UNHCR chief warns at annual ExCom meet of risks to humanitarian action

News Stories, 28 September 2009

© UNHCR/J.-M. Ferre
High Commissioner António Guterres sits next to guest of honour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay (in red), at the opening of the annual Executive Committee meeting.

GENEVA, September 28 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres opened the annual meeting of UNHCR's government body on Monday with a warning that as global conflicts become more complex involving state armies, militias and insurgents humanitarian efforts are increasingly put at risk.

Recounting the deadly toll inflicted on UNHCR in Pakistan earlier this year, where over a six-month period three staff members were killed and one kidnapped and subsequently released, Guterres said the targeting of humanitarian workers "undermines not only the operations in question, but the very foundations of humanitarian action."

Opening the 60th session of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee (ExCom) in Geneva, Guterres said that providing humanitarian relief in an environment where the line separating the civilian from the military has become blurred is both "difficult and dangerous."

While the shrinking humanitarian space represents one of the greatest challenges the UN refugee agency faces, said Guterres, actions taken by some countries to limit access to their territories by asylum-seekers was effectively shrinking the "asylum space" in the developed world.

Guterres said practices by some countries to deny access to asylum procedures were not in keeping with international law, while other states had such low recognition rates for asylum-seekers as to render that access "meaningless."

These practices add to the problem of secondary movements, as asylum-seekers "search out states where they have some hope of having their protection needs recognized," said Guterres. "A truly European asylum space in this context is a must," he said.

The High Commissioner also updated delegates on the continuing reform process within UNHCR which, he said, is aimed at "finding the resources to protect more people, rescue more lives and bring home more refugees in safety and dignity."

Staffing at the agency's Geneva headquarters has been reduced by 30 percent, while global activities have increased by more than 50 per cent, he said. Work carried out by UNHCR's Global Service Centre in Budapest, Hungary would result in savings of US$13 million in rent and salaries in 2010 as compared to what it would have cost in Geneva.

Guterres also highlighted five global trends, which in combination with the world economic downturn, are causing crises to multiply and deepen. Population growth, urbanization, global warming, food, water and energy insecurity and migration are all more and more interconnected, he said.

Describing "an arc of crisis" stretching from south-west Asia to the Great Lakes of Africa, Guterres said two thirds of the world's refugees and three quarters of the 14.5 million internally displaced people assisted by UNHCR in 2008 resided in the area. In addition, nearly all significant internal displacement in 2009 had occurred there, notably in Pakistan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

While some 600,000 refugees voluntarily repatriated last year, this represented a 17 percent decrease over the previous year and was the second lowest return figure in the past 15 years. "Massive repatriation movements are decelerating as the situations in Afghanistan, southern Sudan, DRC and elsewhere are less and less conducive to return and reintegration," Guterres told delegates.

With opportunities for repatriation and local integration declining, the demand for resettlement places is on the increase. Last year, UNHCR submitted more than 121,000 refugees for resettlement, twice as many as were put forward in 2006. "While this represents just over 1 percent of the total number of refugees in the world," said Guterres, "it is already a larger number of refugees than there are places available." The importance of resettlement as a durable solution will only increase, he said.

Joining Guterres at the opening of ExCom was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay. The opening session also welcomed Djibouti and Moldova as new ExCom members. The week-long annual meeting reviews and approves UNHCR's programmes and budget, advises on protection issues and discusses a wide range of other topics.




The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

2009 Executive Committee Meeting

UNHCR's 60th Executive Committee met in Geneva from 28 September to 2 October 2009.


From life-saving aid to help with shelter, health, water, education and more.

Victims of Conflict in Nigeria Find Safety in Cameroon Camp

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visited Cameroon in late March to put a spotlight on the situation there of tens of thousands of refugees from Nigeria. These people have escaped mounting violence by insurgents in the north-east of their country. Among the places that Guterres visited during his March 24-25 visit is the Minawao Refugee Camp, where many of the uprooted have been relocated.

Situated some 120 kilometres from the dangerous border area with Nigeria in Cameroon's Far North region, Minawao camp is currently home to 33,000 Nigerian refugees, mainly from Borno state. Many of the arrivals are traumatized and in need of material and psycho-social help. They told the High Commissioner of losing their homes and belongings as well as members of their families. Some were injured. In total, an estimated 74,000 Nigerians have found refuge in Cameroon while cross-border incursions from Nigeria have displaced 96,000 Cameroonians. UNHCR photographer Hélène Caux also visited Minawao to hear the individual stories.

Victims of Conflict in Nigeria Find Safety in Cameroon Camp

UNHCR chief meets Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

On 1 August, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres travelled to northern Burkina Faso with the United States' Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BRPM), Anne Richard. In Damba camp, they met with Malian refugees who had fled northern Mali in the past six months to escape the ongoing conflict and political instability. To date, more than 250,000 Malian refugees have fled their homes and found refuge in neighbouring countries, including 107,000 in Burkina Faso alone. The UN refugee agency has only received one-third of the US$153 million it needs to provide life-saving assistance such as shelter, water, sanitation, health services, nutrition and protection to the refugees. UNHCR fears that the volatile political and humanitarian situation in Mali could lead to further outflows to neighbouring countries.

UNHCR chief meets Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie joined UNHCR chief António Guterres on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they met with boat people who have fled unrest in North Africa.

More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have crossed the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and descended on the small island since the beginning of the year.

The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador flew to Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Cameroon: High Commissioner Meets Nigerian RefugeesPlay video

Cameroon: High Commissioner Meets Nigerian Refugees

In Minawao camp, Cameroon, Nigerian refugees get a chance to tell their stories to High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres during his visit.
Jordan: Winter Camp VisitPlay video

Jordan: Winter Camp Visit

Syrian refugees living in Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan are still trying to overcome the damage done by the storm that hit the region last week. On his second day visiting Jordan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres visited the camp to see the impact of the damage. He was also able to hand them the key to their new home, a caravan that arrived part of a convoy to help those living in tents at the camp.
UNHCR: An Appeal for AfricaPlay video

UNHCR: An Appeal for Africa

The High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, called for more attention and help for African nations dealing with new and old displacements.