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Statement at the Third Committee of the General Assembly, 74th Session

Speeches and statements

Statement at the Third Committee of the General Assembly, 74th Session

30 October 2019
Agenda Item 61: Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,
questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons and humanitarian questions

Mr Chairman,

Distinguished Delegates,

Let me start with a memory. Many times, many years ago, I sat in front of this Committee, supporting one of my predecessors as she presented UNHCR’s annual report. Sadako Ogata, a former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, passed away just a few days ago in Tokyo. UNHCR’s strength and credibility today owe much to her dedicated work and I would like to take this opportunity to remember her here, in the United Nations – an institution to which she devoted years of her life – and to renew our condolences to her family, and to the people and government of Japan for their great loss.

Next year, the United Nations will mark its 75th anniversary. Ensuring the safety of displaced people and finding solutions for refugees were among its earliest priorities – the subject of one of the very first General Assembly resolutions. The world was emerging from two devastating global conflicts, the Cold War was setting in and millions had been uprooted from their homes.

Today, this very concept of refugee protection remains of the utmost relevance. Some 71 million people are now displaced globally owing to conflict, violence and persecution, and the number continues to rise.

Their plight is also part of a broader flow of human mobility, driven by many elements: competition over resources; weak governance and growing inequality where development is not reaching those most in need; collapsing eco-systems and weather-related disasters; and the exploitation of ethnic, religious and other divisions by some unscrupulous politicians. Refugees emerge from these widening fault-lines – a warning sign of things going wrong.

Tackling the challenge of forced displacement, and its complex root causes, calls for a bigger and broader ambition than we have managed to muster in the past. This was the vision that shaped the development of the Global Compact on Refugees, affirmed by the General Assembly in December last year, and that is now driving efforts to apply a new comprehensive refugee response model.

Two aspects of the compact stand out.

One is its comprehensive approach that preserves the humanitarian imperative, but brings in peacebuilding, development action and private sector investment. In addressing the root causes and solutions for forcibly displaced people, we need to leverage the Sustainable Development Goals. Synergies between the refugee compact and UN reforms are relevant and strong.

Also, the compact reinvigorates our collective commitment to international responsibility-sharing that underpins the refugee protection regime. It demonstrates that beyond the damaging, unilateral approaches that sometimes surface, a commitment to addressing refugee flows through international cooperation still prevails.  The first-ever Global Refugee Forum, to be held in Geneva in December, will showcase what has been achieved, and generate fresh commitments to further progress.

The last year has underscored the urgency and relevance of the compact.

First, while much of the discussion on forced displacement continues to focus on arrivals in the global North, the most profound consequences are still in poorer and middle-income host countries. These include the 14 nations in Latin America and the Caribbean that are now hosting almost 4.5 million Venezuelans. There, as elsewhere, preserving asylum requires substantial and sustained international support, to bolster the services, infrastructure and economy of impacted countries and build the resilience of host communities. The Solidarity Conference convened in Brussels this week by the European Union, IOM and UNHCR was an important opportunity to focus attention and a first step towards mobilising more substantial resources.

There as elsewhere, the interface between humanitarian and development action remains vital. This is one of the key tenets of the refugee compact. Humanitarian action will continue but is now increasingly complemented by the systematic inclusion of refugees and host communities in national development planning, and in development funding.  We have made enormous strides, but should not underestimate the challenges – in terms of modalities, timing, amount of resources, and other aspects. This will require dedicated attention, building on the important results already achieved.

Second, responses to 'mixed flows' of refugees and migrants also continue to present very complex challenges, and generate divisive political debates. Legitimate anxieties around jobs, security, and identity are exploited for political gain – pushing people who are themselves excluded from the benefits of globalization against refugees and migrants – pitting exclusion against exclusion - without offering practical solutions. Measures taken or invoked to reduce flows - pushbacks, externalization of asylum processing, policies of deterrence - erode refugee protection. This is wrong and it does not really address the root causes of mixed flows, or the challenges of integration.

These situations are enormously complicated. In Mexico, for instance, where impressive examples of refugee integration are coupled with increasing migratory pressures from the region but also from Africa. We observe similar challenges in other parts of northern Central America and at the southern border of the United States, and also in southern Africa, and south-east Asia. The movements towards North Africa and across the Mediterranean are equally complex, presenting grave dilemmas for UNHCR, IOM and our partners, as we strive to find solutions and bring the most vulnerable to safety, while managing huge risks and countering the deadly impact of the people-smuggling industry.

Saving lives and safeguarding the dignity and rights of all those on the move must remain central, together with access to international protection for those with valid claims. Public confidence in the institution of asylum must be reinforced through fast and fair procedures, good migration management to help prevent the abuse of asylum systems as substitutes of migration channels, and investments in integration for those with a right to stay.

Third, long-standing and recurring displacement crises, as in Afghanistan and Somalia, regrettably, continue to persist in the absence of political solutions. Other, more recent crises are also now becoming protracted.  After eight years of conflict, Syria remains the largest displacement crisis globally. I am deeply concerned by the recent escalation of conflict in the North East, which has displaced tens of thousands over the last few weeks including more than 12,000 refugees in Northern Iraq. Let me reiterate my appeal for the parties to adhere to international humanitarian law, including by providing unfettered access for aid agencies to reach people in need, as winter sets in.

In the context of prolonged crises the compact’s emphasis on inclusion, resilience and development action - pending solutions - is critical. In the East and Horn of Africa, for example, the regional application of the response model by IGAD is helping strengthen asylum, access to rights, and refugee inclusion in health, education and national economies. Expertise and financing from the World Bank and other international financial institutions, bilateral development support and private sector investments are helping drive these achievements. These are already transforming the lives of many refugees, as well as refugee-hosting communities across the region, proving the validity of the model enshrined in the compact, and giving concrete meaning to the African Union’s decision to declare 2019 the year of refugees, displaced people and returnees in Africa.

Fourth, the question of how to advance voluntary repatriation and other solutions, especially in the absence of political settlements and a definitive end to hostilities, remains a pressing concern. At UNHCR, we pursue an ongoing dialogue with refugees on the complex factors that influence their decisions and their perspectives on their future.  

I wish to reaffirm our position that any return of refugees to countries such as Syria, Burundi and Myanmar is the best solution, but it has to be voluntary, safe and dignified. Returns must be driven by people, not by politics. It is up to refugees to decide when to exercise their right to return, to their areas of origin or choice – refugee voices and choices must remain central and efforts must be made to avoid that returning refugees become internally displaced.

Our approach however is not to stand back and wait. We must and will continue to work with Governments to help address barriers, support confidence-building measures and help create conditions paving the way for return. UNHCR will remain available to facilitate dialogue and solutions through tripartite approaches – and in the meantime, the outstanding generosity of asylum countries must be sustained.

Conflicts moving towards peace are rare, but when there is a chance, we have to pursue it. Positive developments in Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia have the potential to pave the way for solutions for millions of refugees and internally displaced people. UNHCR is already fully engaged – working with Governments and partners on preparedness efforts, and on the inclusion of the displaced in peace processes.   

Resettlement is another solution – albeit for only few. While some countries are stepping up their programmes, the overall number of places has plummeted. I am very disappointed by this. Resettlement saves lives and offers stability to refugees who are most vulnerable and at risk. UNHCR will work with Governments and other partners to leverage our new three-year strategy to intensify resettlement efforts and expand private sector and community involvement.

Fifth, we are stepping up our engagement with the 41 million internally displaced people around the world. Our new policy on internal displacement reflects our firm and revitalized commitment, placing particular emphasis on protection leadership, solutions and aligning our interventions with those of our partners. Major and priority IDP operations, in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the Lake Chad Basin, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ukraine, remain among our most politically and operationally complex. We are also responding with more resources to the Ethiopian government’s call for support to address recent large-scale internal displacement in the country. We salute the Secretary-General’s decision to establish a high level panel on internal displacement and will support its work.

Underpinning these five challenges is one which cuts across them all. The climate emergency has rightly taken centre stage on the international agenda, and climate-related causes are a growing driver of displacement. The term “climate refugee” is not based in international law, and does not reflect the more complicated ways in which climate interacts with human mobility. But the image it conveys - of people driven from their homes as an outcome of the climate emergency - has rightly captured public attention.

On our part, UNHCR is stepping up its work to highlight relevant legal frameworks and the protection gaps resulting from cross-border displacement in the context of climate change, and to help steer the policy and normative debate in this area. Depending on the circumstances, international protection needs may be triggered.

UNHCR will continue to work with partners to help governments deliver an operational response to disaster-related displacement, guided by protection considerations. We will focus more on reducing the environmental impact of refugee crises, through renewable energy options, reforestation activities, and access to clean fuels and technology for cooking, including through a new energy strategy. We also recognise that our own operational footprint has an environmental impact, and are taking action accordingly.

The situation of stateless people also requires greater attention. We are now entering the second half of UNHCR’s ten-year #IBelong campaign to end statelessness, and will be working with States and other partners to accelerate these efforts, building on the High-Level Segment held as part of the 2019 Executive Committee meeting earlier this month. This resulted in some 347 pledges, from 95 States, international and regional entities and civil society organisations. Addressing statelessness will contribute to our combined efforts in sustaining peace.

I am deeply grateful for the strong confidence that UNHCR continues to receive from its donors. Funds available in 2019 are estimated to reach 4.82 billion US Dollars; however, the gap between requirements and available resources has not decreased. We anticipate that private sector income will increase by 11% over last year’s figure, to 470 million US Dollars. Looking ahead, we will continue our efforts to diversify our funding base, in the spirit of responsibility-sharing and to ensure a stable platform for our work.

We are striving to match donor generosity with constant improvements in how we manage the organization. Our reform process aims to ensure an agile and effective UNHCR, with empowered field operations that can innovate and respond to local dynamics and opportunities. Our regionalisation and decentralization initiative is helping give greater authority and flexibility to country offices, helping us get closer to refugees, and front-loading support through Regional Bureaux located in their regions. Over the coming months we will carry out the last phase of structural changes, adjusting our Headquarters set-up in line with the new rebalanced authorities.

We continue to invest in the quality of our work, improving and streamlining systems and processes, and creating space for innovation. We are working on improving evidence-based planning, how we describe impact, and on increasing efficiency, in line with our Grand Bargain commitments and as an active participant in broader UN reforms. The new UNHCR/World Bank Joint Data Centre and our data transformation strategy will help inform and drive these efforts.

We also continue to embed a strong risk management culture across the organisation, and to strengthen systems and tools for preventing and responding to misconduct, including of a sexual nature. I am personally committed to eradicating sexual exploitation and abuse, and sexual harassment, and recently I succeeded Henrietta Fore of UNICEF as champion for this issue in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee.

Mr Chairman,

At the first Global Refugee Forum in December, Government leaders will come together to lay out the building blocks for the implementation of the Global Compact on Refugees, together with business, international organizations, experts, civil society, and refugees. It will be an opportunity to showcase successes, speak frankly about challenges, and announce bold, and new measures to ease pressure on host countries, boost refugee self-reliance, and advance the search for solutions.

The Forum should lay the ground for concrete responses and solutions, and chart a measurable, practical way forward, as well as offering a dynamic place of dialogue and reflection. I encourage all of you to help us secure high-level representation from States, and significant and impactful commitments that will greatly improve the future of refugees and host communities.

I believe that in the Global Compact for Refugees, we have a powerful tool, born of a narrative of possibility. Looking ahead, I trust that it will provide a springboard for our collective work – inspiring new generations and demonstrating, in so many practical and concrete ways, why international cooperation matters, and how it can be made to work.

Thank you.