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Statement to the Akademie Für Politische Bildung, Tutsing: "The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Refugee Crisis in 2015"

Executive Committee Meetings

Statement to the Akademie Für Politische Bildung, Tutsing: "The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Refugee Crisis in 2015"

23 March 2018

Distinguished audience,

First of all I would like to thank you all, and particularly conference organisers from the Akademie für Politische Bildung[1], the Universität der Bundeswehr München[2] and the Virginia Tech Institute and State University Blacksburg.

While many here can take credit for this conference coming to fruition, a special thank you also to Anne Khademian, the Director of Virginia Tech’s school of Public and International Affairs, with whom I discussed your vision for this event a long time ago, now carried forward under Joel Peters leadership.I’m an alumna of the School’s precursor — Urban Affairs and Planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, which provided the foundation for my career of global and national public service.I will be forever grateful for this education.

It is an honour to visit Germany, a country which was one of the first states to ratify the 1951 Convention and a country which admitted over one million people seeking protection over the course of 2015 and 2016.As we heard yesterday, Germany has since deployed significant integration efforts which saw government measures complemented by initiatives from non-governmental organisations and grass root initiatives, and which benefitted from a strong public engagement.

Germany is also an important partner in global refugee protection, is an active member of UNHCR’s governing body and has significantly expanded its support to refugees, becoming UNHCR’s second largest donor in 2017, with the bulk of this support going to the humanitarian response to the Syria and Iraq situations.

In my address today organizers have asked me to focus particularly on the refugee crisis in Europe in 2015. I will also touch on issues related to refugee integration globally.But before focusing on these two specific topics I will take a step back and offer a perspective on the global refugee crisis, and our response to it, both current and in the years leading to the 2015 crisis in Europe, given the impact of the global context on regional events.

Forced displacement has sadly become a defining feature of our decade.  It is important not to focus only on statistics and trends as it is easy to become numb to the numbers and the individual stories of hardship, violence, and loss. As my friend, the spokesperson to the High Commissioner says “statistics are stories with the tears dried off.”  But in some cases, numbers do speak for themselves.   As we entered this decade 8 years ago, there were over 43 million people forcibly displaced, which as we then noted, represented the highest number of forcibly displaced in 15 years.  At the time, Afghan and Iraqi refugees accounted for almost half of all refugees under UNHCR’s mandate (Palestinians fall outside) and 75 per cent of all refugees resided in countries neighbouring their countries of origin. 

Two years later, in 2012, this number had reached over 45 million with Afghan and Iraqi refugees still among the largest refugee populations in the world and constituting, together with Somalis, Syrians and Sudanese, half of the world’s refugee population. By 2014, we were just shy of 60 million forcibly displaced with Syrians, Afghans and Somalis over half of the world’s refugee population. 

We published our mid-year 2017 trends report earlier this month and the number of forcibly displaced worldwide had reached nearly 67.5 million people.  And, you will have guessed it, the main refugee populations originate from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia, together with South Sudanese who, spurred on by the ongoing crisis in the world’s youngest independent nation, were then the world’s fastest growing refugee population.  With nearly one per cent of the world’s population displaced, this is the highest level of displacement on record, marking a two-fold increase in displacement in the last twenty years. 

The trends we have seen are clear and unambiguous.  Old conflicts have festered and continued unabated, leading the people of countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia consistently to top the list of those forcibly displaced.  Not an enviable position.  And while the world has proved unable to resolve these longstanding situations, new conflicts have arisen, including the conflict in Syria which was the main driver of displacement between 2012 and 2015.[3]

And while the growth in the number of people forcibly displaced had slowed for the first time in late 2016, 2017 saw renewed large scale displacement from Myanmar’s Rakhine state from which close to 700,000 refugees fled into Bangladesh in the span of a few weeks.  And 2018 now is seeing ongoing and renewed conflicts and displacement of families, with UNHCR having declared emergency situations to aid people from Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. 

Beyond the numbers, the conflict, persecution, generalized violence, and violations of human rights which continue to drive people from their homes mean countless stories of grief, trauma, hardship and loss.  These are millions of individuals, men, women and children, compelled to leave their homes, their communities and countries, left struggling on the margins, often unable to integrate into the socio-economic fabric of host communities, and with few prospects to rebuild their lives. 

These are people such as Minara, who I met at a reception centre with her one month old child in Bangladesh last December. When her village in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar, was attacked the month before, she and her daughter walked for three weeks through the hills to the border, where they waited for another ten days until it was possible to take a boat across the Naf river to Bangladesh.

Minara tragically lost her husband to the violence, and left behind the rest of her extended family.When we spoke, she did not know where they were, but hoped they would be able to reunite in safety in Bangladesh. Her daughter, affected by the trauma that had enveloped the first month of her life, was not able to sleep.

The story of her flight to safety is devastating enough on its own, but when Minara left Buthidaung, she also left her home and land behind, knowing they were likely to be burned and eventually claimed by others. She and her husband were chili plant farmers, but not only will they not be able to use their trade in Bangladesh, at least for a while, it will be challenging to one day restart her life back in Buthidaung.

This is a lesson we have learned countless times:on top of the physical injuries and mental anguish of such violence, refugees also lose their resources and livelihoods when forced to flee for safety.And this deprivation not only affects them in exile, but hinders their ability eventually to begin to re-establish themselves socio-economically, before and after achieving a solution to their displacement.


Distinguished audience,

Turning now to the refugee crisis which affected Europe in 2015, it is impossible not to reference the Syria crisis to which it is inextricably linked and movements of refugees in the Middle East in prior years.

Refugees fleeing unspeakable violence initially trickled, then poured, out of Syria and into neighbouring countries starting in 2011.UNHCR, together with governments in the region and our network of over 1,000 partners, set-up reception and registration systems and registered one million refugees by March 2013, two million by July of the same year, and, over four million by early 2015.

By hosting these refugees, countries neighbouring Syria provided, and continue to provide, a “global public good.”Beyond merely providing access to asylum, while not immediate (we can discuss this dynamic later in the discussion), they granted refugees the ability to enter national systems of healthcare and education, and in some cases access the local and national job markets.It is worth mentioning that, in most cases, these countries are not parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention or related Protocols, generosity beyond mere legal obligations.

The international community, through the UN Refugee Agency and other humanitarian organizations, assisted these countries to address these major challenges.We helped meet refugees’ essential needs, setting up camps (only) where necessary (most lived within the communities and urban areas) and providing support to individual families to build and access shelter, sanitation, food and other aid.Our response relied both on traditional models of humanitarian work as well as on innovative models and technology, including the use of cash assistance linked to biometric registration to provide support to the most vulnerable refugees, while empowering them to make choices and determine priority needs of their families.

We also worked with academia, the World Bank, and other international organisations to use the data at our disposal and ensure that we proactively identified those most vulnerable, and most in need of aid.At the same time, we embraced digital platforms, setting up call centres, secure web-based information sharing platforms and text messaging systems to communicate with refugees.In today’s refugee response in Lebanon, Facebook groups run by refugee outreach workers are a modern-day echo of the megaphone-wielding field workers of the past.

Alongside this innovation in the delivery of aid to refugees, in recognition of the multifaceted challenges faced by countries in the region hosting Syrian refugees, we adopted an innovative, integrated approach. This combined protection and humanitarian relief efforts with a greater focus on supporting national plans and development interventions to build resilience among individuals, communities and institutions.The response supported Ministries of health and education and increased the ability of Ministries themselves as well as the various institutions, schools and medical facilities, to provide services to both host and refugee communities.Support was also provided to local and regional institutions, including municipalities, bearing the brunt of support for essential infrastructure such as roads, water distribution networks and waste management.

This approach linked up with the UN Development Programme to better integrate humanitarian and development programming and eventually led to the issuance of a Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan: a UN-first example of this approach.  

UNHCR also increased its collaboration with the World Bank and developed a poverty and welfare study, the first of its kind, of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, examining how vulnerability assessment and targeting can be improved and made more efficient. We used a comparative household studies to offer insights into the relative poverty and welfare circumstances of refugee and local households.

In addition to efforts made to link humanitarian and development action, UNHCR and its partners found individual solutions for refugees with specific needs through resettlement.This includes the submission of close to 80,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement to several countries between 2011 and 2015 and efforts by a number of countries, including Germany, to open additional pathways for humanitarian access to Syrians.

But while much was done by the international community to shoulder some of the cost of this response, and efforts were made to link humanitarian and development responses, one should not under-estimate the heavy cost of the response on host governments.In Lebanon, where one out of every four persons was a refugee and the impact of social services was severe, the World Bank economic and social impact assessment of the Syrian conflict on Lebanon published in late 2013 noted that the surge in public spending to meet the needs of Syrian refugees had cost the government US$ 1.1 billion.Additional spending of US$ 2.5 billion was required to reinstate access to quality public services to their pre-Syrian conflict levels.[4]Turkey itself estimated that it had spent close to US$ 8 billion on its response to Syrian refugees by September 2015.[5]

In recognition of this, UNHCR was at the forefront of advocating for direct financial support to host countries and were instrumental in advocating, early on in the Syria crisis, for the World Bank and donor community to devise ways and means of providing concessional financing to Lebanon and Jordan.Much progress has been made since then and our partnership with the World Bank has allowed the transformation of the Concessional Financing Facility for the MENA region into a global response instrument – an element on which I will elaborate a little later.

In spite of the generous response of countries neighbouring Syria, and of efforts to integrate the humanitarian and development response to the crisis, and thereby allow a, at least partial, integration of refugees in these societies, refugees in the region faced a host of factors which, in 2015, came to a head and drove movements out of the region and towards Europe.

First and foremost, with a Syria crisis then in its fifth year, and in the absence of a solution in sight, refugees in the region lost the hope of being able to return home.These feelings of uncertainty about the future were compounded by the deepening poverty faced by refugees in the region.

The cumulative effect of four years in exile with restricted access to legal employment took its toll. In many cases savings had long been depleted, precious valuables had been sold off and many refugees across the region struggled to pay rent, feed their families, and cover basic needs.

This was in part the result of the lack of livelihood opportunities or access to the formal labour market which were cited as problems by refugees in Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan or increased competition in the Iraqi labour markets from people internally displaced by Iraq’s own conflict.

Aid programmes for refugees and host communities in the region, programmes which would have prevented, at least in part, the deepening poverty faced by refugees, were plagued by chronic funding shortages. The inter-agency Syrian regional refugee and resilience plan for 2015 was, in September of that year, only 41 per cent funded, which led to cuts in food aid for thousands of refugees. Tens of thousands missed out on cash assistance, sinking deeper into debt. In Jordan, inadequate funding led refugees to lose free access to healthcare and over 58 per cent of adults with chronic conditions were compelled to do without medicine or health services.As a result of this, people resorted to negative coping strategies - including begging, child labour, and increased indebtedness.

Hurdles to access or to renew legal residency in some countries of the region, at times introduced in response to the large numbers of people seeking or having sought asylum there, also contributed to refugees’ drive to leave the region.In Lebanon, new regulations for Syrian refugees made it harder for Syrians to access asylum and placed a high cost on refugees already in the country to renew their stay.  In Jordan, a programme launched by authorities to ensure all Syrians residing outside of camps were issued with a new identity document to access services presented a number of challenges, including the high cost of obtaining required health certificates as part of the process.

Limited education opportunities, at times driven by worsening socio-economic conditions for refugees in the countries of asylum, were having a devastating impact on the education of refugee children. In Jordan, some 90,000 Syrians of school age were unable to access formal education.In Lebanon, 200,000 Syrian children were unable to access school because of the 100 per cent increase in the number of places needed for Syrian children in the 2015/2016 school year.

Finally, where conditions of asylum were not the leading cause for departure from the region, the lack of security for people in their own country was a key driver of displacement out of the region. This was the case for the majority of displaced Iraqis who reported feeling unsafe in the country, with many people from minority groups seeing migration as the key to their physical safety.


Distinguished audience,

The media coverage and dramatic footage of boat arrivals in Greece, and of some of the 3,700 people who lost their lives attempting this journey in 2015 alone, gave us all a vivid sense of the crisis which was unfolding at Europe’s door, and eventually throughout Europe. That year, over a million people risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of safety and protection in Europe.Of these, 84 per cent originated from the world’s top ten refugee producing countries and movements included a substantial number of women, children and vulnerable persons. In Greece, for example, over 35 per cent of new arrivals were children, many unaccompanied or separated from their families.

Refugees and migrants arriving in Europe had not intended to remain in Greece, the first country of arrival, for long but instead aimed to continue their journey onwards.The Western Balkans route became an important transit axis, with thousands of people travelling through Greece, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia before reaching their final destinations in Europe. I was in Serbia as the Western Balkans route closed in 2016.The transient nature of the population movements required humanitarian partners to develop a flexible and pragmatic response to endure the most effective and protection-centred approach.From a light operational footprint, humanitarian partners managed to quickly deploy staff and resources to ensure an around-the-clock presence at border crossing points.

This fluid situation led UNHCR to take multifaceted action to address emergency needs; reduce protection risks for populations on the move; safeguard asylum space; expand opportunities for solutions, and advocate and support a collective European response.

To be sure, this complex mix of dynamics and factors are not exclusive to this context.We see the same fluidity all over the world. Last month I was in Central America, where we travelled from Mexico through Guatemala to Honduras, effectively retracing the steps of asylum seekers and migrants moving north, often to the United States, but increasingly stopping, and applying for asylum in, Guatemala and Mexico. While many were on the move for a combination of different reasons, we heard absolutely jarring stories of people fleeing extreme levels of violence in countries such as Honduras and El Salvador because, as was explained to us by one family, “their community had been invaded.”

In Mexico City, we met Adonlay, a 17 year old El Salvadoran boy who greeted us with a beaming smile at the front gate of a low profile shelter in a rough neighbourhood, but later broke into tears trying to recount why he had left his mother behind in San Salvador. Later we learned that he had been recruited by a gang while in elementary school only to eventually escape to Guatemala before applying for asylum in Mexico City.

The following day we met Dailia and her family in southern Mexico, who had fled in the middle of the night from Honduras with only what they could carry. While they were not affiliated with the gangs, they lived in a neighbourhood of San Pedro Sula that was under gang control. When they were unable to pay the extortion fees, they were attacked and fled to Mexico to seek asylum. When we met them, they had been granted asylum by the Mexican government, and with cash-based support from UNHCR, had moved out of a shelter into their new home and were restarting their bakery business.

What was clear from these stories and the dozens of others we heard, was that not only were many people fleeing violence in Central America along the same route north as countless others, but they were desperately in need of humanitarian aid and protection. And yet their stories were not divorced from socio-economic factors. Dailia and her family were not only grateful to escape the violence of their community, but also the opportunity to restart their business in safety.Adonlay was relieved not only to evade the grips of forced recruitment by transnational criminal gangs, but also to be back in school, with hopes for a future beyond the shelter where he currently lives.

The fact they have been granted asylum does not, and should not, deprive them of their ability to seek and pursue a better education and life. This lesson is clear all over the world, and this hope for opportunity in safety and dignity drives many of these movements from Central to North America, just as it drives movements from Syria to Europe.

In response to the emergency situation faced in Europe in 2015, we significantly strengthened our partnership and coordination structures and enhanced our protection monitoring, analysis and intervention capacity, particularly to ensure reception arrangements.  As a result of this, in 2015, we were able, together with our partners, to distribute relief items including blankets, hygiene kits, mats and raincoats to thousands in Croatia, Greece, Serbia, Slovenia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and invested in winter-proofed reception and accommodation facilities.

In order to reduce protection risks for persons of concern, we significantly strengthened our presence in countries and territories affected by the refugee emergency, including Greece and the western Balkans, to assist relevant authorities in their response.  We advocated and supported the implementation of camp coordination and camp management including the need for gender-separated and well-lit water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, safe sleeping places for women and children, child-friendly spaces, medical and psychosocial assistance, as well as legal counselling and information on asylum procedures.

We continued to advocate for access to territory, asylum, and protection against refoulement (the international legal norm which prevents return against one’s will).  We intervened to ensure access to territory for specific individuals and groups, as well as to asylum procedures for all persons seeking international protection, regardless of nationality.  We complemented our advocacy by providing capacity-building for authorities, including on registration procedures and rights and obligations under international human rights and refugee law.  We also undertook regular and systematic protection monitoring of asylum-seekers and refugees at both border points and in detention, disseminated information to persons of concern regarding their rights and obligations, and provided support to relevant civil society organizations.

In order to support protection and solutions for refugees and reduce the loss of life in the Mediterranean Sea, we advocated for the establishment of legal pathways to Europe (both to European Union and non-European Union countries) from countries hosting large refugee populations and welcomed the conclusions adopted by the Council of the European Union that would allow for the resettlement of 20,000 refugees from outside European territory over a two year period (2015-2017).

We also supported and welcomed European efforts to adopt a collective European response to the crisis and respond to the significant challenges brought by the crisis to the Common European Asylum System.  We provided technical and material support for the European Union scheme to relocate up to 160,000 people in need of international protection and also supported the creation of reception centres (“hotspots”), ensuring availability of technical equipment, as well as mechanisms for the identification and referral of persons of concern and two-way and responsive communication with asylum-seekers and refugees.

We welcomed the adoption of the European Agenda on Migration in May 2015 and further measures to address the refugee crisis and tackle root causes proposed by the European Commission in September and December of that year.  We also continued to advocate a holistic and coordinated response, including through the development of the Special Mediterranean Initiative, increased legal and safe avenues to access Europe, and effective and coherent implementation of the Common European Asylum System.

2016 saw a significant reduction in arrivals to Europe compared to 2015, with only 362,000 arrivals that year, though movements by sea were increasingly perilous, with over 5,000 dying or reported missing.  And while the drop in numbers of new arrivals meant that the situation in Europe was no longer an ‘emergency situation’, there remained an emergency in terms of systems-building across Europe.  This was most immediately visible through lack of, or limited, access to European countries territory; inadequate or sub-standard reception facilities; non-existent or sub-standard integration opportunities, and the introduction of legislation restricting the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. 

This downward trend continued into 2017 which saw over 170,000 arrivals through the Mediterranean and a continued shift of movements away from the east and towards the central and western Mediterranean.  These shifting movements reflect, in part, reactions of populations on the move to mounting restrictions to access to the territory of European countries, and a tendency to resort to different, and at times, more dangerous, routes to reach Europe.  This left us, the UN Refugee Agency, sometimes at a loss as to how to advise asylum seekers on safe routes, access, and the ability to seek international protection.  It was a frustrating and perhaps one of the most challenging operations in the agency’s history.


There is no doubt that the 2015-2016 refugee crisis in Europe left a profound impact on European systems and societies and we can speak of a Europe before the crisis, and a Europe after it.

Clear and evident progress was observed in the aftermath of the crisis in a host of areas.  Populations have continued to show great commitment to engage as host communities on refugee issues and new partnerships have emerged with a range of actors from the European level down to municipalities, volunteers, private sector entities and academic institutions.  This broad range of engagement has supported a holistic approach to all aspects of a refugee’s life and a contribution to the hosting society; a contribution made easier by the creation of a regional refugee coalition bringing together refugees living in various European countries, designed to ensure their experiences, needs and capacities shape decisions and policies affecting their lives. 

On the operational side, we have seen a strengthening of reception capacities in key European countries as well as increased efforts in the areas of child protection and the prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence, though much remains to be done. 

Overall, we have seen asylum systems in key countries, including Greece and Italy, strengthened with major EU, bilateral and national investments made to achieve this.  Efforts made to make the intra-EU relocation scheme effective helped ease the humanitarian situation in Greece, relieved some pressure from Italy and improved the lives of many seeking international protection in Europe.  Continued efforts towards establishing a common European resettlement programme, including efforts to pilot private/community-based sponsorship programmes in EU member states, were a positive development. 

Though clear and evident progress was observed in the aftermath of the crisis, serious challenges remain.  Critically, access to territory and to asylum procedures remain a very serious concern in many parts of Europe with several states building physical barriers at the border and introducing restrictive laws and policies which have increased the suffering or people fleeing conflict and persecution. 

The continued practice of detention of asylum seekers in parts of Europe, including of children with family members or when unaccompanied, sometimes throughout the duration of asylum proceedings, remains a concern. 

We continue to witness increased restrictions in access to family reunification, and this in spite of the fact that the right to family reunification is enshrined under the EU family Reunification Directive as well as national legislation. 

A number of factors, including diverging standards across the EU and practical difficulties hindering swift family reunion under the Dublin Regulation, continue to drive the movements of refugees and migrants entering South-Eastern Europe towards Western and Northern Europe.Discussions on a reform of the Common European Asylum System continue, but European states appear to have fundamentally divergent views regarding solidarity and responsibility sharing for asylum seekers and refugees.


Distinguished audience,

We have learned much, both individually and collectively, as a result of large scale population movements which have occurred in the last decade.Importantly, we have learned of the limitations of our previous approach to such movements and of the global impact of a regional crisis.World leaders were acutely aware of these lessons and of both the strength and shortcomings of our collective response to these movements when they gathered in late 2016 at a United Nations Summit on Refugees and Migrants.

This summit, the first gathering of Heads of State and Governments by the United Nations General Assembly to discuss large movements of refugees and migrants, was a historic opportunity to come up with a blueprint for a better international response to such movements.

The 193 countries gathered at the Summit adopted the New York Declaration affirming our “shared responsibility to manage large movements of refugees and migrants in a humane, sensitive, compassionate and people-centred manner.”

The New York Declaration marks a political commitment of unprecedented force and resonance by the international community.It reaffirms the importance of the international refugee regime and represents a commitment by Member States to strengthen and enhance mechanisms to protect people on the move.

Through the New York Declaration, States have adopted a robust set of commitments to address situations of large scale movements, recognizing common challenges faced by refugees and migrants, as well as risks that are unique to refugees that fall under the international legal regime.A call for global solidarity and increased international responsibility-sharing lie at the heart of the New York Declaration, including through improved, timely and predicable financial support to refugee situations, and strengthened collaboration between humanitarian and development actors.It incorporates a strong call for solutions to refugee situations, highlighting specifically the need to address root causes of crises, and to prevent and resolve conflicts through peaceful means.

Annex 1 of the New York Declaration outlines the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework to be applied to large-scale refugee movements, including both emergency and protracted situations. It calls upon UNHCR to develop and initiate this framework in close coordination with States and involving a broad range of stakeholders, and this in pursuit of four key objectives:

  1. Ease pressures on host countries involved.
  2. Enhance refugee self-reliance.
  3. Expand access to third-country solutions, including resettlement and complementary pathways for admission.
  4. Support conditions in countries of origin for voluntary return in safety and dignity.

The comprehensive response covers the whole cycle of displacement, and building on the above, key elements for response in host countries include:

  • Strengthening conditions for the reception and admission of refugees in large-scale movements by supporting access to humanitarian and development financing, providing access to services for refugees and host communities, and supporting local civil society actors.
  • Providing legal stay for those seeking and in need of international protection and fostering their self-reliance by expanding opportunities for refugees to access education, health care, livelihood opportunities and labour markets; and
  • Incorporating the refugee response into the national development planning of host countries so as to improve conditions for refugees and host communities alike by strengthening infrastructure and public services, as well as protecting and rehabilitating the environment and social systems.

The application of the comprehensive response is based on a whole-of-society approach, engaging a wide array of actors, both long-standing partners and new ones. Stakeholder groups include national and local authorities, international and regional organisations, international financial institutions, civil society, private sector, academia, and refugees and host communities themselves. At country-level, the application of the comprehensive response is led by the host country government, facilitated by UNHCR and other partners. Throughout its different stages, the comprehensive response framework embraces investment and innovation and promotes long-term planning for solutions from the onset of an emergency.

Ultimately, the comprehensive response aims to connect often multiple existing humanitarian and development mechanisms, initiatives and fundraising instruments with each other, harnessing synergies and addressing uncovered gaps for refugees and host communities alike through an area-based approach.

Since September 2016, UNHCR has worked hand in hand with the governments of countries affected by large scale refugee movements and initiated Comprehensive Refugee Responses in thirteen countries and situations.In the Americas, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Panama have come together under a regional approach, the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework.And in Africa, seven countries are applying the comprehensive response, namely: Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Somalia, and Zambia.It is also applied as a regional response to the Somalia refugee situation under the leadership of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).As anticipated in the New York Declaration, the comprehensive responses are applied in full partnership with a broad and diverse range of actors, including relevant national and local authorities, UN entities, NGO partners, and the private sector.

The approach of the Comprehensive Refugee Response has also been applied in a number of large-scale refugee situations, for example, the Syria situation, where as I mentioned a little earlier, we applied an innovative, integrated approach combining protection and humanitarian relief efforts and this through the application of Regional Refugee and Resilience Plans.

Our work with these countries and situations has led to significant progress towards greater social and economic inclusion of refugees through access to social services, national educational curricula, livelihoods and legal employment, and the identification of a number of challenges.  But rather than detail experiences to date in the roll out of the comprehensive response, and lessons learned in the process, I’d like to take a step back and address a bigger picture question: what is different, or new, in the comprehensive refugee response framework.

First, the comprehensive refugee response framework is a political statement and commitment endorsed at the highest levels, building on and reinforcing the principles outlined in the 1951 Convention.  It was unanimously agreed and adopted by all UN member States as the way that we, the entire international community, should engage more predictably and comprehensively to deliver protection and solutions for refugees. 

Second, the comprehensive response clarifies that humanitarian action alone cannot resolve humanitarian crises.  In this, it builds on the imperative of addressing root causes and resolving conflicts. It recognizes the pivotal role of key development actors, including international financial institutions, and that attaining the 2030 sustainable development goals – and the imperative to ‘leave no one behind’ – necessarily entails addressing the development consequences of forced displacement.  This requires us to consider refugees not in isolation, but rather in the communities where they find protection. It requires us to respond to large movements of refugees not only from a “humanitarian angle”, but also as presenting an opportunity to engage with refugees and their hosts, together, to build resilience and self-reliance. It also prompts us to call upon the knowledge and capacities of the private sector.

The World Bank’s new refugee sub-window of US$ 2 billion, created as part of the IDA18 replenishment, serves as an example of new type of development engagement in refugee response. It allows host countries to benefit from a combination of loan and grant in an amount up to US$ 400 million. It is supported by a number of studies and expert assessment that guide planning and programming in ways that allow nurturing the positive impact refugees with access to education and employment can bring into local economies, especially in the medium- to long-term.

The third aspect is not what the Comprehensive Response asks, or demands, of the international community, but what major host countries have already done.   At the Leaders’ Summit for Refugees, which was convened one day after the adoption of the New York Declaration, 17 host countries made fundamental commitments to refugees’ inclusion in their societies through, for example, greater access to work and education, freedom of movement (an out of camp policy), and access to national services.

Host countries have already started implementing these changes.Djibouti’s transformative new refugee law incorporating a shift from an encampment policy towards a settlement approach is an impressive example, as is Ethiopia’s roadmap for the implementation of its nine pledges. In parallel to a comprehensive review of its Refugee Proclamation, the roadmap driven by the government of Ethiopia lays the ground for large-scale initiatives, such as creating industrial parks for the employment of 100,000 persons –including up to 30,000 refugees– and availing 10,000 hectares of irrigable land and access to irrigation schemes for refugees and host communities.In the case of both countries, these progressive commitments provide a foundation for the application of the comprehensive refugee response framework, and this approach is yielding results.

Last year I visited the Somali region of Ethiopia where some two hundred thousand refugees from Somalia have settled in an already impoverished region in which the local community itself is struggling to make ends meet.The government has kept the borders open to waves of displacement from war and famine conditions.In spite of difficulties, and in line with Ethiopia’s commitments, host and refugee communities are sharing land and working together to grow crops to generate an income and support themselves.With strong support from the IKEA Foundation, UNHCR and government partners have put into place sustainable programs to irrigate farmlands so that refugees and Ethiopians can support themselves rather than continue to rely on international or government aid; build schools to ensure that children have a future; and look at renewable energy to protect the environment while saving resources.This and other examples across the world prove that, with predictable and equitable support by the international community, these commitments and the comprehensive refugee response can change the way in which we respond to refugee crises.

Eventually, the scope for change lies in the way we operationalize the comprehensive response in host countries. The whole-of-society approach supports governments in bringing a wide range of national and sub-national authorities on board, not only those departments or ministries with extensive experience with refugee matters, but also those responsible for national and sub-national service delivery in essential sectors, such as water, health and education.

In a country such as Uganda, this has meant creating Secretariats chaired by the government, with collaboration between offices in charge of refugee affairs and national development planning.  They bring together national and district authorities, UN agencies, international and national civil society, international financial institutions and development partners, thereby shaping the key priorities and response strategies for the short- and longer-term application of a comprehensive refugee response.  They also play a key role in addressing and providing operational guidance on questions central to an efficient and sustainable response, such as how to support district authorities in integrating refugees into district development plans following their inclusion in national-level planning, and; how to further strengthen measures for emergency preparedness, including standard procedures and response models for the early engagement of development actors both at national and international levels.

There remains much scope to bring new stakeholders on board. For instance, in addition to philanthropic engagement, partnerships with the private sector have significant potential to strengthen a comprehensive response, including through the creation of employment opportunities for both refugees and host communities based on a variety of needs and skill sets available.  And while country-level achievements and analyses are at an early stage, we have made progress with global openings, as demonstrated by the Letter of Intent signed between UNHCR and the International Chambers of Commerce.  Collaboration is foreseen in the areas of developing private sector linkages and inclusion in consultations at global, regional and country levels; exploring opportunities to support infrastructure, service delivery and investment; as well as strengthening opportunities to promote and advance refugee employment, education and skills for self-reliance.

We have also sought to expand existing partnerships with civil society and UN agencies, moving from a purely humanitarian domain to encompass the development engagement of partners. In the case of education, this means finding concrete policy, programmatic and advocacy tools to expand collaboration with UNICEF from emergency response towards the dialogue on the inclusion of refugees into education sector plans with ministries of education. These are government counterparts with whom our agency - the UN Refugee Agency - rarely has direct engagement, as traditional refugee responses have meant providing education, health and other essential services separately in refugee camps with no connection to national planning or standards – and through separate curriculum in the case of education. Such responses have often relied entirely on short-term and unsustainable planning, funding and structures. The approach of parallel service delivery has proven to be not only expensive, if one counts the humanitarian funding spent over decades, but also of no benefit to host communities. With separate services for refugees only, host communities commonly perceive that they receive a lower quality of service. Upon the voluntary repatriation of refugees, the remaining structures have either been too remote from local settlements or too dilapidated to be of use to the remaining local communities.

The comprehensive refugee response framework is about longer-term change, and many of the processes it requires, such as adapting multi-year cycles of development planning to allow for the inclusion of refugees, require time. However, we have already seen that host country governments are willing to lead new approaches that learn from past challenges. For UNHCR, this does not mean becoming a development agency, but rather – facilitated by broad operational presence in the field – mainstreaming our expertise in refugee protection throughout the segments of a comprehensive response, and incorporating all aspects of our experience and expertise towards solutions to refugee situations globally.


Distinguished audience,

We have a real opportunity this year - the year when a Global Compact on Refugees will be adopted.As we forge ahead with the development of the comprehensive response framework, we must recall the need to ensure a balanced implementation of the previously cited four objectives of the Comprehensive Response:

  1. To ease pressures on host countries
  2. To enhance refugee self-reliance
  3. To expand access to third-country solutions, and
  4. To support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity.

With progress to date most significant toward enhancing refugee self-reliance by hosting countries, all four objectives are interdependent and indivisible. Attention only to the second objective, without a balance among the other three, will not be sustainable.We are therefore pursuing all four objectives with equal vigour.

And with only 10 countries, including four of the world’s least developed countries, hosting 60 per cent of the world’s refugees, our top 3 donors contributing 57 per cent of UNHCR’s budget and 3 countries accounting for over 80 per cent of refugee resettlement, the burden and responsibility for refugees rests for the time being with very few member states. The New York Declaration and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework call on a broadening of participation of all Member States and actors to support the significant advances and commitments of host countries.In this regard, greater predictability and transparency in burden and responsibility-sharing is critical.


Distinguished audience,

We, collectively, have learned much in recent years.From our response to large scale movements across the middle-east, Europe and other regions, we have devised innovative ways to reach and register displaced populations and deliver life-saving aid.

The scale and scope of the crisis in the middle-east and other regions have also led to innovation in the way we approached refugee crises, driving an integrated approach combining protection and humanitarian relief with a greater focus on supporting national plans and development interventions to build resilience among individuals, communities and institutions.

This more integrated approach, and the strong partnerships we have forged with development actors in recent years, have driven the development of new tools, mechanisms and commitments which benefit both refugees and host countries and communities, including through previously unavailable forms of support including the US$ 2 billion I referenced earlier from the World Bank.

This is the year of opportunity. Called to action by the Refugee Crises in 2015 and historic forced displacement in the world today, it is time for change. Countries like Germany and strong action by local communities like our hosts in Bavaria, are leading the way. They are models for global engagement. We owe it to the refugees, their hosts and ourselves not to fail. The stakes – political, security, development, economic and human are too high not to succeed.

We continue to learn, and try to bring about long term change, through the application of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework which together with the programme of action drawing upon good practices from around the world and setting out specific measures to operationalize the principles of the New York declaration, will form the Global Compact on Refugees unanimously called for by UN member states in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.

As we work together jointly in this process, it is timely for all partners to build on the Principles of the New York Declaration, and revitalize their engagement both internally and with countries of origin, refuge and transit. Germany is leading the way in this regard, and we believe that a principled, pragmatic and common approach to responding to refugees and migrants is possible and achievable within the framework of the European Union.


[1] Academy for Political Education.

[2] University of the Armed Forces Munich. 

[3] See Mid-Year Trends 2017, UNHCR, March 2018 and Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2016, UNHCR, June 2017.

[4] Lebanon, Economic and Social Impact Assessment of the Syrian Conflict, World Bank, 20 September 2013, pg. 1.

[5] Turkey’s Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Road Ahead, World Bank, December 2015, pg. 2.