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Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 62nd Session, New York, 8 November 2007

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 62nd Session, New York, 8 November 2007

8 November 2007

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates,

The present century is one of people on the move. Fleeing oppression or following opportunity, chased by man or nature, more and more people are leaving their homes every day.

Many are on the move in pursuit of better jobs or more fulfilling lives. Poverty is the strongest driving force, with thousands of poor migrants resorting to illegal and increasingly desperate routes to the global economy. Natural disasters are occurring with greater frequency and magnitude. And while it is impossible to foresee the long-term effects of climate change, almost every model predicts a continued expansion of desertification, destroying livelihood prospects in many parts of the globe. One certainty is that our rising sea levels means millions more displaced.

UNHCR has a precise mandate in relation to refugees. But to fulfil it we need to understand these phenomena and the mixed nature of many present-day population flows. In the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aden and the Caribbean, along north-south frontiers and, increasingly, along south-south borders, in the midst of migrants in search of a better life, there are people in need of protection. The ability to detect them, assure them of physical access, namely to asylum procedures, and a fair consideration of their claims, is a key element of our mission.

But the complexity of today's displacement goes well beyond the asylum-migration nexus. We see more and more people forced to move because of extreme deprivation, environmental degradation and climate change, and conflict and persecution.

The various causes are ever more related, the people on the move harder to tell apart. Each cause leads to another. A water shortage sets herders against farmers. Scarcity exacerbates competition, and slides into conflict. The displacement that results could just as easily have been brought on by a politically motivated attack.

How to answer people who have left their country to find food? If they are not refugees, can we knowingly send them back to extreme deprivation? The answer to this complex dilemma clearly goes beyond our own mandate. But it is also our duty to alert states to these problems and help find answers to the new challenges they represent.

Mr. Chairman,

Awareness of the broader picture cannot divert us from our core mandate. The causes of refugee flight are sufficiently worrisome. At the end of 2006, after several years of steady decline, the number of refugees worldwide rose to nearly 10 million.

The upward trend has continued this year, with crises such as Iraq and the Horn of Africa adding daily to the ranks of the displaced. Today, Iraqis in - and outside - the country make up the biggest single group of displaced. Adding complexity to their sheer numbers, they represent the largest urban refugee group UNHCR has ever dealt with.

The heavy burden the Syrian Arab Republic and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan have borne in accommodating so many Iraqis, and its dramatic impact on their economies and societies, underscore the pressing need for greater international solidarity. Their action places them on the list of very generous countries in the developing world which have hosted an outsized number of refugees.

We are also helping more people displaced within their own borders. In cooperation with partners, notably through the cluster approach, UNHCR is now present in 24 countries with a total population of nearly 20 million internally displaced people. At the close of 2006, the global figure of persons of concern to UNHCR stood at 32.9 million.

Rising numbers of refugees, added institutional responsibilities, a shifting environment and an age of people on the move demand a range of targeted strategies and innovative answers. Forced displacement is not new. But in concert with trends of such far-reaching consequence, growing numbers of people of concern are not only a test for states and the international community, but a major challenge for our organization.

Mr. Chairman,

To meet that challenge, we must be as dynamic and flexible as the tasks at hand demand. Our efforts on migration are one such example. UNHCR is not a migration agency, nor do we want to become one, but we are fully engaged in the work of the Global Migration Group and support the Global Forum on Migration and Development. Our first "Dialogue on Protection Challenges" in December will take up the asylum-migration nexus and its protection implications. We look forward also to the second meeting of the Global Forum in the Philippines next year. Working with governments and civil society to address this growing phenomenon is an increasingly important element of our mission.

Our commitment to the UN's cluster approach to situations of internal displacement is another example of our evolving mission. The framework has allowed us to enhance protection and aid to millions of people in need. Tools developed by the Global Clusters are being rolled out to the field this year and next. Nine of the 24 operations we are presently engaged in have now activated the cluster approach. Host governments are key parts of this process and they have been instrumental in the progress recorded so far.

A few examples: In Uganda, we are focusing on returnee monitoring, repairing roads to return areas, demining, and supporting civilian police. In Georgia, the government has adopted a national strategy on internal displacement that we helped draft. In Liberia, the Ministry of Justice now chairs the protection cluster, which UNHCR supports by funding a network of over 400 protection staff who monitor child protection and sexual and gender-based violence.

To measure our effectiveness, we have conducted several real-time evaluations of our operations for the internally displaced and made these available to Member States. And while we should be cautious before reaching conclusions, the overall assessment is positive. Evaluations have found that operations have been enhanced by the introduction of the cluster approach.

We have taken steps to ensure that our engagement with internally displaced persons does not detract from our core responsibilities. So far, there has been no negative impact on our mandate for refugees. In fact, we regularly find synergies between the two, such as community-based assistance in return areas.

Among our mandate responsibilities, greater awareness and renewed dynamism have contributed to remarkable breakthroughs this year in the fight against statelessness. In the last few months Nepal has carried out a massive regularization exercise, issuing citizenship certificates to 2.6 million inhabitants. And after nearly forty years in limbo, tens of thousands of Urdu speakers in Bangladesh, the so-called Biharis, will soon be confirmed as full citizens. Both governments deserve to be commended for their actions, which demonstrate that political will can overcome even the most intractable problems.

Mr. Chairman,

Last year 734,000 refugees repatriated voluntarily, over half of them with direct assistance from UNHCR. The figure of returned internally displaced people was an estimated 1.9 million. So far in 2007, over half a million refugees have gone home with our help: 360,000 Afghans, 58,000 Southern Sudanese, 31,000 Burundians, 46,000 Congolese, and many others. This is indeed one of the most noble and rewarding missions we have.

The concern I expressed one year ago for the sustainability of returns is, however, just as valid today. The links between relief and development are too often still theoretical, the obstacles along a returnee's way all too real. Food aid, measured in grams, and household supplies, counted out by the blanket, are often a returning family's only assets. Imagine, then, the gulf between that little bundle of belongings and a post-conflict recovery effort that restores the rule of law, puts people to work, rebuilds infrastructure, and improves education and health. That is the scale of the challenge.

In recent years, expectations have been raised for the millions who have returned home. The establishment of the Peacebuilding Commission and the "Delivering as One" initiative are positive developments. Promising too is the continuing work on the Millennium Development Goals, the advent of the Early Recovery cluster and the multiplication of integrated UN missions.

These initiatives have brought new prospects to post-conflict recovery efforts. But we are not there yet. The scale of the problem is so immense, the number of displaced so large, that much more must be done. We will continue advocating with all parties for more effective support to the reintegration process.

Mr. Chairman,

At the centre of everything UNHCR is and everything it does is protection. The challenge of reaching people in need of it, wherever they are, remains our greatest preoccupation.

To that end, we have launched an internal debate on both protection strategies and standards. A group which includes UNHCR Representatives from all over the world is tackling critical issues such as emergency response, the strategic use of resettlement and the growing challenge of delivering protection in the context of larger migration movements.

These debates will not be exclusively internal. We are encouraging States and NGOs to participate. The way ahead must be open to broad reflection, to innovative ideas, to new tools, and, where necessary, even to disagreement.

Our goal is to improve the lives of those who are difficult to reach. Existing tools are being expanded to increase the reach of protection in situations of internal displacement and statelessness. As women and children are among the most vulnerable in situations of displacement, we have implemented an Age and Gender Diversity Mainstreaming project and its accountability framework to address their specific needs. And we are undertaking new projects designed to promote the economic empowerment of refugee and internally displaced women.

Mr. Chairman,

Of the traditional solutions - voluntary repatriation, local integration and third-country resettlement - return in safety and dignity, respecting the free will of refugees, remains the preferred one.

Solutions should centre on return, but return by itself is often not enough. Some refugees do not or cannot return home. This year we have made significant advances on local integration: with the governments of Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia for the remaining refugee populations in those countries; with the government of the United Republic of Tanzania, in addressing in an innovative way the situation of '1972 Burundians'; in Latin America, where we are implementing microcredit, vocational training and housing schemes in the framework of the Mexico Plan of Action; and in West Africa, where the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and UNHCR have signed an agreement for residual groups of Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees.

One of our first priorities in reshaping UNHCR's Division of International Protection Services was to strengthen refugee resettlement capacity. The need for third-country resettlement grows with refugee populations and, in particular, with protracted situations like the Bhutanese in Nepal, Eritreans in eastern Sudan and Myanmar refugees in Thailand.

After substantially increasing the number of resettlement submissions last year, we are on pace to surpass that number again in 2007. In 2006 UNHCR submitted over 54,000 individuals of 70 nationalities to 26 resettlement countries. Through June of this year, we had already made over 43,000 submissions. Our biggest resettlement operation right now concerns Iraqis, for whom UNHCR has quickly developed the capacity to identify and submit large numbers of vulnerable cases.

Resettlement no longer targets only individual protection needs. It is a crucial burden-sharing mechanism and a strategic component of a global solutions perspective.

Resettlement no longer targets only individual protection needs. It is a crucial burden-sharing mechanism and a strategic component of a global solutions perspective.

Mr. Chairman,

We are a member of the UN system and enthusiastic participants in ongoing reform efforts. Speaking to this Committee last year, I said that UNHCR needed deep structural and management reform if we were to build a stronger, more effective UNHCR able to generate and direct more resources to the people we care for.

Reform is taking place and producing its first results. I am pleased to say today that in 2007, for the first time in a decade, an upward trend in global staff costs has been reversed. Over the first eight months of this year, in operations covered by the annual budget, we have spent US$36 million more on operations than staff. Over the first eight months of 2006 we had spent $17 million more on staff than on operations. If Supplementary Budgets are included the contrast is even greater. At the beginning of 2006, the number of staff members at Headquarters was 1,047; the figure is now 911.

Reversing the trend has brought an immediate impact. With the money not spent from last year's staff budget, we allocated $15 million to address pressing needs in malnutrition, malaria, reproductive health, and sexual and gender-based violence in our most critical operations.

The turnaround is the result of short-term measures. But reform will help us go deeper, and we are now pursuing five key initiatives:

First, outposting. Following a feasibility study and careful analysis, we decided to outpost several administrative functions to Budapest, Hungary, thereby reducing 129 posts at our Geneva Headquarters. After initial investments this transfer will save approximately $10 million per year.

Second, decentralization and regionalization. This will improve our field-based capacity for situational management and solutions planning and locate support services closer to the point of delivery.

Third, a Comprehensive Field Review. This will determine which activities can be most efficiently carried out by UNHCR or by its partners, review the balance of international staff assigned to deep field and capital offices and help use available national competency to greater effect. I believe that UNHCR can and should use more national staff in its field operations.

Fourth, improved management of resources. A revised Resource Allocation and Management framework will delegate increased responsibility and authority to the country and regional levels, allowing us to respond to changing operational needs quickly and efficiently.

We are proposing a new budget structure which will safeguard core refugee and stateless activities while financing internal displacement and reintegration on a project basis. The structure, being considered now by our Executive Committee, will improve transparency, governance and oversight. The whole of the budget will now, we hope, be submitted to our ExCom.

The last initiative is in the area of human resources. We are determined to reform several elements of personnel management and launch a serious effort to review training strategies and career management, leadership preparation, performance and competency systems, and the assessment and feedback processes.

Mr. Chairman,

Our efforts to control costs, coupled with favourable exchange rates, have put us on a more solid financial footing this year. Strong backing from donors throughout 2007 means we should be able to deliver an unprecedented level of protection and assistance to the people we care for.

Protection, assistance and solutions for refugees, and reducing statelessness: Among shifting trends and interconnected root causes, we have our bearing. Headed into an increasingly mobile age, when people have more and more reasons to be on the move, what we do will be guided by our mandate. But the international community must be able to cope with all the new challenges. For that, political leadership is needed. And that can only come from Member States: only Member States have the legitimacy to shape the strategies and instruments to better serve people in need.

I thank you.