Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Opening Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fifty-eighth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 1 October 2007

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fifty-eighth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), Geneva, 1 October 2007

1 October 2007

Mr. Chairman,

Honourable Ministers,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to Geneva. It will be a great pleasure for me to work with you this week.

The present century is a time of human displacement. With each economic opportunity and departing vessel, every calamity and conflict, the 21st century is being marked by people on the move.

UNHCR is totally committed to deliver according to its mandate. Protection, assistance and solutions for refugees, along with the reduction of statelessness, form the core of our activities. Nothing will divert us or our resources from these responsibilities. But the effectiveness of our actions depends on our ability to understand the broader patterns of people on the move in today's world. Why is migration growing so dramatically? What are the current causes of forced displacement?

There are several explanations for the trends in migration. More and more people are moving in pursuit of better jobs or more fulfilling lives. Poverty remains a meaningful cause. Eager to join the global economy but unable to do so legally, thousands of poor migrants are resorting to increasingly desperate channels.

As I said last year and want to repeat here at the outset: UNHCR is not a migration management agency and does not want to become one. But to be able to fulfil our mandate, we must recognize the mixed nature of many present-day population flows. In the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aden and the Caribbean, along north-south frontiers and, increasingly, along south-south borders, in the midst of migrants in search of a better life there are people in need of protection: refugees and asylum-seekers, women and children victims of trafficking.

The ability to detect them, assure them of physical access namely to asylum procedures and a fair consideration of their claims, is a key element of our mission.

This is an area of privileged cooperation between UNHCR, governments and civil society. That is why, in the first edition of the "Dialogue on Protection Challenges" in December, you are all invited to participate in a free-ranging debate on the asylum-migration nexus and its protection implications. The discussion will also focus on UNHCR's 10-Point Plan of Action, developed in response to the new patterns of displacement.

UNHCR is fully engaged in the work of the Global Migration Group and supports the Global Forum on Migration and Development. We look forward to the second meeting of the Global Forum in the Philippines next year, and will continue to advocate for an approach to migration and development that effectively addresses asylum, protection and human rights.

But, ladies and gentlemen, the complexity of today's displacement goes well beyond the asylum-migration nexus. We see more and more people forced to move because of extreme deprivation, environmental degradation and climate change, and conflict and persecution.

Many move simply to avoid dying of hunger. When leaving is not an option but a necessity, this is more than poverty. On the other hand, natural disasters occur more frequently and are of greater magnitude and devastating impact. Almost every model of the long-term effects of climate change predicts a continued expansion of desertification, to the point of destroying livelihood prospects in many parts of the globe. And for each centimetre the sea level rises, there will be one million more displaced. The international community seems no more adept at dealing with these new causes than it is at preventing conflict and persecution.

For each centimetre the sea level rises, there will be one million more displaced.

I believe it is extremely important for us to examine the reasons, the scale and the trends of present-day forced displacement. It involves much more than understanding refugee flight in itself.

What is new is that the various causes are ever more related, the people on the move harder to tell apart. Each cause contributes to the other. In Darfur, for example, a Janjaweed attack on an African tribe's village may be motivated by the political crisis. But the results resemble that of another emerging pattern, a water shortage which sets herders against farmers. On my recent trip to Southern Africa there was a common understanding with governments that Zimbabweans seeking asylum based on persecution should be granted refugee status. But what to do with people who simply say they are hungry and cannot find the means to support their families? Can we knowingly send them back to such deprivation? It is obvious that some form of temporary shelter must be found. The answer to this complex dilemma clearly goes beyond our own mandate. But it is also our duty to alert states to these problems and help find answers to the new challenges they represent.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Understanding the broader picture should not divert us from our mandate. The causes of refugee flight are sufficiently worrisome. At the end of 2006, after several years of steady decline, the number of refugees worldwide rose to nearly 10 million.

Despite meaningful return operations, the upward trend has continued this year, with crises such as Iraq and the Horn of Africa adding daily to the ranks of the displaced. Today, Iraqis in - and outside - the country make up the biggest single group of displaced. Adding complexity to their sheer numbers, they represent the largest urban refugee group UNHCR has ever dealt with.

The heavy burden the Syrian Arab Republic and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan have borne to accommodate so many Iraqis, and its dramatic impact on the economy and society, underscore the pressing need for greater international solidarity. Their action places them on the list of very generous countries of the developing world - Pakistan, Iran, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Chad, Guinea, Zambia and Ecuador, to name just a few - which have hosted outsize numbers of refugees.

At the same time, and in cooperation with partners, notably through the cluster approach, we are present in 23 countries with a total population of nearly 20 million internally displaced people. So at the close of 2006, the figure of persons of concern to UNHCR stood at 32.9 million.

Rising numbers of refugees, added institutional responsibilities, the side effects from an increasingly globalized labour force, a shifting environment and an age of people on the move demand a range of targeted strategies and innovative answers. Forced displacement is not new. But in concert with trends of such far-reaching consequence, growing numbers of people of concern are not only a test for states and the international community, but a major challenge for our organization.

We must meet that challenge. And with your support we can do so. For that, we must match the dynamic and flexible nature of the tasks at hand.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our first responsibility is to direct as much of our resources and energy as we can to those challenges. With that goal, I pledged here a year ago that a larger share of funds would go to the people we care for, with a smaller share spent on the organization itself.

In 2007, for the first time in a decade, an upward trend in global staff costs has been reversed. Over the first eight months of this year, in operations covered by the annual budget, we spent US$36 million more on operations than staff. Over the first eight months of 2006 we had spent $17 million more on staff than on operations. If Supplementary Budgets are included the contrast is even greater. At the beginning of 2006, the number of staff members at Headquarters was 1,047; they are now 911. With the money not spent from last year's staff budget, we allocated $15 million to pressing needs in malnutrition, malaria, reproductive health, and sexual and gender-based violence in several of our operations. That money is making a real difference.

This is a complete reversal of a trend that was asphyxiating UNHCR and took us to the verge of financial paralysis at the beginning of 2006. And we are doing more with fewer colleagues, which speaks eloquently about the quality and dedication of our staff.

The turnaround is the result of short-term measures. But reform will let us go deeper, and we are now pursuing five key reform initiatives:

First, outposting. This June, following a feasibility study and careful analysis, we decided to outpost several administrative functions to Budapest, Hungary, thereby reducing 129 posts at our Geneva Headquarters. Once initial investments have been made, locating these services where they are most cost-effective will allow us to save approximately $10 million per year to be spent in operations. The transfer of functions to the new centre will be carried out in the first semester of 2008.

Second, decentralization and regionalization. A first step, setting out four models of regional structures to be adapted to different situations, has been approved. This will improve our field-based capacity for situational management and solutions planning and locate support services closer to the point of delivery.

Third, we are defining the methodology for a Comprehensive Field Review. The Review aims to determine which activities can be most efficiently carried out by UNHCR or by its partners, review the balance of international staff assigned to deep field and capital offices and the ratio of international to national professional staff, using available national competency to greater effect.

Fourth, improved management of resources. A revised Resource Allocation and Management framework was introduced in July this year in order to delegate increased responsibility and authority to the country and regional levels, allowing us to respond to changing operational needs quickly and efficiently. The heavily bureaucratized Operations Review Board was also replaced by a smaller and more focused Budget Committee, chaired by the Deputy High Commissioner. Let me pause for a moment to officially welcome him. Craig Johnstone joined us in June and has already demonstrated that he is an invaluable member of our team. I would like to say how very pleased I am to have him with us at UNHCR.

We are proposing a new budget structure comprising four separate pillars. I understand this is a complex issue, and the need to discuss it in depth. The first two pillars, encompassing refugee and stateless activities, will be funded on a programme basis. Our proposal is to have them managed separately from the second two, which cover internal displacement and reintegration activities, to be financed on a project basis. We believe that this can provide an adequate firewall, increased transparency and a better basis for results-based management.

