World Humanitarian Summit: Addressing Forced Displacement

In 2015, the global refugee crisis reached Europe. Over 1 million refugees and migrants arrived on its southern shores, most of them from war-torn places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The trend continued in 2016, with more than 171,000 arrivals during the first three months. This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Worldwide, more than 60 million people have been displaced by war, persecution or human rights abuses. Some 86 per cent of them live in developing countries, mostly those neighbouring conflict zones.

The war in Syria is the single largest driver of displacement today, with 4.8 million refugees in the region and at least 6.6 million internally displaced persons. Nearly half of the people currently arriving in Europe are Syrians.

While the Syrian conflict constitutes the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, it is not the only one. Over the past few years, violence has erupted or reignited in Burundi, the Central African Republic, Iraq, Myanmar, north-eastern Nigeria, South Sudan, Ukraine and Yemen, forcing millions of people from their homes. Thousands are fleeing levels of violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras not seen since Central America’s brutal civil wars in the 1980s. At the same time, some of the most protracted and forgotten conflicts remain unresolved, leaving many more displaced, often for generations. Nearly 1 million Somalis and some 2.5 million Afghans are in such a situation.

Humanitarian needs have grown exponentially over the last 15 years. A record 125 million people are estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance because of war and natural disasters, at an annual cost of $25 billion, 12 times more than 15 years ago. And while humanitarian funding has increased significantly over the years, the needs vastly outpace the means.

When, in 2012, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for the World Humanitarian Summit to galvanize greater leadership to prevent and resolve conflict and reduce suffering, he did so out of concern about the growing number of people in need of humanitarian aid and the dramatic increase in financial requirements. Now, on the eve of the Summit, the situation has deteriorated further and become unsustainable for humanitarian agencies such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  Not only are we called upon to provide immediate and life-saving aid in a growing number of emergencies, but we continue to deliver many basic services to people trapped in refugee camps for years or even decades.

In order to end forced displacement, peace and reconciliation are needed in Afghanistan, Colombia, South Sudan, Syria and so many other places. With complex negotiations sometimes taking years, however, we must take immediate action to ease the suffering of millions of people. The World Humanitarian Summit, to be held in Istanbul in May 2016, is a key event aimed at defining and implementing new and more effective ways to deliver protection, help and solutions to those most in need.

UNHCR sees the Summit as a unique opportunity to put forced displacement at the top of the international community’s agenda. The Secretary-General’s call for political leaders to take responsibility for preventing and solving conflicts addresses the most important actions needed to reduce forced displacement. While humanitarian aid alleviates the suffering of those who are forced to flee war, it can never serve as a substitute for political approaches targeting the roots of conflict or create the necessary conditions for lasting peace and stability.

Discrimination and exclusion, corruption, lack of governance, impunity, deep-rooted poverty and lack of opportunity are the main causes of conflict. They are aggravated by the effects of climate change and growing competition over shrinking resources. The World Humanitarian Summit provides a forum for world leaders, aid and development organizations, and affected populations to mobilize genuine political will and resolve to end conflicts that keep millions of people in exile.

Wars, however, continue to break out. International humanitarian and human rights law, including refugee law, are the main instruments available to us to limit the effects of armed conflict, minimize human suffering and protect civilians. The right to seek asylum is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while the rights and responsibilities of refugees and contracting States are spelled out in the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. People who flee war and persecution at home have the right to avail themselves of the protection of another State. This right and the protection against refoulement, or forced return to places where one’s life and freedom are at risk, are among the most important obligations under international law and have saved millions of lives.

The concept of “refugee”, and the theory and practice of international refugee protection, therefore, remain essential. People fleeing violence and persecution in their countries are recognized as refugees, precisely because it is too dangerous for them to go back. Some argue that we should focus on vulnerability and needs in directing humanitarian action. This is important, of course. For refugees, however, it is precisely the lack of such legal status that makes them vulnerable.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims at leaving “no one behind”. The Secretary-General rightly identified addressing forced displacement and ending statelessness as critical for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and reducing the suffering of millions of people. UNHCR fully supports the required steps, such as the adoption of policies that include refugees and internally displaced people in international development efforts and national social services.

Another important issue at the heart of the World Humanitarian Summit is the question of how to improve synergies between humanitarian and development work. In emergencies, swift humanitarian action is essential to saving lives. But when people remain displaced for years, depending on aid that is becoming scarcer as the conflict that forced them to flee fades from media headlines, development organizations can make vital contributions. Engaging development organizations in humanitarian response from the onset of a crisis, restructuring aid budgets to better reflect new realities and creating more effective financial mechanisms to address forced displacement help bridge the artificial humanitarian-development divide and ensure the inclusion of refugee-hosting areas in international and national development programmes.

When refugees and internally displaced people do not have freedom of movement or access to the labour market, when they and their children lack adequate education and training opportunities, the cycle of aid dependency and poverty is bound to continue into the next generation.

It is one of my Office’s priorities to change this. We have reached out to donors, development organizations and the private sector to help us with their expertise. Combining the analytical, technical and financial capabilities of development actors and the extensive field presence of humanitarian organizations, with their knowledge of the local situation and affected populations, has been indispensable. In Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia and Kenya, for example, refugees and host communities benefited when refugees were enabled to participate in the local economy and the product of their labour was linked to regional, national and global value chains.

At the same time, we must work more with national partners, institutions and organizations, and strengthen their capacity. As providers of first resort during the initial phase of an emergency, they often welcome and host refugees, sharing their resources, well before international humanitarian organizations arrive. Their local expertise, presence and relations within the community are crucial. Currently, two thirds of UNHCR partners are national non-governmental organizations. We invest in training to build their programme, management and fundraising capacity, as well as in their emergency preparedness.

An important contribution to the World Humanitarian Summit is the report presented in January 2016 by the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing, entitled Too important to fail—addressing the humanitarian financing gap. We strongly support its conclusions and recommendations. When we hear that basic standards are not being met in sectors such as food, water, shelter, education or health, it means that people go hungry, do not have enough safe drinking water and do not have a roof over their heads. That gap is real.

Additional funding is indeed required to keep pace with growing humanitarian needs. But it is not only about money. More flexible funding, including contributions not tied to one particular humanitarian situation or project, is also needed so that we can continue to assist refugees in forgotten and thus underfunded operations.

For its part, UNHCR is committed to greater transparency and efficiency, less bureaucracy, and more common platforms and cost structures. We agree to minimize the links in the humanitarian chain and further strengthen our relationship with national partners. We are also committed to scaling up cash-based assistance where feasible, making it more cost-effective by enhancing coordination among providers and facilitating common arrangements.

The World Humanitarian Summit is an important step towards building a humanitarian system that is truly universal and accountable, and that has the protection of affected people at its core. The Summit will bring together world leaders and a range of other stakeholders in an effort to translate the responsibilities formulated by the Secretary-General into concrete recommendations and follow-up activities. The commitments expressed at the Summit must result in concrete action and fundamentally improve the functioning of the global humanitarian system. The protection, aspirations and participation of people with humanitarian needs should be its principal objective. It is our responsibility to achieve this goal, and it is to these people that we are accountable.