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"Sharing responsibilities - Refugees need protection"; Keynote Address to the Annual Conference of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid, By António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Speeches and statements

"Sharing responsibilities - Refugees need protection"; Keynote Address to the Annual Conference of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid, By António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

23 March 2012

Basel, 23 March 2012

Remarks as delivered

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to be here with you, the Swiss humanitarian community, and to address a topic that is at the heart of humanitarian work - providing protection and sharing responsibilities.

Our world is becoming increasingly unpredictable, and violent conflict is multiplying. The large displacement crises of 2011 - in Côte d'Ivoire, North Africa and the Middle East, in Somalia and Sudan - created nearly 800,000 new refugees, along with many migrant workers who also fled, particularly from Libya. While many Ivorian and Libyan refugees have since gone back, return remains a distant hope for those who were uprooted from their communities in Somalia and in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states of Sudan. Nearly a quarter of Somalia's population is now displaced, and more than five million people are affected by displacement in and around Sudan and South Sudan. More recent events in 2012 have caused some 81,000 Malians to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, and the number of Syrians who have fled the violence in their country has already passed the 40,000 mark.

But as new crises multiply, old ones seem to never die. Conflicts are becoming more intractable, and sustainable political solutions are rare, leaving millions of refugees unable to return home to places like Afghanistan, Somalia or the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. As a result, more than two-thirds of the refugees under UNHCR's mandate - over 7 million people - now live in what we call protracted situations of exile. That means they have left their country of origin more than five years ago, though for many of them it has actually been several decades. Whole generations of refugees are born in camps - in Pakistan, Eastern Sudan or Kenya there are tens of thousands of children whose grandparents were the last ones to see their home country. Living in protracted exile too often means living without a perspective for the future, with no durable solution in sight.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Forced displacement today affects more people, and for longer periods of time, than only a decade ago. But the cost of its consequences, contrary to what some media would like to make the public believe, is borne primarily by poor countries.

Recent crises are a clear illustration of this fact. Out of the nearly 1.5 million people - migrant workers and refugees - who fled from Libya during the early months of 2011, fewer than two per cent came to Europe. In general, the overwhelming majority of refugees find shelter and protection in countries neighboring their own. As a result, more than 80 per cent of the world's refugees are hosted in developing countries, many of which show a generosity that is well beyond their own means.

Despite this disproportionate burden, developing countries continue to show a remarkable hospitality and generosity towards those who seek safety at their borders. All of the countries neighboring the conflict zones of 2011 and 2012 have kept their borders open, even when faced with tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of new arrivals in the space of just a few weeks. Liberia and Ghana, Tunisia and Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen and Djibouti, South Sudan, and more recently Mauritania, Niger, Algeria and Burkina Faso are all to be commended for their unwavering commitment to the principles of refugee protection, keeping their borders open when their neighbors are in crisis.

Many of the countries hosting large numbers of refugees do not have the capacity to manage this pressure on their own. Nor should they have to. The key to successful humanitarian response - and to long-term solutions - lies in the theme of today's conference: responsibility and burden-sharing. I would like to discuss two aspects of this theme that are crucial to UNHCR's mandate: the provision of refugee protection, and the achievement of durable solutions to forced displacement.

Firstly, protection. The entire system of refugee protection is built upon the notion of solidarity and the sharing of responsibilities. The most fundamental contribution States make to protection through responsibility-sharing is access to their territory for those seeking asylum. In times of globalized human smuggling and trafficking, as well as heightened security concerns, all countries must manage their borders responsibly to ensure the safety and well-being of their own societies. However, addressing this very legitimate concern must not come at the expense of another imperative - that of providing refuge to those who need it. Protection-sensitive border management policies are a must. In this context, the recent landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg regarding the 2009 pushbacks of Eritreans and Somalis from Italian waters to Libya provided important guidance to governments in their border control and interception practices, as a reminder of state responsibilities in the management of mixed migration flows.

Another crucial aspect of responsibility-sharing for protection at the national level is to guarantee quality procedures and fair treatment of asylum claims. Many asylum systems continue to be marred by poor quality decision-making, disproportionately low recognition rates or a lack of access to legal services. The rising rates of detention are equally worrying, as this can have a drastic human impact, including on the physical and mental health of asylum-seekers. In many situations, refugees do not have freedom of movement, access to social care or the permission to work.

Regional cooperation is as important in this context as ensuring quality systems at the level of the individual state. The European Union is a stark example of how refugee protection suffers when effective mechanisms for responsibility-sharing are not in place. Asylum systems within Europe are vastly different, creating a dysfunctional system where an Afghan's chances of finding protection vary from 8% to 91% depending on the EU member state where the claim is lodged. The European Union is currently making a number of efforts to improve this situation and to establish a Common European Asylum System, but there is still a long way to go.

One year after the start of the Arab spring, the countries on the Southern Mediterranean face many challenges and opportunities, including from the point of view of asylum systems. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in particular need to be supported in their efforts to put in place effective protection. Europe must help these countries to build asylum capacity, but should not aim at turning them into a "dumping ground" for people in need of protection. On the contrary, Europe should be ready to help share the burden of the heavy asylum pressures many North African countries will be faced with in the near future. Switzerland's Protection in the Region programmes for several countries in the Middle East are a useful step in this direction, and I hope to see the scope of these programmes expand in the future.

Finally, responsibility-sharing in refugee protection is also about effective and speedy assistance in emergencies. UNHCR is enormously appreciative of the contribution which Switzerland and the Swiss Humanitarian Aid corps in particular make to this effort. Our cooperation with the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation in responding to recent emergencies in Africa and the Middle East has been very close and effective. Swiss humanitarian experts are deployed to UNHCR operations all over the globe, sharing their technical expertise in water, sanitation, renewable energy sources, shelter and site planning. And, whenever and wherever a new crisis strikes, Switzerland can be counted upon for its much-needed funding support, allowing us to respond quickly. I am deeply grateful for this strong and reliable partnership.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The second aspect I mentioned earlier where responsibility-sharing is fundamental in the context of UNHCR's mandate is the support to durable solutions and solidarity with the local communities sheltering refugees. This can take several forms.

First of all, resettlement opportunities. Over the past decades, hundreds of thousands of refugees with nowhere else to go have found an opportunity to restart their lives in third countries. In addition, resettlement can play a strategic role in unlocking other durable solutions, particularly by helping to reduce pressures created by long-standing refugee situations.

UNHCR estimates that today up to 800,000 refugees worldwide may be in need of resettlement, because they cannot find sustainable protection in their first country of asylum and are unable to return home. But resettlement countries only have the capacity to take in one-tenth of this number every year. While the number of States offering resettlement opportunities continues to grow, more concerted efforts are needed to increase the number of resettlement spaces. I would be delighted to see Switzerland join this effort and consider making a regular quota of resettlement spaces available for refugees.

A second form of burden-sharing is through development assistance. An increasing number of donor countries are becoming aware of the importance of broadening their development cooperation programmes to target refugee-hosting and returnee areas. This is essential for making solutions sustainable, in particular in areas where the capacities of local communities are overstretched following wartime destruction or years of hosting large refugee populations. Environmental rehabilitation after the departure of refugees is another way the international community can share the burden poor countries are often faced with. UNHCR and UNDP have established a Transitional Solutions Initiative, together with the World Bank and other partners, which aims at facilitating local integration or at least self-reliance of refugee groups and their host communities, particularly in protracted situations such as East Sudan. Again Switzerland's support to this initiative would be an important signal of solidarity with countries which have hosted large numbers of refugees for decades.

Third, responsibility-sharing also means genuine support to political processes aiming at solutions. In the Western Balkans, the so-called "Sarajevo Process" - led by the governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia and facilitated by UNHCR - is now aiming at closing the refugee chapter of the 1990s in this region, by providing a durable solution to over 73,000 persons. Donor support is crucial at this juncture, trying to bring a positive and sustainable closure to one of the most painful periods of recent European history.

Switzerland is already playing a key role in supporting a similar regional process for a Solutions Strategy for Afghan refugees, which focuses on voluntary repatriation, sustainable reintegration and assistance to host countries. I am very grateful to the Swiss government for hosting an international conference planned in Geneva in six weeks, where representatives of the Governments of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan will meet with key stakeholders to endorse the solutions strategy and its implementation mechanism, including resource mobilization.

Ultimately, beyond the three "classic" refugee solutions of voluntary return, local integration and resettlement, it may be time for States to start thinking more concretely about how to complement the different responsibility-sharing measures I have mentioned with another approach - facilitating mobility through managed migration policies.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

What I have set out here today were several ways in which responsibility-sharing is central to UNHCR's mandate of providing protection for those who are forced to flee their homes. Perhaps the most appropriate way to conclude my remarks would be to focus, rather than on the response to forced displacement, on what we must do to help prevent it from happening in the first place.

In a world where displacement is becoming increasingly complex, our focus needs to shift much more forcefully towards prevention. People are no longer being uprooted only by violent conflict or individual persecution. Population growth, food and water scarcity, rapid urbanization and the effects of climate change are some of the broader factors at play, particularly in the developing world, that work to exacerbate other drivers of displacement, including conflict itself.

In this context, we - humanitarian and development actors alike - must make much more serious efforts than previously to integrate risk management strategies into our programs. We must spend more money and expertise on building resilience rather than perpetuate humanitarian assistance without taking into account and strengthening local capacities. Given the gap that continues to exist between the humanitarian and the development spheres, this is much more easily said than done. Community development programs in rural areas are one example for such preventive programming. Youth unemployment must also be recognized as a critical factor of social instability and a potential source of violence and conflict, necessitating much more attention and priority-setting in development cooperation programs.

Better adaptation to the effects of climate change is another issue that States need to address with more urgency and resources than has so far been the case. With these effects impacting most heavily on poor states, which bear the least responsibility for climate change, it is imperative for the international community to make good on its promises to put in place a massive support program for climate change adaptation in developing countries that are likely to be most affected. A development-oriented and area-wide approach is thus required, ensuring that the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society are able to enjoy the human security and human rights to which they are entitled.

In this context, I am encouraged by the Federal Councillor's earlier remarks about Switzerland's commitment to actively pursue the agenda of improving resilience and risk management at the upcoming Rio+20 conference.

As more and more people will be at risk of having to move from their homes and communities because of detrimental effects of climate change, Switzerland has also taken on a key supporting role in the context of environmentally-related displacement. At a ministerial conference organized by UNHCR in December last year, Switzerland pledged to work with a number of other countries and UNHCR to establish an international dialogue focusing on how to fill gaps in the current international protection framework for the forcibly displaced.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In closing, I would like to reiterate the importance of Switzerland's leadership, and expertise, in all the various forms of responsibility-sharing I have discussed here today. Your humanitarian tradition - the strongest of any country in the world - makes you a key partner for all of us who are working to protect the world's most vulnerable people. Your recent initiative to strengthen the protection of civilians in armed conflict attests to this.

We and other humanitarians benefit from Switzerland's strong support for humanitarian principles and the preservation of humanitarian space. At a time when aid is becoming more politicized, when many among the multiple actors in today's conflicts are showing less and less respect for humanitarian principles, and when the traditional distinctions between civilian and military spheres are growing increasingly blurred, humanitarian work all too often means risking one's own life while helping others. Let me say thank you to Switzerland for its needs-based, principle-minded approach to humanitarian assistance, a key element in preserving the space we need to carry out our work. Although many tend to forget it, this too is responsibility-sharing.

Thank you very much.