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Statement to the 69th Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme

Speeches and statements

Statement to the 69th Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme

4 October 2018
Statement by Volker Türk, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection

Mr Chairperson, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for the opportunity to introduce the protection segment of this year’s Executive Committee. It is, as always, informed by the Note on International Protection and the protection papers from the June 2018 Standing Committee.[1] As they aptly reveal, the fraught debates about refugees that we are witnessing in so many parts of the world today are manifested in growing protection concerns globally. I would like to share some thoughts about how we can create space for more empathic and humane dialogue by bringing the focus back to human dignity, which is at the core of protection.

Developments and trends in the world of refugee protection over the past year reflect in many ways how paradoxical our world has become. On the one hand, we saw how all 193 United Nations Member States came together to develop the global compact on refugees [GCR] – an unprecedented success of multilateralism at a time when the debate about refugees at times has become heavily politicized and contentious. It represented what can be achieved when we choose to rise above short-term interests to find a common and constructive way forward. When we see refugees not only as our responsibility, but as part of the human family. We also welcomed how one country granted prima facie recognition to an influx of refugees from a neighbouring one. How the older generation in a rural community reached out to refugee newcomers. How refugee chefs brought new meaning to fusion cuisine. How a formerly stateless minority was granted citizenship and identity documents. How internally displaced women were able to regain their property and start a new life. And how ordinary people the world over welcomed and supported refugees with gestures of kindness and solidarity.

On the other hand, we also witnessed the consequences of populist pressures and the shirking of responsibilities: for instance, when children banged their heads against the wall, in despair, as they were separated from parents or languished in detention. When young asylum-seekers committed suicide after being held and mistreated in processing centres with no prospects for a future. When family reunion was denied to a survivor of gang rape on the premise that it would encourage others to come. When losses of life at sea surged dramatically, as NGO rescue ships were grounded. When hundreds of thousands of men, women, girls, and boys were caught in crossfire, attacked, forcibly recruited, or raped. When civilians fled, but found themselves trapped at the border and denied entry. When refugees were rounded up overnight and deported to their country of origin. The litany of such incidents is unbearable, and yet it goes on. The issue is not a crisis of numbers, but the miscasting of refugees to foment fear and justify counterproductive measures that pay no heed to principles of protection.

When such things happen, we know that something fundamental to basic human decency is being lost. People flee persecution and human rights abuses only to experience this further in their countries of asylum. They flee in hopes of finding safety, only to encounter indifference – where the silent majority appears to no longer care, or civil society is too constrained to speak up.

We are facing a watershed moment where two sets of values have emerged in two distinct modes of discourse. It is difficult to reconcile how the positive developments of the past year have occurred alongside the seemingly endless volley of assaults on refugees. In different ways, they speak to what is at the heart of our protection work: respecting human dignity. They show what it means to place dignity at the centre of our action and what can happen when this fundamental quality of being human is denied. Dignity features prominently in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], whose 70th anniversary we celebrate later this year. In the spirit of the philosopher Michael Rosen’s invitation to consider what it means not only to have dignity, but to be treated with dignity,[2] I invite us to consider this question in the context of displacement and statelessness.

Dignity demands that we treat one another with respect and an ethic of care. When I think about what this means, I am reminded of my student days when I used to cross the Sigmund Freud Park to reach the University of Vienna. In the park, there is a stone inscribed with a quote from Freud, stating, “The voice of reason is gentle.” The noise, chatter, shrillness, lack of civility, and harsh language around many issues today – be they refugees, women, migration, or climate change – serve only to distract, obfuscate, and denigrate the respect for dignity that must guide our actions. We need to make the space for the voice of reason to be heard – one that is not loud, crass, or short-lived, but rather gentle and organic, recalling our past in moving forward, reminding us of what it means to be treated with basic decency and respect.

I see five areas where we can make such a conversation possible – for human dignity to re-enter the picture in our thinking and engagement:

First, respect for dignity must be central to the progressive development and implementation of law and standards for refugee protection. Human dignity cannot be superseded by political or other interests. It cannot be parcelled out only to certain groups. It should not be written out of law. We need to focus on garnering the political will, not just from governments, but from societies as a whole, to commit to laws founded on respect for dignity and to implement them. We need to recognize that when we allow the denigration of just one person through the breach of these laws, we set the precedent for the denigration of us all.

