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Statement to the 72nd Meeting of the Standing Committee of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme

Speeches and statements

Statement to the 72nd Meeting of the Standing Committee of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme

19 June 2018
Agenda item 2: International Protection

Madam Chair, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for opportunity to offer some overarching remarks for the protection item of the June Standing Committee. Before doing so, it gives me great pleasure to introduce to you the new Director of the Division of International Protection, Ms. Grainne O’Hara. She brings to this position a wealth of operational, legal, and policy experience, having worked in all regions of the world, as well as in Headquarters in both Geneva and New York. We look forward to working with her in the challenging period ahead. In a few minutes, she will introduce this year’s Note on International Protection. As always, we have made available online the Note, as well as conference room papers on specific aspects of protection, including internally displaced persons [IDPs]; solutions; statelessness; Age, Gender, and Diversity [AGD]; and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework [CRRF], which my colleagues will introduce later during this session.

Let me now offer some broad reflections on recent developments in protection and solutions.

Global protection situation

Your active and constructive engagement over the past months in developing the global compact on refugees is charting a way forward out of many dilemmas that we face in ensuring protection. We have seen a proliferation of violence around the world, with 55 armed conflicts recorded in 2017 alone, of which six were new.[1] Non-state actors to these conflicts have multiplied, as have casualties from armed violence. In the Central African Republic, the Syrian Arab Republic, and Yemen, fighting continues. In Somalia and South Sudan, conflict combined with food insecurity is displacing thousands. Insecurity and other factors are also driving both displacement within and from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Mali. Serious human rights abuses compelled over 687,000 stateless Rohingya to flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh last year at a pace not seen since the early nineties. Drug trafficking, illegal mining, armed groups, and gang violence are destabilizing communities in Colombia and Central America. One-and-a-half million Venezuelans have moved across borders due to the complex situation in their home country. And natural hazards and the adverse effects of climate change are intersecting with and exacerbating conflict and displacement, such as in the Lake Chad Basin and Horn of Africa.

It does not come as a surprise, then, that the Global Trends report for 2017,[2] released today, shows that the high numbers for displacement globally continued unabated. Every two seconds, another person was forced to flee their homes in fear for their lives, hoping to find asylum elsewhere – often the only lifeline to safety. The numbers rose with the crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the war in South Sudan, and the flight of Rohingya from Myanmar, so that by the end of 2017, there were 68.5 million displaced people in the world, of whom 16.2 million were newly displaced that year. The majority – 85 per cent – continued to be hosted in poor and middle-income countries, and 63 per cent of the refugees under UNHCR’s responsibility lived in just 10 countries. More than half of them were young, including many unaccompanied and separated children, and more than half lived in urban areas. Refugees now account for 25.4 million of all displaced persons, an increase of 2.9 million people from the previous year.

In the wake of these crises, countries have, by and large, kept their borders open to those in need of international protection, and they respected the principle of non-refoulement, most commendably in situations of mass influx as we saw in Bangladesh, Uganda, and Latin America. However, there continued to be instances where safe harbours were inaccessible to those fleeing for their lives. Sometimes people faced physical or administrative barriers at the border that prevented them from being able to cross to safety. At other times, the presence of landmines and explosive devices in border areas inhibited movement, requiring us to work closely with the UN Mine Action Service to raise awareness of the dangers. Those with no other options often attempted to use hazardous routes overland or by sea, undergoing harrowing and life-threatening journeys. It would be remiss of me not to mention here the current situation in the Mediterranean, where it is clear that the people at greatest risk are also those who are paying the price. They are the first victims of failures of States to agree upon how best to share responsibility for disembarkation, processing, and solutions. When people are in life-threatening situations, fast running out of provisions, or have urgent medical needs, they must be moved to a safe place as a matter of priority. In such cases, the humanitarian imperative, central to the principle of rescue at sea, is without question.

