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Opening remarks at the 65th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, 30 September 2014

Speeches and statements

Opening remarks at the 65th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, 30 September 2014

30 September 2014

As delivered

Mr. Chairman,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

In Greece, more than two thousand years ago, Euripides famously said "there is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one's native land." Today, more people are living this sorrow than at any other time since most of us in this room were born. At the end of 2013, over 51 million people were in displacement due to conflict and persecution. By the end of this year, I am sure they will be even more.

Global forced displacement has been rising steadily in recent years. In 2011, every single day, some 14,000 people worldwide were forced from their homes by violence or war. In 2012; 23,000 a day. In 2013; 32,000. There have been more, and more protracted conflicts, and the result is an exponential increase in humanitarian needs.

In addition to the on-going Syria crisis, new conflicts in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ukraine and most recently in Iraq have caused terrible human suffering and massive displacement. The international humanitarian community has scrambled to respond to these needs. But with every new crisis, we get closer to the limits of how much we can do, and we are clearly no longer able to do enough.

At the same time, drawn-out emergencies - Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Somalia - and the many more "forgotten" conflicts all over the world, continue to require significant attention and resources. But we all know they are not getting sufficient amounts of either.

Three and a half years into the crisis, there are over 3.2 million individually registered Syrian refugees, the world's largest refugee population after the Palestinians. The magnitude of this drama has profoundly impacted the neighbouring countries that are so generously providing protection to those fleeing Syria. As fighting drags on, host communities are heavily affected across the region, and refugees are becoming increasingly vulnerable. The upcoming cuts in food assistance as a result of WFP's funding shortage will have a devastating impact on hundreds of thousands of families.

I was in Lebanon just two weeks ago, and the refugee situation there has taken on a dimension I would never have imagined. Host communities and public services are completely overstretched, with a quarter of the population now Syrian. It is the same in Jordan, where just the simple act of providing water to everyone is a daily miracle.

Turkey, which has already spent 4 billion dollars of its budget on direct refugee assistance, has just witnessed its largest influx yet. Over 160,000 Syrian Kurds have streamed across the border in the Sanliurfa region over the last ten days.

In host countries across the Middle East, more and more local people are struggling financially as a result of the refugee crisis, as rents and prices have gone up, salaries are under pressure and finding employment is increasingly difficult.

But, in recent months, the already dramatic regional impact of the fighting in Syria has taken a further turn for the worse. The conflict has completely spilled over into Iraq, to the extent that is now difficult to distinguish the two crises.

Countries in the region, mainly Turkey, Jordan and Syria, have already registered more than 175,000 new Iraqi refugees. Syrian refugees in Iraq, Iraqi refugees in Syria - this is one of the paradoxes of our present time.

Over 1.8 million Iraqis have been forced to seek safety in other parts of the country as a result of this year's events. Half of them are in the Kurdistan region, which also hosts nearly 215,000 Syrians and which faces a dramatic budgetary asphyxia.

Syria and Iraq are of course not the only large-scale emergencies we are currently responding to. I briefed you already during yesterday's high-level segment on some of the major displacement crises in Africa, and I will not repeat that.

The situation in Ukraine continues to cause significant displacement, with the number of registered internally displaced people now standing at over 295,000. Nearly 95% of these are from eastern Ukraine, and UNHCR has been providing relief items to some of the most vulnerable displaced people and returnees. Of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have crossed the border into the Russian Federation, over 177,000 have applied for some form of legal protection. More than 6,000 have done so elsewhere in Europe.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

For the past year, emergency response has been the defining priority for UNHCR, and indeed for the entire humanitarian community. Since the last Executive Committee, we have responded to five system-wide Level-3 emergencies - Syria, the Philippines, Central African Republic, South Sudan and now Iraq. For UNHCR, like for most of our partners, the strain this has put on us is unlike anything we have ever experienced. I can sincerely, and proudly, say that we are doing as much as we can, and as well as we can. But in the current global turmoil the limits of humanitarian response become more clearly and painfully visible every day.

This is of course in many ways an issue of funding, and I will come back to that in a moment. But these multiple emergencies are also having a profound impact on our human resources.

We made over 670 emergency deployments of UNHCR and partner staff in 2013 and 2014, and advertised 400 international emergency Fast Track posts to ensure continuity beyond the immediate response. These came in addition to the two regular annual postings compendia for international staff.

Every time a new crisis hits, we take experienced people out of operations across the globe for immediate deployment. But each problem solved in one place risks creating a gap in another, and we absolutely must not let that happen. Our new recruitment policy, including the Entry Level Humanitarian Programme and the Capacity Building Initiative, is fundamental in this respect, as are efforts to streamline the assignments process that we are now putting into place. And on top of all this, we are also working hard to move forward with the reforms that are necessary to build UNHCR's workforce for the future.

I want to thank our staff - including UN Volunteers and UNOPS personnel - for their courage, dedication and professionalism under often very difficult and dangerous circumstances. Ensuring staff security, well-being and development is imperative for our ability to operate, and we will continue to treat this as an absolute corporate priority.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As UNHCR is faced with enormous pressures, everything we do depends on three central pillars of support to refugee protection: host countries and communities; donors; and partners.

First, and most crucially: during these times of record new displacement, the institution of asylum - with some exceptions - is still largely preserved and respected, and most remarkably so by countries whose means are limited, sometimes very very limited indeed. Today, almost nine out of ten refugees are living in developing countries - up from 70% ten years ago.

One could choose to see in these numbers an ever-widening gap between wealth and hospitality. But this is not what I want to see.

I want to see these countries, whose contribution is so fundamental to refugee protection, receive the support they need. But we are still falling short, and host states in the developing world require far more international solidarity and burden-sharing.

The second pillar I mentioned is strong donor support. During the last year, voluntary contributions to UNHCR reached unprecedented levels, with more than 2.9 billion dollars in 2013, and current indications are that they will exceed 3 billion in 2014. We are grateful for the confidence and trust that are at the basis of this generous commitment, including from new donors and the private sector.

Let me add here an assurance to donors that we will continue our efforts to maximize the impact of your funding. We will always keep a very close eye on our structural costs. As you already know, headquarters now accounts for only 6.5% of total expenditure, less than half of the percentage ten years ago. But we are also conscious that the focus now has to be on ensuring better oversight and accountability.

The third aspect I mentioned earlier, and one without which we would not be able to deliver, is the exemplary cooperation of our partners. Partnerships are a tremendous resource in UNHCR operations and one that we will always continue to invest in.

Our current focus is on further strengthening collaboration with WFP, UNICEF and other operational UN agencies, and on implementing the recommendations of our structured dialogue with NGOs and the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement. We have also built stronger links with our faith-based partners since the Protection Dialogue of 2012. At a time when the world is shaken by sectarian strife in several regions, they make vital contributions to more tolerant and inclusive societies.

We also continue to invest significantly in our partnerships with development actors, to help us enable solutions and to make humanitarian and development actions more complementary from the start of displacement.

The Syria situation in particular underlines the urgency of adapting the way we work together. The massive needs it has created exceed the resources, expertise and capacities of humanitarian actors. We have been working closely with UNDP and the World Bank to find ways of combining humanitarian and development assistance so as to stabilize the situation and build longer-term resilience amongst host communities and refugees. This is the vision behind the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (the 3RP) that will bring together over 150 partners and the host governments, with the coordination of both UNHCR and UNDP.

I hope that the lessons we are learning in the Middle East today can be transferred to other crises and allow for an earlier linkage between relief and development actions in any response to forced displacement.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The massive challenges we as the global humanitarian community have been faced with in the past year or two have brought us all closer together. We are bound by our shared duty towards the people we serve and to whom we must deliver protection, assistance and solutions. That is why good coordination is so essential - good, light and effective coordination.

In this context, UNHCR is very strongly committed to the field implementation of the Transformative Agenda that has been led with perseverance and enthusiasm by the Emergency Relief Coordinator.

I am happy that there is a growing understanding in the humanitarian community that coordination must always be a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. What really matters is delivery.

This is what we had in mind when we spelled out the Refugee Coordination Model at the end of last year to better explain UNHCR's integral but distinct approach. The model aims to provide a straightforward, systematic and inclusive reference point for host governments and partners. It allows for flexibility in mixed situations where there are both refugees and internally displaced persons, which is reflected for example in the arrangements that have recently been agreed for Iraq.

We strongly appreciate our cooperation with OCHA in this context, and the Emergency Relief Coordinator and I held a high-level bilateral meeting earlier this year where we agreed on a number of practical steps to make sure that we are able to further improve the way we work together.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

There is a lot to report in relation to UNHCR's protection mandate. Let me start with the issue that has gained the most visibility in recent months - statelessness, that anachronism of the 21st century that still affects at least ten million people worldwide.

As we mark the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Convention, it is encouraging to see how the world has started to transform the way it deals with statelessness. There have been a record 40 accessions to the two conventions since 2011. More and more countries are changing their nationality laws so as to end statelessness. The Global Forum in The Hague two weeks ago created important new partnerships to help sustain this positive momentum. But much more is required, and I encourage all States which made pledges at our Ministerial event three years ago to implement them.

Statelessness is a profound violation of an individual's human rights. It would be deeply unethical to perpetuate the pain it causes when the solutions are so clearly within reach. That is why I will launch our global Campaign to end Statelessness this November, to put a stop to this needless human suffering in ten years' time - an ambitious but possible objective. I count on the strong support by all States to help make this ambitious objective a reality.

Clearly, another present priority is protection at sea. Every week, hundreds of desperate people put their lives into the hands of smugglers and try to cross the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aden or the Bay of Bengal in unsafe, overcrowded boats looking for protection. It is totally unbearable to me to see refugees, who have already lost everything, and who I am supposed to do everything to protect, drowning at sea with their children because they found no other way to reach safety.

As more and more people worldwide are being forced to flee, the corresponding rise in irregular maritime movements poses complex protection challenges. They include rescue and disembarkation, proper reception conditions, fair treatment of protection claims and the need for more regional cooperation and burden-sharing among affected States. I look forward to discussing these together with you all and other stakeholders at our Dialogue in December.

Another key priority I want to talk about is the protection of women and children - a corporate commitment for UNHCR. The number of refugee children has risen dramatically in recent years, and never before have we recorded this many unaccompanied and separated minors seeking asylum.

Half of all refugees worldwide are now under 18. We must do more to protect them from sexual exploitation and abuse, from recruitment, child labor and early marriage, and to ensure their rights are respected. Especially important are birth registration, access to quality education, psycho-social care and targeted support for children with specific needs. We are increasingly linking our efforts in child protection, education and SGBV prevention and response, because none of these problems can be addressed effectively in isolation from the others.

SGBV will continue to be a central focus for UNHCR's protection work. We have made important progress with implementing the global strategy to strengthen our response. The momentum and support created by initiatives such as BPRM's Safe from the Start, DFID's Call to Action and the London summit "End Sexual Violence in Conflict" co-hosted by UNHCR's Special Envoy Angelina Jolie are essential in this area. And yet, despite these efforts, I find it frustrating to see just how little we are all able to do, especially in fighting impunity and in supporting the victims.

Finally, and in follow-up to last year's Protection Dialogue, let me say a few words about internal displacement, which at over 33 million people stands higher today than ever before. Last December we agreed that this issue needs more international attention - especially to reaffirm the primary responsibility of States, to strengthen the UN's institutional framework, to focus more on solutions, and to enhance partnerships with local authorities and civil society.

Since then, we have taken on many of the recommendations from the Dialogue and reviewed our policy, so as to provide better guidance to staff and partners on UNHCR's engagement in coordination and delivery for the internally displaced.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me now turn to durable solutions, probably the most challenging part of UNHCR's mandate. Last year, new refugee displacement outpaced solutions by a rate of approximately 4 to 1, and over 6 million people worldwide remain in protracted exile.

This clearly underlines the urgent need for a much stronger focus, and UNHCR is making a lot of efforts to advance in this area. For example, we are supporting 19 operations worldwide with unearmarked funding set aside for targeted interventions under our Seeds for Solutions initiative.

It is also increasingly clear that comprehensive initiatives have the best chances of success. I already mentioned some of the African initiatives during yesterday's high level segment, and welcome the announcement made by Tanzania on the implementation of its naturalization programme for long-standing Burundian refugees.

The Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees in South-West Asia is another key example of a holistic approach. The governments of the Islamic Republics of Pakistan and Iran have made significant efforts under this Strategy. This includes the extension of the Proof of Registration cards for 1.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan until the end of next year, and enhanced access to education and work permits for registered Afghan refugees in Iran. I hope the Solutions Strategy will become a key national priority under the new Afghan unity government, to make voluntary repatriation to safer areas more attractive and more sustainable.

In the Americas, we are pursuing, together with partners, a comprehensive solutions initiative for Colombian refugees in Ecuador, which combines improved livelihood opportunities, resettlement and facilitated labor mobility in the region. Meanwhile, we all hope for the success of the on-going peace dialogue in finally bringing to an end half a century of conflict in Colombia.

There has been a lot invested in the commemorations process for the 30th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration. I look forward to the Cartagena+30 ministerial event in Brazil in December, and to the Plan of Action that will be adopted to enhance protection and solutions across Latin America.

More globally, this year's creation of the Solutions Alliance of many governments, humanitarian and development organizations, civil society and others is an encouraging step towards more innovative approaches. We will lend our full support to the Alliance and to the two national chapters that have already been established for Somalia and Zambia.

Strengthening refugee self-reliance and sustainable livelihoods is key to achieving durable solutions, and UNHCR has increased its budget for livelihood activities by over 40% in the last three years. But still, this is vastly insufficient, and we need development partners, governments and the private sector to complement the limited reach of our own programmes.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As we try to become less and less of a "care and maintenance" organization, we must get better at adapting to changing realities. Innovation is an important part of our efforts to make UNHCR a true 21st century organization.

For example, we currently provide over 220 million dollars' worth of cash assistance in 94 operations around the world, enabling refugees to make their own choices while also supporting local economies. Cash assistance, I am sure, will be more and more relevant in our future activities.

Under UNHCR's global strategy for safe access to fuel and energy, we use carbon financing in Rwanda and biogas in Bangladesh. In Latin America, we are developing SMS communication tools to reach out to refugees and improve data collection. And I could list many more initiatives like these, like the new shelters you can see outside in the hall.

We have also recently issued a policy on alternatives to camps, which extends the principal objectives of our urban refugee policy to all operational contexts. If refugees are able to make more meaningful choices and live more normal lives with greater dignity and independence, they can make strong contributions to local economies and to the development of their communities.

While the implementation of the new policy will of course be defined in the framework of national laws and national policies, we do believe that exploring such alternatives together with our partners can lead to better outcomes for refugees and for the countries of asylum alike.

But when we talk about the need to adapt to changing realities to ensure better humanitarian response, this affects everyone and not just UNHCR. The World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 must be a real platform for taking up the challenges we all currently face. I hope this occasion will be used to work towards finding a truly universal approach to the expression of humanitarian values and principles, and to guaranteeing respect for humanitarian space.

Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates,

I could spend the entire rest of the day talking to you about the ways in which we try to respond to the many displacement crises affecting the world today. But instead, I want to take a step back and look at the global context.

The last few years have seen conflicts break out or escalate in a myriad of places, and these crises are becoming both more unpredictable and increasingly interlinked. At the same time, the old conflicts never seem to get resolved, and we are forced to continue spending humanitarian funds on assisting refugees who - 15, 20, 30 years on - are still living without an effective solution.

There has never been an effective global governance system, much less a democratic one. But in the past, there were clear power relations. Today, we not only still lack the effective governance system, but power relations are unclear, and the international community's capacity to prevent and resolve conflict has been severely eroded. Unpredictability and impunity are now the name of the game, and as long as there is no real, comprehensive international resolve to stop this, it seems as though almost anyone can start a war today.

And conflicts are not the only drivers of forced displacement in the modern world. A number of global trends, such as population growth, urbanization, poverty, food insecurity and water scarcity, together push hundreds of thousands of people to move. Climate change is the main force multiplying the impact of all these trends. In the context of the present debate on climate change and displacement, I can only emphasize the importance of forward-looking efforts like the Nansen Initiative.

It is very likely that all this will only lead to further enormous increases in humanitarian needs in the years to come. This clearly puts in question the adequacy and sustainability of the resources available for humanitarian response. Already today, with the exponential increase in needs we have seen just in the last three years, the humanitarian financing system is nearly bankrupt.

This is paradoxical, as global humanitarian funding in 2013 was the highest it has ever been - some 22 billion dollars. But the needs have grown much faster still, and funding is being spread thinner and thinner. Unless things change, the humanitarian community will soon no longer be able to ensure even a minimal response.

At this key juncture, we must explore all possible avenues to prepare for the growing needs of the future. I want to focus on the two key issues of funding and prevention.

There is no way that the present level of humanitarian funding will be enough. There are certainly improvements that can be made in the current system. We must invest more - and we are doing so - in our partnerships with emerging donors to expand the available resource base, as well as take better profit of opportunities with the private sector.

But we also must change humanitarian financing in a more fundamental way, and review the relationship between humanitarian and development funding.

The entirety of international humanitarian budgets is roughly one-tenth of what is available globally for development assistance. But development assistance approaches are not adapted to the current global context of multiplying conflict. And while development funds are slow in coming, humanitarian actors are again and again forced to act as substitutes for the absence of structural assistance. Humanitarian assistance only gets a fragment of the resources, but it is being stretched to cover things it really should not.

We humanitarians must get better at anticipating the impact of our emergency responses in the future. But there also must be more flexibility and complementarity between short and longer-term interventions. Development agencies, donors and international financial institutions all have an important part to play in this. They must come to the field and start acting earlier, from the very beginning of a crisis. "Bridging the gap" cannot just be a slogan. Turning it into reality is in our common interest - and a responsibility that must be assumed collectively.

It is also essential to think out of the box and be more creative when it comes to funding emergency response. For example, I recently suggested to the ECOSOC the possibility of creating a "Super-CERF" for L-3 emergencies, based on assessed contributions similar to what we have for peacekeeping missions. This would be a way to minimize the dramatically increasing gap between needs and available resources in humanitarian response.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Even more important than funding are conflict prevention, and conflict resolution. I already had the opportunity yesterday, in our debate on Africa, to elaborate on how prevention could be enhanced. This extends far beyond the realm of humanitarian action, and essentially comes down to a question of international political resolve to address the root causes of displacement.

In this context, allow me a personal remark: I continue to be deeply shocked by the indifference of those who carry the political responsibility for millions of people being uprooted from their homes. They accept forced displacement, with its huge impact on individuals, countries, communities, and entire regions, as normal collateral damage of the wars they lead. They act with the conviction that humanitarians will come and pick up the pieces. But let me be very clear: we humanitarians can no longer clean up the mess. Someone has to stop it from happening in the first place.

Many of today's fundamental challenges to human society - be it conflict, or climate change, or the spread of Ebola - can only be addressed if the international community truly leaves behind its differences and contradictions and seriously commits itself to working together. Humanitarian action is not enough. Nobody cures pneumonia with aspirins. The real solution, as always, can only be a political one.

Thank you very much.