In the refugee context, this means preventing political and juridical attempts to narrow the concept of who is a refugee. The refugee definition set out in the 1951 Convention has been developed in regional instruments and through State practice and judicial interpretation over decades, and is based on the question of whether one can return to one’s country of origin. Being able to flee and be recognized as a refugee can be a matter of life and death. The drafters of the 1951 Convention envisioned that the definition would be full and inclusive, beyond the realm of politics, and firmly embedded in fundamental considerations of humanity. To do otherwise would have been a failure to recognize the dignity inherent in us all. We have seen, therefore, how the refugee concept has included individuals fleeing armed conflict, gang or domestic violence, serious harm by non-state actors, and persecution on account of gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation. I remember how much we welcomed the 1996 Kasinga decision on female genital mutilation,[3] for instance, which demonstrated the adaptability of the legal framework to evolving realities, based on respect for the dignity of women and girls.

Unfortunately, the focus on preserving dignity tends to get lost in debates that cite security as the rationale for restrictive approaches to refugee protection. Governments of course need to ensure the security of their people. But this is entirely complementary with providing refuge to people fleeing persecution. An exclusive focus on security alone is detrimental. Refugees, by definition, are the victims, not the perpetrators, of violence and terror; they often have rejected extremism and been targeted as a result. It is disturbing, therefore, when arguments of security are used to justify denying security to those who need it most.

The focus on dignity also can get lost within a discourse that treats international refugee law almost as a science, focusing on minutiae and parsing words, identities, and intentions. Over-complication and narrowing of the refugee definition have detracted from the essence of refugee law. It is time to return to the object and purpose of refugee protection as it was first conceived, which should frame our analysis and interventions. We are heartened to see that this message is beginning to take root. Within our operations and with States, we are working to create refugee status determination [RSD] systems that are adaptable to changing circumstances and large numbers, drawing upon an array of approaches, including simplified or accelerated procedures. This requires a deep knowledge of the profiles of asylum-seekers and country of origin information, to ensure that increased efficiency does not affect quality and fairness of decisions. We are working with States, such as Canada, Egypt, and South Africa, to help address RSD backlogs. Morocco, Thailand, and Trinidad are progressing in the creation of State procedures for RSD. And Malawi and Niger are developing the capacities of their institutions responsible for RSD. And as of last month, Turkey has taken over responsibility for RSD and registration from UNHCR.

In the IDP context, law and policy development, as well as humanitarian action, need to be centred on respect for dignity. On the twentieth anniversary of the IDP Guiding Principles, we are bringing this into focus with a three-year strategy – the GP20 Plan of Action[4] – to advance the implementation of these Principles in selected countries around the world. Next year, we will pay tribute to advances in protection in Africa on the occasions of the fiftieth anniversary of the OAU/AU Refugee Convention and the tenth anniversary of the AU Convention on IDPs [the Kampala Convention]. Many initiatives are underway, including roundtables on mixed movements, livelihoods, education, and resettlement and complementary pathways. These will inform pledges made at the AU Extraordinary Summit on refugees, IDPs, and returnees, and will help to effect the legislative and policy changes needed to anchor core protection standards in different countries. Already, Niger is developing a draft law on internal displacement based upon consultations with displacement-affected communities around the country. South Sudan convened a High-Level Panel on National Legislation on Internal Displacement, bringing together Government officials, experts, the private sector, donors, development and humanitarian actors, and the AU, to discuss its draft law on internal displacement – one that emerged from a broad consultative process with IDPs themselves. Similar initiatives are also planned in the Central African Republic, Mali, and Somalia.

Second, respect for dignity must be the antidote to dehumanization. In the global north and south, the dehumanization of refugees, migrants, IDPs, and stateless individuals has become a worrying trend – one which bears a certain irony, as dehumanization is often a precursor to persecution and flight in the first place. Dehumanization results from inappropriate language, misinformation, deterrence, arbitrary detention, separation of families and children, and ‘warehousing’. It prevents us from seeing the other as a human being with rights, needs, and dignity. It desensitizes and numbs our conscience. It enables easy slippage into mistreatment and policies of cruelty, as it prevents empathy and compassion from shaping the response.

