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High Commissioner's opening statement to the 73rd session of the
UNHCR Executive Committee

Speeches and statements

High Commissioner's opening statement to the 73rd session of the
UNHCR Executive Committee

10 October 2022

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. 

Never before have we – as a human race – moved so much. 

So easily. 

We move for work; for pleasure; for curiosity; for meeting with friends or family. 

But how often do we really reflect on movement? Do we appreciate the ease with which many of us can choose to move?

And how much do we really – really – think about what movement – or rather flight – means for refugees? How it is for them to move in a world that too often does not want them to?

The video we just showed as you heard — co-produced and narrated by Prince, a Congolese refugee in Malawi — helps us visualize this. Their fears and their aspirations. And it highlights the importance of enabling refugee voices to be heard, and acted upon. Not just today, but all the time, until their plight is resolved.

Mr Chairman, dear Salim, ministers, delegates, colleagues, friends:

Thank you for caring for the more than 100 million people – 100 million! - whom we are tasked to protect and whose plight we must ease and strive to solve. 

As we begin our 73rd session of the Executive Committee, I trust you will keep them at the fore and you will work towards finding solutions that have remained, for far too many and for far too long, elusive.

And let me echo the Chairman and say that I hope that in your statements, you will remember that while politics are all around us, this is a non-political forum and our focus should not be on scoring political points, but on finding solutions for people like Prince and the refugees in his film.

Mr Chairman,

In such a complex world, we need to work together. Unfortunately, the international community has become quite unable to do so: unable to make peace, or even prevent predictable catastrophes. To share vaccines. To reduce risks from the climate emergency. To spend a little now – money, political capital, or both – to avoid much greater expense in the future. 

The impact of this inaction on the world’s most vulnerable is grave. COVID, climate, conflict, and now a cost of living crisis are causing ever more hardship and — indeed, and in various ways — compelling people to flee. The demand for UNHCR’s response has never been greater, while its space to find solutions has perhaps never been smaller.

While in many countries the COVID-19 pandemic is gradually being addressed, its longer term consequences continue to impact the most vulnerable, including — often — refugees and displaced people.

Meanwhile, the climate emergency increasingly drives displacement, making life harder also for those already uprooted. The link between climate change and displacement is clear and growing. We see it in the Horn of Africa, for example, where people are forced to flee by a combination of conflict and drought — more than one million have been displaced in Somalia alone since January 2021. Around 80 per cent of refugees are from countries that are most affected by the climate emergency. Some 90 per cent of recent returnees have gone back to highly climate vulnerable situations. But what is their future? And what is the future of those hoping to return home? Of those, displaced or not — like I saw in Cameroon — who see their lives and livelihoods evaporate like the lakes that have nourished their families for generations?

Refugees and displaced people have an enormous stake in ensuring that bold climate action is taken but they are too often forgotten in this discussion. 

UNHCR, as you know, has continued to step up its climate response – strengthening legal and normative guidance to States; responding to climate induced displacement; building resilience to climate shocks in hosting areas; and taking steps to reduce our own carbon footprint, including by switching to renewable energy. Our work in the Sahel is an example of how we can use technology to improve response and preparedness.

But it is clear, especially ahead of COP27, that we must all do more. Countries of origin and host communities must be able to directly access climate finance, including from the US$ 100 billion annual commitment for climate action, so that among other measures they can prevent displacement, adapt, and prepare. In turn, adaptation and preparedness plans must include the displaced — actual and potential. And please ensure that their plight is taken into consideration in Sharm el-Sheikh next month.

Global inflationary pressures are also having a severe effect on the most vulnerable. Poverty and food insecurity are rising, the World Food Programme is forced to cut assistance, and some — refugees and often their hosts — are taking desperate measures because they can no longer make ends meet. Just last month, a boat with Lebanese people on board, along with Syrian and Palestinian refugees, capsized after departing Lebanon: more than 100 drowned in the Mediterranean — adding themselves to the estimated 1,630 others who have lost their lives this year alone trying to reach Europe, not to mention those who have died along other routes. Desperate living conditions often combine with conflict, violence and discrimination, in a toxic mix that leaves people with little hope for a future.

While UNHCR, obviously, is unable to influence global macro-economic trends, we are doing what we can to alleviate hardship and provide opportunities. We are engaging with the International Monetary Fund, for example, so they consider forced displacement as a relevant factor in planning their support to States, especially where the percentage of refugees and their economic impact – both positive and negative – is significant. 

You have heard me speak many times about the progress we have made with the World Bank, bilateral donors, regional banks, and other financial institutions in providing support to refugee hosting countries that are including refugees in their national plans. The OECD estimates about US$ 3.3 billion of bilateral development funds are injected into refugee situations each year. This is in addition to around the $2 billion per year from multilateral development banks, and of course humanitarian resources mobilized by UNHCR and its partners. This must continue and grow, especially in the form of grants to bolster and support host countries and communities that are shouldering a disproportionate amount of the international community’s responsibility for refugees. 

We are also trying to mitigate the cost of living crisis for the displaced and host communities in other ways. Some are traditional like stepping up cash assistance, delivering relief items and providing mental health support. Some interventions reflect the big leaps we have made in the use of data and analysis thanks to our cooperation with the World Bank through the Joint Data Centre. 

But of course, conflict remains the biggest driver of forced displacement. Like in Myanmar where an estimated one million people have been uprooted within the country since the military takeover last February, or Burkina Faso, where 325,000 people have fled their homes this year alone – one of many deeply worrying indicators reflecting the instability in the Sahel which is displacing people not only within their countries, but beyond, including to coastal states, North Africa, and Europe.

Despite UNHCR’s stretched capacity, we have responded to each of the 37 emergencies declared in the past 12 months, whether caused by conflict, climate, or frequently a combination of both – as for example in Mozambique where 125,000 people have been freshly displaced.

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has taken emergency response to new levels as it precipitated the largest and fastest displacement crisis in Europe since the Second World War, as many of us witnessed first hand at the borders of Ukraine’s neighbours in the weeks following 24 February. 

Displacement continues and nearly eight months later, lives and civilian infrastructure are being inexcusably destroyed. 

Today, is another day of anguish for the Ukrainian people.

As we speak, my colleagues are reporting to me horrifying strikes on urban centres in Kyiv, Dnipro, Lviv, Zaporizhzhia, Chernihiv, Odesa, and elsewhere.

UNHCR is active wherever Ukrainians have been displaced. EU Member States and other States in Europe must be commended for their exceptional leadership and cooperation in addressing the refugee crisis. We have also been engaged in countries around the world, such as in the Russian Federation. 

We have developed innovative responses, for example — in some European countries and in partnership with UNICEF and local authorities— through the extensive network of Blue Dot protection hubs, where refugees can seek help from staff and volunteers who identify specific needs like for separated children, women at risk including from gender-based violence, and those with trauma.

We have worked with IOM, UNODC, NGO partners and authorities to counter trafficking by offering information, resources, and transportation. And we have provided cash assistance to vulnerable refugees. Cash has given them agency and choice. It is often the lifeline needed to rent an apartment, reach family or friends, or have some resources in hand to reject the advances of those with criminal intentions.

This is why cash assistance is not charity, but protection. And not just for Ukrainians, but around the world.

The situation inside Ukraine remains grave. At least 6.2 million people are internally displaced and many more need humanitarian support.

I wish to praise the able leadership of the Ukrainian government in the humanitarian response. Our contribution, in agreement with the authorities and within the UN-coordinated operation, has focused on three pillars: protection, shelter, and cash assistance.

But I share the government’s concerns about the looming winter. We will continue to work hard, but we must be realistic in our expectations. This requires an “all hands on deck” approach and I appeal to those with expertise and resources to redouble efforts in support of the government’s winterization plans. Millions of Ukrainians, especially the aged and disabled, are counting on all of us.

Mr Chairman,

The response to the outflow of people from Ukraine has been nothing short of extraordinary. 

Moldovan generosity, for example, has been exemplary, in spite of Moldova’s big challenges. 

Almost half of the contributions to our appeal have come from private individuals and companies.

The application of the Temporary Protection Directive within the European Union enabled millions of Ukrainians to find safety immediately and go where they had support networks, without putting pressure on asylum systems.

And yes, while neighbours may be easier to receive and integrate, the Ukrainian crisis debunked so many myths that we have heard over the years from some politicians:

‘Europe is full!’

‘Public opinion is against taking in more refugees.’

‘Relocation is impossible.’

Surely, last year, Europe was seemingly unable to deal with a few dozen people being disembarked from a boat. 

But suddenly, seven million were received with dignity and protected appropriately.

Temporary protection proved to be not only a humanitarian instrument but a very effective tool to receive and include refugees: four million have now registered. The way that European governments and the European people responded proved right what this year’s Nansen Award recipient, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said all those years ago:

Wir schaffen das. We can do it. 

Of course, I am not saying that everyone has a right to go wherever they wish. Many flows today are complex and an approach like temporary protection cannot be applied to every person, everywhere.

I fully acknowledge also that some receiving States have big challenges handling the demands. Numbers can be large; asylum systems lack resources; and years of the public being told that things are chaotic — and at times, indeed, disorganized responses — have undermined public trust and confidence in the management of asylum; but not the concept or its importance.

UNHCR is ready to support States in rebuilding that confidence with fair and fast asylum processes that enable both protection for those who need, and returns, with dignity and rights respected, of those who do not. We are reflecting and consulting and we will reach out to States with new ideas that can ensure access to territory, international protection, adherence to refugee and human rights law, while finding practical ways to address the complexity of contemporary flows.

But we must equally – and forcefully – reject simplistic slogans by some politicians to respond to these challenges by building walls, either physical or procedural. We must not accept the denial of access to territory for those seeking asylum, often through violent pushbacks; we must not normalize attempts to outsource asylum responsibilities. 

Legally; morally; and practically I oppose efforts to evade a State’s responsibility by externalizing its asylum obligations, and I hope that those thinking of those approaches will reconsider carefully.

I also reject what we have heard some politicians on this continent tell their voters: that Ukrainians are ‘real refugees’ while others – fleeing similar horrors, but from different parts of the world – are not. There is only one word to define this attitude: racist.

It is also insulting to the many host countries around the world that have for years, decades, or generations provided protection and support to millions in order to live up to their responsibilities and their obligations; and to uphold a basic and fundamental morality that cuts across cultures. 

Mr Chairman,

As we all know, the armed conflict in Ukraine which followed the Russian invasion is having global ramifications, especially on those without the resources to cushion the blow. It is also having consequences on contributions to UNHCR.

On the one hand, I must say that – like for Afghanistan last year – I am buoyed by the outpouring of support we have received from the general public, private companies, and foundations. In 2019 we raised US$421 million from private sources, increasing to US$538 million in 2020 and US$625 million last year.

This year, we will exceed US$1 billion from private donors.

Private companies have also - in the context of the Global Compact on Refugees – brought their innovation, knowhow, and expertise to support not just our operations, but also their own as they hire refugees. This is truly heartwarming. 

We have reached out to new donors, including in the area of Islamic Philanthropy. Building on the success of our Zakat and Sadaqah campaigns, I signed an agreement two weeks ago with the Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development and the Islamic Development Bank to launch the first Global Islamic Fund for Refugees. Starting from next year, the fund – which holds Sharia compliant investments – will begin generating money to support UNHCR operations.

Yet despite these and other positive developments, I regret to inform you that – for the first time during my tenure – I am worried about UNHCR’s financial situation. 

You have encouraged us to expand our donor base - which we have - vastly exceeding targets on private contributions.

But as a United Nations agency – one created by member States with a specific mandate – we cannot be reliant on the goodwill of individuals or companies alone. While of course most welcome and an area in which we will continue to invest, private contributions do not have the same predictability as those of States and are not - nor cannot be - the bedrock upon which we function.

We therefore look to you, States, for support. The response by traditional donors this year has remained extremely strong and is led – once again, and by far – by the exceptional levels of financing from the United States of America, followed by Germany, whose support – in all aspects - has remained steadfast. 

But the Ukraine emergency has added over US$1 billion to our budget this year, bringing it to a total of US$10.7 billion. 

And while the Ukraine response has been and must continue to be well-funded, this has to be the target for all operations. Funding for new emergencies like Ukraine needs to be in addition to, not instead of the others.

I appreciate the very real pressure on donor budgets. The hardship that is confronting citizens and taxpayers. And I acknowledge that most have made their overall Ukraine-related contributions additional. But I must report that – with the exception of a handful of donors – additionality is not always visible when it comes to specific contributions to UNHCR.

I therefore appeal in the strongest of terms to all donors to please do more to support UNHCR and refugees around the world. If we do not receive at least an additional US$700 million, especially for our most underfunded operations, between now and the end of this year, we will be forced to make severe cuts with negative and sometimes dramatic consequences for refugees and host communities.

And I must also remind donors of the importance of multiyear and unearmarked funding and thank Sweden and Norway for continuing to lead in this regard. Just 12 per cent of UNHCR’s government income is unearmarked, limiting how we can manage expenditure across the world and respond effectively to new emergencies. 

Because we cannot pay attention only to the latest crisis at the expense of the rest.

This year is Ukraine.

But last year was Afghanistan, where millions, including women, girls, and minorities, continue to need urgent help inside the country and in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. 

Our operations in Ethiopia were in focus before Afghanistan, and are now just 46 per cent funded, although after the resumption of hostilities in September humanitarian conditions are deteriorating again.

Support was strong in the years following the initial displacement of Rohingya refugees. Last year’s Joint Response Plan was 72 per cent funded. It stands at just 30 per cent, with dramatic cuts to programming on the horizon from all UN agencies and NGOs operating in Bangladesh unless donors provide, urgently, more help.

Uganda hosts over 1.5 million refugees and has very generous refugee policies. Yet, our operation there faces a huge financial gap and we struggle to help the 110,000 Congolese and South Sudanese refugees who have arrived this year alone. 

In the Sahel, people have been subjected to extreme violence as well as the climate emergency — yet, the funding shortfall is preventing us from delivering shelter and compromising our protection work to counter widespread gender-based violence. 

And let’s not forget the millions of Syrian refugees and displaced – about the same number as displaced Ukrainians. The funding shortfall affecting operations in support of Syrians are especially worrying.

We continue to work inside Syria to remove the obstacles to return — especially those frequently mentioned by refugees. We will continue to discuss with the government how to strengthen humanitarian access to those in need, including displaced and returnees. However, our work is poorly funded, limiting the humanitarian and early recovery response which we conduct in Syria also in the framework of Security Council Resolution 2642.

At the same time, funding to the refugee response in neighbouring countries is at its lowest level ever. 

This situation is further worsened by the fact that host communities are also suffering the effects of the economic downturn, especially in Lebanon. Let us not forget that Lebanon and Jordan host the highest percentage of refugees per capita and Türkiye remains the largest host country in the world. This situation is untenable and we must ensure both adequate funding in host countries, and a renewed focus on resolving more than 11 years of Syrian displacement.

This, Mr Chairman, is a plea to all — donors, hosts, countries of origin, international organisations, development partners, and each of us as global citizens: if we do not maintain focus on all crises; if we do not adequately resource all responses, we are dooming refugees and their hosts to further hardship, loss of hope and the risk of onward movement.

This effort must also include searching for solutions, no matter how difficult they might be. In some places, this may mean supporting countries of origin as well as refugees who choose – voluntarily – to return, even to difficult, imperfect conditions.

Do not get me wrong – I will never – NEVER – advocate or acquiesce to inducing or pushing refugees back. But the reality is that regardless of what we say, some refugees do return to conditions that are less than — or even far from — ideal. 

It is therefore incumbent upon us not to be paralyzed by politics, but to help people restart their lives if — and I repeat: if — they make the choice to return.

Countries of origin have the biggest responsibility in creating conditions for safe return, but it also takes all of us to work together. And when we do, it can happen.

I spent World Refugee Day this year in Côte d’Ivoire, a country that emerged from years of civil strife during which hundreds of thousands of its citizens fled into exile. It was not easy of course – reconciliation never is – but Ivorian leaders worked for peace, with international support. And as a result, the countries of the region that had protected and helped refugees for years declared  — upon our recommendation — the cessation clause for Ivorian refugees. Some 96 per cent of the refugees have now returned home, and Ivorians that have chosen to stay abroad are being regularized by host countries.

Côte d’Ivoire is perhaps the best, but not the only example, and we cooperate with countries of asylum and origin elsewhere. 

For example, we continue to work on the Solutions Strategy for Sudan and South Sudan: despite challenges, more than 600,000 people have returned to South Sudan in recent years.

I also see, following my visit to Tanzania, potential for solutions for Burundian refugees there, subject to more support inside Burundi — although I must express grave concern for the violent and fragile situation in the sub-region, including the displacement of 150,000 people within and from the Democratic Republic of the Congo this year, in a context of unimaginable violence, especially against women.

My thanks also go to countries that have hosted and regularized Venezuelan refugees and migrants. Colombia led by establishing an effective temporary protection system. Regularization operations there, and now elsewhere, such as in Ecuador, are progressing fast. At the same time we look forward to renewed dialogue with Venezuela to address the underlying causes of movements from that country.

In the Americas, we can also draw lessons from the regional approach taken by the MIRPS support platform, with a stronger focus on solutions. Work in the region will be hopefully buoyed by the Los Angeles Declaration; another important step to consolidate protection and the quest for solutions throughout the hemisphere. 

And we must step up work to seek solutions for internally displaced people, building on the report of the High Level Panel established by the Secretary-General, and his Action Agenda on Internal Displacement. Now that principles and approaches are clear, we must get down to concrete work, starting from countries where solutions may be at hand. 

And we must continue to make progress in the eradication of statelessness. I welcome the Philippines’ accession to the 1961 Convention. Liberia, which I visited recently, removed gender-discriminatory provisions from its nationality law. Turkmenistan, Albania, and the Netherlands established statelessness determination procedures. While 81,000 formerly stateless people were granted nationality in 2021, we are still far from eradicating this deprivation of rights. I appeal to all States to adopt the necessary laws, policies, and practices to help bring millions more out of the shadows of statelessness before the end of the iBelong campaign in 2024. 

And talking of solutions, we must not forget the importance of building the capacity of individuals. One of the best ways is through education. We must all follow through on the conclusions of the Transforming Education Summit held at the UN General Assembly last month, especially with regard to investing in educational opportunities for refugees. The progress we have made must be sustained, despite the many pressing challenges.

And third country solutions for refugees are also critical. 

I am heartened by the return of the United States to the top of the table for resettlement places and thank Canada and Sweden for also leading the way. I’m grateful to Norway and Finland for receiving emergency resettlement cases. This gesture has saved many, many lives.

I am pleased that the global figure of resettled refugees has increased with 76,500 submissions already this year and counting. I encourage all countries with means to expand resettlement, and appeal that they do so separately and in addition to other programmes such as relocation or humanitarian evacuations. Further opportunities for complementary pathways — such as done in Canada — and family reunification — where Germany shows the way — are also important.

Mr Chairman,

UNHCR is well aware of the need to continuously improve its effectiveness, efficiency, and fairness. 

In 2016, we launched a transformation process which has not only seen regionalization and decentralization of decision making, but also reform of business processes. While COVID led to some delays, we have made strides. Recruitment has been delegated, we cut back on policies and extended multi-year planning to more operations. We are rolling out this week our new human resources system, called WorkDay, which will facilitate processes, with all data centralized and interoperable in the cloud.

We have overhauled and simplified our partnership management processes - US$1.4 billion worth of our annual expenditure. 

This will have many advantages, for example expanding partnerships with national NGOs and refugee-led organisations that do not have the capacity to handle heavy proposals and reporting requirements, so that together we spend time and resources not on paperwork, but rather on delivering the best possible programmes to refugees.

COMPASS, our new results-based monitoring system, has enabled multiyear strategies, which means that we can better sequence and plan over the medium and long term in order to achieve lasting and transformative results.

And one more example: our innovative fleet management system, developed with the World Food Programme and now available to all agencies, is leading the UN system in saving money, miles, and reducing our collective carbon footprint. 

We have reported to you in previous meetings our work to eradicate sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment. This remains a priority for senior management and me personally, as does achieving gender parity and geographic and racial diversity throughout the organization.

We have also continued to strengthen risk management, investigation capacity, and oversight, while at the same time implementing an alternative dispute resolution mechanism for issues that fall more in the realm of management, rather than misconduct. 

All of these reforms are important but are not yet complete.

The need to bring them to reasonable outcomes after the slowdown caused by COVID-19, and the fact that humanitarian and refugee emergencies continue to grow, led as you heard from the Chairman by the Secretary-General to propose extending my mandate for a full second term, till the end of 2025. Thank you for accepting this proposal. Your support is encouraging and your trust both humbling and gratifying. 

I take it not as a personal recognition, however, but rather as an endorsement of what I often hear from States, partners and most importantly refugees: that UNHCR is not just relevant, but effective; and that my colleagues are committed and caring — and no matter the challenge, they deliver for those we serve, alongside their State and civil society partners — colleagues and partners whom I would like here to thank most sincerely. 

Mr Chairman,

It has been nearly four years since Member States affirmed the Global Compact on Refugees. Much, as I have outlined above, has been achieved since then. 

We have enhanced responses; established support platforms; mainstreamed cooperation with development actors around the world. We have truly brought about in many situations a “whole of society” response that includes citizens, companies, academics, the sport community, religious actors and others in the service of refugees and their hosts. 

We had a successful Global Refugee Forum in 2019.

But we still have a long way to go.

In a little more than one year, we will have our second Forum. I am thankful that Switzerland will again graciously co-host the event and am pleased to announce that Colombia, France, Japan, Jordan, Niger, and Uganda will co-convene the meeting alongside UNHCR. I thank the outgoing co-convenors – Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Germany, Pakistan and Türkiye – also for the follow up on pledge implementation.

We have 14 months until that event. 14 months to make progress. To make good on the pledges of the last Forum and prepare the ground for more pledges at the next. 

And the redoubling of that action, that drive and determination to help, to assist, and mostly to resolve, must be done together — as United Nations — and that must start today.

Thank you.