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Briefing to the United Nations Security Council

Speeches and statements

Briefing to the United Nations Security Council

18 June 2020

Mr. Chairman,

One percent of humanity now lives in forced exile.

In the last 10 years, the number of people forcibly displaced has doubled, to almost 80 million people. We have reported this, as many of you may know, in our yearly document, Global Trends on Forced Displacement, issued this morning in Geneva. So this opportunity to meet with you is extremely timely, and I want to thank France – and all of you – for inviting me.

These global trends represent, in a way, the human impact of a decade of crises that you are very familiar with: wars, violence in different forms, persecution and discrimination against people and groups, countries in which social breakdown prevails. All of this, as you know very well, is accelerated by poor governance, by the climate emergency, by prevailing inequality and exclusion.

These trends somehow show how, when leadership fails, when multilateralism – which you represent – doesn't live up to its promise, the consequences are felt not in the global capitals of our world; not in the homes of the powerful and of the rich. They are felt in the peripheries of nations, in border communities, among the urban poor, in the lives of those that have no power.

And among them are the refugees and the displaced, whose history is too often told only in numbers and statistics; who appear in newspapers and our social media feed only as pawns in political debates; or frankly, Mr. Chairman, as part of grotesque international squabbles on who can push them back or push them away harder, and further. And now for them, these 79.5 million people, COVID-19 also has an impact, which I will refer to in the course of my presentation.

For refugees, for displaced people, but often for host communities as well, COVID-19 has further exposed their vulnerabilities. It has weakened, even more, their ability to cope with difficult situations. And unfortunately, frequently it has stripped away the residual hope they had of a better future. But this figure that I have mentioned, and the impact of COVID in general, are also worrying in other ways. They are symptoms of grave threats that are taking shape; because if the consequences of crises that impact the most marginal are neglected, they will come back and affect us all, as COVID has demonstrated.

We in UNHCR, in the UN, and the humanitarian community will continue to do our part. And the work that we have done with all of you and other member states to establish a Global Compact on Refugees, and last year to organize a Global Refugee Forum, has been invaluable, and especially evident in this time of crisis. But we continue to need your leadership and your concerted action.

I could bring to your attention many things, but I will focus on three areas of concern, with a few concrete examples.

First of all, this concern: that the number of people displaced at the end of 2019, as we announced this morning, has been rising since 2012. 2011 was the last year in which this figure went down; since then, it has risen year after year. How to stop that? This is the biggest and most difficult question, with the pandemic now becoming even more of a risk multiplier, interacting with the drivers of existing crises.

Take, for example, the region that perhaps worries me most at the present time – the Sahel region in West Africa. Among you, of course, is Niger – a country very much impacted by this crisis. This is one of the leading regions in terms of driving the displacement figures upwards, at least over the past couple of years. And it is, as you all know, the theatre of one of the most complex regional crises, the features of which are worsening. I met many of you in February, on my last visit to New York, when I had just come back from a tour of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania, and the indicators have worsened since.

The impact of climate change has been very devastating in the region. You have heard from my colleague, David Beasley of the World Food Programme, how food insecurity is growing, and presents a risk to more than 5 million people in the sub-region. More than 3,600 schools have either been destroyed or closed down because of violence, and now, COVID has placed the entire education system on lockdown.

All of this becomes fertile ground for the forced recruitment of young people by armed groups. And in addition, livelihoods are being progressively decimated. Social cohesion between groups, as the President of Burkina Faso told me several times, has been impacted – even where it existed and was relatively strong before. State authority has been progressively weakened, and trust in that authority on the part of the population has been eroded – on the one hand, as armed groups spread false information and substitute themselves for the State as service providers; on the other, because these same groups attack civilians mercilessly, including in refugee camps, prompting security reactions that also impact civilians, including through extrajudicial killings. All of this has become a very, very dangerous spiral.

You, the Security Council, visited the region in March last year. Since then, to give you just one indicator, the number of internally displaced people in Burkina Faso has increased eight times over. As we speak now, there are almost a million IDPs. And Niger and Mali are also very badly affected. Humanitarian organizations are trying to play their part to support States. We also have a very valuable dialogue with development actors, international financial institutions and the bilateral development agencies of some of your countries, and very concrete interventions. Recently, a very interesting project has been initiated by the African Development Bank to help respond to COVID amongst displaced populations.

But frankly, we need a much more strategic application of development aid that tackles the root causes besides security, that takes into account the growing displacement element of the crisis. The security responses that have been the focus, and are at the centre of your own discussions, must also protect civilians and allow for humanitarian access. There needs to be a more tailored, concerted effort to help states build, or rebuild, social cohesion between different groups.

