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Opening statement at the 68th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme

Speeches and statements

Opening statement at the 68th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme

2 October 2017

Switzerland. Excom 2017
Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, addresses the annual meeting of UNHCR's Executive Committee.

Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

A year ago, States gathered in New York to reaffirm the fundamental values of solidarity and protection for people forced into exile.

They agreed to share responsibility for embedding them in practical action.

And they decided to address and resolve refugee flows through a new model that places the rights, interests and potential of refugees and of their hosts at the heart of a comprehensive response.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Realising this ambition has never been more urgent.

In just five weeks, half a million Rohingya refugees have fled terrifying violence in Myanmar, their rights progressively eroded over decades.

As they crossed into Bangladesh, more than 50,000 refugees were fleeing South Sudan – the promise of independence squandered as the country empties itself of its people.

And another 18,000 were fleeing fierce clashes in the Central African Republic, despite earlier signs that conflict might be easing.

Ongoing crises are deepening. And for many refugees, the search for safety and protection has become more dangerous.

In northern Central America, tens of thousands of men, women and children are on the move, looking for a place of refuge from gang violence.

In Yemen, almost three million people are internally displaced, as the country faces looming famine, a large-scale cholera outbreak, and the daily impact of a conflict waged in blatant disregard for civilian lives.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, violence in the Kasai region has triggered a refugee outflow to Angola, and pushed the number of internally displaced people beyond three million.

Along the Central Mediterranean route to Europe, stretching from below the Sahara through Libya to Italy, refugees from Eritrea, Somalia and elsewhere continue to face grave exploitation and abuse, alongside thousands of migrants. Those who survive the journey, or find their way back home, are physically and psychologically broken.

Long-standing crises remain deeply entrenched. In Somalia, the Government is making important efforts to improve security and the rule of law. Yet fighting and direct attacks on villages and civilian infrastructure continue, and severe drought has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people.

In Afghanistan, the number of civilian casualties has reached its highest level in more than a decade.

In Tindouf, Algeria, vulnerable Sahrawi refugees are barely surviving on diminishing food rations, after four decades awaiting a solution.

Displacement also affects hundreds of thousands in Burundi, Ukraine, and Venezuela; and the list continues.

Distinguished delegates,

The compelling circumstances that drove the adoption of the New York Declaration have obviously not gone away.

Without the shared sense of purpose needed to prevent, stem and solve conflicts, the world will continue to face new refugee flows, and must reinforce its capacity to respond.

Refugees and displaced people are the most visible symptom of fractured societies, in which a combination of root causes foster conditions for conflict and persecution. Underdevelopment and poverty, climate change and environmental degradation, inequality and exclusion, poor or absent governance, and weak rule of law allow anger, instability, violent extremism, transnational criminal networks and organised gangs to take hold.

But refugee flows are also the consequence of faltering international cooperation.

The refugee issue has always had political dimensions, but these have escalated forcefully in recent years. Refugees have become a prominent issue in local and national politics, and even an instrument in the relationship between States.

Protection is constantly being tested. And at times, it even seems that refugees have become a commodity, traded between States.

Principled leadership has frequently given way to an erosion of refugee rights, driven by confused and sometimes frightened public opinions often stirred up by irresponsible politicians. International cooperation has been replaced by fragmented responses, resulting in restrictive immigration and asylum measures, even in countries with their own histories of exile and migration, and a proud tradition of welcome.

Border closures; measures to limit admission or deflect responsibility; restrictive asylum procedures; indefinite detention in appalling conditions; offshore processing; pressure for premature returns - all have regrettably proliferated. And rising xenophobia has targeted refugees as well.

We have observed the protection environment deteriorate in many parts of the world, including in industrialized countries - in Europe, in the United States, in Australia.

Yet, there has been a parallel groundswell of solidarity with refugees rooted in civil society and often reinforced through strong leadership by mayors, business leaders, and other public figures.

Measures to deter and exclude have been countered by individual and collective acts of compassion and welcome.

And the international character of refugee protection has taken on new forms - through networks of cities, civil society organisations, private sector associations, sport entities and other forms of collaboration stretching across borders.

Most importantly, major refugee-hosting countries - some of whose leaders have their own experience of flight and exile - have continued to demonstrate extraordinary levels of generosity and commitment to refugee protection.

Measures to shore up their efforts, strengthen protection, mitigate the impact of a large-scale refugee presence, and genuinely share responsibility remain essential. This is the fundamental challenge before us.

And this is not only a matter of principles and values, but also of building regional and global stability. Refugee protection and security are complementary goals, and must be pursued in tandem.

Distinguished delegates,

The number of forcibly displaced people stood at 65.6 million at the end of 2016. This continued the upward trend of the previous five years.

So far in 2017, more than two million people have fled their countries as refugees.

They often arrive sick, traumatised and hungry, in remote border locations, in communities affected by poverty and underdevelopment.

Many have urgent protection needs – children separated from their families, men, women, girls and boys exposed to sexual and gender-based violence, people with disabilities or facing other risks.

UNHCR colleagues and partners around the world – and especially national staff - work tirelessly to provide protection and support. They are often exposed to grave security risks themselves.

I wish to convey - to each and every one of them - my deep gratitude and respect for their courage and commitment.

In almost none of today's displacement crises can we anticipate an imminent, definitive resolution.

Yet, we may be moving towards a new, but no less complicated phase, in which important new dynamics are emerging. I will give you two examples.

First, Syria continues to account for the world's largest number of forcibly displaced people. But like in neighbouring Iraq, displacement has become very fluid.

Civilians are bearing the brunt of major military confrontations at key strategic locations such as Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor. During this year, substantial new displacement has continued even as shifts in territorial control opened up some space for the return of internally displaced people, generally to circumstances of bleak devastation and often in the absence of other viable alternatives.

Without a political settlement, progress towards stability will remain fragmented and limited. In the meantime, international protection and support for the 5 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries must be sustained.

But both inside and outside Syria, signs of resilience are starting to emerge, and it is important that these are also nurtured - especially if, in parallel, progress on de-escalation at the Astana talks is achieved.

Second, in north east Nigeria, greater stability is emerging in some locations and protection is being incrementally reinforced for communities previously exposed to unchecked brutality. Swift development investments, as agreed at the Oslo Conference in February, are now critical to help returnees and their communities rebuild their lives.

These and other fluid situations must be managed carefully.

Returns, everywhere, must be fully voluntary, and should not outpace capacity to receive and absorb those coming home. Bitter experience shows that premature returns, particularly under pressure, are risky and not sustainable.

But our responses must adapt to and support displaced people who are finding their own paths towards solutions, even in adverse circumstances.

We need to stay the course and sustain protection in countries of asylum. But we must also foster conditions in which elements of solutions can emerge.

This means investing in education, livelihoods and skills development, helping refugees get ready for the time when they are able to go home.

Education is especially urgent. Only six out of 10 refugee children attend primary school, as compared to nine out of 10 children globally. Denying them an education means denying their countries a future.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is time to ready ourselves for the future - and to sustain and accelerate the shift in how we respond to forced displacement.

The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework annexed to the New York Declaration offers a new model for response.

Never before has there been such a universal convergence around the need to reshape how we engage in refugee crises, bringing tried and tested elements and new ones together in one framework.

This will be further crystallised in the Global Compact on Refugees - a responsibility-sharing mechanism that should engage all member States.

In concrete terms, this process will result in more predictable support to host countries and communities, more resettlement places and other legal pathways to third countries, and greater engagement in solving conflicts (and root causes) so that voluntary repatriation becomes a real and sustainable option. All elements must be worked on together, with equal determination.

Significantly, this is being planned while the Secretary-General's peace and security reforms are taking shape, embedding conflict prevention and mitigation, and efforts to sustain peace, as the core task of the United Nations.

This is therefore a unique juncture; an opportunity that must not be lost.

UNHCR, as you know, was tasked with developing and initiating the Framework, together with States and others, as a building block for the Global Compact.

I am extremely grateful to those refugee-hosting States who are now applying it, and to the donors and partner organisations who have provided financial resources, technical advice and experts to allow us to drive it forward.

The Framework is now being applied by 11 States - Costa Rica, Djibouti, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Somalia, Uganda, and the United Republic of Tanzania. Elements are also being applied in other operations and will increasingly be extended to all large-scale refugee situations, both new and protracted.

We are already seeing concrete changes on the ground.

In Djibouti, for example, a new law has been adopted that gives refugees the right to work, and includes them in national healthcare and education systems.

In Ethiopia, 20,000 additional refugee children were enrolled in primary school in the last school year, and tens of thousands of refugees will soon be able to work legally and contribute to the local economy.

Uganda’s progressive policies, admitting all refugees to its territory and allocating land to them, have held firm despite colossal pressures. The Solidarity Summit held in June generated important international support.

Decades of experience, from the CIREFCA process in Latin America to the Bali Process in Asia, have also demonstrated how regional approaches can help leverage solutions to refugee situations.

Today, this is informing two regional applications of the Framework.

In the Nairobi Declaration, adopted at a special IGAD summit in March, a regional framework was agreed for maintaining asylum space and pursuing solutions to the displacement of Somalis. This includes progressive policies on access to education, employment and freedom of movement. The implementation of a road map is now under way, led by IGAD with support from the European Union and UNHCR, in which my Special Envoy for the Somalia situation is fully engaged.

And I will also participate in a regional conference hosted by the Government of Honduras this month. Building on a tradition of regional cooperation, it will look to adopt a framework to strengthen protection and promote solutions in Central America and Mexico.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Development action and financing are central to the new model – to enhance policy dialogue, to expand service delivery, and boost economic opportunities for refugees and host communities. Together, these can build resilience and self-reliance and pave the way towards solutions over the mid and longer term.

After decades of piecemeal attempts, I am convinced that a fundamental change is under way.

Properly supported by policy instruments and development investments, the socio-economic inclusion of refugees benefits both them and their hosts, and is in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the principle of 'no-one left behind.'

This work is underpinned by the strengthening of several key alliances for UNHCR.

We are pursuing a transformative partnership with the World Bank; and I wish to share my deep appreciation to President Jim Kim and Chief Executive Officer Kristalina Georgieva for driving this vision forward.

The World Bank's global concessional financing facility for Middle Income Countries confronted by major refugee emergencies broke new ground, especially in the Middle East. Our two organisations have also cooperated closely in preparing the programmes to be funded through the World Bank’s IDA18 allocation of USD 2 billion in grants and loans for low-income refugee-hosting countries. Last Friday, the World Bank’s Board of Governors confirmed that the first submission of eight country programmes worth over USD 1 billion were eligible for financing.

We are also developing fruitful partnerships with other development partners. The African Development Bank, other multilateral development banks, and several bilateral development agencies are supporting host countries to include refugees and host communities in national development plans. Initiatives such as China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ have significant potential.

Our partnership with UNDP has been particularly enhanced in the Syria refugee situation. We are working with the International Labour Organisation on refugee access to labour markets, rights to work and livelihoods; and with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and other partners on refugee economic inclusion, and integration wherever appropriate.

This work resonates with the recommendations of the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing. The 'grand bargain' is driving a number of institutional changes also in UNHCR, under the leadership of Deputy High Commissioner Kelly Clements.

And we are participating in the work to advance the Secretary-General's reform of the UN development system. We hope that this will help facilitate joined-up political, humanitarian and development programming, drawing on the distinct, yet complementary strengths of institutional mandates.
Distinguished delegates,

Of the 17.2 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate, just half a million were able to return home in 2016.

This was twice the previous year's figure, but in some cases - including from Pakistan to Afghanistan, which accounted for the largest number of returns - they took place in less than ideal circumstances, giving rise to concerns about sustainability. Sudan and Somalia each saw returns of between 30,000 and 40,000 refugees. In other countries, such as the Central African Republic and Mali, where returns had been picking up, new outbreaks of insecurity have resulted in fact in fresh outflows.

Despite these challenges, we have a collective responsibility to refugees and the internally displaced to pursue potential openings for solutions. This calls for resolute action to address root causes, and reintegration support. And here again, it is critical to work with development actors.

And we should not forget that refugee resettlement is an important solution. Close to 1.2 million refugees need resettling globally. It is therefore an issue of major concern that fewer than 100,000 resettlement places are expected to be available this year – a drop of 43 per cent from 2016.

The increasing number of resettlement countries, and expansion of community and private sponsorship programmes are encouraging, but must be stepped up.  
I am convinced that we can do more to leverage resettlement and other legal pathways as instruments of protection, including, in some cases, through emergency evacuation mechanisms.

I support the European Commission’s recent call for EU member States to offer 50,000 new resettlement places - and in fact, wish to reiterate my own request to all Member States for 40,000 additional places in countries of asylum and transit along the Central Mediterranean route.

This is crucial as resettlement must be part of a comprehensive set of interventions which we are beginning to implement along the entire route, in particular in Libya, to improve access to protection and solutions in countries of origin, transit and asylum.

Another important area in which we work towards solutions is statelessness. Progress is happening. More than 60,000 people acquired a nationality or had it confirmed in 2016. Policy reforms have been approved in Brazil, Ecuador, Kenya, Madagascar, Thailand and ECOWAS Member States.

But the resolve needed to tackle large, protracted statelessness situations has been lacking. The rise in forced displacement also brings new risks of statelessness, and there is a growing trend of arbitrary deprivation of nationality.

Nowhere is the link between statelessness and displacement more evident than with the Rohingya community of Myanmar, for whom denial of citizenship is a key aspect of the discrimination and exclusion that have shaped their plight for decades.

Resolving their displacement in Myanmar, Bangladesh and elsewhere in the region will require an end to violence, but also a two-track approach to address the root causes of their flight: by resolving issues related to citizenship and rights, and through inclusive development that addresses the deep poverty affecting all communities in Rakhine State.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The New York Declaration calls for a broad range of individuals and entities to become directly engaged in refugee situations. It envisages a 'whole of society' approach.

Accordingly, we have stepped up our engagement with the corporate sector, philanthropists, sports and other foundations.

They play an important role in fostering positive attitudes and influencing public policy.

A few days ago, in Lima, Peru, I was invited by the President of the International Olympic Committee to launch a new Olympic Refuge Foundation, which will promote sports initiatives for refugees.

We are working with the International Chamber of Commerce to explore areas of collaboration with its network of over six million businesses.

And we are putting in place the building blocks to progressively increase our annual private sector revenue to USD 1 billion.

Existing and new partnerships with UN agencies and NGOs will continue to be indispensable to all aspects of our operations.

Let me flag in particular that we work with the International Organisation for Migration - IOM - in mixed asylum/migration situations, including in Libya and along the Central Mediterranean route. IOM’s new status as a UN related organization and our parallel engagement in the two Global Compacts are - I believe - opportunities to further clarify respective roles and responsibilities.

In 2016 we allocated USD 1.4 billion to more than 900 partners. Twenty percent of our programme expenditure was allocated to local and national partners, and we aim to raise this to 25% by 2020, in line with our 'grand bargain' commitment.

Because - as I saw once again in Bangladesh last week - the first responders in any emergency are always local people and organisations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

An important collective task awaits us in 2018 – the Global Compact on Refugees.
I have high hopes.
We are now moving into a more intensive period of consultation through the thematic discussions led by Assistant High Commissioner Volker Türk.

We have already held the first of these, and there will be four more in the coming weeks. I encourage your active participation, with concrete suggestions and ideas that might be built into the Programme for Action that we will propose as part of the Compact.

In December, at the High Commissioner’s Protection Dialogue, we will take stock of progress in applying the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, and of the results of the thematic discussions.

Based on this, a consensus document, developed together with you, will help structure a series of formal consultations in 2018.
Please continue to engage openly and constructively in this process.
Distinguished delegates,

Adaptation and agility have been central to UNHCR's capacity to respond to displacement caused by many of the major developments of the past decades – decolonisation in Africa, the outflow of millions in the Bangladesh war, military dictatorships in the Americas, wars in Indo-China, and the crises of the Cold War period and its aftermath.

All these called for, and generated, creativity, changes to our approaches, and investments in new expertise and capacities.

Most recently, the scale and nature of the Syria refugee crisis spurred us to try new approaches, harnessing new technologies in partnership with companies and revolutionizing the way we listen to refugees and meet their needs.

We live in what has been described as the 'age of accelerations', in which three of the largest forces on the planet - technology, globalisation and climate change - are all accelerating at once, with major implications for our societies, our ways of working and our geopolitics. Rapid urbanisation and vastly increased human mobility are aspects of this acceleration relevant to issues we deal with.

Adaptation is therefore more of a 'must' than ever. UNHCR's mandate for securing protection and solutions to displacement, and preventing and resolving statelessness, remains constant, and will continue to drive our work. But pursuing this mandate effectively in a changing world requires us to innovate.

As the vision of the New York Declaration takes root, UNHCR will also have to transform itself. The nature of forced displacement today requires careful reflection on our distinct contribution. This is underpinned by the legal and moral authority embodied in my mandate, but is also shaped by UNHCR's broader role as a multilateral actor with an international and cross-border remit, our strong field presence and proximity to displaced and stateless people, and our expertise and experience in protection, built over decades.

But the evolving context in which we now find ourselves calls for some deep reflection on where these strengths can be of most value: where they must translate into direct action; and where they should instead help us to play a more catalytic role – maximising the space for others to deploy expertise and resources, and helping shape and inform their efforts.

The preparations for the Global Compact provide the opportunity to explore and promote this transformation.

And the imperative of adaptation is also driving a number of important internal measures, for which we need your support.

In January this year, we issued UNHCR's Strategic Directions, setting out clear orientations for our work for the period until 2021, and areas of investment needed to pursue them while aligning with the vision of the New York Declaration.

I presented their initial elements in my statement to you here last year - including the core directions of 'protect, respond, include, empower and solve'.

To equip us to pursue this vision, I have launched a series of reform initiatives.

I commissioned an independent review of the design, structure and processes of our Headquarters. This made a compelling case for change to ensure that we remain a dynamic and field-oriented organisation.

The review will help achieve efficiency gains and better align our functions in support of our field operations. In many ways, it also mirrors the reforms announced by the Secretary-General. I have asked Daisy Dell to coordinate this effort.

We have already undertaken a significant reform of our human resources systems. In August we issued a new recruitment and assignments policy, aimed at ensuring a flexible, highly-qualified workforce with the right profile, skills and expertise, and we are pursuing a series of measures to further promote inclusion, diversity and gender equity.

I am also convinced that better data are critical to provide effective responses.

Under the leadership of Assistant High Commissioner George Okoth-Obbo, we are stepping up UNHCR's capacity to provide high quality data relating to refugees and host communities.
We want every refugee to have a unique digital identity. This will enhance accountability and facilitate two-way communication between refugees and service providers. It will also help prevent and reduce statelessness.

And this initiative will be strengthened by the launch of a new area of cooperation with the World Bank to develop a global data system on forced displacement over the next three years, producing timely, systematic, comparable, and reliable information, open to external access and indispensable to the increased involvement of development actors in refugee responses.

In line with our ‘grand bargain’ commitments, we are also making significant investments in cash-based interventions. Our cash support - most in the form of multi-purpose grants - reached 2.5 million people in 2016, and for the first time exceeded in-kind assistance.

We aim to work through inter-agency cash delivery mechanisms, using services managed by the private sector but available to all partners on the same terms and conditions, and I am calling on all donors to support this important approach.

In line with our Strategic Directions, we have just completed a review of UNHCR's engagement with internally displaced people. Work is now under way to implement its recommendations.

In the resource allocation exercise for next year, we undertook concerted measures to programme for IDP situations, with a particular focus on ensuring predictable engagement in support of our protection and coordination responsibilities.
We have continued to undertake reforms to strengthen UNHCR's oversight systems, including through changes to our oversight architecture. We are continuing to professionalise our Evaluation Service and to link the function more decisively to institutional learning.

I remain deeply committed to ensuring the integrity of all our activities. We have remained vigilant, with positive results, but there have also been preventable shortcomings. I have therefore decided to launch an ambitious, new approach to managing risk, preventing fraud and corruption, and improving programme delivery. We will call it ‘Risk Management 2.0.’ It will use state-of-the-art risk assessment techniques to strengthen integrity and unearth root causes of corruption and fraud.

We are already piloting this approach in Kenya and will expand to additional operations in the next year, pursuing these efforts in a spirit of transparency and cooperation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am deeply grateful for the strong support that we continue to be given by donors. In 2016, we received almost USD 4 billion in voluntary contributions – an unprecedented amount. But even with a total, in fact, of USD 4.4 billion available to us, we ended the year with a 41% funding shortfall.

This year, the picture is even less positive, despite increased needs. So far, we have raised USD 3.3 billion in voluntary contributions. Based on current projections, we estimate that we will have USD 4.2 billion in funds available. This will leave nearly half of the needs unmet.

The picture for 2018 – next year - is even more uncertain, and owing to the need for financial prudence, is already translating into a more conservative approach to planning for next year. Forced to prioritise, we are increasingly faced with impossible choices, and in some cases responses are falling below minimum standards, leaving people without protection and host countries without support.

I therefore appeal to all donors to sustain and increase support, through flexible funding and early contributions that avoid uncertainty and enable us to target funds where the needs are greatest.

Madam Chair, Distinguished delegates,

In my field missions this year, I have been consistently and forcefully reminded of the unspeakable suffering that forced displacement brings.

In my most recent trips - to Bangladesh, to Central America, to countries neighbouring South Sudan - I met severely traumatised children, separated from their families, and men and women who had suffered appalling atrocities, some with severe physical injuries.

I spoke with elderly refugees struggling on their own, and people with disabilities, uprooted from their communities and exposed to the elements in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions.

I met women who had been raped and others struggling to care for their children, their partners dead or missing.

Disoriented, traumatised and propelled into a precarious existence, their ordeal mirrors that of millions of refugees and displaced people globally.

When I am with them, I can’t help but feel that the world has let them down.

Today, the competing interests of states are too often pursued through regional rivalries and proxy wars, instead of the vision of a cooperative international order at the heart of the multilateral system.

Today, the focus is on short-term interests rather than long-term peace and stability.

Today, the despair of millions of men, women and children driven from their homes, cast adrift into a life of uncertainty, is a stain on our collective conscience.

But today I also have hope - hope that the commitments which resonated in New York a year ago are not forgotten; that we can work together with courage and compassion to restore a vision of international cooperation based on values; and that, through determined action, we can truly share responsibility in addressing the plight of the uprooted - and offer them the prospect of a better future.

Thank you.