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Assistant High Commissioner for Protection – Statement to the 70th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (Geneva, 7-11 October 2019)

Speeches and statements

Assistant High Commissioner for Protection – Statement to the 70th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (Geneva, 7-11 October 2019)

10 October 2019
Agenda point 4(a)

Mr. Chairman,

High Commissioner,

Distinguished delegates,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for the opportunity to address this session of the Executive Committee, my first as the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection.

I am honoured to take up this position at a challenging time globally for so many vulnerable people in need of protection.

In embarking on my journey with the UNHCR family, I would like to recognise the work of my predecessors. They are:

  • Erica Feller, the first person to be appointed to this role, and a fellow Australian; and
  • Volker Türk, so well-known to you and who, after 30 years with UNHCR, recently took up his new position as Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Direction in New York. 

I am grateful for their foundational work to promote the legal framework for refugee protection through the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. In particular, I wish to acknowledge the transformative role Volker played in promoting the Global Compact on Refugees and bringing it to fruition.

Although this is just my second week in my new function, it is clear that the Global Compact on Refugees has given vision and direction to the work of UNHCR over the coming years. It is especially encouraging that the Compact gained the support of the vast majority of United Nations Member States; a significant indication in its own right of global good faith and support for refugee protection. Today, the challenge is to ensure that the Compact stimulates the engagement of all States with the burdens and responsibilities of protection. For this purpose, the commitment by States to giving practical, operational effect to the Compact will be vital to its success.

Words are important, but our job at UNHCR and in cooperation with you is to move from the aspirations agreed to in the Compact, to the tangible solutions so desperately needed for millions of refugees.

In short, we must walk the talk.

I have listened closely to the statements you have made over these last four days. Your commitment has been clear both to the principles of protection and to ending statelessness, responding to the increase in internally displaced persons, adopting effective asylum systems and seeking durable solutions. You have confirmed the spirit of solidarity with national and international partners, with civil society, financial institutions, the private sector, as well as with refugees themselves.

For my part, I am inspired by the principles laid out by Volker in his statement to the 75th Standing Committee in June this year; namely: the primacy of the individual and communities; the primacy of the law; the primacy of protection and solutions; the primacy of enhancing resilience and supporting social transformation; and finally, the primacy of multilateralism.

Current trends and opportunities

With these core principles in mind, it remains true that these are volatile and challenging times.

Despite escalating needs for protection, serious challenges have been made both to the right to seek and to enjoy asylum – a right agreed to as long ago as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and to the cardinal principle of non-refoulement. Humanitarian access has been lacking in several acute crises, and gaps have emerged in protection for people with specific needs, such as those with disabilities, women and girls, or those within the LGBTI community.

Achieving durable solutions for refugees is a crucial part of UNHCR’s mandate, with voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement representing the mainstays of our traditional responses. However, many millions do not have access to such opportunities in regions of unresolved and protracted conflict. For example, in 2018, of 1.2 million refugees estimated to be in need of resettlement, there were 92,400 refugee departures, including 56,000 cases referred by UNHCR – a relatively small number at less than 10 per cent of global resettlement needs.

To achieve the ambitious objectives of the three-year Strategy on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways, as provided for under the Global Compact on Refugees, we need more places as well as more countries participating. I was therefore glad to hear several existing and some new resettlement States reaffirm their commitments in their statements.

In turn, UNHCR remains concerned about the widespread and increasing use of immigration detention for asylum-seekers and persons of concern, including children, contrary to international law.

Nevertheless, these concerns are counter-balanced by many advances and initiatives over the past 12 months. For instance:

  • In December 2018, the UN General Assembly affirmed the Global Compact on Refugees.
  • With the accession last year of South Sudan to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, 149 States have now ratified one or other of these foundational instruments.
  • As we have seen at this week’s High-Level Segment on Statelessness to mark the half-way point of UNHCR’s #IBelong campaign, the goal of eliminating statelessness has been significantly advanced by the introduction of laws and policies to prevent statelessness and to ensure registration at birth.  
  • In recognizing that Internal displacement has emerged as a signal feature of the movement of peoples in the 21st century, 57 United Nations Member States have asked the UN Secretary-General to convene a High-Level Panel to help to identify solutions and to trigger tangible changes on the ground. UNHCR stands ready to support this initiative.
  • UNHCR has established the Asylum Capacity Support Group to assist States to strengthen their national asylum systems to ensure speedy and fair refugee status determination.
  • UNHCR is also working with States and partners in the roll-out of the previously mentioned three-year Strategy to broaden the range of resettlement places available, to increase the number of countries resettling and to expand complementary pathways for admission.
  • We have also seen some progress over the past year in voluntary repatriation, including for some Burundians, South Sudanese and Afghans.

