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UNHCR briefing on global refugee crisis

22 November 20170 comments

The UNHCR’s regional Representative in Australia Thomas Albrecht recently gave a briefing to refugee community groups on the global refugee crisis and moves afoot to find solutions.

The talk highlighted increasing humanitarian crises in places like Myanmar, where half a million Rohingya people had fled their homes in just five weeks, in South Sudan, where recently 50,000 people have been made homeless, and in Yemen, where three million people are now displaced.

Mr Albrecht of the plight of countless more refugees in places like the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo; and of the ongoing situations in more familiar places such as Syria and Somalia.

He revealed that this year globally there are 1.2 million people in need of resettlement but just 100,000 places available – a decrease 43 per cent on last year.

Mr Albrecht spoke also said that in 2016 $US4 billion was donated to efforts to support refugees but that figure fell 41 per cent short of the funds needed.

This year $US4.2 billion has been raised but that is just half the amount needed and is forcing a prioritising of where resources are targeted.  Mr Albrecht said this amounted to “impossible choices”.

But he said a new ‘Global Compact on Refugees’ offered hope for a comprehensive global response to the refugee crisis and the end of refugees as tools in national politics.

Here is a full transcript of Mr Albrecht’s briefing:


“Dear colleagues and friends,

I am delighted to be here with you once again for the AMES Annual Consultations for 2017. Such an event provides us with an important moment to celebrate what we have done well, to reflect upon recent developments, and always to build upon achievements, and strive to do better for those we serve.

In the past year, we have again been struck by the continued and growing displacement of innocent civilians around the world. In just five weeks, half a million Rohingya refugees have fled terrifying violence in Myanmar, their rights progressively eroded over decades. As they crossed into Bangladesh, more than 50,000 refugees were at the same time fleeing South Sudan – the promise of independence squandered as the country empties itself of its people. And another 18,000 were fleeing fierce clashes in the Central African Republic, despite earlier signs that conflict might be easing.

Ongoing crises are deepening. And for many refugees, the search for safety and protection has become more dangerous. In northern Central America, tens of thousands of men, women and children are on the move, looking for a place of refuge from gang violence.

In Yemen, almost three million people are internally displaced, as the country faces looming famine, a large-scale cholera outbreak, and the daily impact of a conflict waged in blatant disregard for civilian lives.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, violence in the Kasai region has triggered a refugee outflow to Angola, and pushed the number of internally displaced people beyond three million.

Along the Central Mediterranean route to Europe, stretching from below the Sahara through Libya to Italy, refugees from Eritrea, Somalia and elsewhere continue to face grave exploitation and abuse, alongside thousands of migrants. Those who survive the journey, or find their way back home, are deeply physically and psychologically harmed.

Long-standing crises remain deeply entrenched. In Somalia, the Government is making important efforts to improve security and the rule of law. Yet fighting and direct attacks on villages and civilian infrastructure continue, and severe drought has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people.

In Afghanistan, the number of civilian casualties has reached its highest level in more than a decade.

In Tindouf, Algeria, vulnerable Sahrawi refugees are barely surviving on diminishing food rations, after four decades awaiting a solution. Displacement also affects hundreds of thousands in Burundi, Ukraine, and Venezuela; and the list continues.

Just over a year ago, States gathered in New York to reaffirm the fundamental values of solidarity and protection for people forced into exile. They agreed to share responsibility for embedding them in practical action. And they decided to address and resolve refugee flows through a new model that places the rights, interests and potential of refugees and of their hosts at the heart of a comprehensive response.

Dear Friends, realizing this ambition has never been more urgent. The compelling circumstances that drove the adoption of the New York Declaration have obviously not gone away. Without the shared sense of purpose needed to prevent, stem and solve conflicts, the world will continue to face new refugee flows, and must reinforce its capacity to respond.

Refugees and displaced people are the most visible symptom of fractured societies, in which a combination of root causes foster conditions for conflict and persecution. Underdevelopment and poverty, climate change and environmental degradation, inequality and exclusion, poor or absent governance, and weak rule of law allow anger, instability, violent extremism, transnational criminal networks and organized gangs to take hold.

But refugee flows are also the consequence of faltering international cooperation.

The refugee issue has always had political dimensions, but these have escalated forcefully in recent years. Refugees have become a prominent issue in local and national politics, and even an instrument in the relationship between States.

Principled leadership has frequently given way to an erosion of refugee rights, driven by confused and sometimes frightened public opinions often stirred up by irresponsible politicians. International cooperation has been replaced by fragmented responses, resulting in restrictive immigration and asylum measures, even in countries with their own histories of exile and migration, and a proud tradition of welcome.