Measures taken to keep people from crossing borders and seeking life-saving protection are the manifestation of a larger anti-refugee sentiment. Forced returns, the politicization and scapegoating of refugees [and migrants for that matter], the arbitrary detention of refugees and asylum-seekers, the separation of children from their parents, the denial of livelihoods, and some countries objecting even to use of the word “refugee” are all deeply troubling. Such responses are often grounded in misinformation and are used to exploit fear. In some cases, these political agendas of containment and deterrence can slip even further into policies of cruelty.

We need to counter these fears and the draconian responses they engender head-on: through facts and evidence, experience and expertise, respect for the rule of law, and instilling a common sense of purpose based on humanity, the voice of reason, and solidarity. We can do so through concerted joint engagement, using a number of tools – many of which we already have on hand, but which we hope can be used to better advantage with the adoption of the global compact. We need to do so to ensure that all communities feel able to welcome and protect, rather than vilify and reject, refugees – to find the space to meet them with compassion, respect, and empathy as fellow human beings.

The numbers are significant, and at times can seem daunting. We must be careful, however, not to overdramatize the situation or feed into scaremongering narratives about ‘arriving hordes’, as this can become political currency for populist agendas. Rather, we need to remember that behind the statistics are individual people, each of whom has a difficult story of loss and hardship, each of whom faces tremendous challenges in trying to survive, and yet still harbours hope for their future. As a social psychologist once famously said, “Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.”[3] It is difficult to generate empathy with facts and figures alone, particularly when the numbers seem overwhelming and contribute to a personal or communal sense of inadequacy to meet the need. Sometimes, the numbers can have the inadvertent effect of psychic numbing[4] – causing people to distance themselves from these problems out of a sense of helplessness and a misguided belief that such things could never happen to them.

It is crucial, therefore, that the protection of people, and attention to their individual circumstances, be at the centre of our engagement and communications. Although people do not choose to be refugees, we do choose how we respond to them. We must be conscious of this, always, and remind each other of each and every human being whose life and future are at stake in the work we do. UNHCR is uniquely positioned to do so, not only because we work in close proximity to the people we serve, but also because we are required by all of you to safeguard and uphold norms of international protection for them. Our close work with individuals who have been displaced or are stateless, and our protection work, grounded in communities, give us a strong experiential and evidence base on which to realize fundamental humanitarian principles of protection and respect for international refugee law.

Our updated Age, Gender, and Diversity [AGD] policy[5] was issued this year in recognition of this – of the importance of putting people first, as the High Commissioner set out in our Strategic Directions.[6] Indeed, it is for reasons related to specific identities that people often become refugees in the first place, or that they find themselves at further risk as refugees. We see this, for example, with the recurring problems of sexual and gender-based violence not only causing refugees to flee, but also resulting from inadequate conditions of safety and scarce resources in places to which they have fled. When food rations are cut, fuel is limited, or shelter is inadequate, refugee women and girls, but also men and boys, may find themselves more vulnerable to sexual violence – when having to work in situations of exploitation to secure basic necessities, or traveling long distances in search of firewood, or living in overcrowded and substandard accommodation. This is a stark reminder that the needs of those who are most at risk must shape the way we respond, including through better funding. Within the updated AGD policy, we included reinvigorated commitments to gender equality, a framework for increasing our accountability to affected populations, and an emphasis on a community-based, participatory approach to protection and solutions.

It is through our work, from this unique vantage point, that we learn about and become a part of individuals’ lives; their struggles and aspirations become in many ways our own. It is the human story that we encounter every single day that drives us in our work and our commitment to help States and communities bring people who have been displaced more fully into their fold. This is after all the ultimate aim of protection – to find solutions – so that people can get on with their lives wherever they are – whether back in their countries of origin, in exile hoping to return home, or in a country offering local settlement.

A greater orientation towards solutions

This means that we need to orient ourselves more firmly towards solutions from the start. This year, we are undergoing a series of institutional changes to ensure we are well positioned and equipped to facilitate solutions to global displacement crises. At the global level, the UN is undertaking a series of systemic reforms to ensure that as a whole, we are better able to support countries in realizing their goals for peace and development.[7] This requires that all UN agencies strengthen and align their engagement in preventing and resolving conflicts, upholding international humanitarian and human rights law, alleviating poverty, and providing development assistance in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.[8] We know that peace in any of the top five countries that generate refugee outflows could reverse the trend of today’s growing numbers, reducing them by millions. Two-thirds of the refugees of concern to UNHCR come from just five countries, namely Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia.

More specifically, in the refugee world, we have piloted the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework [CRRF], borne out of the New York Declaration,[9] and building upon models of good practice, such as the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan for the Syria Crisis[10]. The CRRF has been applied in 14 countries to date, a number of which are part of regional and sub-regional CRRF approaches, such as the  Nairobi Declaration on Durable Solutions for Somali Refugees and Reintegration of Returnees in Somalia[11] and the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework [MIRPS] in Central America.[12] Earlier this month, we convened an informal dialogue with Resident Coordinators to consider how best to collaborate on the practical roll-out of the CRRF, particularly in the context of larger UN reforms.

The experiences of implementing the CRRF are informing the development of the global compact on refugees, which seeks to ensure more equitable and predictable responsibility sharing for refugees, and which has benefitted from the strong engagement of UN Member States. As we have discussed extensively over the past few months of formal consultations, the global compact will require new ways of organizing ourselves and different ways of working to ensure better and more sustained support for countries hosting refugees arriving en masse or living in protracted situations.

Experience has shown that the CRRF can be adapted to many national and regional contexts and needs to be premised on strong national leadership in the refugee response. Applications of the CRRF have also demonstrated how a wide range of stakeholders, including multiple sectors of government, refugees, youth, cities, regional and international organisations, NGOs, the private sector, and faith communities, can help build support for countries hosting large numbers of refugees. For example, the IKEA Foundation made significant contributions to revitalize and develop a refugee-hosting community in Dollo Ado. The Uganda Investment Authority, together with UNDP, created business investment profiles in 11 refugee-hosting districts. And IGAD Member States committed to include refugees in national education plans by 2020.

This speaks to how pivotal partnerships are to a solutions orientation. Solutions can only be realized when we are working together. No country or community should have to deal with refugee situations on their own. We know well that more support is needed, not only for people who have been displaced, but also for the communities that host them. It is particularly here that the global compact will set out a path for us to build upon and expand our partnership arrangements. As we have already seen with the CRRF, such partnerships can ensure better support for host communities and longer-term planning for solutions. They enable us to leverage the unique capacities of humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding actors to complement one another and contribute to the responsibility-sharing process.

It is clear from such examples that applications of the CRRF in several situations are already bearing fruit, as more actors are becoming engaged, and the structures are being put in place at the national level to facilitate it, particularly in linking and aligning humanitarian response and development planning sectors. The World Bank’s establishment of a sub-window for refugees and hosting communities [IDA 18] has been pivotal in making this link a meaningful reality. We are also moving from theory to action in the CRRF approach with contributions from the Inter-American Development Bank to MIRPS, and from the development arms of the UN [UNDP] and the EU and the Governments of Denmark, Germany, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, Norway, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Bolstered by such growing support, a number of countries piloting the CRRF have enacted new laws and regulations that guarantee the rights of refugees and expand their access to national services. Djibouti, for instance, reversed its encampment policy, issued refugee ID cards, and permitted refugees to access education, livelihoods, and justice. Ethiopia provided refugees with access to education, national civil registration, and greater freedom of movement. Through its Jobs Compact, it also created economic opportunities for refugees alongside Ethiopian nationals, including in industrial parks. Uganda, Zambia, Kenya, and Djibouti are including refugees in their national health systems. And, although Iran is not a pilot country, its groundbreaking medical insurance scheme launched in 2015, which resulted in the inclusion of the refugees in the national health system, provides a strong example of the kinds of approaches that could be enabled through the CRRF in different refugee situations.

At a more granular level, UNHCR created a Division of Resilience and Solutions in February this year, in the capable hands of its new Director, Mr. Daniel Endres. This Division is strengthening our engagement in solutions and these wider processes. It houses the task team responsible for facilitating the CRRF in specific situations and more widely in the organisation’s approach to emergencies. The Division provides field operations with the critical guidance and support to effect solutions both within the CRRF and more broadly, from voluntary repatriation and reintegration to social and economic inclusion. The Division is also furthering partnerships with a wide range of actors, such as the World Bank, the OECD and the ILO, amongst others, who have an increasingly recognized important role to play in finding solutions.

At the heart of all of these efforts – at the global, refugee, and organisational levels – is a reinvigorated focus on solutions. This signals a recognition by the international community that a strong solutions orientation is needed now if we ever hope for a world in which refugees can not only survive, but also thrive. The reality is that refugee situations will always occur, many of which may last for years. Some 3 million people who are refugees today have lived in situations of protracted displacement for more than 38 years. We need to accept this reality by adopting a long-term, solutions-oriented perspective. This means that we are already responding and planning with a view to solutions from the outset of an emergency. We have increasingly adopted this orientation in much of our core protection work, recognizing that, when crafted appropriately, our protection activities in times of crisis can also be building blocks for solutions, peace, and stability in the future. The global compact on refugees will already set out in some detail how States can be supported to respond to refugee situations with this in mind.

This is all the more critical in an environment where traditional durable solutions are proving difficult to achieve. Last year, for example, while 5 million displaced people returned to their places of origin, including some 667,000 refugees to 43 countries, many returns occurred in complex circumstances or hazardous security conditions, were spontaneous, or took place under duress. In some cases, such as in the Syria situation, returns occurred in parallel with new waves of displacement. All of this points to the need to look past the numbers to ensure that returns can be sustainable, as Somalia has done in recognizing the need for durable solutions to displacement and reintegration of former refugees in its 2017-2019 National Development Plan. And notably within the UN, organisations such as the UNDP, UN Habitat, UNHCR, and OHCHR, are focusing on issues related to abandoned land, housing, and property, as these pose significant obstacles to effective return.

Resettlement has also become more a complex solution to achieve, as we saw a 47 per cent decrease in resettlement places last year after an unprecedented surge in earlier years, with 102,800 persons resettled last year. Initiatives to broaden the base of resettlement countries and opportunities for other pathways, such as labour mobility, family reunification, and scholarships, provide reason for hope, however. The pool of States with resettlement programmes is widening, with some 35 States now engaged. A number of States have increased their quotas, and the European Union is making progress towards a scheme that will facilitate more resettlement opportunities offered by its Member States. The Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative is helping to provide opportunities for civil society to sponsor refugees for resettlement, for example in Ireland, Spain, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and New Zealand. Also, the use of life-saving evacuation transit facilities has grown, particularly in Niger and Central America. Scholarships have been made available, such as through the United World Colleges’ Refugee Initiative. And labour mobility projects are underway, for instance through Canada’s programme to admit refugees living in Kenya, as well as Talent Beyond Boundaries. As we move forward with the global compact, increasing possibilities for resettlement and other pathways will be key to a truly comprehensive refugee response. Ensuring these opportunities are available will be critical to building the confidence of all actors –especially those States hosting the largest numbers – in the process.

One area where we saw some progress was in local integration, with 73,400 people naturalized in 2017, compared to 23,000 in 2016, largely thanks to Turkey naturalizing 50,000 Syrians, as well as initiatives such as those of Guinea-Bissau to grant citizenship to refugees living in a protracted situation, Zambia to provide long-term residency to former Rwandan refugees, and Chile to allow access to nationality for people registered under non-citizen status and children born to foreign parents. In most industrialized countries, local integration is the main solution, although we do not always have the precise numbers. We need to honour this solution more conspicuously as a valuable contribution to the cause.

It is well recognized that legal, socio-cultural, civil-political, and economic inclusion are all necessary for the success of any eventual solution, and many States have offered different forms of inclusion to enable refugees to build resilience and participate in local economies and communities for however long they will be there. The marginalization and exclusion of refugees is antipathetic to realizing any durable solutions or long-term peace and stability. Promoting self-reliance and building resilience are as important for preparing for sustainable voluntary repatriation as they are for local solutions.

Countries, such as Ethiopia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kenya, Pakistan, Uganda, and Zambia, have taken steps to promote self-reliance and resilience through providing education and skills training and access to livelihoods. Initiatives such as the Global Partnership for Education and Education Cannot Wait, have helped augment funds for refugee children’s education in emergencies. Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Mexico notably developed livelihoods projects with the private sector to create employment opportunities for refugees, and Zambia now permits refugees to open bank accounts. We have further witnessed cities coming together to promote integration and social cohesion, such as through the Cities of Solidarity in Latin America, the Cities #WithRefugees initiative that will be launched tomorrow, and projects to sponsor refugee families and showcase refugee enterprises and talents in cities across Europe and North America. The programme of action, set out in the current draft of the global compact on refugees, contains many such examples that could help to prepare refugees for longer-term solutions wherever they may find themselves in the future.

We have also attempted to work with a greater view toward solutions in relation to IDPs and stateless persons. This year presents an opportune moment in the shift towards an enhanced solutions orientation in our work with IDPs. UNHCR has been engaged in situations of internal displacement for more than 45 years, but in just the past five years, the number of IDPs benefitting from UNHCR protection has doubled, with millions residing primarily in Colombia [7.7m], Syria [6.2m], and the Democratic Republic of Congo [[4.4m], but also in Iraq [2.6m], Somalia [2.1m], Yemen [2m], Sudan [2m], South Sudan [1.9m], Afghanistan [1.8m], and Ukraine [1.8m]. While the overall estimated number of IDPs did decrease somewhat from 40.3 million in 2016 to 40 million 2017, this must be tempered by the reality that many have returned under pressure or to fragile situations where they were at risk of being displaced again. 

For the majority of IDPs, solutions continue to be elusive. Therefore, UNHCR has redoubled its efforts to make its engagement in IDP situations more predictable and decisive. We are stepping up preparedness to ensure early and effective engagement in unfolding crises. Equally important, we are providing the enhanced protection analysis to inform country strategies, and we recently supported Ukraine’s development of an integration and solutions strategy. Also, on the occasion of the anniversaries of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement[13] this year and the Kampala Convention[14] in 2019, we are making concerted efforts, particularly through the GP20 Plan of Action,[15] to work with key States and partners to effect legislative, policy, and practical changes that can reduce and resolve internal displacement and enhance protection and solutions for IDPs.

Because protection failures so often lead to crises and prevent solutions, protection must be at the centre of humanitarian actors’ drive for solutions. This means that all UNCT/HCTs need to have comprehensive protection strategies that integrate protection throughout the collective response. So far, out of 26 operations with an active protection cluster, 13 have a HCT protection strategy, and we are hopeful that by the end of this year, this will increase to at least 90 per cent. Already, several, including in Myanmar, Libya, and Ukraine, are in the process of developing HCT protection strategies, and we are aware that Burundi, the Philippines, and Afghanistan may soon be following suit. 

This also challenges us to approach this work with smart, simplified, and lightened coordination structures to ensure that energy and resources are not lost in heavy architectures, but rather are channeled into delivery and accountability to the people we serve. A solutions orientation also requires that we develop a stronger interface between the humanitarian coordination architecture and development planning. It requires that we address the key obstacles to achieving solutions, such as we are doing in Honduras on land and property issues. Our discussions and decisions must be informed by rich and sound data and analysis. We have done so, for instance, with the authorities in El Salvador and in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to profile and collect data about IDPs and their specific needs. Critically, a solutions orientation also means that we need to put in place arrangements for responsible disengagement from the outset of displacement, so as to set solutions in motion and prevent protracted displacement. To this end, we are updating our policy on internal displacement to reflect these new realities and directions.

This year also presents an opportunity to advance a greater orientation to resolving and preventing statelessness, particularly as the flight of hundreds of thousands of stateless Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, brought home clearly how statelessness can be linked to displacement. It heightened the world’s attention to the predicament that stateless persons find themselves in – unable to function normally in everyday life without the documents needed to access services, education, and livelihoods. In 2019, to mark the midpoint of #IBelong Campaign to End Statelessness, we will be convening a high-level meeting on statelessness, as part of the annual meeting of UNHCR’s Executive Committee, where States will be able to take stock of what has been accomplished and make further commitments. As part of the lead-up to this event, Ms. Carol Batchelor has been appointed to serve as a Special Adviser on Statelessness. She will be working closely with States and partners to galvanize strong commitments and identify good practices and progress that can be showcased at this event.

Our statelessness campaign has always had a solutions orientation, as the Global Action Plan focuses on measures that States can take to resolve and prevent statelessness. Many States have already made important strides. There were significant confirmations of nationality and naturalization of stateless people in Central Asia, Thailand, Malaysia, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Russia, and Iraq, among others. Recently, we welcomed Luxembourg, Burkina Faso, and Chile as new parties to one or both of the statelessness conventions. Two States – Madagascar and Sierra Leone – recently removed gender discrimination from their nationality laws that had prevented mothers from being able to transmit nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers. A number of States, such as Cuba, strengthened their nationality laws in other ways to prevent statelessness at birth. Some, such as Brazil, Ecuador, and Montenegro, also recently established or improved mechanisms to identify stateless persons and facilitate their naturalization.

At the regional level, since the Banjul Plan of Action of ECOWAS on the Eradication of Statelessness 2017-2024[16] came into force last June, Burkina Faso and Mali adopted national action plans. In October of last year, members of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region [ICGLR] signed on to a new regional declaration on the eradication of statelessness.[17] In February this year, at a League of Arab States ministerial meeting convened in Tunisia, a declaration was adopted that calls for all children to be able to enjoy the right to a legal identity, and for women and men to have equal nationality rights.[18] And thanks to cooperation with major hosting countries in the MENA region, the number of Syrian children born in exile, who were completely undocumented from birth, was reduced.

This coming year presents an important opportunity for States to build upon these achievements, so that their accomplishments and concrete pledges can be showcased at the 2019 high-level meeting. Regional preparatory meetings to lay the ground for this have already begun, with a very successful event in Central Asia convened in Almaty earlier this June, as well as an important regional meeting in the Americas held just last week. We look forward to more such opportunities for States to exchange information on good practices and prepare pledges with UNHCR’s support.

In conclusion, as we move into the discussions on international protection over the next two days, I would invite you all to consider the various themes in light of these observations.  A shift in our thinking towards a solutions orientation has the potential to set in train better ways of working together from the outset. It is the first step in ensuring that the people whom we serve – and to whom we are accountable – can not only envision, but also believe in, the possibility of a meaningful future for themselves and their families.


[1] Bellal, Annyssa (2018). The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017 (Geneva Academy), available at:….

[2] Available at:

[3] Paul Brodeur (1985). Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry on Trial [The Complete New Yorker Reports] (Pantheon).

[4] Slovic, Paul, et al (August 2011). "Psychic numbing and mass atrocity" (New York University School of Law: 1–17).

[5] Available at:

[6] Available at:

[7] See UN General Assembly (18 January 2018). Peacebuilding and sustaining peace (A/72/707–S/2018/43), available at:

[8] UN General Assembly (21 October 2015). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (A/72/707–S/2018/43), available at:

[9] Available at:

[10] Available at:

[11] Available at:

[12] Available at:

[13] United Nations, Commission on Human Rights (1998). The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2).

[14] African Union (22 October 2009). African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa ["Kampala Convention"].

[15] See

[16] Available at:

[17] See ICGLR (16 October 2017). Declaration of International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) Member States on the Eradication of Statelessness (CIRGL/CIMR/DEC/15/10/2017), available at:

[18] See League of Arab States (28 February 2018). Arab Declaration on Belonging and Legal Identity, available at: