A few weeks ago, I was in Bangladesh, at the border with Myanmar - witnessing the most rapid refugee exodus since the massive population movements of the mid-1990s.
It was a stark illustration of what happens when the root causes of conflict and violence are not addressed, and the relationship between a state and some of its people breaks down.
The result is a human tragedy on a dramatic scale.
Around the world, countries bordering crisis zones are struggling to absorb the social, economic and political shocks of large-scale refugee movements, while the broader consequences of unresolved conflicts reverberate across and beyond regions.
Protecting refugees is a binding obligation, reflecting core principles and shared values. But it is also a contribution to regional and global stability.
This is why I am grateful to the Council, and to the Italian Presidency, for the opportunity to address you today.
My predecessor’s last comprehensive briefing to the Security Council as High Commissioner for Refugees was in January 2009. He shared his concern that we might be entering a period of deepening and interlocking crises.
Almost nine years on, that bleak prospect has become a stark reality.
The number of people forcibly displaced worldwide is now approaching 66 million – up from 42 million in 2009. This includes 17.2 million refugees under UNHCR’s responsibility – a 70% increase since then.
A succession of major new crises has caused massive displacement across virtually all regions. The cataclysmic conflict in Syria has driven 11 million people from their homes. Syria and Iraq today account for a quarter of all those forcibly displaced globally.
New crises have developed in Libya, Mali, Ukraine, Yemen, and the Lake Chad Basin. Many have unfolded in ungoverned spaces, driven by varying combinations of poverty and underdevelopment, environmental degradation, inequality, and persecution. In northern Central America, gang violence has become a main cause of displacement.
Situations that appeared to have stabilised, including some that had seen voluntary repatriation movements, as in Burundi, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, have been affected by fresh crises, triggering new refugee outflows.
At the same time, protracted crises have remained entrenched. Refugees fled Afghanistan almost 40 years ago, but more than two million remain in Iran and Pakistan. The terrorist attack in Mogadishu last month was a grim illustration of the instability affecting Somalia. Some Somali refugees are returning, and need support, but 800,000 still live in sprawling settlements or cities across the region. Young Afghans and Somalis are moving further afield as part of mixed migratory flows.
The sharp rise in forced displacement reflects weaknesses in international cooperation, and declining capacity to prevent, contain and resolve conflicts.
Competing interests are being pursued through proxy wars, instead of being resolved through diplomacy and dialogue.
Neglected local crises gather pace and become transnational with broader implications.
The focus is on short-term interests rather than long-term collective stability.
Have we become unable to broker peace?
I ask this question here, in the Security Council - whose raisons d’être are peace and security - because I see the direct impact of these failures, every day, on the lives of tens of millions of people, forced to abandon their homes with grim prospects of being able to return for generations. When I meet refugees, their first question is not about food or shelter, but about peace and security - because it is security, and peace, that will convince them to return home.
And weaknesses in international solidarity are also eroding protection for those who flee.
Many refugee-hosting States, particularly those neighbouring conflict zones, keep their borders open and generously host thousands - sometimes millions - of refugees.
But certain States – often those least impacted by refugee flows, and often wealthy ones – have closed borders, restricting access to asylum and deterring entry.
Last year’s Summit on Refugees and Migrants, and its concluding “New York Declaration”, called for comprehensive responses to refugee flows, extending beyond humanitarian action and leading up to a global compact for refugees.
Since then, important steps have been taken in pursuit of this vision - by Member States, development institutions such as the World Bank, civil society, and the private sector. We are making significant progress.
But a full response to today’s massive displacement can only be achieved through action to restore security, resolve conflict and build peace.
I wish to draw your attention to five areas where I see particular scope for the Council’s engagement. The first area is prevention.
Prevention is possible. Decisive action last January helped resolve a political crisis in Gambia, and allow refugees to return home quickly. We need more such concerted efforts.
Early action is critical to address the causes of conflict, and to avoid deepening displacement crises.