I always say that the Sahel is the land of strategies. The problem is not a lack of strategies; the problem is too many of them, with too little coordination between their security, humanitarian, development and human rights aspects. So, I wish to make a very strong call to action in this respect. Otherwise, I am worried that the crisis may spill over to neighbouring areas. And we, dealing with people on the move, observe this first-hand. We are worried about the spillover into coastal states of West Africa, south of the Sahel. We are very worried about the proximity to the Lake Chad Basin, where the crisis fuelled by Boko Haram action has worsened in recent days, and we have seen attacks in Nigeria as well. And we are worried also, of course, about the proximity in the north to the Libyan conflict.

The coronavirus pandemic is also impacting the dynamic of population flows in the region. We saw a reduction of those flows in the initial phase of the pandemic, but they are growing again – between countries in the region, and also towards the global north. Have no illusion: borders may be more tightly closed now because of the responses to the coronavirus, but this will not stop people from moving. Smugglers are very shrewd, and will adapt to the circumstances and create new offers. The only difference will be that for people embarking on those journeys, travel, will be even more dangerous.

Libya continues to be the theatre of complex mixed flows, also impacted by the conflict there. You are all familiar with the military developments of the last 2-3 weeks in the country, which, by the way, have created additional internal displacement. Whether the new balance of power between the different parties will be more conducive to stability remains to be seen. I hope so.

What I do know is that we must continue to focus on the situation of Libyan civilians, and of refugees and migrants. Detention has decreased, at least in the centres where we have access. We estimate that the number of migrants and refugees detained has gone from 5,000 to about 1,500. But for all of them, even those that we have managed to extract from the centres, life continues to remain very risky, made worse by the constraints imposed by the pandemic. And departures by sea towards Europe, which had decreased, are picking up again, unfortunately, in the last few weeks.

I can only repeat the appeals I have made to you before. Capitalize on the Berlin peace process. Aim for a permanent ceasefire, at least – if not for peace. And meanwhile, let us redouble efforts to prevent any retaliation and collective punishment against civilians, which are very dangerous. And let us continue to try to create space to mitigate abuses against refugees and migrants, end arbitrary detention, and, very importantly, end impunity of the smugglers and traffickers of human beings.

My second point is about protection. A few days ago, my colleague and friend Peter Maurer, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, spoke to you about how COVID was also a protection crisis. I couldn't agree with him more.

COVID has stopped many things, but it doesn't seem to have stopped war. Despite the call of the Secretary-General for a global ceasefire, conflicts have continued to grow.

Of the figure of 79.5 million people forcibly displaced, 46 million are internally displaced; refugees in their own countries. Internal displacement is a symptom of conflict, and since the pandemic started – since that call for a global ceasefire – there has been new internal displacement in 19 countries. In two months, we have seen a growth of 700,000 internally displaced people globally.

I won't mention all the crises, but let us remember Yemen, frequently debated by you of course, and also new and growing ones, as in the north of Mozambique. They come with the usual features: a great deal of insecurity, attacks on aid workers, restrictions on movement, and from the perspective of the internally displaced, much narrower access to protection, aid and support.

Meanwhile, of course, refugee flows also continue, in a context where access to asylum is becoming more difficult. At the moment, 75 percent of all States in the world have either fully or partially closed their borders. I would like to thank those of you – and other States – that have continued, in spite of this, to admit asylum-seekers and refugees. Niger, for example, kept its doors open for people fleeing north-west Nigeria, and many other States have put in place practical arrangements such as quarantine, screening, and documentation for people seeking to cross borders during the pandemic. But remember, in the case of almost two thirds of States, there have been no exceptions to the restrictions, even for asylum-seekers.

I would like to recall another important statistic in this respect. In spite of all the political rhetoric, 85 percent of refugees continue to be in developing countries – in poor or middle-income countries. Seventy-three percent of refugees have taken refuge not far away, but in a country next to their own.

But we must remember that in spite of this imbalance, international protection is a global responsibility, based on the fundamental principle of responsibility-sharing. And the negative trends in terms of refugee protection – in Europe, in North America, in the Asia and Pacific region – are placing the right to asylum, now additionally threatened by the pandemic, in further jeopardy.

Meanwhile, in the very large host countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, pressures are mounting. And if you analyse the responses to the coronavirus pandemic in relation to refugee movements, there are interesting aspects.

At the very beginning of the pandemic, we appealed to States to include refugees in their responses. In the health sector, this was done by most States. Everybody understood that it was important to include them, because if you exclude anyone, the risk spreads to the entire population. And many refugees themselves contributed themselves to this response, including in Europe and North America.

It is much more difficult, in my analysis, to realize that inclusion in the responses that States are now putting in place to offset the social and economic impact of COVID. This is more complicated from both an economic and a political perspective – although, of course, refugees and displaced people are among those most impacted by COVID in this respect, as they depend largely on informal economies that are gravely limited by lockdowns. And in some countries, this situation is further exacerbated by a growth of stigmatization, scapegoating, and even xenophobia in respect of refugees and vulnerable migrants.

Take the Venezuela situation, for example – one of the most dramatic of the last few years. More than 5 million people have left the country, 4.5 million of whom have moved elsewhere in the region, to 17 states in Latin America. Eighty percent of this 4.5 million depend on the informal economy, and since the lockdowns in these countries, have entered a spiral of debt, of destitution, often of evictions. Tens of thousands of them – out of lack of stability, lack of means, of livelihoods – are opting to return to Venezuela, in a very complicated situation, including from the health point of view.

This is why I want to appeal for redoubled efforts to support countries hosting Venezuelans. A few days ago, the EU and Spain chaired a pledging conference, which was quite successful. It is important that those pledges are now realized. Humanitarian assistance is also key, by the way, for those that opt to return to Venezuela. It is also very important that international financial institutions and development partners play their role in support of the hosting countries – hoping, of course, for a peaceful political solution of the Venezuela crisis that will allow these tensions to abate.

I would also like to refer to Syria, a situation with which you are very familiar. We have already, during the pandemic, entered the 10th year of this crisis, in a country devastated by war; a war, however, whose geography and dynamics have considerably evolved. Armed conflict inside Syria has largely abated, although it is still present in a few locations and remains, as you know, especially acute in the north-west, in Idlib.

At the beginning of the year, one million civilians were displaced in that area. Twenty-five percent, thanks also to the ceasefire that has held, have been able to return home. So the figure is still very big, but it has decreased. And here I would like to make my first appeal to you – to use all the influence that you can muster to maintain the ceasefire and, of course, to continue to work towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

But as you know, we tend always to look at Syria through the prism of these acute aspects of the crisis. It is important to look at it more broadly, also from the perspective of Syrians themselves, including the 5.5 million refugees still living in neighbouring countries. What does their future look like? I'm afraid that if you look at it through their prism, from their angle, it looks like a very crippling legacy of prolonged crisis (as is evident if you visit Syria), now exacerbated by a very dire economic situation, made worse by the consequences of the pandemic lockdowns and other widespread destruction.

Most refugees in the region continue to tell us that they want to return home. They also, of course, continue to speak about their concerns, which prevent some from making that decision: security, rights, access to education and work. So it is very important – and we will continue to do this – to work with the Government of Syria on concrete measures to remove those obstacles and build the confidence of people to return.

But I want to be quite frank with you. The quest for solutions for those most impacted – in particular the return of refugees and displaced people – continues to be difficult, because the political tensions in the region and international political tensions, which you are very familiar with, are very high. So my strongest appeal today is, in fact, to please depoliticize humanitarian issues, including issues related to refugees and to their return, whenever possible.

We really need you, the Security Council, to work on an international posture that allows, finally, solutions to this conflict to emerge; that creates space for communities to actually recover – something that frequently we tend to forget.

In the meantime, I am also worried about the situation in the broader region. Around Syria, a number of countries have been very generous in hosting – and still do host – millions of refugees. They have helped save millions of lives. They have saved an entire generation of Syrian children. But now there is a deep economic downturn, caused by the lockdowns and by COVID, that risks creating poverty that will wipe out the gains achieved in the last few years.

In Lebanon, 70 percent of refugee households have lost access to livelihoods, because of the nature of work that they were engaged in. And this is added, of course, to the general fragility of the country, with which you are familiar.

The situation is also difficult in Jordan and in Turkey. In a few days, the Brussels IV conference – an aid conference chaired by the EU and the UN – will take place. It is an important opportunity to ensure that the progress we have made pending solutions is not reversed, to step up the support to host countries that is much needed at this juncture, and to send a very strong signal from the international community.

We need also to continue to support the right of return of people who wish to go back to their country, but as for the Venezuelans, to ensure that these returns are driven not by despair or lack of choices, but are done as a deliberate, informed and sustainable choice.

The last point that I want to mention, which is a consequence of the other two, is the need to not give up on solutions, Two thirds of the refugees and people crossing borders come from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. So, if we could make progress on solutions in just one of these five countries, this would automatically transform the lives of millions of people.

