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High Commissioner's Closing Remarks 72nd Session of the UNHCR Executive Committee

Speeches and statements

High Commissioner's Closing Remarks 72nd Session of the UNHCR Executive Committee

8 October 2021

Thank you very much Mr Acting Chairman and thank you all.

First of all let me join our new chair in wishing Ambassador Farani Azevedo, dear Lelé, a speedy recovery and thank her for her leadership of the Executive Committee over what was another difficult year and for her personal commitment in continuing her role even after her move from Geneva.

Allow me to also express my thanks to Ambassador Salim Baddoura of Lebanon and Ambassador Kadra Ahmed Hassan of Djibouti for skillfully handling this year’s Executive Committee. My congratulations to you on your elections as Chair and First Vice Chair, respectively, as well as to the new Second Vice Chair, Ambassador Vesna Batistic Kos of Croatia.

I also congratulate the rest of the EXCOM bureau on its election, including our new Rapporteur Jorge Gonzalez Mayagoitia of Mexico and thank the outgoing Rapporteur Gregor Schotten of Germany for his work.

And I know that you will join me in expressing our sincere thanks to all the colleagues and staff that have made another EXCOM possible. The staff of UNOG, the interpreters, and the IT staff here and around the world for facilitating a seamless meeting.

I would also like to thank UNHCR’s Secretariat for ensuring all of the moving pieces came together. Year after year you make it look effortless, but we all know how much goes into it.

Thanks would not be complete without expressing all my gratitude to our Secretary, Ellen Hansen. As always, she has kept us on track in the run up to and throughout the five days of EXCOM. Ellen is moving on to another post after 3 years at the head of the Secretariat throughout which she has provided us – and me in particular – with calm guidance and sage advice. Ellen – my sincerest thanks to you.

I am happy to announce that I have appointed Ellen’s successor. Anne Keah, familiar to many of you from her time as Rapporteur in 2019, has been appointed and will join us from her current post at the Kenyan Mission as of the 1st of January. I am sure she will hit the ground running.

Mr Chairman,

Over the past days we have heard from 130 Member States and partners (and I think I have responded to each one of you), including our newest Member, Malawi (which I warmly welcome). We have heard about the grave effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on people’s lives and livelihoods. We have heard how the climate emergency is affecting us today and we have heard of the devastating consequences of conflict on women, men and children.

I can therefore only reiterate my appeal to States to rise above short-sighted national interests in the search for solutions for the good of humanity. In order to reduce the spread of COVID and the risk of further, more deadly variants, please don’t just make pledges but concretely share vaccines, including and especially with countries hosting large numbers of refugees. You have heard our appeals for vaccines for Iran, Uganda, and Bangladesh as well as others.  It is urgent also to bolster socio-economic packages for countries and people who are most vulnerable and ensure that refugees, displaced, and stateless people are included in national recovery policies.

I take note of the many statements that recognise the impact of climate change on displacement, which may well be one of its most dramatic consequences on people. UNHCR continues to do its part, both in preparedness and in response, and in reducing its own carbon footprint.  You are the change-makers, though. I encourage you in the strongest terms to please not allow inaction today to lead to much greater harm tomorrow. Discussions and decisions to be taken at COP 26 next month are critical and I hope that States will also ensure that climate displacement is high on that agenda.

The same applies to the resolution of conflicts which continue to be the major driver of forced displacement. Just by observing the lack of unity in the Security Council, one cannot avoid but feeling that the international community is failing in this regard. I appeal again for more concerted effort to prevent and resolve conflict and the devastation that it brings to tens of millions of people around the world.

Mr Chairman,

I appreciate (and echo) the many statements of support for the work carried out by UNHCR colleagues and by our partners around the world. I heard many delegations mention the improvements they have themselves witnessed in the way we prevent and respond to gender-based violence; in how we strive to improve refugee education; support people with disabilities; address mental health, and make efforts in other areas. I am encouraged by the number of delegations who focused on internal displacement. I can assure you that together with our partners, we will work hard to follow up on the important recommendations of the High Level Panel with a strong focus on protection and humanitarian relief and also and especially on working with governments to pursue solutions. And we have experience and expertise to offer in that respect.

I am grateful for your appreciation of management efforts, including better and clearer planning and budgeting. I also note the importance placed on (and your support) for our integrity work, including improved risk management and oversight, as well as our relentless efforts to prevent and eliminate sexual exploitation and abuse as well as sexual harassment. But none of us can let down our guard in these areas.

Mr Chairman,

With the exception of one delegation that chose to espouse the very rhetoric that I condemned in my opening statement — rhetoric that brings nothing – nothing! – to the table when it comes to finding solutions to today’s problems, including of forced displacement, I was nevertheless heartened by the outpouring of solidarity we have heard over this past week.

Many of you spoke about different forms of support to refugees, for example, the efforts you have made to ensure access to asylum, despite the pandemic. This proves that solutions can be found to protect people from the virus and the violence. Several delegations mentioned their efforts to naturalise refugees on their territory – a humane and courageous solution to displacement.

All this is appreciated and in light of this I strongly subscribe to the statement by the African Union expressing deep concern about plans and actions by some governments aimed at externalizing asylum and protection obligations – a trend which threatens refugee protection at its core.

I was impressed by the large number of delegations which spoke about the steps being taken to eliminate statelessness. This is encouraging because much work remains to be done as we embark on the remaining years of our iBelong campaign. UNHCR remains at your disposal to get us all to this global goal.

We heard a number of States make or renew commitments to resettlement. I hope that we can expand the number of countries and the number of places available for this life saving solution, which is an important contribution to burden and responsibility sharing. In this respect I was especially heartened to hear several countries in Latin America engage in this area and hope that others around the world will follow their example.

Many States condemned the instrumentalisation of refugees and migrants in the context of coerced or incited onward movements. I share those concerns but would like to say that instrumentalisation of refugees and migrants for domestic political purposes is also a worrisome trend. Please – let us not politicize refugees. UNHCR does not, and I make the strongest of appeals, that States do not either.

And while it would be inappropriate for me to to comment on the political aspects of sanctions, which many of you mentioned, as a humanitarian I must reiterate the importance of ensuring that there are no humanitarian consequences from their application.

Mr Chairman,

The humanitarian development nexus is looked at by host and donor countries from perspectives that are understandably different. However, from the statements I heard, I trust that all recognise its relevance and its impact. I thank the World Bank in particular for its statement and agree that our cooperation (as well as other partnerships with development institutions) represent one of the most advanced practical realizations of the much-discussed “nexus”.

I also echo the many calls of host countries for more direct development aid to support refugees and host communities and, as I said in my opening, for a greater proportion to be delivered in the form of grants.

The progress made in West Africa to resolve the situation of Ivorian refugees is commendable. I hope other countries and regions will follow similar paths to peace and hence find solutions to displacement. We at UNHCR work hard to support countries around the world in their search for lasting solutions, even when situations remain fragile. The side event on the Solutions Initiative for Sudan and South Sudan was a good example of this. I thank IGAD, the two governments, and donor partners for their leadership and support of this important initiative.

I was also heartened by the support for the Afghan people coming from countries both near – like Pakistan and Iran that have hosted generations of Afghan refugees – and far, including those in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. This solidarity must be translated into more concrete action. Yesterday, I asked European Union Member States to resettle half of the 85,000 Afghans estimated as in need of resettlement spaces over the next five years, primarily from neighbouring countries and Turkey.

We must also enable the delivery of more and unconditional humanitarian assistance to Afghans inside their country, especially ahead of winter. I reiterate the appeal that ICRC President Peter Maurer and I made on Monday for States to find solutions to enable the resumption of the provision of services to stave off a collapse of the country.

Funding also remains critical. Despite the big pledges made during the 13 September conference, just 35 percent of the $606 million USD appeal for activities inside Afghanistan is funded. And the $300 million USD appeal for work in neighbouring countries, which we are coordinating, is just 18 percent funded.

I thank donors for their support and trust that they expedite their pledges to the Afghan response.

At the same time I ask that you do not neglect other displacement crises, including the very protracted ones that are often out of the headlines but are not forgotten by UNHCR, the refugees themselves, or their hosts. This includes large crises like those of the Venezuelans, of the Syrians, of the South Sudanese, of the Somalis, and of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

I was encouraged by the many references to the Global Refugee Forum and the pledges made and I hope that we can build on the achievements made over the past years when we meet here in Geneva in December at the High Level Officials Meeting. I invite all delegations to participate and contribute constructively and positively.

Mr Chairman,

So often the discourse stigmatizing refugees, especially in the rich world, is about what they come to take.




Instead, like we heard in many statements this week, I hope we will start recognizing what they bring.

Like essential services – think of the many refugee doctors and nurses on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle, but also of those who kept hospitals clean and supermarkets stocked during the pandemic.

But also community leadership.

Scientific discovery.

Athletic prowess.

And, Chair, refugees also bring the gifts of language and words that can captivate the imagination and the soul, like those of refugee and now Nobel Prize winning novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah. I congratulate him and our Tanzanian friends on this award. He has conveyed - through fiction - what he and too many exiled people face as fact.

I quote: “Moving is a moment of ruin and failure,” he wrote in The Last Gift, “a defeat that is no longer avoidable, a desperate flight, going from bad to worse, from home to homelessness, from citizen to refugee, from living a tolerable or even contented life to vile horror.” 

Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

This description is true, but we can turn it around. It is now our task to work together to prevent and alleviate this hardship – through protection, inclusion, compassion and solidarity – so that we can ensure that refugees can truly be citizens again.

Thank you.