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Third Committee of the General Assembly, 70th Session (New York, November 3) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres' statement on questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons

Speeches and statements

Third Committee of the General Assembly, 70th Session (New York, November 3) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres' statement on questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons

3 November 2015

Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, speaks at UN Headquarters in New York on November 3, 2015.

Mr. Chairperson, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today, for the first time in many years, refugee protection has become the focus of international attention and the center of discussion in many international fora. The dramatic events in Europe, where hundreds of thousands have arrived to seek safety over the last few months, have contributed to this - but let us not forget that what we face is a global problem.

60 million people worldwide are forcibly displaced as a result of war and persecution. With fifteen new or reignited conflicts in the past five years alone, the number of people forced from their homes by conflict every single day has nearly quadrupled - from under 11,000 in 2010 to 42,500 last year. The corresponding increase in humanitarian needs has overwhelmed the global response capacity. We need to face the truth: the international multilateral humanitarian community - UN agencies, the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement, and NGOs - even when combining all its resources, is no longer able to provide the core protection and the basic life-saving assistance which the people we care for need and are entitled to receive.

The list of simultaneous large-scale humanitarian crises is longer than it has ever been in my time as High Commissioner. The interlinked mega-crises in Syria and Iraq have uprooted over 15 million people. Some two million people were newly displaced in and from Yemen in 2015, and 300,000 in Libya. And in the world's largest protracted refugee situation, over 2.5 million registered Afghan refugees remain in the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan. As we discussed at the High Level Segment on the Afghan refugee situation during our Executive Committee session in October, more Afghans are now choosing to return home than in 2014, but many challenges remain for sustainable reintegration, requiring continued support from the international community.

In Africa, the continued violence in South Sudan has left 1.6 million internally displaced in addition to 760,000 refugees in the neighbouring countries. In the Central African Republic, where 415,000 are uprooted inside the country and 470,000 are refugees outside, the situation has again deteriorated recently. The violence in northeastern Nigeria has forced over 2.5 million people to flee their homes, and more than 200,000 Burundians have sought refuge in the neighbouring countries since the crisis erupted in April. Nearly one million Somalis still live as registered refugees in the neighbouring states, mainly in Kenya and Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda and Yemen, with significant economic, social and environmental consequences, let alone the security problems caused by the ongoing crisis in many parts of Somalia.

In eastern Europe, there has been little improvement in the situation in Ukraine, which has displaced at least 2.6 million people internally and abroad. In the Asia-Pacific region, 94,000 people have crossed the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea since 2014 in search of protection and a more dignified life. And tens of thousands, many of them children, continue to flee horrific gang violence and abuse in Central America.

Distinguished Delegates,

Globalization is asymmetrical. Money moves freely, some even believe too freely. Although goods and services still face some hurdles, global trade has been growing. But people still face enormous obstacles to move. This is one of the major sources of inequality in our world today, and a cruel paradox: few movements are as tightly restricted as those of human beings, but conflict and violence are forcing more and more people to flee their home countries. And so hundreds of thousands of people find themselves with no other option but to put their lives into the hands of unscrupulous smugglers. Criminal gangs are making billions out of this desperate situation, in complete disregard for human lives and dignity.

Three quarters of a million people have arrived on Europe's shores since January. More than 3,400 have drowned, with the death toll rising quickly now that the weather has gotten worse. As rescue conditions have grown more difficult, additional support is urgently needed to ensure effective search and rescue. Just last week, there were 13 shipwrecks off the coast of Greece, and over 150 people died or went missing - including dozens of children.

The number of arrivals currently stands at between 6,000 and 8,000 a day on the Greek islands alone. The European Union has the capacity to manage this crisis, but for that to happen a united and comprehensive regional approach is essential. The decision to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers within the EU was a step in the right direction, but implementation has been far too slow. And for this system to work, procedures and adequate reception arrangements must be established near the entry points to assist, register and screen tens of thousands of people. The recent Leaders' Meeting on the Western Balkans Route in Brussels took some important decisions in this regard, but the key is now to implement them rapidly, so as to at least partially improve the untenable situation on the beaches and borders of Europe.

This is both a migration and a refugee crisis. All of the people now arriving in Europe have human dignity and human rights that must be respected just like everyone else's. But States also have an obligation under international law to grant protection to refugees fleeing conflict and persecution.

The arrivals in Italy are clearly of a mixed nature. African conflicts, the chaos in Libya, but also the imbalance in economic and demographic trends for Africa and Europe have contributed to these movements.

The EU-Africa summit on migration in Malta next week will be an opportunity to devise a new compact of common development cooperation policies that better take into account human mobility. Africa and Europe need a common strategy to invest to allow people to have a future in their own countries, unlike some projects that inadvertently contribute to people being uprooted. Migration should be an option, not a necessity; an expression of hope, not of despair.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, the situation is different, with most arrivals coming from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, likely to be in need of international protection. Syrian refugees account for most of the enormous spike in people coming to Europe this year, mainly due to three factors - two longer-term trends, and a more recent trigger.

First, many have lost hope that a political solution will soon be found to end the war. A growing proportion of the people we are interviewing in Greece or on their way north through the Balkans are now coming directly from Syria.

Second, after so many years in exile, most of the over 4 million Syrian refugees in the neighbouring countries have depleted whatever savings they may have had, and living conditions have been steadily deteriorating. Seven out of ten refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty, and in Jordan, the proportion of refugees in urban areas living below the Jordanian poverty line is 86%. Half of all Syrian refugee children across the region are not getting any education.

The third factor - the trigger - is the humanitarian funding shortfall. UNHCR has been struggling for months to continue supporting the growing number of extremely vulnerable families with cash and shelter items, especially ahead of the coming winter. But earlier this year, the World Food Programme was forced to cut their assistance by 30%, which made many refugees feel that the international community was starting to abandon them.

As the crisis in Europe has escalated, there have been important new announcements of financial support to refugees in the neighbouring countries during recent weeks, which will help strengthen the humanitarian support we can provide during the winter and into next year. But as welcome and timely as these additional funds are, they will not address the wider problem organizations like ours are facing. There is an urgent imperative to review the way we finance humanitarian response today, because it is clear that humanitarian resources alone are vastly insufficient to respond to the enormous increase in needs which we have seen in recent years in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. The support to refugee hosting countries is also an essential element, in which, let's be frank, the international community has done too little.

Distinguished Delegates,

Throughout the past year, UNHCR has had to focus heavily - yet again - on emergency response, which has strained capacities and resources across the organization. We have reinforced our institutional emergency response capacity, through a reconfigured structure and a new policy framework that clarifies accountabilities as well as internal leadership and coordination arrangements. We fielded over 650 emergency deployment missions in 2014 and 2015 and supported emergency operations from our network of seven global stockpiles.

In protection, we assisted States with the development of national asylum systems and made progress on the implementation of the global strategy on alternatives to detention that was launched last year. With the number of asylum applications lodged by unaccompanied children rising to levels unseen before, child protection remains a priority area of our work. Important steps forward were made in education, including access to schools for an additional 260,000 children under the "Educate A Child" programme, and better integration of refugees into several national educational systems. UNHCR also enhanced its capacity for the prevention and response of sexual and gender based violence at the onset of emergencies, with the help of the "Safe from the Start" project.

Exactly one year ago, we launched our global campaign to end statelessness by 2024. There have been nearly 50 accessions to the statelessness conventions since 2011, and several States have made progress in establishing statelessness determination procedures or introducing gender equality in nationality laws. But most significantly, efforts to confirm nationality have succeeded for thousands of people in Côte d'Ivoire, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, the Russian Federation and Thailand. UNHCR will continue to make statelessness a priority in the years to come, and I hope all States will lend their support to achieving the ambitious but reachable goals of this ten-year campaign.

Progress was also made in our efforts to change traditional approaches to humanitarian assistance, including strategies to move away from "care and maintenance" models and towards a more professional, systematic and market-based approach to self-reliance and livelihoods wherever that is possible. UNHCR operations were provided tools to better assess the potential for implementing alternatives to camps in their respective countries, and good progress was made in a number of States to include refugees in national public services. We are also moving swiftly towards a more expanded use of cash based interventions to replace or complement in-kind assistance.

But all this is undermined by our dramatic financial gap. As the explosion in humanitarian needs inevitably outpaces the very generous support of our donor community, the gap between the requirements and the resources we have is growing steadily. The current funding level for the 34 UN appeals to provide humanitarian assistance to 82 million people around the world is only 46%. UNHCR too expects to receive less than half of the funding we need this year. We have managed to avoid meaningful reductions of our direct support to refugee families, but at high cost to our other activities.

Most urgently, we have a 205 million dollar deficit in Africa against already-authorized expenditures, including for the establishment of 14 new camps and the expansion of seven others that were absolutely necessary - a deficit which our unearmarked resources cannot cover. I have been systematically appealing to our donors to help us reduce this shortfall before the end of the year.

I do not need to repeat here the dramatic impact the funding cuts for WFP have had on millions of refugees and others who depend almost entirely on food assistance and who have seen their rations reduced by an average of 34% worldwide in 2015. The additional support announced recently will help, but there remains an enormous gap to fill in food security.

UNHCR's donors - governments, but also private citizens, corporations and foundations - together have provided last year a record 3.3 billion dollars, and we deeply appreciate their support. But clearly, humanitarian budgets are not enough to cover even the bare minimum, and we are starting to see what happens as a result of that.

One key element in ensuring the world effectively responds to humanitarian crises is a much closer link between humanitarian and development interventions, one which goes beyond the traditional concept of "bridging the gap". Development actors - supported by development budgets - have to work side by side with humanitarians from the very beginning of each crisis, to help us prevent further conflict, to support host communities and to pave the way for durable solutions for refugees. Large-scale humanitarian crises can create enormous structural problems for host countries and threaten to reverse the development gains of several years. Just imagine the impact in countries like Lebanon or Jordan, not to mention African states like Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti or Somalia.

To prevent a new spiral of fragility and instability, development actors have to be given more flexibility and better tools to act early and quickly, to stabilize and to build resilience. To achieve this, we need a fundamental review of the strategies and policies of bilateral and multilateral development cooperation.

Countries that host large numbers of refugees - thus producing a global public good - deserve particular focus. Many of these States are crucial pillars of peace and stability in their regions, and with conflicts and terrorism threatening to spill across borders, they de facto form the first line of defense for our collective security. But a significant number of refugee hosting states are middle income countries and therefore forgotten or even excluded from several bilateral and multilateral development cooperation mechanisms. However, their role is one on which we all depend, as the present crisis has illustrated. I therefore appeal to all relevant partners to engage fora like the G7, the G20, and the boards of the international financial institutions so as to bring about the necessary policy changes to better support those countries.

UNHCR has been working hard to strengthen our partnership with development actors, for example with UNDP in the Solutions Alliance and with the International Trade Center on enhancing economic opportunities for refugees. Beyond our close relationship in the Middle East, we are also making excellent progress in our cooperation with the World Bank in other areas. This has resulted in a number of regional forced displacement studies and technical programme support in Ethiopia, Kenya or Uganda, and in the provision of substantial concessional loans to the Governments of the DRC and Zambia to assist internally displaced persons or integrate former refugees. We hope to expand this partnership further and fully support President Kim's efforts to increase the Bank's flexibility and capacity to use the different financing instruments at its disposal. This will be crucial in meeting the longer term development needs of refugees and host communities that arise as a result of protracted displacement situations.

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates,

For the vast majority of refugees, achieving a durable solution and rebuilding their lives remains a distant dream. Only 126,000 refugees were able to repatriate last year - the lowest number in over three decades. I remember when I started ten years ago we were helping one million refugees go back home voluntarily and in safety and dignity every year; what a difference 10 years later. Although some 100,000 were resettled in 2014, that still only corresponded to 15% of the global resettlement needs for last year. And usually, the number of those being offered local integration opportunities is even lower even if a number of African countries have very generously acted in this regard, notably the Tanzanian decision to naturalize almost 200,000 Burundians from 1972.

UNHCR has therefore been focusing on new approaches, emphasizing comprehensive solutions strategies and working with partners and governments to strengthen refugees' resilience and self-reliance in the near term and to prepare for solutions in the future.

But more than anything else, we must be able to understand and address the root causes of displacement. That will be the theme of our Protection Dialogue in December, where we will look at the myriad factors that lead to displacement - from conflict over resources, poor governance, human rights violations or unequal access to development benefits - and explore what governments, humanitarian and other actors can do to address these issues.

Evidently, armed conflict continues to be the biggest driver of displacement. We will not see real improvement in the global displacement crisis until those that finance, arm and support the parties to each of today's conflicts overcome their differences and conflicting interests and agree on a common way forward to end the bloodshed.

But in addition to conflict, people are also increasingly being forced to abandon their homes as a result of the interaction between the effects of population growth, food and energy insecurity as well as water scarcity, with climate change - the key defining problem of our times - clearly accelerating all of these other trends. As governments meet in Paris later this month, it is essential that they adopt a meaningful and universal agreement on cutting greenhouse gases and other related issues. But in the future, States must also account for the growth of climate-change related migration and displacement and take proactive measures to relocate populations at risk out of harm's way.

The Nansen Initiative, a ground-breaking state-led consultative process spearheaded by Norway and Switzerland, has recently resulted in the adoption of a Protection Agenda to address the needs of people displaced across borders by the effects of climate change - something for which there is no provision in existing international norms. I encourage States to lend their full support to the implementation of this Agenda approved by more than 100 countries - and UNHCR of course stands ready to contribute to that process.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

With rising displacement and increasing humanitarian needs, it is clear that humanitarian organizations will need to continue improving to be able to deliver effectively. For UNHCR, it is my deep belief that the future is firmly anchored in four things: our competent and dedicated staff, our broad partnership base, our continued commitment to reform and to innovate, and the strength of our protection mandate.

The World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 will be a major opportunity to ensure that the humanitarian system as a whole is able to respond to these growing challenges. There are a number of critical issues on the agenda which UNHCR fully supports, including how to promote better accountability to the people we seek to assist, and the urgency of finding solutions to protracted displacement. Protection must be central to humanitarian action, including through the effective participation of the people we care for, utilizing their capacities and supporting the communities in which they live.

But for me, there are two more aspects that the Summit should not ignore. The first is the humanitarian-development connection, which I have already mentioned.

The second is the imperative of building a more inclusive humanitarian system that better reflects the universal character of the values guiding our work and allows us to join the capacities of all humanitarian actors in the response. We have to overcome the current situation in which organizations from different cultural backgrounds sometimes work in parallel without effective coordination, which can result in gaps and overlaps and only hurts those we are all trying to help.

It is obvious that a truly universal humanitarian community can never be achieved by translating perspectives from one part of the world into a "one size fits all" approach. Instead, in order to move beyond the essentially Western creation that is the present multilateral system and build a more universal partnership, we should focus on something that is already there but often overlooked - our common basis of fundamental humanitarian values. Because if you look at the world's major religions and cultures, it is clear that they all share the same principles of compassion and welcome, helping people in need, and sheltering persecuted strangers.

I believe it is possible to expand on this common basis to build a system that recognizes our diversity of expressions and perspectives, and that allows for more openness and systematic collaboration in the service of the people we all care for, guided by our common principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Delegates,

Speaking of values, I would like to make a few last observations. The European refugee crisis has highlighted many of those human values that determine who we are, as individuals and as societies, and how we respond to challenges. And it has shown the crucial importance of preserving the fundamental principles of tolerance, respect for diversity and solidarity with those in need. For it is these principles that will give us the best tools to manage the present and the future challenges facing human society.

All our nations and communities are becoming multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies - something which I believe is not only inevitable, but also a good thing. Building and maintaining tolerant and open societies that are able to answer positively to fears and anxieties is a slow and delicate process which requires significant investments from governments and civil societies alike. But diversity enriches us, and its benefits far outweigh the costs of these investments.

The European refugee crisis has highlighted a battle of values, of compassion and respect against sentiments of fear, intolerance and xenophobia. The images of citizens pouring out by the thousands to help and welcome refugees have touched us deeply, but at the same time it is shocking to see the violent hostility of some of the acts and slogans those fleeing war have had to face in places where they thought they were safe.

As High Commissioner for Refugees, and as a citizen of the world, I believe it is possible to win this values battle, which is also our common battle. The acts of kindness of millions of individuals in host communities and host countries across the world continue to show us, day after day, that tolerance and solidarity run deeply in the hearts of humanity. These values are our strongest tools and our best protection as we face the challenges ahead.

Thank you very much.