UN, humanitarian community struggling to meet unprecedented needs of refugees

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres makes his opening speech at UNHCR’s 66th session of the Executive Committee on 5 October 2015.Photo: UNHCR/Jean-Marc Ferré

5 October 2015 – The global refugee crisis is so great that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), other UN agencies and their partners today said that they are struggling to respond to and meet all the humanitarian needs they face.

“Today, there are more than 60 million refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide as a result of conflict and persecution,” António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told members of the agency’s Executive Committee gathered in Geneva.

He recalled that when he became High Commissioner 10 years ago, there were 38 million refugees, asylum-seekers and IDPs, and the number was falling. “Fifteen new conflicts have broken out or reignited in the past five years, while none of the old ones got resolved. The number of people globally displaced by conflict every single day has nearly quadrupled in that time.”

He added that the world has become more fragile, conflicts have spread in unpredictable ways, and the nature of conflict has grown highly complex. “One of the consequences has been a shrinking of humanitarian space, which has made the work of organizations like UNHCR much more difficult and hazardous. The interlinked mega-crises in Syria and Iraq, which have uprooted over 15 million people, are a powerful example of this evolution – but not the only one.”

Displacement and refugee exoduses have marked many continents, with the UN estimating that in just the last 12 months, Yemen has witnessed 1.1 million displaced people and refugees; an additional half a million people fled from their homes in South Sudan; and in Libya, a further 300,000 are now displaced within the country. Elsewhere, tens of thousands flee gang violence in Central America, while 94,000 have crossed the Bay of Bengal in search of protection.

The High Commissioner underlined that much of this new and old displacement had been hardly visible to the world. “But after the dramatic events on the beaches and borders of Europe this summer, nobody is now able to ignore a refugee crisis that had been simmering for so long while others weren't watching,” Mr. Guterres stated.

According to UNHCR, the numbers arriving are large – over half a million already this year in Europe – but Mr. Guterres insisted that this flow is not unmanageable on a continent of more than 500 million people, and said the decision of the European Union to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers is a key step in the right direction.

“But much more is needed for this system to work well, especially the creation of adequate reception centres near the entry points, with sufficient capacity to receive, assist, register and screen tens of thousands of people, together with more legal avenues for those in search of protection, and also for economic migrants to be able to access the European territory.”

He stated that, faced with the sharp increase in global needs, humanitarian agencies can no longer fully cope, and declared that the humanitarian system is not broken – it is in financial crisis.

"The current funding level for the 33 UN appeals to provide humanitarian assistance to 82 million people around the world is only 42 per cent,” he told the Executive Committee.

“UNHCR expects to receive just 47 per cent of the funding we need this year. We have managed to avoid meaningful reductions of our direct support to refugee families, but at a high cost to our other activities.”

The High Commissioner said that, in response to the crisis in the past year, UNHCR has reinforced its capacity to deal with emergencies, fielding over 600 emergency response deployment missions in 2014 and 2015. Protection, especially for children, has also been a priority, as the number of asylum applications lodged by unaccompanied children reportedly rose to levels never seen before.

As the numbers of refugees rise, putting enormous pressure on the receiving countries, Mr. Guterres also stressed that the world must rethink how it finances the response to humanitarian crises, calling for a much closer link between emergency assistance and development aid.

Speaking of the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, scheduled for May 2016, Mr. Guterres said one of its goals must be the building of a more universal humanitarian partnership moving beyond the essentially “Western creation that is the present multilateral system.”

“In a world where more than two-thirds of all refugees are Muslim, it is important to recognize that there is nothing in the 1951 [Refugee] Convention that is not already present in ancient Islamic traditions and legal texts.”

In conclusion, the High Commissioner, who is stepping down at the end of the year, appealed to Member States to do what they can to preserve the sanctity of asylum and to continue to grant protection to people seeking safety from war and oppression.


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