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73rd Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme - Statement by Ms Gillian Triggs, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection

Speeches and statements

73rd Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme - Statement by Ms Gillian Triggs, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection

13 October 2022

Thank you, Madam Second Vice Chairperson. Excellencies, ladies, and gentlemen,

The words “100 million people forcibly displaced” have reverberated throughout this year’s Executive Committee discussions here in Geneva. The world now faces a humanitarian protection crisis on an unprecedented scale, driven as so many of you have said by root causes of inequality, poverty, discrimination, violence, food insecurity, a lack of adherence to the rule of law and governance, each impacted by the impacts of climate change and the lingering social and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let us be clear: overwhelmingly, people are displaced by conflict and persecution whether in Myanmar, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Mozambique, and most recently Ukraine. Each year we report ever-increasing numbers. Each year the dire plight of those displaced deepens.

It is time for some refreshed thinking, some original ideas and initiatives, and strategies to promote peace and protection.

For just as forced displacement rises, so do protection needs.

  • Sadly, 42 per cent of those forcibly displaced are children. They are especially vulnerable to exploitation. In conflict, millions of children cannot go to school, denying a generation of young people the opportunity to reach their potential.
  • The inability in conflict to register births and obtain documentation increases the risk of statelessness.
  • Gender-based violence against women and girls in conflict and sexual exploitation and abuse are a serious reason for and underreported consequences of displacement, and this in turn includes risks of trafficking.
  • Displaced people are often forced to take dangerous measures, to go without food, take loans at exorbitant interest rates, to resort to forced and child marriages, to send children to work interrupting their education, or to begging and sale of sex.

Last week, my colleague Raouf Mazou, the Assistant High Commissioner for Operations, and I visited Ukraine. There we saw the impacts of the destruction on the lives of about 7 million Ukrainians displaced within their own country. Many will be unable to return to their destroyed homes and villages for many months - even years - and are in desperate need of warm, dry accommodation. Winterization, through repairs to shelter, blankets, cash assistance, will be critical to save lives and to enable self-sufficiency and to alleviate the misery of displacement. It was especially striking to see the plight of older women and men, and of people with disabilities, most of them poor, who exist in the shadows of war and are truly left behind.

An age, gender, and diversity lens for their protection is vital.

We visited a collective centre near Vinnytsia, where mothers and grandmothers show great personal resilience and where children have access to digital learning and attend the local school. It was a joy to see these children playing with a dog, as part of ‘canine therapy’, bringing some semblance of normality to their lives.

The war in Ukraine has paradoxically shown us why, after 70 years, the principles of the Refugee Convention continue to have an enduring and life-saving role. The activation, for the first time, by the European Union of its Temporary Protection Directive, and the hospitality given to Ukrainian refugees by nations throughout the world, have demonstrated that the right to claim asylum is both a necessary and widely respected principle of international law.

The global response to the Ukrainian protection crisis shows that, with political will, countries and their citizens welcome millions in an emergency. Refugee-hosting countries such as Bangladesh, Türkiye, Germany, Lebanon, Pakistan, Jordan, and Uganda have protected the displaced, in some cases for many years. They have been true to the normative principles of refugee law.

But there are many challenges ahead:

  • At UNHCR we observe the continued denial by some States of access to asylum at their borders with pushbacks at sea and land continuing. The instrumentalization of refugees for political purposes is troubling.
  • We expect a rise in the mixed movements of refugees with migrants seeking a better life, a phenomenon that, while not new, demands better collaboration with a “whole of society” approach with government, with the private corporate sector, local communities, and development partners and closer coordination of the two UN compacts on Migration and Refugees.
  • The impacts of climate change, seen recently in the fatal floods of Pakistan, are likely to increase, demanding ever more international aid and stringent measures to adapt and prevent.
  • Food insecurity for millions, economic shocks of fuel and energy price rises and inter-communal competition for water and arable land, create a pernicious cycle of hunger and conflict, propelling yet further refugee displacement and protection needs.
  • There is growing pressure for refugees to return to their countries of origin as host nations buckle under the burden of protecting unprecedented millions.  Yet in protracted conflicts where schools, clinics and houses are destroyed and livelihood opportunities are few, returns may be unsafe and close to impossible, despite the fervent wish of most refugees to go home.

UNHCR is significantly scaling up our responses to these mounting protection needs and we are doing with a clear strategic direction. The High Commissioner has identified eight areas for additional, accelerated, and targeted action over the next 4 years.

We are committed to the age, gender, and diversity approach and to gender equality and we advocate for the inclusion of refugees in social systems and for the protection of people with specific needs such as the elderly and for those living with disabilities.

In short, we have the legal and policy tools for the effective international protection and are committed to implementing them with innovative ideas and creativity.

And the first, and I’d like if I may to go through these eight strategic actions, the first of these strategic priorities is, of course, to ensure respect for the right to seek and enjoy international protection, for it remains at the core of our mandate at the UN Refugee Agency. It has been troubling to observe efforts by some States – and small in number – to adopt extreme policies to avoid their international obligations. For these countries, deterrence has become the priority. Irrationally, despite the failure and expense of such policies, efforts to transport refugees to other countries, thousands of miles away for processing continue.

This said, we should try to understand why such extreme and inhumane policies are attractive to some governments.

It is true that national asylum processes have become slow, clogging up domestic administrative authorities and courts for years. It is also true that there are real impediments to returning to their countries of origin people who, after fair legal processes, are assessed as not in need of international protection. The High Commissioner has made the valuable point that it is the management or operationalization of asylum that needs reform not the principle of asylum itself.

Efforts to externalize asylum processes, to deny access to asylum at the border, to push back or adopt draconian deterrent policies are not the answer and UNHCR is working with governments to improve the efficiency of asylum systems, to adopt fair and fast processes. The work of the Asylum Capacity Support Group, established under the Global Compact on Refugees, is bearing fruit and has great potential to advance those fair systems.

The second strategic objective is of course to strengthen accountability to the people we serve, especially women and children

In January this year, UNHCR launched a five-year plan to strengthen our accountability to those we serve and we are working particularly with our partners and local communities to strengthen access to information and community-based protection in all our 580 field locations worldwide. We have, for example, launched and improved an online HELP site that has received over 10 million visits in the first half of this year.

UNHCR is fully committed to the Grand Bargain process, and we are working to increase direct funding to local community-based NGOs who we know are at the forefront of protection, and especially have been during the COVID pandemic. We have established the NGO innovation award and the Refugee Innovation Fund and we are working hard to establish soon the advisory board to UNHCR with people who have experienced forced displacement and statelessness.

A core element of meaningful accountability to those we serve and their participation in all matters that affect their lives is to include their voices in decisions, and we welcome the inclusion by the United States, Germany and Canada of a former refugee in their delegations here at ExCom.

The third strategic objective is to reinforce efforts to strengthen gender-based violence prevention, risk mitigation and responses, and we know that, in conflict, women are disproportionately exposed to deep-rooted discrimination, and are highly vulnerable to gender-based violence, to sexual violence and trafficking. UNHCR will and is continuing to scale up our prevention, risk mitigation and responses to those forms of violence, and we are working to ensure that displaced and stateless women are fully included in national social safety nets.

We are supporting innovative approaches using mobile units to operate in remote areas and along the movement pathways to ensure that refugees have access to help, and I saw this myself while I was on mission in Guatemala last year with the launch of “blue buses” that help victims to report incidents of gender-based violence in rural areas and to receive support.

Similarly, the 36 Blue Dot centres established together with UNICEF in Europe in response to the war in Ukraine have delivered GBV services and safe referrals where they are most needed at border crossings, railway stations, cities and local communities, including psychosocial support and information about employment opportunities, for child protection, accommodation that is safe, and registration for social services and support.

And now we come to the fourth of strategic priorities – resettlement and complementary pathways.

Resettlement remains a key UNHCR priority as we recover from the slowdown during the COVID pandemic.

The Three-Year Strategy, a crucial part of implementing the Global Compact on Refugees, together with the Third Country Solutions Roadmap, aim to expand third-country solutions for refugees by the end of 2030. We hope that 3 million refugees will then have been resettled or benefited from complementary or regular pathways through labour mobility and self-sufficiency as has been emphasized, education scholarships, community sponsorship programmes and family reunion. We urge states to explore these pathways as alternatives to dangerous journeys that so often lead to tragic deaths.

We are scaling up our activities to meet our resettlement targets and I am very pleased indeed to be able to say that our colleagues in UNCHR who have worked so tirelessly over the last few months, that we are set to meet this year’s target of 112,756 submissions for resettlement.

Of the many regular pathways to protection, access to livelihoods and employment through labour mobility programmes is one of the most exciting. Australia for example has lifted obstacles so that refugees who have the capacity to work immediately can be recruited on the same basis as migrants, but without any reduction (indeed, an increase) in the resettlement places they offer for people with protection needs.

The evidence is that many, especially developed countries, are aging, and have growing needs for labour in health care, agriculture, hospitality, and industry. Refugees come with education, with technical and professional skills, and importantly, most are highly motivated to be self-sufficient and to contribute to the countries that have provided them with sanctuary. The challenge – and this I believe is the key – is to match the skills and experiences of a refugee with the labour needs of business and the corporate sector. Groups such as Talent Beyond Boundaries and the International Chamber of Commerce are bringing their creativity to make this vital connection.

When pursuing solutions through resettlement and complementary pathways, it is of course vital that each option is additional. An increase in work visas for refugees should not lead to a decline in resettlement places, and resettlement places in turn cannot replace the obligation to offer asylum at a state border, nor should they be employed as a bargaining chip in negotiations with other countries.

We also have an important strategic objective to mainstream our work with development partners, including from the start of a protection crisis.

One of our fruitful initiatives under the leadership of the High Commissioner over the last few years has been its work with development partners, especially with the World Bank and regional financial institutions. Our presence in field locations worldwide gives us a deep understanding of local needs – knowledge that can inform development actors. Through these non-transactional relationships, billions of dollars – as the High Commissioner has pointed out – have been released to governments, giving effect to the Humanitarian-Peace-Development Nexus and ensuring that many of the root causes of displacement can be addressed from the outset of an emergency. The OECD estimates, for example, that US$3.3 billion of bilateral development funds are now injected into refugee situations each year - and of course we have the funds mobilized by UNHCR itself with our very generous partners.

Protection data and analysis lie at the heart of effective protection responses, from the emergency itself to long-term development, and we need bold thinking and initiatives to advance development financing and hope that the High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges will stimulate fresh investments and advance protection solutions and inclusion. The regional round tables have just begun, and we hope they will provide substantive ideas for the Dialogue itself on 7-8 December this year.

Our sixth strategic priority is protection and solutions for those people who have been internally displaced.

The number of forcibly displaced in their own country is now about 60 million. It is daunting, with ever-increasing protection needs.  

Our policy is to support governments, as primarily responsible for their citizens, while also recognizing the severe political and security challenges that they face. We aim to provide protection by presence and by concrete support for services such as documentation, child protection and legal aid, shelter and camp management and coordination, to meet the very specific needs of older people and those with disabilities, and those who have been subject to sexual and gender-based violence.

Our recent report on our IDP work shows some encouraging progress. UNHCR brings a special value with our operational experience in the field and our expertise on law and policy protecting those who have been internally displaced. Those skills bring us close to the people we serve, and strengthens relationships with our cluster partners, with governments, and supports that Humanitarian-Peace-Development Nexus.

The UN Secretary General's Action Agenda on Internal Displacement is also a tool to help expand solutions for internally displaced people, and it is notable – and this is encouraging – that over the last year, 3.7 million people internally displaced have returned to their homes and about a million have been included in national social systems.

Our seventh strategic objective is to redouble efforts on statelessness, and we are all delighted that so many of you have mentioned statelessness in your opening remarks.

Despite the vision and the ambition of the #IBelong campaign, statelessness will not be ended by 2024. But real progress has been made and achieved with increased accessions to one, or both of the Statelessness Conventions, and the establishment of statelessness determination procedures. Advances have also been made in access to birth registration of those caught up in conflict, and reforms are being made to discriminatory nationality laws under which women have been denied the opportunity to pass on their nationality to their children. We are currently prioritizing 33 operations to redouble our efforts and to stimulate reforms.

As I’ve said, our efforts to bring statelessness to an end will not be completed by the end of 2024 and the #IBelong campaign but the next stage is that a Global Alliance will be established in 2024 to maintain the momentum that we believe is now well on its way. We must, however, be vigilant: without legal safeguards and birth registration and documentation, statelessness will remain an invisible barrier to inclusion in society and effective protection of the most vulnerable.

And now I come to the last of our strategic priorities, which is to mitigate the impacts of the climate change.

The climate crisis is of course a protection crisis. It has a disproportionate impact on the vulnerable and has a multiplier effect in forcing people to flee. 80 per cent of people displaced by conflict and violence are from the most climate-vulnerable countries worldwide - Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Climate changes, drought, and floods, often lead to food insecurity that, in turn, leads to forced displacement and the need for further protection.

  • Just one of many examples, in the first quarter of this year, Mozambique was battered by five tropical storms and cyclones along its northern coastal areas, affecting thousands of families, including refugees and the internally displaced by violence in the northern province of Cabo Delgado.
  • Early this year, thousands were internally displaced by drought in Somalia after at least three consecutive failed rainy seasons that have decimated crops and livestock, forcing people to flee.

For these reasons, UNHCR is reducing its own environmental footprint, but also finding sustainable and green solutions for people displaced in urban areas and in remote camps, especially to ensure that women do not have to risk sexual assaults to collect firewood in surrounding woods.

The Strategic Framework on Climate Action, including a focus on legal and normative protection elements will guide us in our work.

These then are our strategic priorities and actions that our budgets are being adjusted to match.

And so, in conclusion, the global protection crises that we face cannot be resolved unilaterally. We must act collaboratively, together, and we have the tools to do so. The Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda provides a roadmap and a vision for the future, and it will - if implemented – help to address many of the protection needs of the people we serve.

The Global Compact on Refugees - our lode star - as many of you have noted, calls for a “whole of society” approach, The mayors and cities, the local governments, the media, elected Parliamentarians, along with the UN agencies, international and national NGOs, the scholars, the religious groups and displaced and stateless people themselves. Our expansion of partnerships is therefore fundamental to our work and to achieving the principle of equitable responsibility sharing.

And so in this spirit, we look forward to working with you towards the Global Refugee Forum in December next year and on behalf of all our colleagues, may I thank you for your most encouraging support over the last few days.