The enduring relevance of the existing legal framework

In acknowledging these advances and challenges for UNHCR’s protection mandate, it is important to recognize the enduring relevance of the international legal framework. The Global Compact on Refugees has re-affirmed the centrality of the 1951 Convention, the 1967 Protocol, and the principle of non-refoulement as the cornerstones of refugee protection.

Nevertheless, some countries have interpreted the 1951 Convention narrowly, for example, where people flee armed conflict and violence perpetrated by non-State actors and organized gangs, or where people escape domestic violence or persecution for their sexual orientation or identity.

Some countries have conflated or blurred the lines between refugees and migrants, thereby restricting the right to protection under refugee law. While some receiving countries are deeply concerned about the spectre of uncontrolled migration, it remains important that countries respond proportionately to claims for protection and avoid generalised responses that run perilously close to breaching international obligations.

Other countries have discriminated against refugees based on the mode or place of their arrival, contrary to well established refugee law.

Having stressed the primacy of international law underpinning protection, I would like to mention four particular areas of concern for UNHCR that have also been raised by the High Commissioner and in many of your statements over the last few days. They include the denial of admission of asylum-seekers to a State’s territory; the growing numbers of internally displaced people; the mixed character of movements of peoples; and finally, the promotion of resilience and self-reliance in refugee and host communities.

Reception and admission

First, UNHCR recognises that, overwhelmingly, States respect their core legal commitment to non-refoulement; to admit to their territory those seeking asylum; and to provide access to asylum procedures.

Some countries, by contrast, have closed their borders or adopted strict border controls, denying admission and the right to seek asylum upon arrival. Moreover, some asylum-seekers are being stopped in transit areas or “international” zones in airports and at green borders before being removed; other asylum-seekers are being “pushed back”, forcing them to take risky alternative routes.

Of particular concern are rising instances of States returning individuals and families where UNHCR has been unable to confirm the voluntariness of their return, risking a breach of the principle of non-refoulement. There have been cases where national court orders directing authorities not to return individuals, and to allow UNHCR representations, have been ignored. Refugees caught up in mass expulsions as a means of migration control have also been exposed to danger in several well-documented incidents.

While States have the right and responsibility to control their borders, they should also conform to their international obligations to allow asylum-seekers access to their territory to seek asylum in a safe country promptly, and without obstruction.

In the context of irregular movements by sea, there are a number of specific concerns: serious delays in disembarkation, disembarkation in unsafe places, and reduced capacities for search and rescue leading to an unacceptable loss of life. This year, more than a thousand people have died or are missing in the Mediterranean.

UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have proposed a regional disembarkation mechanism to respond more effectively to such irregular sea movements and to encourage the sharing of responsibility. As noted by the High Commissioner, UNHCR is pleased that some European States are now prioritizing cooperation on safe means of disembarkation. Nevertheless, much more remains to be done in the Mediterranean and elsewhere to assist those fleeing violence, discrimination and persecution.

The issues posed by the reception and admission of refugees and displaced persons at national borders are further exacerbated by the emerging nexus between the causes of refugee movements on the one hand and other phenomena, such a famine, natural hazards, disasters or the adverse effects of climate change on the other. UNHCR recognizes that the impacts of climate change are serious, not only for refugees and others of concern, but also for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. The statement by Fiji on the threats to Pacific Island States was particularly moving. UNHCR continues to contribute to international policy discussions on how best to respond collectively to such issues.

Protection and solutions for IDPs

Secondly, as has been observed, one of the most pressing protection needs is to respond to the plight of internally displaced people. There is an estimated 41.3 million people currently displaced within their own country as a result of conflict, violence and disasters. There is a growing consensus – evident at this EXCOM – that more needs to be done to support nations affected by internal displacement.

UNHCR has taken steps to respond to these protection needs:

  • In September 2019, we released our updated policy on Engagement in Situations of Internal Displacement. It aims to ensure that internal displacement remains integral to UNHCR’s entire protection mandate. It reflects our commitment to collective humanitarian responses through the Cluster system and Humanitarian Country Team action, as well as our own operations. The policy promotes respect for human rights and emphasises the primary responsibility of the State.
  • UNHCR also supports the three-year multi-stakeholder GP 20 Plan of Action, which was launched in April 2018 in cooperation with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. Building on the momentum generated by the Plan of Action, UNHCR is optimistic that State support for the establishment of a High-Level Panel will bring new impetus to resolve the scourge of internal displacement for many millions in need of protection.

Responding to mixed movements of peoples

The third issue of concern, and one that presents a particular challenge, is the mixed character of movements where refugees travel irregularly using similar routes and methods of transport as migrants. Complex movements, observed in all regions of the world, expose refugees and many others on the move to harm, including during their travel and stay in locations that provide only weak protection capacities.

UNHCR continues to work as part of mixed movement task forces and arrangements, including in the Horn of Africa, to support protection-sensitive entry procedures, screening and referral mechanisms to access asylum. Notably, the Global Compact on Refugees aims to assist States hosting large mixed movements of people and to share the both the burden and responsibility through existing operational partnerships. For example, UNHCR is working with the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations Taskforce on Libya in close coordination with International Organization for Migration.

We are also working on themes of shared concern, including assistance for victims of trafficking who in, some cases, may have international protection needs.

Additionally, as a member of the Executive Committee of the United Nations Network on Migration, established pursuant to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, UNHCR is working with other agencies to ensure coherent system-wide support to States to ensure complementarity between the two Compacts.

When considering the protection needs of large mixed movements of peoples across national boundaries, UNHCR is alert to security threats posed by terrorism and other forms of transnational criminality. Security considerations and international protection are not contradictory. UNHCR is working with States to develop protection-sensitive border management systems that include registration, the collection of biometrics, and the identification of those vulnerable to human trafficking.

Promoting self-reliance and resilience among refugee and host communities

The fourth aspect of protection I would like to raise is the enhancement of self-reliance among refugees, one of the four objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees, and the promotion of resilience among refugees and their host communities as refugees await durable solutions. Indeed, to enhance self-reliance is a highly effective means of protection. A vital means of building that self-reliance is for States to support basic socio-economic rights for refugees; the right to work, freedom of movement, and access to health services and education. Self-reliant refugees are not only better able to support themselves, but also there can be fruitful economic and other benefits to their host communities. For instance, I have heard over the last few days several examples of land distribution to refugees to allow them to grow food that may be made available to the local community.

Globally, supporting access to education for refugee and host community children continues to be a priority for UNHCR in support of self-reliance. Nevertheless, UNHCR remains acutely aware that, although half a million refugee children were newly enrolled in school in 2018, some four million do not yet have access to education at all. It is however, encouraging that in 23 countries, more than 6,700 refugee and host community students received tertiary education scholarships, while over 4,000 other such students have taken part in learning programmes through technology.

In working to build resilience, UNHCR pays tribute to the refugees, asylum-seekers, returnees, stateless persons and the internally displaced, from whom we have so much to learn. Their courage and optimism in the face of great hardship and trauma is an inspiration to us all at UNHCR and gives clear purpose to our work. We also acknowledge the significant contributions of civil society, financial institutions and the private sector, among many others, in supporting refugee and host communities, reflecting the renewed spirit of cooperation and partnership.


Mr. Chairman,

In conclusion, may I return to the Global Compact on Refugees. The Compact is a game changer. It is no longer ‘business as usual’.

The status quo, where hosting refugees falls disproportionately on some, usually developing countries, while the majority of financial and other support is provided by a predictable number of countries, is no longer sustainable. The Compact aims to achieve greater equity in sharing responsibility across a broader base in the international community. It provides a blueprint, ensuring that host communities get the timely support they need and that refugees are able to lead productive lives with fair access to healthcare, education and job opportunities. It translates the idea of responsibility-sharing into durable, achievable solutions.

These are the aspirations.

The task for us now is the practical implementation of these aspiration; to rise to the challenges posed by a visionary Compact. The first Global Refugee Forum to be held in December, and to which many of you have referred in your statements, provides an opportunity to give effect to the Compact through pledges, commitments and contributions.  At UNHCR, we are hoping to work with you to stimulate some ambitious, agile, fresh, even disruptive, thinking to find solutions.

Your commitment to implement the Global Compact on Refugees, with protection at the core of what we do, is a necessary pre-condition to the success of our collective efforts.

I very much look forward to hearing your statements and views in this session.

Thank you.