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UNHCR says it is "stretched to the limit" by the rising number of refugees

News Stories, 1 October 2013

© UNHCR/J-MFerré
The formal opening of the 64th annual session of UNHCR's Executive Committee in Geneva today.

GENEVA, October 1 (UNHCR) More people have been forced to flee from their homes by a string of displacement crises than at any time in nearly two decades, stretching the UN refugee agency's resources to the limit, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said on Tuesday.

António Guterres told the opening session of its governing Executive Committee's annual meeting that while UNHCR and its partners continue to help with major displacements from previous years, 2013 has brought massive fresh flows of refugees.

"This year alone, over 1.5 million refugees have left Syria, and hundreds of thousands fled their country across Africa from the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Mali and Somalia," the head of UNHCR said.

"As I address you today, more people have been forced to flee their homes than at any time since the Rwandan genocide [in 1993]. If refugees and internally displaced persons were a nation, they would make up one of the world's 30 biggest countries," Guterres said.

The High Commissioner opened the session of the Executive Committee, which sets UNHCR programmes and budgets for the next year, immediately after concluding a separate two-day discussion with members focused on the refugee crisis created by the war in Syria. There are now 2.1 million Syrian refugees outside the country and more than 4 million displaced inside Syria.

"UNHCR and its partners are doing everything possible to respond, but we are stretched to the limits by this combination of an emergency unparalleled in the recent past, and the persistence of other crises around the world," he said.

Although "multiple strains on our delivery capacity are growing from year to year," Guterres said his organization was delivering protection and assistance to the rising number of refugees. While acknowledging shortcomings, he cited several factors in UNHCR's ability to carry out its responsibilities.

Guterres said the most important factor had been the generosity of countries and communities hosting refugees. However, he warned that the international community must share the burden, noting that more than 80 per cent of today's refugees are hosted by developing countries up from 70 per cent a decade ago.

"The second factor in allowing us to respond has been the strong financial support from donors. While there are still significant shortfalls, funding has reached unprecedented levels both last year and this year. In 2012, UNHCR received US$2.3 billion in voluntary contributions a record which will be surpassed in 2013. Support from the private sector is also growing steadily from US$21.7 million in 2006 to an expected US$170 million this year," he said.

But Guterres said the organization faced a challenge to ensure that the funding for Syrian refugees did not come at the expense of other crises. While praising countries that had increased overall assistance to cover the needs of Syrian refugees, he noted that funding for UNHCR activities in several regions especially Africa had fallen.

The head of the UN refugee agency said raising funds to help internally displaced people separate from refugees because they have not left their home countries was becoming more difficult, with dwindling international interest in their plight.

However, he said, UNHCR had been strengthened by reinforcing partnerships in and outside of the United Nations. Internal reforms of UNHCR especially a reduction in headquarters costs from nearly 14 per cent to eight per cent of expenditure in recent years had also ensured more funds were available to help refugees.

"Since 2006, our operations have more than doubled in size, but we have only 13 per cent more staff globally, and 32 per cent fewer in Geneva," Guterres said. "Through this clear reduction in relative structural costs, we are now able to direct significantly more resources to protection, assistance and solutions for people of concern." He said UNHCR was now able to provide emergency aid to 600,000 people within 72 hours.

Guterres said he was particularly concerned to find solutions for "globalized refugee populations" where people who fled the same country, such as Afghans and Somalis, are now hosted by many states. "Many of them have been displaced for two decades or even longer. In some families, only the grandparents have seen their home country. Nonetheless, for many of these refugees, the return home remains a dream they one day hope to fulfill, once it becomes safe," he said.

"Even though some 5.7 million Afghan refugees have returned to their country since 2002, there were still over 2.6 million spread across 82 countries at the end of last year," he said. "The second global refugee population, the Somalis, has an even larger geographic extension than the Afghans. More than 1.1 million Somali refugees are currently registered in 109 countries."

The High Commissioner also expressed concern about the dangers faced by refugees, asylum-seekers and others travelling in mixed migratory flows. "These persons are often forced to rely on the services of smugglers, exposing them to harassment and exploitation, beatings, the risk of trafficking, or even death. "

This flow such as East African asylum-seekers and migrants and those making dangerous sea crossings in the Asia-Pacific region underlines the need for new approaches through coordinated regional responses, Guterres told the meeting.

The High Commissioner warned that the institution of asylum guaranteed by international agreements -was under increasing pressure, including in some countries of the developed world. Refugees and asylum-seekers often find they are obstructed at borders or face poor treatment if admitted.

"Substandard reception arrangements, the disproportionate use of detention, including as a deterrent to future arrivals, and a lack of adequate burden-sharing arrangements among states are our main concern," he said. "In addition, not all states are doing enough to fight intolerance, racism and racially-motivated violence, which pose serious risks to the safety of refugees and other foreigners."

Guterres also called for more countries to sign the two UN conventions to combat statelessness, where the lack of any citizenship can leave people in a precarious position. He pointed to the stateless Rohingya in Myanmar making perilous boat journeys to other countries to escape violence. "The eradication of statelessness within a decade is an ambitious goal. But it is one I believe we should be able to reach together," he said.

"Finding durable solutions for refugees and displaced people remains the ultimate goal of UNHCR's work, and its biggest challenge," Guterres said. "Last year, the number of new refugees again exceeded that of people who were able to leave displacement. This only underlines the urgency of reinvigorating the way we look at solutions."

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