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The Fourth Annual Nelson Mandela Human Rights Lecture - UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs

Speeches and statements

The Fourth Annual Nelson Mandela Human Rights Lecture - UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs

31 August 2023

Excellencies, distinguished guests, colleagues, and dear students,

I am honoured to be part of the Fourth Annual Nelson Mandela Human Rights Lecture and of this celebration of Nelson Mandela’s birthday.

When thinking about what I might say today, I was keen to find some personal connections between UNHCR and Nelsen Mandela. Our archivists told me about the role of the UN Refugee Agency in repatriating 15,000 South African refugees back home in 1991 after the end to apartheid. Nelson Mandala wrote a moving tribute to Madame Ogata, the then High Commissioner for Refugees, thanking her and UNHCR colleagues for their leadership in protecting refugees in exile.

Nelson Mandela was, of course, primarily concerned to protect individual freedom, but he also recognized that:

…So long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist…none of us can truly rest.

He understood the need to address the root causes of forced displacement whether within a country or beyond national borders.

May I also recognize the many young legal scholars who are here today to take part in the international human rights moot competition. You have come from all over the world to join us in Geneva and will surely be our future leaders in ensuring that human rights lie at the core of the international community.

This year we recognize the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a non-binding instrument that has since inspired the entire body of international commitments to protect people, including the 1951 Refugee Convention that is the legal foundation of our work at UNHCR.

One of the most troubling human rights challenges we face globally is the unprecedented number of people who have been forcibly displaced, primarily by war, violence, persecution and, increasingly, the impacts of climate change.

In June, the UN Refugee Agency released the Global Trends Report, observing that, by the end of 2022, over 108.4 million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced, including a record-breaking 36m refugees.  Over two-thirds of these had fled the war in Ukraine, and the internal conflicts and violence in Afghanistan, Syria, and Venezuela, prompting UNHCR to declare 35 new emergencies last year alone.

A recent example of displacement is the conflict in Sudan, where over 380, 000 Sudanese refugees have sought safety and protection in neighbouring countries including Egypt, Chad, the Central African Republic, and Ethiopia. Over 3.5 million people are displaced within Sudan itself, joining the 1.1 million refugees who are currently hosted in the country.

In addition to armed conflict, drivers of displacement include the social and economic impacts of inflation and food insecurity, environmental degradation, pandemics, and natural disasters such as the earthquake in Türkiye and Syria.

In recognizing these drivers of displacement, a root cause lies in breaches of the very human rights that the Universal Declaration was designed to protect: the rights to equality, to life, liberty, and security, to protection from discrimination and arbitrary arrest or detention, to education, work, freedom of movement, and to a nationality.

To respect these human rights is to address the root causes of refugee flight in the spirit of ‘leaving no one behind’.

While we can readily describe the humanitarian and refugee crises of today, what can international law and UNHCR do to find solutions?

The Universal Declaration recognises two crucial rights: to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution (article 14) and the right to a nationality (article 15).

Building upon the UN Charter in 1945 and the Universal Declaration in 1948, the 1951 Refugee Convention was revolutionary for its time in guaranteeing refugees the “widest possible exercise of… fundamental rights and freedoms”, adding economic, social, and cultural rights, and civil and political rights.

Today, I suggest, the 1951 Convention remains viable as an effective legal foundation for refugee protection. But the international refugee regime is undoubtedly under significant challenge by those who argue that the Refugee Convention is ‘no longer fit for purpose’ and that it needs major reform.

What are these challenges? Are they fair? How can we build, or rebuild the historic commitment by countries and civil society to refugee law and make the system work more effectively?

The perceived inadequacies in implementation of the asylum system include the virtual impossibility of returning people who are not in need of international protection to their country of origin or to a safe third country, the cumbersome and slow refugee recognition processes that lead to thousands lost in a legal twilight zone of backlogs and public concerns about illegal migration and pull factors.

UNHCR responses have traditionally been to facilitate three durable solutions for people who are forcibly displaced: voluntary return to their country of origin, resettlement to a third country or local integration in the host country, typically within the region of the country from which a refugee has fled.

  • The voluntary return to the country of origin is an option only when it is safe and dignified to do so.
    • UNHCR’s surveys confirm that most refugees and IDPs truly hope to return to their towns, villages, and communities. However, it is a global trend that protracted conflicts – political instability, threats from non-government armed groups, lack of basic services, few opportunities to work, the threat of conscription, the closure of schools and unresolved property and land disputes – have all deterred returns to many countries.
    • The ‘gold standard’ solution is resettlement to a safe third country.
  • Sadly, resettlement is a solution for fewer than .04% of all refugees. Last year saw a strengthening of resettlement with over 57,000 refugees departing to 20 different countries. The reality is that resettlement remains an option for only a few of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.
  • Complementary pathways to a country can also provide solutions such as labour mobility, education, family reunion and community sponsorship. Labour mobility, for example, provides a mutually beneficial solution where the skills of refugees are matched with the growing workforce and migration needs of many, often aging, countries.
  • Lastly, inclusion and integration in the lost community has become one of the most pragmatic, long term, solutions for millions of refugees. This means non-discriminatory access to health, education, housing, and jobs and livelihoods. It is, nonetheless, a solution that places the responsibility on some of the poorest and low-income countries that already have difficulties meeting the basic need of their citizens.

These practical limits on ‘traditional’ solutions demonstrate why we need some refreshed, creative thinking to ensure effective and durable protection.

  1. Global Compact on Refugees

One innovative, non-legal approach is the commitment by 181 countries to the Global Compact on Refugees. The Compact adopts two new ideas: equitable sharing of the burdens and responsibilities for refugees, and a ‘whole of society’ approach to protection.  Unilateral approaches will fail. Effective solutions depend on multilateral and collaborative efforts. We are encouraged that the Compact commands the support of the international community, and most notably of our Member States.

  1. Whole of journey approach

UNHCR is working with governments and civil society partners on a "whole of journey" approach of both refugees and migrants to integrate protection and solutions at every stage of their journey.

People on the move often lack access to basic services and do not possess formal documentation or visas. They are especially vulnerable to detention, trafficking, and gender-based violence, especially women and children.

With support from UNHCR and IOM, international organizations, NGOs, Mayors and cities, local communities and civil society can provide “joined up” protection across the travel routes. By fast screening along the routes, it is possible to accelerate access to asylum or resettlement and other legal pathways.

The United States of America has, for example, recently announced a “safe mobility” program, where eligible refugees and migrants will be considered for humanitarian entry and other regular means of entry to the United States or other countries that may offer these opportunities.

We need pilot projects to identify the most urgent needs of refugees en route and to provide accurate information about regular, safe, and legal pathways.

We need, however, to be crystal clear. A whole of journey approach cannot be adopted at the expense of the right to territorial access to claim asylum. The whole of journey approach is a package and not for cherry picking. It should help to protect territorial access to asylum while also ensuring safe pathways to protection for both refugees and migrants.

  1. An internationally recognized ‘Nansen 2’ Passport

A major impediment for refugees continues to be a lack of travel documents. An innovative idea includes the development of an internationally recognized travel document as was promoted by Fridtjof Nansen, the High Commissioner of Refugees to the League of Nations in 1921. We hope that the Global Refugee Forum in December 2023 will inspire our Member States to make a pledge for the establishment of a 21st Century version of the original Nansen passport.

4. Working with international financial institutions and development partners to address root causes

Facilitation of grants and concessional loans to refugee hosting countries is proving effective in supporting governments. Billions of dollars have been released over the last three years, through the working collaboration of UNHCR with the World Bank and other international and regional banks.

Finally, I return to climate change as a driver of forced displacement.

The World Bank’s 2023 World Development Report estimates that 40 percent of the world’s population – 3.5 billion people – live in places vulnerable to the impacts of climate change with water shortages, drought, heat stresses, sea level rise, and extreme events such as floods, fires, and tropical cyclones, all fuelling yet further conflict and displacement.

The past year has brought drought in Somalia, food insecurity across Africa, global inflation, dwindling economic opportunities, earthquakes in northwest Syria and Türkiye, and floods in Pakistan, fires in Canada and heat waves this summer.

UNHCR has adopted a Strategic Framework on Climate Action and calls for granting refugee status where displacement is due to climate change that is linked to persecution, violence, conflict, and other risks of serious harm or to events seriously disturbing public order.

In short, people may qualify as ‘climate refugees’ where the adverse effects of climate change interact with armed conflict and violence.

  • In Northern Cameroon in 2021, intercommunal violence erupted between herders, fishermen and farmers over dwindling water resources as Lake Chad and its tributaries dried up. Hundreds of people were killed or injured, dozens of villages burned to the ground, and tens of thousands fled to safety within Cameroon and to neighbouring Chad.
  • In Mozambique in February this year, the UNHCR co-led protection cluster supported evacuation centres in Maputo Province, following the floods that affected over 44,000 people and displaced around 16,500 people. UNHCR worked there on protection against sexual exploitation and abuse, and identifying needs in the areas of mental health, civil documentation, GBV and child protection.


At UNHCR we are confident that the upcoming Global Refugee Forum in December 2023 will show how the international community has been willing to shoulder a share of the burden for those displaced and to find long term solutions.

We remain firmly committed to ‘stay and deliver’ protection services for people forcibly displaced while recognizing that global challenges continue to mount. We seek to work with Member States, UN partners, civil society, scholars, city mayors, local communities, and faith groups. It is through solidarity and working together that we will achieve prevention, provide protection, and deliver solutions.

Nelson Mandela would, I believe, have championed the Refugee Compact as a community-based approach to forced displacement and an inspiring call to action for global solidarity.

Thank you.