Identity issues are often at the heart of this dynamic. We know how much hatred and violence have their origins in reducing individuals and groups to one or two characteristics. This challenges the inherent dignity of all. It brings to mind the author Max Frisch’s observation that fixed images of the other reveal an absence of love.[5] Everyone is a human being, first and foremost – it is immaterial whether you are an asylum-seeker or a migrant – when you are at risk of drowning, you are a human being in need of rescue. That is what being ‘born free and equal in dignity and rights’ means.

We need to confront and address xenophobia, racism, nativism, and bigotry, often driven by fear, anger, and anxieties within communities. We know well from history how the mistreatment of the foreigner paves the way for the mistreatment of the citizen. Populist politics tend to use this dangerous mix as a vehicle to deflect attention from what is at stake, and as a pretext for demolishing the institutions of liberal democracy, such as the judiciary, a free press, or free and fair elections.[6] These are harbingers of a dystopian future. They ultimately have a corrosive effect on everyone – on how we operate and what we are willing to accept.

Countering the dangers that they engender requires that we engage with the individuals who harbour these sentiments – to deal with their fears and the emotions at their source. We need to address the causes of inequality that so often lead to a sense of victimization and a tendency to scapegoat those worse off than oneself. The refugee issue can be a catalyst for galvanizing society against the dynamics of dehumanization and for focusing attention where it truly belongs – on quests for autocratic power masked in the language of vitriol and blame. Our attention to these dynamics could go a long way towards focusing accountability on the perpetrators rather than vilifying the victims.

Just as to deny one person’s dignity is ultimately to deny our own, the responsibility to ensure one person’s dignity is the responsibility of us all. In practice, the responsibility often falls to the few who are willing to engage. It is time to bring broader segments of civil society – and especially the silent majorities around the world who support taking in refugees[7] – towards a common purpose of re-instilling empathy through the recognition of oneself in the other. Our #WithRefugees Campaign has helped to galvanize this kind of support. It has recorded 31 million acts of solidarity for refugees, and almost two million people have signed onto a petition calling for all refugees to have access to school, a safe place to live, and the possibility to work.

Through our new Age, Gender, Diversity [AGD] policy, we can make headway in this direction – bringing the experiences and views of individual refugees more visibly to the forefront of our planning, engagement, and communications. We are strengthening our accountability to the people we serve with better management, monitoring, and reporting based on sound evidence. This year, five operations have been selected for focused support in implementing this policy and testing its indicators. The AGD approach also has been integrated in the GCR, providing further impetus for UNHCR and partners to ensure inclusivity. While much remains to be done for people with disabilities, we made strong commitments at the Global Disability Summit in London, improved our data collection, and tested the Washington Group questions in several refugee settings. We are also improving our approaches to LGBTI refugees by creating safe spaces, identifying and safely registering individuals at risk, and training staff. We further continue engaging youth, particularly through the Global Youth Advisory Council, which was active in the consultations on the GCR; and through highlighting youth initiatives, such as Spark15 in Malta, promoting refugee integration.

We also are facilitating the leadership of refugee women,[8] as in the Community Governance Process in two camps in Bangladesh; in the community-based tool for addressing women’s psychosocial needs in Colombia; and in the participation of women and girls in sports events in India as a part of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. However, the inclusion of protection considerations in designing and delivering assistance remains a challenge. Even with the majority of our operations providing support for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence [SGBV],[9] we still contend with inadequate lights, locks, and latrines in many camps around the world – fundamentals in camp design to prevent sexual violence. The risks could be mitigated, as we are trying to do through solar lighting in Northern Uganda, and the use of alternative fuel sources in Tanzania, Rwanda, Cameroon, Ghana, and Chad, so that women do not have to travel long distances in search of firewood. However, adequate funding is still a significant obstacle to their implementation. Our forthcoming SGBV policy will highlight the imperative of not only responding to SGBV, but also preventing it through targeted programming to address its root causes.

Third, respect for dignity must be at the centre of the right to a nationality, which recognizes that individuals are not objects to be governed by the powerful, but are subjects of law, endowed with dignity and hence entitled to a legal identity. Yet statelessness persists, often unseen and unheard. Stateless people have told me how they feel invisible, as if they have fallen through the cracks and do not matter. This particularly struck me when I met Rohingya in their home villages a couple of years ago. They seemed to be in a near catatonic state, with little hope for more than a marginal existence. It is no wonder that statelessness can be linked to displacement and the lack of development for everyone.

The right to a nationality was the powerful aspiration of Article 15 of the UDHR, and lately, we have seen a revival of this ambition. Sustainable Development Goal 16 provides a means to realize this right today, and our 10-year #IBelong Campaign to end statelessness has kept the attention on this goal. Since the launch of the Campaign, four States hosting large non-refugee stateless populations made progress in resolving these situations. Thailand, for example, is registering stateless persons, issuing birth certificates, and providing a pathway to naturalization for certain groups. In August, Malaysia announced it would expedite citizenship for qualified stateless individuals in the country. There have been twenty accessions to the Statelessness Conventions since the Campaign was launched, the most recent being Chile, Spain, and Haiti this year.  Thirteen countries in the ECOWAS region developed national action plans to end statelessness as a part of their commitments in the Abidjan Declaration and Banjul Plan of Action. Six countries – Armenia, Cuba, Estonia, Iceland, Luxembourg, and Tajikistan – reformed their nationality laws to allow children, born on their territory and who would otherwise be stateless, to acquire that State’s nationality. Nine countries established or improved statelessness determination procedures, including Brazil, Ecuador, Bulgaria, and Montenegro. And Madagascar and Sierra Leone amended their nationality laws to allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers.

The campaign has also catalyzed initiatives aimed at respecting and restoring dignity through legal identity. Regional declarations to resolve statelessness have been adopted in the Americas, West Africa, the Great Lakes region, and the Middle East and North Africa. The Draft AU Protocol on the Right to Nationality and Eradication of Statelessness will be the first regional instrument of its kind. Civil society networks have sprung up in Southern Africa, the Asia Pacific, Central Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa, complementing those in Europe and the Americas, in the spirit of a whole-of-society approach to preventing and reducing statelessness, as we saw, for example in the launch this year of A Community-Based Practitioner’s Guide: Documenting Citizenship & Other Forms of Legal Identity.[10] These are grounds for hope as we approach the midpoint review of the campaign and the high-level event planned during next year’s Executive Committee meeting, where we look forward to announcements by States of how they will act to prevent and resolve statelessness on their territories.

Fourth, respect for the dignity of all speaks to the necessity of multilateralism in an interdependent world – especially in transboundary matters, such as population movements across borders. Refugees bring to us parts of the world we may not often see, but upon which we may rely. Conflicts in faraway lands – often those rich in natural resources – have more to do with us than we would like to admit – with our growth and consumption – and they challenge us to examine our own actions or lack thereof. Refugees, in this sense, remind us of our comfort zones, our privilege, and the interdependence of phenomena: the flapping of wings in one continent setting off a tempest in another. It is our collective responsibility, therefore, to address root causes of displacement and help countries shoulder their responsibilities for hosting refugees – a contribution they are making to the greater public good, which must be honoured. This is the essence of responsibility-sharing.

It is surprising, then, that some of the countries that have benefited the most from international cooperation are amongst those least willing to be part of international or regional frameworks on population movements, including refugees. This was exemplified not least in the vexed discussions around fixed resettlement quotas and mandatory relocation schemes in Europe. We also see how it has become fashionable in politics and some academic circles to play with the idea of containment, externalization, and literally shipping people out of sight, out of mind, and effectively out of rights – so that we do not see them anymore, so that we forget their humanity. Yet, in the process, we lose ours. This does not do justice to anyone.

Unilateralism, isolationism, and pretending that these problems do not concern us are self-destructive and simply do not work. No country or community can deal with refugee situations on their own. Greater and more predictable international cooperation and support is a necessity. Although multilateralism seems to wax and wane these days, it is important to remember that it enhances, rather than diminishes, national sovereignty. Through cooperation on issues of common concern, we each become stronger. Rather than shifting problems onto one another by acting alone, we can solve them by acting together.

It is significant in this context that the world now has the GCR. Some may think of it as an acceptable level of unhappiness, but let’s not lose sight of its enormous potential. Through an iterative, organic process with States and other stakeholders, we carved out a meaningful set of common undertakings that has the potential to make a real difference in the lives of refugees and their host communities. The GCR offers an approach for securing more predictable and sustained support for countries hosting refugees. Emanating from the international refugee protection regime, the GCR involves a wide range of actors in facilitating access to humanitarian and development support; providing mechanisms for regional and international solidarity that could be activated by host governments in times of emergency; promoting self-reliance of refugees; and reinvigorating the search for solutions. The GCR draws from lessons learned in the application of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework [CRRF] set out in the New York Declaration and now applied in 15 countries. Already, we are seeing the benefits this approach can bring,[11] particularly with development-related investments in support of refugee responses and host communities now amounting to over USD 6.5 billion in addition to humanitarian funding. And regionally, for example, Costa Rica is applying its commitments under MIRPS[12] to refugees from Nicaragua, and IGAD[13] Member States committed to include refugees in national education plans by 2020.  

The GCR is not an end, but a beginning – of an evolution in governance that includes refugees and extends to host communities as ‘people of interest to UNHCR’. While we will continue playing our mandated role, we will mobilize others in this project, and the creation of the Division of Resilience and Solutions this year is helping to take us in this new direction. Let me highlight some of the areas that will require robust follow-up:

To start with, we need to focus on building resilience to ensure that solutions are lasting and sustainable – be they return, resettlement, local integration, or interim local solutions until longer-term solutions can be found. Building resilience through education, livelihoods, and access to services, in particular, prepares refugees for solutions, and enables them to live in dignity and contribute to their communities wherever they are living. Facilitating economic and social inclusion has been recognized in a number of recent initiatives, such as the Sustainable Development Goals 2030, the GCR, ILO Recommendation 205,[14] and the ILO Guiding principles on the access of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons to the labour market.[15] It is incumbent upon us all to find practical ways to translate these initiatives into action, particularly through bolstering national systems to include refugees. Displaced people and their host communities often find themselves in situations where they are interdependent, and development for one population can benefit the development of the other. As humanitarian needs are not decreasing anytime soon, humanitarian funding cannot be compromised. At the same time, we need to complement immediate needs by ensuring longer-term support. This means considering displacement across the relevant government sectors, and recognizing that these new models require time to take root and have an impact.

The world has made progress in supporting refugee education. For example, in Chad, 108 schools in 19 refugee camps have been declared official Chadian schools. Ethiopia has seen significant increases in refugee enrollment at all levels of education, and recent laws and policies in Turkey have enabled 610,000 Syrians to be enrolled in formal schooling, plus 20,000 in higher education. UNHCR has also initiated a Youth Education Programme in Kenya, Pakistan, Rwanda, and Uganda so far, with over 232,000 refugee youth, to increase their access to secondary and tertiary education. Scholarships and connected learning programmes have given some 14,000 refugee youth access to accredited tertiary education. More Syrian refugees have enrolled in universities in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. And the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium has facilitated digital programmes with onsite tuition for 7,000 refugees in 12 countries. Yet, with 4 million refugee children still out of school – half a million higher than 2017, and a disproportionate number being girls[16] – we need to redouble our efforts and continue driving home the importance of education to their protection, resilience, and futures.

We are also aiming to facilitate greater economic inclusion by working with development agencies and the private sector to ensure that host countries are receiving additional investments and that markets are inclusive. Refugees bring with them skills and aptitudes that can benefit host countries when enabling policies are in place for them to pursue livelihoods. Recognizing this, the OECD and UNHCR released this year an action plan for employers, refugees, governments, and civil society to broaden employment opportunities for refugees.[17] The private sector in some host countries, such as Turkey, Mexico, and Costa Rica, is playing an essential role in employing refugees, bringing added value to the economy and filling labour gaps. Socio-economic vulnerability is further being addressed in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Tanzania, Pakistan, and Malaysia through the MADE51 programme; and in the Republic of Congo, Malawi, and Egypt through developing safe livelihood opportunities in local markets. The World Bank has created financing windows for countries hosting large populations of refugees, and UNCDF and SIDA are supporting financial service providers to serve refugees in Jordan and Uganda. The ILO is supporting Jordan to regulate and protect the work of refugees, and is conducting market analyses and developing economic sectors in 13 countries so far that can create jobs and add value to the local economy in host countries. UNDP likewise is supporting Turkey to respond to increased needs in local economies. The EU is relaxing import regulations and standards for some host countries to develop their export capacities, such as in the agricultural sector in northern Lebanon.[18] And refugees in Djibouti can now open bank accounts, enabling them to participate in the economic life of their communities.