Take Sudan and South Sudan, two overlapping and intersecting situations for decades. Between the two of them, these countries account for 10 percent of the world's refugees and internally displaced people. But we do have some opportunities there. It is encouraging that the Darfur peace discussions continue, for example, and that there is – although back and forth, you know that very well – there is some progress in the South Sudan peace process, including the announcements that we observed yesterday. But both processes are very fragile, and need support – indeed bold support – in terms of, for example, how the international community will help Sudan in its road to recovery, because setbacks are very possible. And here the pandemic, like everywhere else, is complicating the challenges.

My last visit before the lockdown was to Khartoum, in March. I was impressed by how the Government was striving to overcome the very damaging legacy that it had inherited. And in spite of the very difficult economic and other challenges present in the country, I was struck by their commitment to the important discussions that we were having, and continue to have. In the humanitarian domain, these include issues of food security, for example, and also solving internal and external displacement – areas in which UNHCR is very much involved, and in which the UN is investing resources.

It is vital that these investments continue, and also that we continue to involve the African Union and IGAD in the quest for solutions to displacement in the two countries, and sustain the momentum – even if the foreseeable future is likely to present some very tough moments.

The last practical, operational situation that I want to mention in relation to solutions – it may seem counterintuitive, but it is not – is Myanmar. You know this situation very well and I have come before you many times to discuss this matter.

There are still almost a million Rohingya in Bangladesh. Here, I want to commend Bangladesh, including for having led a very significant response to the pandemic. We have managed, so far, to limit the pandemic in one of the most overcrowded and under-resourced places in the world. This was really thanks to Bangladesh’s leadership, but it will continue to need support.

What worries me is that among the refugees, there is a growing sense that solutions are not coming; that solutions, especially in terms of returning to Myanmar, continue to be elusive. We see this despair, and are multiplying our mental health programmes, because people are really very desperate. We also see this translated into increasing departures on boats towards Southeast Asia. This is extremely dangerous for people, and is also a very complicated issue to deal with at the regional level, although we are working with States to do that.

My point here is that we need to maintain the focus on solutions. The big issues remain; we should have no illusions – statelessness, access to rights by the Rohingya community in Myanmar. And now, it is complicated by the growing conflict caused by the Arakan Army. But I believe, and I have also said it many times to you, we need to continue to work on concrete steps.

We have made some very concrete proposals to the Government of Myanmar to move things forward. We have proposed to intensify contacts between the Myanmar authorities and the refugee communities. We have proposed to link the small development projects that the UN is running in Rakhine state, with growing space now, with the refugee community – to be more strategic, and to create more options for solutions. We have encouraged the Myanmar Government to make progress on areas that are very important for refugees: freedom of movement; citizenship (at least a gradual process); solutions for internally displaced people.

So my message to you is that we are grateful for your focus. Please continue to be focused on these issues, and please help us make progress on these steps. They may seem like small steps, but it is only through small steps that we will move positively to a solution. This is what refugees themselves are telling us, and I think it is very important – even in Myanmar, where contrary to Sudan and South Sudan, the signals are less evident – not to give up, not to give in to a narrative of impossibility.

Let me conclude, Mr. Chairman, with just a few reflections, still about these big rising displacement trends that I have mentioned at the beginning. They reflect, really – I am sad to say but I will be frank with you – divisions that are far beyond the theatre of the armed conflicts that cause this displacement.

We see it every day in our field operations. We see the impact of regional and international rivalries. We see – apologies if I sound very direct here ­– we see the consequences of so much hypocrisy and indifference, which play out unfortunately, tragically, in the lives of those that are uprooted and traumatized.

Please, echo and follow up on the ceasefire call of the Secretary-General. Use your leadership and influence, the tools and resources that you have at your disposal, to seek out and to expand space for solutions.

You know, Mr. Chairman, we – the humanitarians – follow your debates very anxiously and very closely. We worry about your divisions. By the way, we are not naive. By long experience, we understand very well the complexity of international politics.

But we expect from you, the world expects from you, unity – at least where humanity is most wounded and trampled.

We expect from you, the world expects from you, decisive, clear and unanimous messages to end conflicts and pursue avenues for peace.

Resolving forced displacement is not just a moral or humanitarian imperative.

It concerns areas that are at the heart of your – of the Security Council's – mandate.

Areas that are your mandate, that are critical for regional and international stability, for the stability of the international economy.

Areas that are crucial to achieve justice in a world that yearns for reconciliation, and to ensure that no one truly is left behind.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.