Our intention is to present UNHCR's entire budget to the Executive Committee, including operations for the internally displaced which until now remained outside ExCom's governance. Through this, we hope to improve transparency, governance and oversight. It simply does not make sense that ExCom is not able to analyse IDP budgets. This will be a major and much-needed change in the way we work together.

The last initiative is in the area of human resources. Even if we are bound in large part by the UN's system-wide rules, we are determined to reform several elements of personnel management and launch a serious effort to review training strategies and career management, leadership preparation, performance and competency systems, and the assessment and feedback processes.

The method of our Change process - improving planning, reporting and accountability - is the basis for results-based management. Strengthening the organization's strategic planning remains a crucial area of work. Central to our success is our new RBM software, Focus, which we will be piloting in the coming three months in 10 countries. This is essential to RBM and, more importantly, to better describe the value of our protection and solutions work and its impact.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As effective as we aim to become, UNHCR will always need partners to have any chance of success. We are a member of the UN system and enthusiastic participants in ongoing reform efforts. I am particularly pleased that my friend, John Holmes, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, has accepted to speak to us today.

We have worked on the humanitarian response review through the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and, with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, on planning for integrated missions to ensure that the needs of displaced people are fully taken into account. I welcome the UN Security Council resolution last week establishing a multi-dimensional mission in Chad and Central African Republic. The mission represents a strong commitment to improving security for hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced, as well as to stabilizing a region at risk. We were reminded again this weekend of the Darfurian drama, and I wish to pay tribute to the great sacrifices African Union troops are making there.

We are deeply committed to the UN's cluster approach to situations of internal displacement. The framework has allowed us to successfully extend protection and aid to millions of people in need. At the same time, we have taken all the necessary steps, both in protection and financial terms, to ensure that our engagement with internally displaced does not detract from our core responsibilities. The reverse is true, in fact, as we are finding more synergies all the time, such as community-based assistance in return areas.

One of the most promising efforts now being made by the UN is the "Delivering as One" initiative, following recommendations by the Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on System-wide Coherence. Of the pilot countries, Mozambique and Tanzania are two particularly positive experiences and contribute significantly to the impact of our own actions. But in system-wide reform, as with structures and strategy we are bringing to UNHCR, there is a need for flexibility and adaptability. It is exactly because we want the reform to work that we have drawn attention to the need to preserve the integrity of mandates and the autonomy of the humanitarian space.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Protection is at the centre of everything UNHCR is and everything it does. The always-changing challenge of reaching people in need of it, wherever they are, remains our single greatest preoccupation.

Based on the Agenda for Protection, we have launched an internal debate on both strategies and standards through a Field Reference Group on Protection Policies. The Group includes UNHCR Representatives from all over the world and its first meeting three weeks ago tackled several critical issues. Among them were the dilemmas of responding to emergencies and winding down and out of operations, the strategic use of resettlement and the overriding challenge of delivering protection in the context of larger migration movements.

We do not want these debates to be exclusively internal. The way ahead must be open to broad reflection, innovative ideas and new tools - even disagreement. We will highlight the asylum-migration nexus at the December Dialogue and continue to bring critical topics facing the Office to that forum. I encourage States and NGOs to participate and hope you, too, will raise issues of concern.

Our goal must be to make the lives of those who are difficult to reach better. In all situations of displacement, women and children are among the most vulnerable. The Age and Gender Diversity Mainstreaming accountability framework is fully functional. Our "Women Leading for Livelihoods" project, launched this year, promotes the economic empowerment of refugee and internally displaced women by funding sustainable income-generating projects, and will be rolled out first to Roma women in Serbia and refugee women and children in Morocco. I look forward to the adoption of the conclusion on protection of children at risk, which will be a very useful guide in many of the circumstances in which we operate. ExCom conclusions remain an excellent source of 'soft law' guidance for States as well.

Another tool to address gaps is the Strengthening Protection Capacity Project. We are now elaborating this framework to increase the reach of protection in situations of internal displacement and statelessness, as well as for the implementation of our 10-Point Plan of Action. In the same way, at a meeting last month with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, we committed our organizations to new cooperation in several areas, in the field, on legal and policy issues, and on advocacy.

New asylum legislation gives us other means to fill emergent gaps. UNHCR supports the work to harmonize the European asylum system and has provided comments on the European Union's 'Green Paper'. Our aim of course is to ensure that a common system enhances, rather than diminishes, refugee rights and that we become more, rather than less, integrated in a new structure.

We are determined to go on building awareness. Greater consciousness and understanding of decades-old dilemmas helped contribute to remarkable breakthroughs this year in our fight against statelessness. In the last few months Nepal has carried out a massive regularization exercise, issuing citizenship certificates to 2.6 million inhabitants. And after nearly forty years in limbo, tens of thousands of Urdu speakers in Bangladesh, the so-called Biharis, will soon be confirmed as full citizens. I want to commend both governments for their actions, which demonstrate that with political will we can identify solutions for even the most intractable problems.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If our operational environment is dynamic, requiring new protection instruments and collaborative arrangements, other imperatives have not changed much at all. One is the need for long-term solutions for refugees. Of the traditional solutions - voluntary repatriation, local integration and third-country resettlement - return in safety and dignity, respecting the free will of refugees, remains the preferred one.

Of the traditional solutions - voluntary repatriation, local integration and third-country resettlement - return in safety and dignity, respecting the free will of refugees, remains the preferred one.

When one visits a refugee camp in a protracted situation as I did at Kilo 26 camp in eastern Sudan, or Goldhap in Nepal, or Kakuma in Kenya, or if one travels to Tindouf in Algeria, it is clear that we must go beyond a commitment to improve life in the camps. It is our duty to redouble our efforts and create conditions that will offer real hope for an end to both the refugee situations and the camps themselves. We must persist even if we know the solutions are most often not humanitarian, but political. Without political engagement, refugees will never see an end to their plight.

Last year 734,000 refugees repatriated voluntarily, half of them with direct assistance from UNHCR. The figure of returned internally displaced people was an estimated 1.9 million. So far in 2007, over half a million refugees have gone home with our help: 345,000 Afghans, 56,000 Southern Sudanese, 20,000 Burundians, 37,000 Congolese, and so on. This is indeed one of the most noble and rewarding missions we have.

The concern I expressed one year ago for the sustainability of returns is, however, every bit as true today. For us, the reintegration challenge means doing whatever we can to strengthen the tenuous links between relief and development, between a returnee's hope and the likelihood she will be able to start over, so that human security becomes a reality. But these links are not yet there. New initiatives like the Peacebuilding Commission and the Early Recovery cluster must deliver.

New initiatives like the Peacebuilding Commission and the Early Recovery cluster must deliver.

UNHCR will continue discussing with all interested parties - Member States, international financial organizations and development agencies - how the international community can and should be more effective in the support to the transition process in post-conflict situations.

Solutions should centre on return, but return by itself is often not enough. Some refugees do not or cannot return home. This year we have made significant advances on local integration: with the governments of Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia for the remaining refugee populations in those countries; with the government of Tanzania, in addressing the situation of '1972 Burundians'; in Latin America, where we are implementing microcredit, vocational training and housing schemes in the framework of the Mexico Plan of Action; and in West Africa, where last month ECOWAS and the Office signed an agreement, based on a previous freedom of movement protocol among ECOWAS countries, for residual groups of Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees.

One of our first priorities in reshaping the Division of International Protection Services was to strengthen refugee resettlement capacity. The need for third-country resettlement grows with refugee populations and, in particular, with protracted situations like the Bhutanese in Nepal, Eritreans in eastern Sudan and Myanmar refugees in Thailand.

I am pleased to say that after substantially increasing the number of resettlement submissions last year, we are on pace to surpass that number again in 2007. In 2006 UNHCR submitted over 54,000 individuals of 70 nationalities to 26 resettlement countries. Through June of this year, protection staff had already made over 42,000 submissions. Considering that just four years ago the annual total was 35,000 individuals, this stands as a considerable achievement. It is also a commitment to burden sharing on the part of receiving countries. Our biggest resettlement operation right now is Iraq, where UNHCR quickly developed the capacity to identify and submit vulnerable cases. Resettlement countries have responded, but more efforts should be deployed to speed interviews and the departures of cases. Host countries too should actively facilitate the work of all actors to make the process a success. We have reinstated the solutions aspect of resettlement. It no longer targets only individual protection needs, but will be a strategic component of a global solutions perspective.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As our actions and strategies evolve, so does our relationship with civil society. Running throughout UNHCR's reform and ongoing operations is a strong commitment to strengthening partnerships with the NGO and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movements. We want to make those partnerships an integral part of our actions.

In calling for humanitarian organizations to work more closely together, especially in the field, the July meeting of the Global Humanitarian Platform echoed our determination at UNHCR. We strongly support this new forum and look forward to future discussions on issues, such as access and security, humanitarian financing and capacity-building, that affect the entire humanitarian community.

Our approach to NGOs, the most invigorating and essential members of that community, should be clear. We see you as strategic partners, not implementing ones. UNHCR wants to think, plan and act together with you, needs you to be involved in our policy reviews, and asks for your help in improving our accountability to beneficiaries. For that purpose, we gladly accepted to be part of the Peer Review and have established a support group within UNHCR to make sure there is wide ownership and full realization of this important initiative.

NGOs: UNHCR wants to think, plan and act together with you, needs you to be involved in our policy reviews, and asks for your help in improving our accountability to beneficiaries.

In September, we had a first meeting with our 21 standby partners to exchange information and the possible harmonization of emergency deployments and interventions. I am also pleased that we have signed five new NGO-UNHCR strategic agreements this year. Beginning in January, the same unit at Headquarters will liaise with both UN agencies and NGOs. This gives a clear sign that we understand this relationship to be one of equals.

In this spirit, I want to pay tribute to the colleagues from JRS (Sri Lanka) and Intersos (Iraq) who recently lost their lives while helping others. These tragic events show once again how high a price NGOs pay to carry out their noble mission.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our efforts to control costs, coupled with favourable exchange rates, have put us on a more solid financial footing this year. The funding requirement for the remainder of the year stands at $73 million for our Annual Programme. Several Supplementary Programmes, notably Iraq, South Sudan, Darfur, Somalia and the recently issued Mauritania repatriation appeal, are still in need of support. I am confident that we can close the gap, which would confirm the strong backing we have received from donors since the Pledging Conference last December. If we do, the Office will be able to deliver an unprecedented level of protection and assistance to the people we care for.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I welcome you all to the fifty-eighth session of the Executive Committee, particularly new members Costa Rica and Estonia.

My congratulations to our Chairman, Ambassador Mtesa of Zambia. I am grateful for your dedication and personal involvement with us this year. My gratitude goes also to our newly elected Vice Chairman, Ambassador Van Eenennaam of the Netherlands, who has stepped into the role on short notice.

I would like to welcome our guest speaker, John Holmes, the Emergency Relief Coordinator. Thank you for accepting our invitation to address the Executive Committee today.

Protection, assistance and solutions for refugees, and reducing statelessness. Among shifting trends and interconnected root causes, we have our bearing. Headed into an increasingly mobile age, when people have more and more reasons to be on the move, what we do will be guided by our mandate. But the international community must be able to cope with all the new challenges. For that, political leadership is badly needed. And that can only come from Member States: only they have the legitimacy to shape the strategies and instruments to better serve people in need.

I thank you.