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Opening remarks to the High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges

Speeches and statements

Opening remarks to the High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges

12 December 2017

Last year, ladies and gentleman, States in New York endorsed the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. Was this a milestone? The opinions on this differ, ranging from the enthusiastic to the very sceptical.

At UNHCR, we have a concrete, practical view in this regard. We believe the New York Declaration created a very important opportunity – perhaps an unprecedented one, certainly in recent years. It reaffirmed the fundamental values and protection principles of the refugee regime, at a time when these are increasingly being called into question. It also recognized the profound contribution of host countries and communities. It proposed a broader, more effective response model. And, above all, it provided political endorsement at the highest, most legitimate, most comprehensive level.

Moving forward, we must be realistic. Political attention is constantly shifting on all matters, especially around a charged issue such as refugees and migrants. There are many challenges, that we are all familiar with. It would be easy, in such a climate, to say ‘it’s impossible’ – but we cannot, and we have chosen to confront these challenges, and to take these up. The New York Declaration gave UNHCR, and all of us present here, a very important responsibility: to make those commitments practical, predictable and sustainable; and to distance them from – and avoid making them hostage to – volatile politics. This is fundamentally what the global compact hopes to achieve.

We have seen that the momentum in the development of the global compact has continued to build, in spite of difficulties. As you know, over the past year, we have chosen to move along two tracks.

First, the operational track consisting of the application of the comprehensive refugee response framework (CRRF), contained in annex I of the New York Declaration. I am grateful to the 13 countries where this is already happening, as well as the other States supporting this in different ways, and all entities participating.

We are increasingly also seeing elements of the CRRF model being applied in other situations – the model is indeed “catching on”. There are two regional applications of the model – in Africa, following the adoption of the Nairobi Declaration for the Somalia situation by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and in Central America, through the MIRPS, led by a number of States and launched in San Pedro Sula.

UNHCR’s leadership, myself included, are personally engaged in ensuring the successful application of the CRRF. We have participated in the Kampala Solidarity Conference led by President Museveni and the Secretary-General, the African Union Symposium on this topic that happened just a few days ago in Nairobi, the San Pedro Sula conference in Honduras in October, the IGAD summit and other key processes.

The second track in the development of the global compact on refugees has been at the policy level, articulated during five thematic discussions which have taken place in the past few months. These discussions have shown commitment, and were positive and forward-looking, full of ideas to be brought forward, many of which we will discuss here. I wish to express my thanks to the advisory group, and the other delegations that contributed to those discussions, as well as to all the members of the Geneva diplomatic community for their enthusiastic, constant participation.

I also welcomed the very important support demonstrated at UNHCR’s Executive Committee meeting at the beginning of October. And, last but not least, at the Pledging Conference a few days ago. This is an institutional event at which States make their initial pledges for UNHCR’s programme for the following year. For the first time, we had financial pledges exceeding 1 billion USD, including some 200 million in multi-year commitments. This is a signal of trust that is particularly significant as we find ourselves in the middle of this important process.

Other important events over the past year have been led by non-governmental organizations (NGOs); and we have also received many additional contributions, including written contributions, from academics and other stakeholders. As part of this process, we have also heard critical comments – this is important, and keeps us on our toes, reminding us of the reality of the challenges that we face and helping us to address and, hopefully, overcome them.

This Dialogue is an important juncture in the process, and I welcome the wide participation from you all here today, including representatives from States, the business community, civil society and others. I hope that the Dialogue format, which my predecessor started some 10 years ago, will allow for a concrete, frank debate and will ensure that concrete suggestions for the programme of action are crystalized and put forward. In this respect, I particularly welcome the refugee participants, notably the members of the Global Youth Advisory Council present here today, with an important role to play, including in our panel.

Clearly, we are not starting this discussion from scratch: we will take stock of a rich year of discussions. Let’s aim to be concrete, and seek to converge on some key elements for the zero draft of the programme of action, which will be submitted to you early next year and inform the formal consultations with States that will begin in mid-February 2018.

I hope that this Dialogue will also allow us to contribute to the parallel process leading to the development of the global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration. The processes to develop the refugee and migration compacts are separate – and must remain separate, as you have stressed many times. But there are also synergies that must be tackled, in a coordinated manner. Our discussions will inform those inputs.

Underlying our discussions there is a key question: why does the global compact on refugees matter? The New York Declaration emerged from the Syria refugee crisis – or rather the failure to address some of the challenges of this crisis. But the challenges go well beyond the Syria refugee situation – this is a global problem. While conflict and violence continue to force people to abandon their homes, those same failures of cooperation that we observed around the Syria situation continue to block access to solutions and in different ways to undermine international protection elsewhere. The result, for all of us to see, is State-by-State responses, as opposed to cooperative ones.

In terms of refugee protection, we have faced setbacks, limitations, closures and restrictions, an increasing utilization of offshore models of examining asylum claims and in general, a climate of politicization of the refugee issue. We have also seen scarcely sustained financial support, especially in protracted situations. Refugees and displaced people pay the price, but so also do host countries and communities that bear the greatest responsibility.

We want to propose a global compact on refugees which can help to overcome some of these failures, and serve as a concrete, usable instrument for international cooperation, rooted in practical, operational engagement. It can and must stand on its own, even if or when political attention waxes and wanes, or shifts away. It should consist of a set of workable measures, but also be a “rallying point”, a point of reference for refugee protection.

As you know, we will propose a global compact on refugees made up of two elements: the CRRF, already endorsed in the New York Declaration, and a programme of action (the ‘how’ to implement the CRRF). We have tried and tested a lot of different elements and approaches. The aim now is to capture what has worked in order to put it in the programme of action. We have some contextual advantages. We can link up with broader debates on issues such as the increasing nexus between humanitarian and development approaches, and the broader UN reform process in terms of peace, security and development led by my predecessor, the Secretary-General – who draws from his experience in my role. Of course, it is also necessary to connect to the overall progress under the Sustainable Development Goals, which have so many linkages with what we want to achieve.

A consensus is needed to propel this process forward. But showing it works will help to generate support and consensus. This Dialogue is a moment for honest reflection in this regard, and to put some order into the many suggestions that have already emerged. In particular, while we have made substantive progress in some areas, some need more work. Some elements will be in place by the time the compact is ready; but others will still be in the making and we can consider putting them in as placeholders in the global compact on refugees, for future work.

I would like to recall the four elements of CRRF: (i) easing pressure on host countries and communities, while they make a fundamental contribution to the global public good; (ii) to pursue self-reliance and resilience for refugees, as opposed to responding purely to humanitarian needs, which remain important; (iii) the development of further resettlement opportunities and legal pathways; and (iv) to build conditions for voluntary return (in addition, to this I would add building protection in-country that can allow for solutions for internally displaced persons).

These four elements are interdependent and equal emphasis on all four is required. They are underpinned by the fundamental principle of burden- and responsibility-sharing. They also depend on the inclusion of a comprehensive range of actors, in contrast to the more limited approach we have had in the past. Success will be dependent on the development of predictable and sustained approaches.

Across these four elements, I would highlight five important shifts that are already happening.

First, there have been concrete steps taken in many countries at national level in advancing refugee self-reliance. Starting in the Syria situation, but also elsewhere, there has been increasing emphasis on education, skills, livelihoods, as well as refugee inclusion (for so long as it is needed) in public services and the economy. This is a move away from placing refugees in camps until a solution is found. At the same time, such approaches must be pursued in a way that does not add to the burden of host countries and communities, but rather sustains and even contributes to their infrastructure, services and economies.

Second, we have seen fundamental shifts in the substantive engagement of development actors. I have many years of experience in this field and have never before seen this type of engagement. This started with resilience programming, again in the context of the Syria situation, as well as the development of concessional financing tools for middle income countries. I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the leadership of the World Bank, including President Jim Kim and CEO Kristalina Georgieva in this regard; and they are increasingly being joined by other important bilateral and multilateral financing mechanisms and development actors. IDA18 has also been critically important; as has the inclusion of refugees and the needs of host communities in national development plans.

Development funding has a different pace from more quickly disbursed humanitarian support, and its impact will be visible only further down the line. But, if we are patient, I am confident this impact will be useful and significant. In many refugee crises, including new ones, we are seeing a “development reflex” beginning from the start. And this shift is being supported at the policy level, including through the development of OECD guidelines in this regard.

Third, we are seeing the establishment of regional approaches. I have already mentioned IGAD with respect to Somali refugees, and in Central America and Mexico. Regional efforts are effective in addressing fast-moving situations as well as protracted situations, including in preserving asylum space through the promotion of shared solutions – including to internal displacement – and mobilizing resources. The leaders of these approaches are the affected countries and regions themselves, but with important international support (such as EU support to IGAD, and the role of the United States of America and Canada as cooperating actors in the San Pedro Sula process).

Fourth, widening partnerships. I have spoken of development actors, but I would be remiss not to mention the UN, NGOs, the Red Cross movement and other international organisations as key partners in this approach. Our response must include national NGOs, who in many situations are often the first responders to very catastrophic emergencies.

We also, increasingly, note the engagement of the private sector, including corporations, philanthropists and foundations – not just as donors but as active contributors that can bring important experience to bear including in terms of technology, employment, skills training, renewable energy and other areas. It is also particularly relevant to single out the interest and involvement of cities and mayors, who are often on the frontline of receiving refugees, but also integrating them, especially in industrialised countries.

Sports institutions also have an important role, with sport as a phenomenal tool to address refugee inclusion, to give hope and to bridge gaps between communities. Just last week I participated in the launch of the new Olympic Refugee Foundation, and across the world there are many new sports initiatives that form part of this effort. And finally, of course the academic community has a vital contribution to make.

It is crucial to identify how all of these partnerships can be absorbed and built into global compact on refugees. In particular, how can we ensure this broader participation is predictable and systematic?

Fifth, I would highlight growing refugee participation and accountability. We have had positive experiences at field level, including the inclusion of refugees in the design of CRRF projects; and we have seen refugees participate in the thematic discussions in Geneva. But we have to be honest – we have not yet made a quantum leap. How can we generate real change in refugee participation, particularly of women and girls – who are often the first and most frequent victims of violence against civilians?

Moving to the proposed areas for discussion at this Dialogue, the application of the CRRF in the field and the thematic discussions have resulted in a number of suggestions and directions. We want to use these two days to focus on them, to develop them and to reply to some key questions.

A few examples that may help you in your discussions are:

How can we establish predictable mechanisms for burden- and responsibility-sharing? How can these mechanisms be established and rapidly activated? For example, a standing global platform and the institutionalization of solidarity conferences have been proposed as potential interesting tools.

Linked to this: what are the key components necessary for effective protection and responses? Which (new) ones are needed? This could include digital/biometric registration systems, or support measures in relation to refugee and host community security, including to address the complex issue of armed elements or sexual- and gender-based violence. Are new tools and capacities for asylum management needed? How can we improve collection and analysis of data? And what new financial instruments could be needed, following the example of the World Bank?

Another key set of issues is how to strengthen access to resettlement and other third country solutions? These remain crucial to pursue, despite recent setbacks. We have seen new resettlement States emerging, including in South America, and – for example – have tested streamlined procedures in the fast (but effective) resettlement of thousands of Syrians to Canada. We are now also using emergency evacuation platforms more frequently, including in the context of Central America, Iraq and Libya. Is this a model we could replicate more? We continue to explore other pathways, such as the blended public and private sponsorship used in Canada, the scholarships for Syrian refugees provided by Japan, and other opportunities that have been examined but require further crystallisation – including family reunion, humanitarian admissions and labour mobility.

As I have mentioned, new partnerships are key. How can we make them more effective and systematic, better coordinated and more sustainable? Should we work on a refugee solidarity network of cities? Could a refugee academic alliance be useful? Could a global platform for the business community be envisaged? These are some of the ideas we hope we will be discussed.

Finally, how can the global compact interface with broader processes related to prevention and solutions? This would include the efforts by the international community in terms of early warning, political and development processes, and addressing climate change. We can also consider how to link up better with regional mechanisms, increasingly used for conflict resolution around the world; and how we can pursue displacement solutions, in the many situations that will remain for the time being without a political resolution.

These are just some of the many questions that have emerged from the thematic discussions and the application of the CRRF. These practical but complex questions will inform and guide our Dialogue over the next two days.

I will close here, with two observations and food for thought.

First, at a time when multilateralism is under great pressure, and often neglected, put aside and criticized as inefficient, we want the global compact on refugees to chart a different course – through concrete engagement, but also cooperation based on shared values.

Second, I hope that we will not forget the fundamental objective of the global compact on refugees – to have a real impact on people’s lives. This includes citizens of host communities who sacrifice so much to host refugees; as well as refugees so that they can contribute and not be a burden on host communities – so that both refugees and host communities remain strong and resilient in adversity, until solutions are found.

Thank you.