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Humanitarian Implications of the Ukraine Crisis: UNHCR Keynote Address, OECD Labour and Employment Ministerial Working Lunch

Speeches and statements

Humanitarian Implications of the Ukraine Crisis: UNHCR Keynote Address, OECD Labour and Employment Ministerial Working Lunch

7 June 2022

First of all, I would like to thank the OECD, and Secretary General Cormann, for creating this opportunity to reflect on the human consequences of the war in Ukraine.  We value the chance to continue our longstanding cooperation on matters related to forced displacement, the integration of refugees in OECD countries, and their inclusion in development cooperation in the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees.

Honourable Ministers,

The sheer scale and speed of displacement in Ukraine has gathered the world’s attention in the course of the last few months.

Today, more than 100 days into the conflict’s dramatic escalation, and close to a decade since its onset, the human consequences of the war are staggering.  Close to 15 million people, over a third of the country’s population, were forced to flee their homes. 6.8 million of these have fled into neighbouring countries, seeking refuge there and further afield. Behind these numbers are the lives of real people devastated – families separated; schools, homes, and communities destroyed; loved ones lost or left behind; futures forever disrupted.  

Millions remain in areas of intense fighting, unable or unwilling to leave their homes, and close to 16 million are in urgent need of humanitarian aid: many unable to access this aid due to the lack of safety in their communities.

The global response to this situation has been exemplary, and we’ve seen support pouring in from across the globe.  In the European Union, to which the bulk of refugees have fled, the activation of the Temporary Protection Directive – a first – facilitates both refugees’ access to rights and services as well as responsibility-sharing.  

It is now crucial that the Directive is implemented in a way that facilitates effective access to housing, employment and entrepreneurship, financial services, healthcare, social protection and education.  

Access to decent work is key to enable refugees to be self-reliant and to make socio-economic integration a reality which will benefit both refugees and the economies of host communities.  This is supported by extensive evidence, which consistently confirms the positive impact of including refugee in labour markets on their income and levels of consumption as well as on their physical and mental health.  Notably, a number of studies underscored the positive contribution of refugees to economies and for host population’s own access to social services.

Honourable Ministers,

We are also acutely aware of the broader implications of the crisis in Ukraine on global markets and value chains, including sharp increases in commodity prices and increased inflation.  Prolonged inflation and high food costs will erode the resilience of both refugees and host communities, increase the number of people who require aid, and likely increase competition for jobs, and further curtail opportunities open to refugees.  

Such situations often lead to increased social tensions, while leading forcibly displaced populations to adopt negative or harmful coping mechanisms.  The inclusion of refugees in the labour market of asylum countries has a strong potential to prevent this, especially with the even grimmer consequences this crisis might engender.

Given this, UNHCR calls on all to expedite the inclusion of refugees into social protection systems, strengthen legal access to labour markets and address other barriers.  As they do this, Governments’ support should be coherent across all pillars of social protection systems and include the portability of existing benefits between countries.

Governments and partners will also have a crucial role in setting up a monitoring system on inclusion in social protection. These will serve to identify and include those falling outside national social safety nets; assess whether aid provided meets refugees’ basic needs, and; critically, create linkages with national job placement services in order to promote refugees’ self-reliance and capacity to pay into national social insurance schemes.

My appeal to you, Ministers, is thus to:

  • Facilitate refugees’ equal access to decent work opportunities, without discrimination.
  • Ensure that refugees have access to national employment services, including by adapting online portals to be more inclusive of refugees with measures such as ensuring information is available in relevant languages, refugee ID numbers are recognised by systems; support the recognition of diplomas, certification and skills, and; provide or facilitate job preparation training.
  • Drive ethical practices across industries and promote fair recruitment practices for all, including by ensuring workers receive accurate and comprehensive information in a language they understand, and;
  • Put in place mechanisms to prevent and identify instances of exploitation and trafficking.

To conclude, I want to stress that support to the Ukraine refugee crisis cannot come at the expense of support to the millions of other forcibly displaced people across the world, most of whom are hosted in low- and middle-income countries, many of them already facing severe fragility – in many cases, now exacerbated by the global impact of the situation in Ukraine.

In places like Sudan, Lebanon, and Ethiopia, governments and populations are bracing for the 300 per cent inflation for the cost of food predicted for this year alone.  Those countries, and the refugees hosted there, will need more support in the coming years, while the total volume of funding available for humanitarian aid and development assistance is, at best, remaining stable.

The recent exodus of refugees of Ukraine has reaffirmed broad support for the principles and norms of protection.  It has prompted a wave of global solidarity with those forced to flee.  And it has proven that political will can be mobilized and that bold, collective action to protect and include refugees in host societies is both possible and beneficial.  The challenge before us is to sustain this spirit of solidarity in the challenging months and years ahead.  And to ensure that it is extended to all refugees, irrespective of their race, religion, place of origin, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or membership in a particular social group.  

The suffering of people fleeing war and persecution – a staggering 100 million people today- needs to remain high on our development agendas.  In Afghanistan alone, where I will be next week, the United Nations estimates that poverty could become near universal, sparing a mere 3 per cent of the country’s population by mid-2022.  OECD countries are demonstrating leadership and good practices in providing refugees with protection, and this complements your proud tradition of providing development assistance to countries facing crises.  We sincerely hope this tradition of development assistance will continue, as we draw on the refugee-response in OECD countries to inform the global response to forced displacement.

Thank you.