I thank the Dean of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, The Very Reverend Dr. James Kowalski, for his remarks and for hosting this World Refugee Day event. Eight years ago I spoke in this mighty Cathedral on the same, pressing subject, refugees and displaced persons.
New York City is not only home to the United Nations but is also to many thousands of refugees who have come to the city seeking safety. Many have come to make a new life for themselves and their families. It is no exaggeration to say that without the contributions of refugees past and present, New York City would not be the diverse and dynamic city it is today.
This year’s observance of World Refugee Day takes place as the number of forcibly displaced people continues to rise. There are now more than 45 million refugees and internally displaced people – more than at any time since 1994.
New displacement is happening at an alarming rate. Last year, 7.6 million people were forced to abandon their homes – that means one new refugee or internally displaced person every four seconds. Every time you blink – someone flees and becomes a refugee or an IDP.
War remains the dominant cause.
The catastrophe in Syria has generated 1.6 million refugees – and the figure is mounting. Apart from the human consequences, this refugee crisis presents a tremendous economic and social burden on the country’s neighbours and a serious risk of regional destabilization. One of every four Syrians has been uprooted from their home.
In December last year, I saw the impact of the refugee crisis in Beirut. I met with two groups of Syrian refugees at a registration centre in Southern Lebanon. I did not have a note-pad, so I wrote down their stories in the UN Charter that I always keep in my pocket. I promised them to carry their stories forward to the world.
Globally, more than half of all refugees come from five war-affected countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. There has also been major new displacement from Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan.
Every day, conflict tears apart thousands of families. Refugees may be forced to leave loved ones behind or get separated from them in the chaos of war, at risk of never seeing their loved ones again.
Children suffer the most. Nearly half of all refugees are below age 18, and a growing number of them are fleeing on their own. In 2012, asylum applications from unaccompanied children reached record levels.
Beyond these individual tragedies, forced displacement also has a significant impact on the communities that provide shelter. Many of these communities often struggle themselves to make ends meet. There continues to be a deep imbalance in the burden of hosting refugees, with poor countries taking in the vast majority of the world’s uprooted people. The gap is widening. Developing countries host 81 per cent of the world’s refugees, compared to 70 per cent a decade ago.
Finding durable solutions for the displaced and uprooted will depend on greater solidarity and burden-sharing by the international community. The United Nations will continue to play its central role in providing humanitarian assistance, preventing and resolving conflicts, and making it possible for families to reunite, return home and find the refuge they need.
We can all contribute. This Church, not least thanks to Reverend Kowalski, has a long tradition of engagement in pursuit of this and other UN goals. We must all accept responsibility. Closing our eyes, passivity and indifference must be challenged and fought. Nobody can do everything but everybody can do something.
I look forward to your continuing support, in solidarity with the persecuted, vulnerable and destitute. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in the spirit of the refugee laws, UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.