Border closures; measures to limit admission or deflect responsibility; restrictive asylum procedures; indefinite detention in appalling conditions; offshore processing; pressure for premature returns – all have regrettably proliferated. And rising xenophobia has targeted refugees as well. We have observed the protection environment deteriorate in many parts of the world, including in industrialized countries – in Europe, in the United States, and here in Australia.

Yet, there has been a parallel groundswell of solidarity with refugees rooted in civil society and often reinforced through strong leadership by mayors, business leaders, and other public figures. Measures to deter and exclude have been countered by individual and collective acts of compassion and welcome.

And the international character of refugee protection has taken on new forms – through networks of cities, civil society organizations, private sector associations, sport entities and other forms of collaboration stretching across borders.

Despite the tireless work of individual communities, UNHCR colleagues and partners around the world to provide protection and support, challenges continue to grow. It is time to ready ourselves for the future – and to sustain and accelerate the shift in how we respond to forced displacement.

The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework annexed to the New York Declaration offers a new model for response. Never before has there been such a universal convergence around the need to reshape how we engage in refugee crises, bringing tried and tested elements and new ones together in one framework. This will be further crystallized in the Global Compact on Refugees – a responsibility-sharing mechanism that should engage all member States.

In concrete terms, this process will result in more predictable support to host countries and communities, more resettlement places and other legal pathways to third countries, and greater engagement in solving conflicts (and root causes) so that voluntary repatriation becomes a real and sustainable option. All elements must be worked on together, with equal determination. We continue to work with Australia, as one of the world’s strongest resettlement countries, on alternative entry pathways. With less than one-tenth of resettlement needs currently addressed, identifying complementary ways for refugees to find solutions (under other migration streams) is vital.

Developing labour migration as a pathway for refugees and removing undue access restrictions is one important means of increasing options for displaced people. At the same time, opportunities to access education, including financial support and scholarships, and the removal of regulations that currently preclude refugees from the relevant visas, are critical.

Changes to the way refugees and asylum-seekers are supported in the earliest moments in Australia (or any country) have the capacity to dramatically increase humanitarian entrants’ ability to contribute positively at all stages of the settlement journey. Work on recognition of qualifications, and complementary pathways that allow refugees to also access business and skilled labour streams can greatly augment this success.

Community sponsorship programmes have enormous potential to create additional places that require less financial and other support from government. Care must be taken, however, to ensure that community sponsorship is never used as a substitute for government sponsorship.

Unless such places are clearly separated and additional, discrimination can occur in favour of refugees with connections and the necessary means in Australia, versus those without.

Settlement providers are placed in a unique situation in that they must advocate in favour of their own clients, who understandably wish to sponsor families in need, while also needing to uphold the principles of international protection. Being principled about a needs-based approach to resettlement is, however, the only way of ensuring a truly humanitarian entry programme.

Significantly, these efforts are all being planned while the Secretary-General’s peace and security reforms are taking shape, embedding conflict prevention and mitigation, and efforts to sustain peace, as the core task of the United Nations.

This is therefore a unique juncture; an opportunity that must not be lost. The Framework is now being applied by 11 States – Costa Rica, Djibouti, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Somalia, Uganda, and the United Republic of Tanzania. Elements are also being applied in other operations and will increasingly be extended to all large-scale refugee situations, both new and protracted.

We are already seeing concrete changes on the ground. In Ethiopia, for example, 20,000 additional refugee children were enrolled in primary school in the last school year, and tens of thousands of refugees will soon be able to work legally and contribute to the local economy.

Uganda’s progressive policies, admitting all refugees to its territory and allocating land to them, have held firm despite colossal pressures. The Solidarity Summit held in June generated important international support.

Development action and financing are central to the new model – to enhance policy dialogue, to expand service delivery, and boost economic opportunities for refugees and host communities. Together, these can build resilience and self-reliance and pave the way towards solutions over the mid and longer term.

After decades of piecemeal attempts, I am convinced that a fundamental change is under way. Properly supported by policy instruments and development investments, the socio-economic inclusion of refugees benefits both them and their hosts, and is in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the principle of ‘no-one left behind.’

Despite the challenges, we have a collective responsibility to refugees and the internally displaced to pursue potential openings for solutions. This calls for resolute action to address root causes, and reintegration support. And here again, it is critical to work with development actors.

We should not forget that refugee resettlement is an important solution for the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable. Close to 1.2 million refugees need resettling globally. It is therefore an issue of major concern that fewer than 100,000 resettlement places are expected to be available this year – a drop of 43 per cent from 2016.

The increasing number of resettlement countries, and expansion of community and private sponsorship programmes are encouraging, but must be stepped up. I am convinced that we can do more to leverage resettlement and other legal pathways as instruments of protection, including, in some cases, through emergency evacuation mechanisms.

The New York Declaration calls for a broad range of individuals and entities to become directly engaged in refugee situations. It envisages a ‘whole of society’ approach. Accordingly, we have stepped up our engagement with the corporate sector, philanthropists, sports and other foundations. They play an important role in fostering positive attitudes and influencing public policy.

An important collective task awaits us in 2018 – the Global Compact on Refugees. I have high hopes. We are now moving into a more intensive period of consultation through the thematic discussions led by Assistant High Commissioner Volker Türk.

We have already held the first of these, and there will be four more in the coming weeks. I encourage your active participation, with concrete suggestions and ideas that might be built into the Programme for Action that we will propose as part of the Compact.

In December, at the High Commissioner’s Protection Dialogue, we will take stock of progress in applying the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, and of the results of the thematic discussions.

Adaptation and agility have been central to UNHCR’s capacity to respond to displacement caused by many of the major developments of the past decades – decolonization in Africa, the outflow of millions in the Bangladesh war, military dictatorships in the Americas, wars in Indo-China, and the crises of the Cold War period and its aftermath. All these called for, and generated, creativity, changes to our approaches, and investments in new expertise and capacities.

We live in what has been described as the ‘age of accelerations’, in which three of the largest forces on the planet – technology, globalization and climate change – are all accelerating at once, with major implications for our societies, our ways of working and our geopolitics. Rapid urbanization and vastly increased human mobility are aspects of this acceleration relevant to issues we deal with.

Adaptation is therefore more of a ‘must’ than ever. UNHCR’s mandate for securing protection and solutions to displacement, and preventing and resolving statelessness, remains constant, and will continue to drive our work. But pursuing this mandate effectively in a changing world requires us to innovate.

As the vision of the New York Declaration takes root, UNHCR will also have to transform itself. The nature of forced displacement today requires careful reflection on our distinct contribution.

This is underpinned by the legal and moral authority embodied in our mandate, but is also shaped by UNHCR’s broader role as a multilateral actor with an international and cross-border remit, our strong field presence and proximity to displaced and stateless people, and our expertise and experience in protection, built over decades.

But the evolving context in which we now find ourselves calls for some deep reflection on where these strengths can be of most value: where they must translate into direct action; and where they should instead help us to play a more catalytic role – maximizing the space for others to deploy expertise and resources, and helping shape and inform their efforts.

The preparations for the Global Compact provide the opportunity to explore and promote this transformation. And the imperative of adaptation is also driving a number of important internal measures, for which we need your support.

I am deeply grateful for the strong support that we continue to be given by donors. In 2016, we received almost USD 4 billion in voluntary contributions – an unprecedented amount. But even with a total, in fact, of USD 4.4 billion available to us, we ended the year with a 41% funding shortfall.

This year, the picture is even less positive, despite increased needs. So far, we have raised USD 3.3 billion in voluntary contributions. Based on current projections, we estimate that we will have USD 4.2 billion in funds available. This will leave nearly half of the needs unmet.

The picture for 2018 – next year – is even more uncertain, and owing to the need for financial prudence, is already translating into a more conservative approach to planning for next year.

Forced to prioritize, we are increasingly faced with impossible choices, and in many cases responses – yet again – are falling well below minimum standards, leaving people without protection and host countries without support. We therefore appeal to all donors to sustain and increase support, through flexible funding and early contributions that avoid uncertainty and enable us to target funds where the needs are greatest.

In my own missions this year, principally in Papua New Guinea, Nauru and here in Australia, I have been emphatically reminded of the unspeakable suffering that forced displacement brings, and the ways in which it can be exacerbated if met with punishment instead of protection. I have met too often with people who have experienced violence and trauma, who have been separated from their immediate family, and who have suffered the harsh and devastating consequences of Australia’s “offshore processing” approach. When I am with them, I can’t help but feel that the world has let them down.

Today, the focus is on short-term interests rather than long-term peace and stability. Today, the despair of millions of men, women and children driven from their homes, cast adrift into a life of uncertainty, is a stain on our collective conscience.

But today I also have hope – hope that the commitments which resonated in New York a year ago are not forgotten; that we can work together with courage and compassion to restore a vision of international cooperation based on values; and that, through determined action, we can truly share responsibility in addressing the plight of the uprooted – and offer them the prospect of a better future.

Thank you.”


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist