UN chief says global refugee picture changing fast, new approaches needed

News Stories, 8 December 2010

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
The opening of the High Commissioner's Dialogue in Geneva today.

GENEVA, December 8 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres warned on Wednesday of growing gaps in the global framework for protecting the world's millions of forcibly displaced and stateless people, and appealed to the international community to urgently adapt and respond.

In a speech to governmental and other delegates in Geneva for the annual High Commissioner's Dialogue, a landmark policy gathering held behind closed doors, Guterres said the certainties of the post-World War II and Cold War periods were no longer sufficient to ensure that everyone needing international protection gets it.

"Today's challenges are interconnected and complex," Guterres said. "Population growth, urbanization, climate change, water scarcity and food and energy insecurity are exacerbating conflict and combining in other ways that oblige people to flee their countries."

The High Commissioner, speaking just days before UNHCR's 60th birthday next Tuesday, identified three areas as demanding particular attention in the coming year and beyond: "protection gaps" in the international system for protecting displaced people; the disproportionate burden of responsibility for helping refugees that falls on poor countries; and failures by many states to tackle statelessness a scourge depriving millions of people around the world of nationalities and other human rights.

With protection gaps, Guterres said these stemmed from inadequate implementation of existing treaties, insufficient accessions to relevant instruments, and holes in the international protection framework.

He also pointed to the need for action on an expanding list of displacement problems for which no agreed international solutions currently exist, including natural disasters, climate change, economic and other man-made calamities, gang violence and vulnerability arising from the uncertainty of post-conflict situations.

With burden sharing, the High Commissioner repeated his appeal of October this year for a "new deal" geared towards ensuring that front-line countries of asylum are not left alone in dealing with displacement from neighbouring states. Currently, developing nations host around 80 per cent of the world's refugees.

Guterres said models for improved burden sharing already existed, and he pointed to regional efforts in Latin America and Asia, including South America's "solidarity cities" initiative that promotes self-sufficiency among refugees, its "borders of solidarity' initiative which is designed to ensure that mass influx situations are not damaging to the interests of the host population, and, in Asia, the Bali process which promotes a broad-based approach to complex population and refugee movements.

On statelessness, Guterres said the top priority was to ensure that more countries accede to, and implement, the two key statelessness conventions. Currently, and despite the half century or more that has passed since they were created, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons has only 65 signatories, while just 37 countries are party to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

"The lack of nationality represents the denial of a fundamental human right in itself," Guterres said. "But people unable to exercise this right inevitably find as a consequence a range of other rights impaired. They may not be able to work legally or travel. They may not be able to access health care or obtain education for themselves or their children."

The High Commissioner said UNHCR was looking to states to work together with it during 2011 with a view to achieving demonstrable progress in all these areas in time for a proposed ministerial-level meeting on international protection in December 2011. This included, he said, pledging to accede to the conventions or withdrawing reservations, introducing legislation to improve implementation of the conventions at national level, helping resolve particular protracted displacement or statelessness situations, and collaborating with other states to address regional challenges.

By Adrian Edwards in Geneva

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The High Commissioner

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

Advocacy

Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

60 Years in Photos

For more than six decades UNHCR has been helping the world's uprooted peoples.

The agency's first task was to help an estimated 1 million, mainly European civilians, who remained displaced in the aftermath of World War Two.

But during the 1950s the refugee crisis spread to Africa, later to Asia and then back to Europe, becoming a global problem.

At the end of 2009, on the eve of its 60th birthday, more than 26 million forcibly displaced people were receiving protection or assistance frpm UNHCR. During its lifetime, the agency has assisted more than 50 million refugees to successfully restart their lives. More than half of the refugees the agency helps now live in urban areas.

In the past two decades, UNHCR has been helping increasing numbers of internally displaced people as part of an inter-agency approach. UNHCR has also been helping hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the crisis in Iraq, both inside and outside the country. UNHCR also has a mandate to help the world's stateless people, who number an estimated 12 million.

This is a pictorial history of those turbulent years, UNHCR's role and the struggle for survival of one of the world's most vulnerable groups of people.

60 Years in Photos

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

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.
Lebanon: UN Agency Chiefs Visit Bekaa RefugeesPlay video

Lebanon: UN Agency Chiefs Visit Bekaa Refugees

The heads of UNHCR and the UN Development Programme visited Syrian refugees and joint projects in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. High Commissioner António Guterres said that the Syria crisis had become the worst humanitarian tragedy of our times.
Iraq: High Commissioner visits Arbat campPlay video

Iraq: High Commissioner visits Arbat camp

Concluding a visit to Iraq, UNHCR chief António Guterres met with Syrian refugees in Arbat camp in the Kurdistan region. Guterres noted the recent proliferation of humanitarian crises, but urged the international community not to forget about Syria, "the mega protracted crisis of our times."