Displacement, on the other hand, is a symptom of a new or worsening crisis. A current example is the Central African Republic. Ongoing conflict along religious grounds has driven once again over one million people from their homes, with internal displacement up 50% since January. I fully support the Secretary-General’s call for fresh efforts to build peace through dialogue, and for his reminder to the international community to support the courage and resilience of the Central African people.
The situation in Burundi also demands renewed attention. There are 420,000 refugees from Burundi in the region. The Government of Tanzania has been publicly encouraging returns, and UNHCR is working closely with both Governments to ensure that these are voluntary, safe and dignified. But without concerted action to build stability inside Burundi, further conflict - as well as internal displacement and refugee outflows - may occur.
Responding to refugee crises in Africa, generally speaking, continues to be frustrating, as they are often generated by conflicts suffering from a deficit of political attention; and they are made more difficult by a serious deficit of resources.
A second area relates to the critical role of peacekeepers.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, as in other countries, the UN peacekeeping mission has played an important role in enhancing security and enabling displaced people to progressively rebuild their lives.
However, fresh and ongoing conflict is driving further displacement. Over 100,000 Congolese refugees have fled in the last year alone and internal displacement has swelled to over four million people, 50% higher than just two years ago. As displacement escalates, we count on the mission to once again play an important role – for example, in increasing access and enhancing security in Kasai as humanitarian efforts are scaled up.
And, as in other operations, such as in South Sudan, Darfur, Mali, and the Central African Republic, peacekeepers contribute to the safety of humanitarian staff, and help enhance our access, including through security escorts, health facilities and evacuations.
We must preserve the neutral, impartial character of humanitarian action. But these examples show that it is often necessary and indeed possible to work with peacekeeping missions in a manner that draws on our diverse strengths for the protection of civilians we are all mandated to serve. This is a key perspective to consider in your discussions over mission mandates.
A third, and growing area is addressing complex migratory movements in fragile, unstable situations. These frequently take place where institutions are weak or absent, and violent extremism and criminal networks have taken hold. Along the Central Mediterranean route to Europe, in particular, stretching from Sub-Saharan Africa through Libya to Italy, refugees and migrants continue to face grave exploitation and abuse.
Together with IOM, we are working on a comprehensive set of protection and solutions interventions in countries of origin, transit and asylum - addressing the drivers of these movements; strengthening the capacity of countries to address refugee and migratory flows; expanding resettlement and other legal pathways. Lack of security, especially in Libya, complicates these efforts; but working in coordination with the UN Mission we are expanding our presence and making progress.
In parallel, strong, collective action is needed to tackle the horrific abuses perpetrated by traffickers and to identify and prosecute them. I commend the important initiatives already undertaken by UNODC, EUROPOL, EUNAVOR and others. I wish to ask the Council to also consider the use of sanctions against known senior figures and companies engaged in trafficking.
Fourth, sustainable peace is critical to securing solutions to displacement.
Very few displacement situations in the last decade have been brought to a definitive conclusion. One was Côte d’Ivoire. Early, resolute political intervention by regional actors brought to a close a grave political crisis. This enabled more than a quarter of a million refugees and large numbers of IDPs to return home.
But this is - sadly - an exception. Only half a million refugees worldwide returned home last year. The peace process in Colombia offers hope, but has not yet translated into significant solutions for refugees and the internally displaced.
In Myanmar, security, and the establishment of respect for human rights and the rule of law in Rakhine State are essential pre-requisites for the return of refugees. Progress on citizenship for the stateless Rohingya is absolutely crucial, as will be community reconciliation and investment in inclusive development benefiting all communities. The Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations are a recognized blueprint in these respects.
It is critical that the UN, ASEAN and the international community at large work constructively to assist both countries. UNHCR stands ready to provide support and expertise, including through the Joint Working Group discussed in bilateral talks between Bangladesh and Myanmar. We believe that our role is critical to ensure that international standards are met, and returns are sustainable, and I seek the Council’s support, Mr President, in conveying this to the concerned states.
