-3 emergencies. This would be a way to minimize the dramatically increasing gap between needs and available resources in humanitarian response. Under the leadership of the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, OCHA is now commissioning a study to explore how this could work.

Another important factor, apart from financing, is the need to build an effective universal partnership for humanitarian action. The present multilateral humanitarian system is essentially a Western creation. But today, what is needed is a truly universal partnership that can draw on the totality of efforts and resources to meet humanitarian needs.

Refugee protection is an excellent example for the fact that humanitarian values are indeed universal, but are being expressed differently in different cultures. While many large refugee-hosting countries have never signed the 1951 Convention, their actual policies reflect a generosity towards people seeking protection that is deeply rooted in their traditions and their beliefs. For example, there is nothing in modern international refugee law that is not already clearly reflected in Islamic tradition and law since its very beginning.

I hope that we can use the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in 2016 to bring everyone on board and work towards a truly universal approach to the expression of humanitarian values and principles, and to the respect for humanitarian space.

Distinguished Delegates,

Clearly, we must change the way the humanitarian response system works today so as to be prepared for future challenges. But meanwhile, present realities cannot wait.

Three and a half years into the crisis, Syrians are now the largest refugee population under UNHCR's mandate. The consequences of this massive outflow for the neighbouring countries are enormous, with economies, public services, communities and local populations heavily affected, not to mention the security impact of the Syria conflict in the whole region.

Lebanon and Jordan have witnessed a dramatic increase in population as a result of the Syrian influx, which has overwhelmed national infrastructure and services; exerted a heavy toll on public finance and created economic hardship for many among the host population, especially the most vulnerable Lebanese and Jordanians.

In Turkey, the government has already spent more than 4 billion dollars of its budget in direct refugee assistance, and even in Egypt, the impact of the refugee presence is far from being negligible.

But recently, the most worrying fallout of the Syria conflict has been in Iraq, which has now become entirely engulfed by the conflict, to the extent that it is difficult to distinguish these two crises. In addition to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees that had already sought safety in the Kurdistan Region, more than 1.9 million Iraqis have been internally displaced in 2014. And there are some 180,000 Iraqi refugees abroad, half of whom fled during the last ten months.

New conflicts have also triggered massive displacement in Africa, and that continent represents UNHCR's largest challenge in terms of financial requirements and capacity. In the Central African Republic, some 410,000 people remain internally displaced following the events of the last year and a half, and more than 420,000 Central Africans are refugees in the region, with a heavy impact on the neighbouring countries.

In South Sudan, 1.4 million people have sought safety in other areas of the country, and 467,000 have fled to Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan and Kenya since December 2013.

Continued insecurity in northern Nigeria has displaced some 650,000 people internally, and an estimated 54,000 Nigerians are refugees in neighbouring countries, namely Cameroon and Niger.

And there are still some 140,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, and although spontaneous returns are taking place, insecurity remains an enormous challenge.

In North Africa, the current conflict in Libya has displaced an estimated 287,000 persons inside the country. This crisis has a clear impact on boat departures towards Europe and the rising number of deaths at sea.

And finally, the situation in Ukraine has also caused significant displacement. The number of registered internally displaced people now stands at 442,000, and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have left the country. Some 213,000 of these have applied for various forms of legal protection in the Russian Federation, and 8,000 have done so elsewhere in Europe.

While humanitarians struggle to respond to this multitude of new emergencies, drawn-out conflicts - in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Somalia, to cite just a few - and the many more "forgotten" crises all over the world, continue to require significant attention and resources. But they are not getting sufficient amounts of either.

Distinguished Delegates,

For the past year, emergency response has been the defining priority for UNHCR, and indeed for the entire humanitarian community, with five system-wide Level-3 emergencies. For us, like for most of our partners, the strain this has created is unlike anything we have ever experienced.

In many of these on-going crises, insecurity adversely affects both the people we care for and our own operations. Over 80 humanitarian workers have lost their lives since the beginning of this year, including a UNHCR staff member in the Central African Republic. In many operations, humanitarian personnel are working under extremely difficult security conditions, and staff safety measures and continued investments in security management remain the corporate priority for UNHCR.

As we are faced with enormous pressures, everything we do depends on three central pillars of support to refugee protection: host countries and communities; donors; and partners.

First, and most crucially: during these times of record new displacement, the institution of asylum - with a few exceptions - is still largely preserved and respected, and most remarkably so by countries whose means are limited. Today, 86% of the world's refugees are living in the developing world - up from 70% ten years ago.

One could choose to see in these numbers an ever-widening gap between wealth and hospitality. But this is not what I would like to see.

I want to see these countries, whose contribution is so fundamental to refugee protection, receive the support they need. But we are still falling short, and host states in the developing world require far more international solidarity and burden-sharing.

The second pillar I mentioned is strong donor support. During the last year, voluntary contributions to UNHCR reached unprecedented levels, with more than 2.9 billion dollars in 2013, and current indications that they will exceed 3 billion in 2014. We are grateful for the confidence and trust that are at the basis of this generous commitment, including from new donors and the private sector.

Continued emphasis on maximizing the impact of limited funding, including through reducing the percentage of structural costs, will remain a priority for UNHCR. Much effort has gone into making this organization slimmer and more effective in the past years. The volume of our operations is now three times as high as a few years ago, but we do it with only a 30% increase of staff worldwide and with a 30% reduction of staff in Geneva. Going forward, the main focus is now on oversight and accountability.

The third aspect without which we would not be able to deliver is the exemplary cooperation of our partners. Partnerships are a tremendous resource in UNHCR operations and one that we will always continue to invest in.

Our current focus is on further strengthening cooperation with WFP, UNICEF and other operational UN agencies, and on implementing the recommendations of our structured dialogue with NGOs and the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement.

We also continue to invest significantly in our partnerships with development actors, to help us enable solutions and to make humanitarian and development actions more complementary from the start of displacement.

In the Syria situation, we are working closely with UNDP and the World Bank to find ways of combining humanitarian and development assistance so as to stabilize the situation and build longer-term resilience amongst host communities and refugees. This integrated vision underpins the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan that will be launched in December by over 150 partners and the host governments, with the coordination of UNHCR and UNDP.

We also maintain our strong support to the field implementation of the Inter Agency Standing Committee's Transformative Agenda. We spelled out our Refugee Coordination Model at the end of last year to better explain our integral but distinct approach. The model aims to provide a straightforward, systematic and inclusive reference point for host governments and partners. It allows for flexibility in mixed situations where there are both refugees and internally displaced persons.

I particularly appreciate our cooperation with OCHA in this context, and the Emergency Relief Coordinator and I held a high-level bilateral meeting earlier this year where we agreed on a number of practical steps to make sure that we are able to further improve the way we work together.

Distinguished Delegates,

With regard to UNHCR's protection mandate, I want to focus on three aspects here: statelessness, protection at sea, and the protection of women and children.

As we mark the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Convention, it is encouraging to see how the world has started to transform the way it deals with statelessness. There have been a record 42 accessions to the two conventions since the Ministerial event of 2011, and more and more countries are changing their nationality laws so as to end statelessness. Nevertheless, at least ten million people worldwide remain stateless, and much more needs to be done to end their plight. Just yesterday I launched a global campaign to end statelessness in ten years' time - an ambitious but possible objective. I count on the strong support by all States to help make this goal a reality.

Another priority for UNHCR is protection at sea. Every week, hundreds of desperate people in search of protection put their lives into the hands of smugglers and try to cross the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aden or the Bay of Bengal in unsafe, overcrowded boats. It is heartbreaking that people who are already fleeing a brutal war in their home country are forced to risk their lives and those of their families at sea because they have no other way to find safety.

The recent increase in irregular maritime movements poses complex challenges for the countries involved, including rescue and disembarkation, proper reception conditions, fair treatment of protection claims and the need for more regional cooperation and burden-sharing among affected countries. I look forward to discussing these issues together with States, NGOs, civil society and other stakeholders at the upcoming Protection Dialogue in Geneva.

The protection of women and children is another corporate commitment for UNHCR. The number of refugee children has risen dramatically in recent years, and half of all refugees worldwide are now under 18. Never before have we recorded so many unaccompanied and separated minors seeking asylum. Refugee children face higher risks of sexual exploitation and abuse, recruitment, child labor and early marriage. In its response, UNHCR focuses on access to quality education, psycho-social care and targeted support for children with specific needs, as well as birth registration.

Sexual and gender based violence will continue to be a central focus for our protection work. We are increasingly linking child protection, education and SGBV prevention and response, because none of these problems can be addressed effectively in isolation. There has been good progress in several international initiatives, and also in implementing UNHCR's global strategy to strengthen response to SGBV. But despite all efforts, it is frustrating to see just how little is still being achieved worldwide in fighting impunity and in supporting the victims.

Distinguished Delegates,

Achieving durable solutions remains the most challenging part of UNHCR's mandate. Last year, new refugee displacement outpaced solutions by a rate of approximately 4 to 1, and over 6 million people worldwide remain in protracted exile.

This clearly underlines the urgent need for a much stronger focus, and more international support to innovative approaches. This year's creation of the Solutions Alliance of many governments, humanitarian and development organizations, civil society and others is an encouraging step in this regard.

It is also increasingly clear that comprehensive initiatives have the best chances of success. There is some encouraging progress in Africa, including the recently launched voluntary return operation of some 30,000 former Angolan refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo; the local integration of Angolans in Zambia or the comprehensive solutions strategy for Rwandan refugees. And following the recent announcement by Tanzania on the implementation of its naturalization programme for long-standing Burundian refugees, the first newly naturalized Tanzanians received their citizenship certificates from the President himself a few weeks ago.

Although the situation in Somalia remains challenging, the Global Initiative on Somali Refugees is a crucial effort to achieve real improvements for Africa's largest protracted refugee population. With the recently adopted Addis Ababa Commitment towards Somali Refugees, the concerned countries - Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, Uganda and Djibouti - have taken a genuine regional approach to the 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 particularly noteworthy.

In South-West Asia, the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees is another key example of a comprehensive approach. The governments of the Islamic Republics of Pakistan and Iran have made significant efforts under this Strategy. This includes the extension of the Proof of Registration cards for 1.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan until the end of next year, and enhanced access to education and work permits for registered Afghan refugees in Iran. I hope the Solutions Strategy will become a key national priority under the new Afghan unity government, to make voluntary repatriation to safer areas more attractive, more sustainable and more supported by the international community.

In the Americas, a comprehensive solutions initiative for Colombian refugees is being implemented in Ecuador, combining improved livelihood opportunities, resettlement and facilitated labor mobility in the region. And in December, a ministerial event in Brazil will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration, adopting a Plan of Action that will give a new impetus to enhancing protection and solutions across Latin America.

Distinguished Delegates,

As UNHCR tries to become less and less of a "care and maintenance" organization, we must get better at adapting to changing realities. For example, we currently provide over 220 million dollars' worth of cash assistance in 94 operations around the world, enabling refugees to make their own choices while also supporting local economies. Innovation is another important part of our efforts to make UNHCR a true 21st century organization.

We have also recently issued a policy on alternatives to camps. While its implementation will of course be defined in the framework of national laws and national policies, we hope that exploring such alternatives together with our partners can enable refugees to lead more dignified, productive lives and to contribute to their host societies, resulting in better outcomes for refugees and countries of asylum alike.

Distinguished Delegates,

Humanitarian response is at a crossroads. We must recognize that it is high time we change course - it is not with a "business as usual" approach that the system will be able to remain effective and respond to the exponential increase in humanitarian needs.

The changes that will be necessary include financing, as I mentioned earlier, bridging the relief-development gap, making the humanitarian response system more universal, and finding a more comprehensive approach to innovation in humanitarian response.

But the most important way in which we must change course to avoid a complete failure of humanitarian response in the future is conflict prevention. This extends far beyond the realm of humanitarian action, and essentially comes down to a question of international political resolve to address the root causes of displacement.

Conflict prevention - and conflict resolution - must always be led by the countries affected. But they also require much stronger international support, including to national, regional and international mediation and stabilization efforts.

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.

When I was a student, the wars I read about in history books almost always had a winner and a loser. But no one is winning the wars of today; everyone is losing. Conflicts just go on - some forever, others until they end in a compromise that could just as well have been achieved at the beginning, without the fighting. It is high time to stop this senseless violence.

Many of today's fundamental challenges to human society - be it conflict, climate change, or the spread of Ebola - can only be addressed if political leaders truly leave behind their differences and contradictions and seriously commit themselves to working together. Humanitarian action is not enough and will not be enough. The real solution, as always, can only be a political one.

Thank you very much.