Statement to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly 76th Session
Seventy years ago the Refugee Convention was approved at a special United Nations conference in Geneva. It marked a strong commitment by States to cooperate to protect refugees, assist them, and solve their plight.
That same cooperation towards finding solutions to forced displacement and other global challenges is needed today. If we are to face the immense challenges before us – conflicts, poverty, pandemics and the climate emergency – we will need to work together. And yet far too many politicians continue to espouse the ‘me first; my country first’ approach that helps win elections, yet achieves little in terms of practical solutions.
Being on the ground with refugees, the internally displaced, and stateless people in more than 130 countries, the 18,000 strong UNHCR workforce sees the consequences of the international community’s failure to cooperate – every day.
We see how the pandemic has left the most vulnerable – including refugees, the displaced, the stateless – exposed to both a stubborn virus and increasing poverty. We see how the failure to truly share vaccines has also affected countries hosting large numbers of refugees – usually not among the richest ones.
We see how the climate emergency’s greatest impact is on those who have contributed the least to the destruction of our planet, including a growing number of people forced to leave their homes. Tensions, conflict, and further displacement occur when resources are made scarce by climate change. Climate related displacement is thus a growing reality which I hope your governments will focus on at COP26 and beyond.
Conflict continues to be the main cause of displacement.
For more than 40 years, for example, Afghans have been subjected to fighting and brutal violence. Millions have been displaced within the country and abroad, with Iran and Pakistan, and other countries like Turkey, hosting generations of Afghan refugees. The situation is dire and I fear a rapid deterioration if we do not sustain the humanitarian response inside the country, but also (and especially) find ways to prevent a collapse of public services and of the economy. Failure to do so – and failure is upon us! – might trigger fresh, massive displacement of Afghans.
Meanwhile, UNHCR and the entire UN and NGO community will continue to expand the humanitarian response, including for the millions of internally displaced people and the more than 150,000 IDPs who have returned home as violence has begun to subside. And we will continue to press the Taliban to respect the rights of all Afghans, especially women and minorities, and to ensure that all Afghans can work and access services and exercise their right to education.
Working in areas of conflict – like in Yemen, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya or the Central Sahel - is also – regrettably – exposing us, more and more, to politicization of humanitarian action, or dangerous insecurity, or both. In these locations, for humanitarian action to be effective, we definitely require more resources, but also – importantly – the establishment of an enabling environment by all parties to the conflict in terms of security and access – something we have seen eroding dramatically, even in recent months, for example in Ethiopia.
The international community’s growing failure to make and keep peace, unfortunately, is matched by an equally growing trend of denying solidarity with people obliged by conflicts to flee their homes. We see it very often in wealthier countries – in the construction of walls and violent pushbacks; in restrictive laws and detention – including of children; in irresponsible efforts to externalize or outsource asylum obligations; and even in the manipulation of refugees and migrants encouraged to move to other countries through dangerous means for purely political reasons.
I understand the challenges posed by so-called ‘mixed movements,’ like those in Libya or Central America. And I fully appreciate that States must manage their borders. But as I have said many times, borders can be kept secure without depriving asylum seekers of their rights, for example through asylum processes which are both fair and fast, and the return (in dignity, and in respect of their own rights) of those assessed as not being in need of international protection. UNHCR will continue to work with States to prevent the indiscriminate rejection of people crossing borders, including on public health or security grounds, which is incompatible with the 1951 Refugee Convention and international norms.
The Global Compact on Refugees, affirmed by the General Assembly in 2018, has been a catalyst for the ‘whole of society’ response to forced displacement and it has enabled more than 1,600 pledges made at the Global Refugee Forum and afterwards, spurred progress on three regional platforms, and expanded our range of partnerships.
Development organizations - the World Bank, regional financial institutions and bilateral donors - have placed displacement firmly on their agendas, supporting for example host country services to ease the inclusion of refugees. They have mobilized billions of dollars and I strongly encourage all development actors to increase the proportion of grants made available to refugee-hosting countries to mitigate the consequences of COVID-19 and support the inclusion of refugees until repatriation or other solutions become possible.
Another outcome has been the greater involvement of the private sector. Around 11 percent of our income last year came from private donors, exceeding US$535 million. That includes contributions from nearly three million individual donors – a clear show of support for refugees from your citizens and taxpayers. This funding complements that of governments which continue to support UNHCR and refugees. I thank in particular our top three donors: the United States of America, the European Commission and Germany, and donors of crucial unearmarked funds, for the steadfast support.
I am grateful for the backing given by States to our reforms, which have continued apace. We have moved staff, resources and decision-making closer to the field and have improved planning and budgeting, while continuing to reinforce risk management and oversight. We have also continued to focus on integrity issues including fighting sexual exploitation and abuse, and sexual harassment; on countering any form of racism and discrimination; on achieving gender parity; on promoting diversity and a more inclusive workplace.
We have enhanced our response to the climate emergency and not only react to events, but also – following best scientific evidence – invest to anticipate, prepare, reinforce and empower those communities most impacted and with the fewest resources to adapt. Earlier this year we published our first ever Strategic Framework on Climate Action with three inter-related pillars of work around law and policy; operational response (including through predictive analytics); and reducing our own carbon footprint. Work is well underway including, for example, participating in reforestation programmes in Cameroon, Ethiopia and Bangladesh; using improved shelter products that are both better for the environment and local procurement, as in Yemen; and we are increasingly using renewables, like solarizing boreholes in Chad.
We have taken innovative steps to reduce our own emissions, working with the private sector to provide clean energy to offices. We have established – thanks to Sweden’s SIDA and Germany’s BMZ – the innovative Green Financing Facility – more efficient than traditional grants in shifting to renewable energy – and have set the goal of moving all offices to clean energy by 2030.
While we strive to improve responses to forced displacement, we must never forget that nobody wants to live with the anxiety of exile. This is why UNHCR continues to work on the other, vitally important aspect of its mandate: solutions.
In some instances this will mean integration of refugees and the displaced in their host communities: several States in Africa are leading the way by naturalizing refugees, and I was delighted – at our Executive Committee’s meeting last month – to recommend the general cessation of refugee status for refugees from Côte d’Ivoire after years of exile. The roadmap – voluntary repatriation and reintegration, or acquisition of permanent residency or naturalization for those wishing to stay in host countries - is exemplary, with much gratitude to the government of Côte d’Ivoire and those of Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania and Togo.
Similar solutions have also been found for stateless people. With the right political will, the problem of statelessness can be resolved. Much remains to be done in this regard, however, and efforts will need to be multiplied in order to meet the objectives of our #IBelong Campaign.
Equally, for those internally displaced, one strong focus of the report of the Secretary-General’s high-level panel is also – most appropriately – on enhancing solutions. UNHCR is committed to put its expertise to use in this regard, in partnership with others.
Other refugees will need to be resettled to third countries and I applaud the efforts of governments, like Canada, that have been steadfast supporters of resettlement over the years; and of those, particularly the United States, which have recently decided to step up quotas.
Some may find temporary solutions in countries of asylum, pending other more permanent outcomes. For example, Colombia has granted temporary protection status to more than 1.7 million Venezuelans on its territory. This not only helps regularize their stay and provide opportunities for Venezuelans, but benefits the State as well in terms of security and contributions to the economy.
There are also displaced people and even refugees who wish to return home before UNHCR is ready to promote or facilitate repatriation – even before peacemaking efforts are completed. In these cases, UNHCR will do its utmost to ensure that refugees have the information they need to make voluntary and informed choices. And if they take that difficult decision, we must provide them with the humanitarian support they need in countries of origin to restart their lives.
We observe this in several, protracted refugee crises, which pose a heavy burden on many host countries. And while supporting spontaneous returnees does not mean actively promoting repatriation, it is an opportunity to explore solutions and to work with countries of origin in progressively removing obstacles to return – as we do in Somalia, Burundi and Syria among other places. While most Syrians say they would like to go home, for example, many tell us that security concerns and physical and economic conditions in areas of origin prevent them from doing so. This is why we will continue to work in Syria to address issues of security and rights for returnees, but we also need to step up humanitarian assistance in areas of return while of course ensuring that support to refugees and host communities in the region remains strong.
Creating an environment conducive to sustainable solutions is primarily the responsibility of respective governments of countries of origin, but it requires the cooperation of host countries, and the contribution of donors. We have made significant progress in this regard for more than seven million refugees and displaced people in and around Sudan and South Sudan, and join the Secretary-General and others in calling for the political transition in Sudan to be put back on track. Failure to do so will – among other consequences – prevent further advances in solving displacement in the region.
Earlier this year, the Secretary-General launched his report on “Our Common Agenda”. He rightly challenged us all to step off the path we are on, which will inevitably lead to a ‘breakdown’ and a future of perpetual crises, and instead work together and find solutions that enable a ‘breakthrough’ towards a better, more sustainable and peaceful future.
The Common Agenda is a reminder that the citizens of the world demand international cooperation and urgent action to meet the greatest challenges before humanity - those that threaten our planet as well as our individual and collective wellbeing.
This is particularly important for the world’s most vulnerable, including the more than 82 million forcibly displaced people around the world. Despite suffering from COVID, climate, and conflict, they have refused to give up.
And remember: they are not just victims - they are strong contributors to a better world. They keep us safe – many of them volunteering as fire fighters; or as doctors and nurses in the battle against COVID. Many have done everything possible to give their children an education in the hope for a better tomorrow. Many have inspired us with their written words; their art; their dance; or – as in the case of the refugee athletes at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics – their ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to compete at the highest levels.
My appeal to you today, and especially to the leaderships you represent, is to be inspired by them. To refuse to give up simply because it is hard. And mostly, to put aside narrow, short-term interests and instead work together to solve the greatest challenges before us.
We, the peoples of the United Nations, deserve no less.
Merci Monsieur le President.