We further need to focus on resettlement and third country solutions, which are key to the successful implementation of the GCR. Through the three-year resettlement strategy envisaged in the GCR, we hope to address the widening gap between the number of refugees in need of resettlement and the places made available by countries around the world.[19] This is important both for ensuring that the refugees most at risk have a viable durable solution, and for building the confidence of major host countries in the international community’s commitment to help shoulder the responsibility for refugees. More States need to join the 35 countries so far offering resettlement, or increase their existing programmes, including through private sponsorship schemes. Countries also need to consider developing or facilitating access to complementary pathways for admission. This will require crafting approaches that involve new partners, systems, and models tailored to specific situations. These new approaches would not replace resettlement, but rather add to the pool of possible solutions on offer, as we need to preserve resettlement as a critical tool for protecting the most vulnerable.

Equally, we further look forward to working with all of you on the implementation of the global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration – another feat of multilateralism borne out of the New York Declaration – which advances a common vision of how to make migration work for everyone, including from a sustainable development perspective. There are interlinkages between the two compacts that we will work out with partners operationally, especially in mixed situations of refugees and migrants, building on longstanding practices as well as recent experiences in the Central Mediterranean, which have underlined the necessity of predictable disembarkation schemes, responsibility-sharing arrangements, and sufficient rescue capacity. In a related vein, trafficking is on the rise and features as a prominent form of violence in conflict and displacement situations. UNHCR is committed to work with the international community to address this, including through establishing joint procedures with IOM, incorporating anti-trafficking interventions in the Global Protection Cluster, and building our own staff capacity to identity, assist, and protect the victims.

Finally, we have a responsibility to secure the dignity and safety of future generations. We need to address the issues that lead to forced displacement and compound vulnerabilities of future generations. Foremost among these is armed conflict. In 2017, there were 55 situations of armed conflict,[20] most prominently in Syria, where 12 million people have been displaced, of whom one million were displaced this year alone. These situations are taking a heavy toll. Apart from the obvious impacts, there are less visible ones. Illiteracy in conflict-stricken countries, for example,  is three times higher than the global rate, with girls at the greatest disadvantage.[21] Sadly, we see starvation used as a weapon of war. The majority of people who are chronically hungry – 489 million people – live in countries where there is conflict,[22] and more than half a million children in these situations could die from starvation this year.[23] Children are also at risk of recruitment, sexual violence, and harm from attacks on schools and hospitals. More than 10,000 children were killed or maimed in armed conflict last year, and 8,000 were used as combatants.[24]

Factors fuelling conflict and violence therefore need to be addressed as a priority – whether they be the arms trade; extraction industries; acquisitions of land for mining, agriculture, timber, or water; severe inequality; authoritarianism; or environmental change and degradation. This also requires restoring rule of law founded on dignity, accountability, and justice. It means building social cohesion and peace through conflict mediation, minority protection, and rights-based approaches to development. It also calls for improving early warning systems, contingency planning, and emergency preparedness. To protect the dignity of those most affected by conflict, humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding actors need to act in concert and complement one another. In this regard, the UN is undergoing a series of institutional changes to ensure that as a whole, it is better able to support countries in realizing their goals for peace and development.

Nowhere is the need for prevention so urgent and fundamental to the survival of humanity than in relation to climate change and environmental degradation – areas of concern for the planet as a whole, which increasingly interact with other drivers of displacement. Drought, exacerbated by climate change and failing government policies in different parts of the world, has fueled social tensions, leading to violent conflict and displacement. Access to and competition over water, has exacerbated communal tensions in Sudan’s Darfur and Afghanistan. Conflict, insecurity, and environmental degradation prevent people from planting crops or reaching markets, thus losing their livelihoods.[25] Sudden and slow onset natural hazards displace on average around 25.4 million people within their country each year.[26] The economic losses resulting from failures to address these issues could reach up to USD 2 trillion by 2050.[27]

Our current systems of governance and sense of responsibility seem stuck in the short-term, looking for immediate solutions and instant gratification. Yet, we owe it to those coming after us to find a path out of these unsustainable systems. Displacement and migration related to climate change and natural hazards have finally been recognized within the climate debate – through the Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda and the Platform on Disaster Displacement, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction. The GCR also recognized the role of environmental degradation and disasters in displacement. Population movements associated with the adverse effects of climate change and disasters will accelerate unless the implementation of the Paris Agreement becomes a top priority.[28] As the Secretary-General said, when announcing plans for the 2019 Climate Summit, climate change is a defining issue of our time,[29] and this is a defining moment to act. We will need to consider how best to reduce the risks and what forms of protection displaced people may require – be they refugee status in certain cases or complementary forms of protection in others. Internally, UNHCR will also continue to ‘green’ its operations and address its carbon footprint, as we are doing, for instance, with solar power in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp, which is the first camp to be powered by renewable energy.

Mr Chair,

In conclusion, what we are living through today is, we hope, an aberration – a temporary setback, if you like – but it cannot be the norm. The norm is, and will continue to be, the foundations on which the UN Charter was built – a rule-based international order, an ultimate belief in multilateralism, and the aspirations of the UDHR. Norms that preserve human dignity must prevail – for our survival and development. These are not just about words, but about human life. Based in law and rooted in respect for humanity, they provide a vanguard against chaos and anarchy, and a healthy check on unhealthy dynamics of power. Despite our daily despair, let us not forget the progress we have made and honour the many, often unsung achievements. Protection is often seen in the negative, as violations and abuses of rights dominate the narrative, but it must also be seen as a vision for the future. Preserving human dignity calls upon us to draw upon our diversity and richness to imagine larger freedoms that can be secured through vigilance and common action. It is in this spirit that we look forward to continued close cooperation with all of you in the months ahead.

Thank you for your attention.

[1] Available at:

[2] Rosen, M., Dignity: Its History and Meaning (Harvard University Press, 2018).

[3] See In re Fauziya KASINGA, Applicant, U.S. Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review Board of Immigration Appeals, 23 June 1996, available at:

[4] See GPC, “GP20 Plan of Action”, 2018, available at:

[5] Frisch, M., I’m not Stiller (Abelard-Schuman, 1958).

[6] For an in-depth analysis of this phenomenon, see Mounk, Y., The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (Harvard University Press, 2018).

[7] See for example, “A majority of Europeans favor taking in refugees, but most disapprove of EU’s handling of the issue”, available at:

[8] In 2017, 53 per cent of 58 situations maintained or increased the participation of women in leadership structures. See UNHCR, 2017 Global Strategic Priorities: Progress Report, available at:

[9] 85 per cent of 104 operations (Ibid.).

[10] Available at:

[11] See UNHCR, “From Commitment to Action: Highlights of Progress towards Comprehensive Refugee Responses since the adoption of the New York Declaration”, available at:

[12] Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework, available at:

[13] Intergovernmental Authority on Development. See

[14] Available at:

[15] Available at:

[16] See UNHCR, Turn the Tide: Refugee Education in Crisis, 2018, available at: In 2017, 63 per cent of 96 situations maintained or increased the enrolment rate of primary school-aged children. See UNHCR, note 3 above.

[17] Engaging with Employers in the Hiring of Refugees: A 10-point multi-stakeholder action plan for employers, refugees, governments and civil society, 2018, available at:

[18] This was part of an ILO programme funded by Italy and the Netherlands and is being implemented by a national foundation.

[19] UNHCR’s Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2019, available at:, reports that the number of refugees who need a solution in third countries had grown to a projected 1.4 million in 2019, while the number of resettlement places globally decreased by half to 75,000 in 2017.

[20] Geneva Academy, The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, March 2018, available at:

[21] UNICEF, “3 in 10 Young People in Conflict or Disaster-Stricken Countries are Illiterate”, 31 January 2018, available at:

[22] WFP, “World Food Programme applauds UN Security Council for tackling link between conflict and hunger”, 24 May 2018, available at:

[23] Save the Children, “Extreme hunger could kill 600,000 children in war zones this year”, 10 September 2018, available at:

[24] UN General Assembly, “Report of the Secretary-General: Children and Armed Conflict”, UN Doc. A/72/865–S/2018/465, available at:

[25] GPC, “Drought, Famine, Cholera and Displacement”, 2018, available at:

[26] IDMC, Global Report on Internal Displacement 2016, available at:

[27] UN Environment, “Smarter use of resources can add $2 trillion annually to global economy”, 16 March 2017, available at:

[28] The World Bank, “Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration”, 19 March 2018, available at:

[29] UN, Secretary-General's remarks on Climate Change [as delivered], 10 September 2018, available at: