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Intergovernmental Meeting at Ministerial Level to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness

Speeches and statements

Intergovernmental Meeting at Ministerial Level to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness

7 December 2011

Geneva, 7 December 2011

Distinguished Co-Chairs, Honourable Members of Government, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am honoured and encouraged knowing we have 800 participants - representing some 145 governments and nearly 60 organizations - assembled here today to commemorate with us the anniversaries of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. This speaks to the importance which the protection of refugees and stateless persons holds for the international community, and is a signal of our shared desire to reaffirm and reinforce that protection.

* * *

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dramatic events have forced hundreds of thousands of people to seek refuge across borders in 2011. More than three quarters of a million people became refugees, following upheaval and conflict in Africa and the Middle East. Global forced displacement figures already stood at a 15-year high at the end of 2010, with 43.7 million people uprooted by conflict and persecution worldwide. Recent events indicate that this number is likely to rise again by the end of the year.

These events have amply demonstrated why it is so important to do what we have gathered here to do: to reengage with and recommit to the core values underpinning the entire system of international protection - tolerance, solidarity and respect for human rights and human dignity.

Fortunately, 2011 has shown these values still hold a high place in today's world. Indeed, all countries neighbouring this year's crisis zones are to be commended for keeping their borders open to the massive numbers of people arriving to seek refuge from violence.

But I am aware that we live in difficult times. Political crises are multiplying where we least expect them. Unpredictability became the name of the game. At the same time, the global economic crisis, with high levels of unemployment, is creating widespread uncertainty and anxiety. Populist politicians and irresponsible elements of the media exploit feelings of fear and insecurity to scapegoat foreigners, try to force the adoption of restrictive policies, and actively spread racist and xenophobic sentiments.

Having been in government myself for many years, I know that no state can disregard the security of its citizens, their social and economic well-being and the cohesion of society. States also have the right to define their own immigration policies; provided they do so in respect for human dignity and basic rights.

But all this can be done, and needs to be done, in ways that ensure protection is granted to those who need it. This means guaranteeing their access to territory, fair treatment of their asylum claims, and adequate integration policies that contribute to social harmony. Governments and mainstream social and political movements must also have the courage to take a strong stance against intolerance, discrimination, racism and xenophobia. Refugees are not a security threat, but the first victims of insecurity.

That is why I am so encouraged by the large number of states that have indicated they will make pledges to improve the protection of refugees and stateless persons, in this conference. I also hope that pledges will be made by groups of states and regional bodies, confirming the paramount role of international cooperation for the protection of those we serve.

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

Sixty years ago, the 1951 Convention was drawn up just a few steps down the hall from here, while the world was still in shock at acts that outraged the conscience of humanity. Today, I see four main challenges to providing the kind of protection it aspired to afford those uprooted by violence and persecution.

First, although the Convention is today among the most widely accepted international human rights instruments, many refugees still do not enjoy the minimum standards it sets out. Many systems continue to be marred by poor quality decision-making, disproportionately low recognition rates or a lack of access to legal services. The routine use of accelerated procedures and rising rates of detention are equally worrying. Detention can have a drastic human impact, including on the physical and mental health of asylum-seekers, which in turn negatively affects their ability to integrate into host communities and societies. In many situations, refugees do also not have freedom of movement, access to social care or the permission to work.

Second, the burden of hosting large refugee populations is borne predominantly by developing countries. They have granted asylum to 80 per cent of the world's refugees, and more than one third of the 20 top refugee-hosting states are Least Developed Countries. As many of these states struggle to provide even basic services to their own populations, the generosity they show towards hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries demands an effort that is disproportionate to the resources at their disposal.

Third, durable solutions seem to have become harder to attain than ever before. As new crises emerge, old conflicts linger, leaving millions without a solution for years or even for decades.

Voluntary repatriation has dropped dramatically, from an average of almost a million returnees annually in the past two decades, to around one-fifth that figure in the last two years. Resettlement opportunities also still fall far short of requirements, with spaces available for only ten per cent of the nearly 800,000 refugees needing resettlement worldwide today. The actual number of departures has now declined for the second year in a row.

As a result, more than two thirds of the refugees under UNHCR's mandate - over 7 million people - are now living in protracted situations of exile. And this is more than at any other time during the past decade.

And fourth, displacement continues to become more and more complex. The reasons forcing people to abandon their homes are not solely limited to those set out in the '51 Convention. In an increasingly imbalanced world, displacement is often compounded and reinforced by factors such as the effects of climate change, population growth, food insecurity and water scarcity.

A growing number of people are uprooted by natural disasters or lose their livelihoods to desertification, with climate change now found to be the key factor accelerating all other drivers of forced displacement. Most of the people affected will remain in their own countries. They will be internally displaced. But if they cross a border, they will not be considered refugees. Does it mean they chose to abandon their homes? No. These persons are not truly migrants, in the sense that they did not move voluntarily.

As forcibly displaced not themselves in a legal void. covered by the refugee protection regime, they find

So while the nature of forced displacement is rapidly evolving, the responses available to the international community have not kept pace. This has created a number of serious protection gaps, particularly in the context of mixed movements, large-scale complex emergencies and environmentally-related displacement. Whilst some national and regional initiatives have sought to address such gaps, there is no coherent international framework for protecting the rights of persons who are displaced across borders owing to forces other than persecution, serious human rights violations and ongoing conflict.

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our discussions during the next two days will allow us to not only focus on these challenges, but also on possible ways to address them. Let me elaborate on some of the avenues that could lead towards solutions.

Meeting the minimum standards set out by the 1951 Convention remains a challenge that is often portrayed as one primarily linked to resources. But in many cases, political will to improve the conditions of refugees is just as important as funding.

More states ought to follow the example of those who have already taken steps to improve their asylum systems. Several countries have engaged with UNHCR's Quality Initiatives for better decision-making in status determination. Others have expanded alternatives to detention, such as community-based supervision programmes, or committed to ending the detention of children. There is increasing evidence that, when given the right to engage in legal employment, refugees are not only empowered to become more self-reliant, but contributions to the development of their host countries. can also make significant

The international community has made great strides over recent years in understanding and addressing the asylum-migration nexus. Many states now appreciate the critical importance of including protection safeguards in their migration management policies, so that those who may be in need of international protection still have access to it, even if they arrive in the context of mixed flows.

Refugees, asylum-seekers, irregular migrants and other groups of people on the move often find themselves using the same routes and means of transport, and many of them are at risk of falling victim to the same human smugglers and traffickers. Especially when travelling by sea, they are exposed to enormous risks, and hundreds of them perish every year in the Gulf of Aden or the Mediterranean. Their fate illustrates the dramatic need for improved international mechanisms for rescue at sea. And the world must become more effective in cracking down on smugglers and traffickers, but also in protecting their victims.

As regards the second challenge, that of the disproportionate burden on developing countries hosting large numbers of refugees, the solution is, quite simply, more international solidarity. I will repeat here a call I have made earlier - for a "new deal on burden-sharing". With the vast majority of refugees sheltered by countries neighbouring their own, international cooperation is key to ensuring they can be effectively protected.

This must include broadening development cooperation to target returnee and refugee-hosting areas, to ensure the sustainability of solutions. Making more resettlement places available is another vital form of burden-sharing. And ultimately, such measures could be complemented with mobility through managed migration policies.

Third, durable solutions must be given a higher priority on the international agenda. UNHCR's work cannot be about open-ended provision of assistance and protection, leaving refugees to languish in exile for decades. But solutions are never simply humanitarian. They require political will - to prevent conflict, to resolve old crises, to enable the displaced to return, to accept more refugees for resettlement in third countries or to allow them to build a new life by locally integrating into the societies that have hosted them for many years.

UNHCR's mandate is non-political. We can only play a catalytic role to mobilize other actors. And I therefore hope that this meeting will be a landmark on the road to building such political will for solutions.

The fourth challenge I mentioned, that of finding responses to the growing complexity of displacement, is perhaps the one that requires the most creativity and foresight from all of us. We need "to deepen our understanding of evolving patterns of displacement and to agree upon ways to respond to the challenges we face in a changing global context." The situation today is much more complex than 60 years ago, due to the many factors that combine to provoke, intensify and prolong displacement.

We should be asking ourselves what kind of new tools we, as the international community, need to respond to these new realities. I very much hope that our discussions here and beyond will allow states to come forward with innovative ideas and initiatives on addressing the protection gaps facing today's and tomorrow's forcibly displaced.

Several ideas have been put forward during this commemorations year, including at a series of expert meetings and roundtables. In Amman, participants devised elements of a framework for international cooperation and burden-sharing. At the Djibouti meeting, an operational template was developed for rescue-at-sea operations.

Other possible ways forward could be inspired by the methodology that led to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The Nansen Conference on climate change and displacement in Oslo proposed a set of principles to guide states in addressing the needs of those who cross borders owing to climate change and other environmental hazards. We are ready to work with interested states and other relevant actors to help develop such guiding frameworks.

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

Turning now to the problem of statelessness, I am particularly heartened with the impact that commemorations activities seem to have had so far on the thinking and practice of states.

An estimated 12 million people live without a nationality worldwide - a number comparable to that of refugees. Many of them are deprived of some of their most basic human rights: they cannot get married legally, go to public schools, enrol in universities, or get a job. They are unable to obtain drivers licenses, birth certificates for their children, or even death certificates when their loved ones pass away.

And despite the millions of persons affected by it, statelessness has long been neglected on the global agenda. But this now seems to be changing. Four states - Croatia, Nigeria, Panama and the Philippines - have acceded in 2011 to one or both of the two statelessness conventions. Serbia and Turkmenistan will be depositing instruments of accession at the Special Treaty Event this evening. And I am pleased that many more states have indicated their intention to announce their accession during the next two days.

At the same time, several states are already amending their national legislation to prevent and reduce statelessness, for example by allowing both men and women to pass their nationality on to their children. Statelessness is now literally "on the map" everywhere, with no region untouched by progress.

UNHCR is particularly grateful to the many states who have become champions of statelessness, lending their support to our advocacy and allowing us to move forward in this area.

But together we must go beyond acknowledging the problems of stateless people. What they really need are solutions. Solutions that enable them to secure a nationality and enjoy the full rights of citizens.

* * *

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the recent past, we have held fruitful and positive annual Dialogues with representatives of governments and civil society on asylum and migration, protracted refugee situations, urban refugees and protection gaps. They have shaped UNHCR policy and implementation, and rallied support around these issues by key international actors.

But we still have a long way to go. I will only give you one example, the one which is to me the most distressing and painful.

Over the last twelve months, UNHCR has organized seven regional dialogues with 1,000 refugee, displaced and stateless women from all over the world. You have just seen a film which is the product of that engagement. And the one problem that emerged from all of these discussions is the endemic nature of sexual violence that prevents women and girls - and also boys and men - from leading normal, productive lives. They are at risk of rape and sexual abuse at home, in public spaces, at work and at school. And perpetrators are rarely prosecuted and punished. Many women are forced into survival sex to provide for their families.

I would therefore like to express in this conference a pledge of my own. I will do everything possible to uphold and strengthen UNHCR's corporate commitment to address sexual and gender based violence and to support states in ensuring access of survivors to justice. In 2012, we will use savings obtained as a result of our internal reform process to launch a series of special projects aiming at reinforcing our efforts to address the specific threats and vulnerabilities faced by the women and girls of concern to UNHCR. If we cannot get protection right for them, we won't get it right for anyone.

* * *

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The problems we are discussing here are of a quintessentially humanitarian nature. This meeting is not a forum for airing political differences or importing extrinsic agendas. Instead, this is a unique opportunity for us all to come together to discuss and shape the evolution of the international protection system over the next decade. The world needs positive messages, and it is our responsibility to give a word of hope to the people we care for, who lost theirs when they were forced to abandon their homes.

What I am asking of you here today is not a new convention, it is not an extended mandate for UNHCR. What I am asking is for all of us to assume our shared duty. To reaffirm and recommit to the values of international protection. To face the new challenges of forced displacement, and find concrete and constructive ways to address them collectively. To open up the way for innovative responses that will help protect people in need, benefit the social cohesion of societies and strengthen global peace and security.

Thank you very much.