In South Sudan, the promise brought by independence has been tragically squandered. One third of the population is displaced, abandoned by their political leaders. Two million South Sudanese refugees are now in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda. More than half a million arrived this year alone. The pressure on host countries is immense.
The situation of the two million internally displaced people in South Sudan is also dire. More than 200,000 live in overcrowded, poorly serviced Protection of Civilian sites. Together with the UN Peacekeeping Mission, we are trying to identify alternative solutions so the displaced can start to carve out a more stable existence.
Support from the Security Council for this effort will be important, but what is crucial is to break the political stalemate.
The announcement by IGAD of a High-Level Revitalisation Forum is welcome. I urge you to press further for time-bound, meaningful actions that can bring about a joint ceasefire upheld by all parties, and the full and inclusive implementation of the 2015 Peace Agreement. Failure to do so will mean - I fear - that humanitarian efforts will soon reach their limit and more people will die.
Finally – and linked to my last point – protection must be sustained while solutions are pursued – including through support to host countries.
Here, I turn to Iraq and Syria, where we are moving into a new and complicated phase.
In Iraq, despite military progress, grave protection challenges - including new displacement, forced evictions and revenge attacks - must be overcome to prevent further displacement and allow for return. Investments in security have prevailed so far, and with a reason. Peace-building, recovery and stabilization are now critical to bring communities together and guarantee a conflict-free future for a diverse nation.
In Syria, civilians continue to bear the brunt of major military confrontations at key strategic locations. Meanwhile fragile ceasefires and shifts in territorial control have restored relative calm to some parts of the country. Although there has been substantial new displacement, many internally displaced people and much smaller numbers of refugees have returned home this year, often to places devastated by the conflict.
Signs of resilience are starting to emerge, and it is important that these are nurtured - especially if, in parallel, progress on de-escalation is achieved at the Astana talks.
Meanwhile significant obstacles to sustainable return persist – including ongoing military operations, insecurity and other protection risks; lack of legal status and documentation; housing, land and property challenges; destroyed shelter and infrastructure; and a lack of services and livelihoods.
International protection and support for Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries must be sustained during this uncertain period. Yet, funding for refugee and resilience programmes has dropped, with only 49% of the funds needed received so far in 2017. As a result, the situation of Syrian refugees deteriorates and pressures for onward movement grow again.
My appeal is that, as you focus on the different tracks hopefully leading to peace in Syria, you don’t lose sight of the need to support refugees and countries hosting them. We must resist the pressure for premature returns, as this would be a destabilising factor in this fragile context. On the other hand, voluntary, supported returns - when the time comes - will be a key contribution to sustainable peace.
I wish to share my appreciation to the Security Council for the visits that you have undertaken to meet refugees, internally displaced people and other crisis-affected communities.
As I am sure you will agree, listening to their voices is a profoundly moving experience – and also a powerful reminder of the responsibility that we all share to ensure they are protected, and that their plight is resolved.
As I address you, millions of severely traumatised children, their lives blighted by atrocities witnessed and deprived of education, are facing an uncertain future.
Women are struggling to care for their children on their own, in makeshift shelters with little privacy, their partners dead or missing.
Elderly people see their lives drawing to a close in a country that is not their own.
Thousands of people are stranded at borders, frustrated and confused by arbitrary and dehumanizing treatment and new barriers to entry, and with deep scars from the persecution they fled and the mistreatment they suffered in their flight to safety.
International cooperation, Mr. President, has the power to bring about real change to their lives. I am fully committed to ensuring that UNHCR plays its role, and I know the same is true of UNICEF, the World Food Programme, OCHA and other trusted humanitarian partners.
But giving hope to millions of uprooted people, and avoiding a repeat of recent, massive outflows, ultimately rests on political solutions.
Mr. President, members of the Security Council, we – they, the uprooted people - are counting on your leadership to help deliver those solutions.