“Never before in United Nations history have we had so many refugees, displaced people and asylum seekers,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told government ministers and representatives gathered in Geneva to discuss the state of the world's refugees. This was the first time Ban Ki-moon had ever addressed UNHCR's Executive Committee (ExCom) and the first time in nearly 10 years that a UN Secretary General had attended the annual meeting. His presence was perhaps a reflection of the gravity and magnitude of the global refugee crisis: 51.2 million people worldwide currently displaced by conflict — if refugees were a nation, it would be the 26th largest in the world.
An Unprecedented Scale of Displacement
In 2013, 32,000 people were forced to flee their homes every single day (as compared to 23,000 in 2012 and 14,000 in 2011). There are more refugees today than any time since the end of the Second World War, the vast majority of whom are women and children. Half of all refugees worldwide are under 18, according to High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, who told the meeting that “never before have we recorded this many unaccompanied and separated minors seeking asylum.”
The humanitarian system is at breaking point, Guterres claimed. The crises are all man-made but there is an assumption that humanitarians will “pick up the pieces.” “Let me be very clear,” Guterres said, “we can no longer clean up the mess. Someone has to stop it from happening in the first place.” What are needed are political solutions to political problems. “Nobody cures pneumonia with aspirins,” he added.
Departure from Camps
UNHCR announced a radical departure in its approach to dealing with refugee crises, as it launched its Policy on Alternative to Camps. Instead of setting up refugee camps as a default response to humanitarian emergencies, UNHCR announced that its policy would now be to seek alternatives to camps as a first recourse at the onset of an emergency. According to High Commissioner Guterres, by allowing refugees to self-settle in local communities and encouraging self-reliance through access to local markets “refugees are able to make more meaningful choices and live more normal lives with greater dignity and independence, they can make strong contributions to local economies and to the development of their communities.” In the longer term, refugees who are independent and self-reliant are more likely to return and contribute to the rebuilding of their own communities when conditions are conducive.
Focus on Africa
The annual meeting, which met from September 30 to October 3, started with a one-and-a-half-day high-level discussion on international solidarity for refugees in Africa. At a time when so much of the world's attention is focused on the Middle East, it is important to remember that more than 3 million refugees, 12.5 million internally displaced and 700,000 stateless persons are living in Africa, and a surge of new conflicts in the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, northern Nigeria and Libya this year alone has caused two million people to flee their homes. It was encouraging that despite the scale of the crisis facing their countries, all the African governments present at the meeting pledged to keep their borders open. Many government representatives explained the sense of shared humanity and solidarity with refugees from neighboring countries. As one Ugandan government representative told the meeting: “Our own people have been refugees…our leaders know what it is to be a refugee in another country…. We are not retracting… we were refugees ourselves…” This hospitality and generosity contrasts starkly with richer, Western states that continue to invent ever more elaborate and costly measures to close their borders, intercept boats and push back asylum seekers and refugees of much smaller numbers.
With global attention on the 3.2 million Syrian refugees (the world's largest refugee population after the Palestinians) and the 300,000 internally displaced persons in Ukraine, Africa is frequently forgotten in the headlines and African crises fall off donor's radar. As a result, protracted refugee crises in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as new emergencies in CAR and South Sudan, are chronically under-funded. The World Food Programme announced at the meeting that funding shortfalls mean that it will run out of food supplies for more than half a million refugees in Africa by December.
At the end of the high-level discussion on refugees in Africa, the Executive Committee issued a statement reaffirming States' collective commitment to support host countries and communities in Africa to address and resolve situations of forced displacement. While very few speakers made reference to the specific protection needs of refugee women and children in Africa, the final statement did call for strengthened protection efforts that take into account the “special needs of vulnerable groups, including women, children and persons with disabilities.”
Glaring Gap: SAFE Access to Fuel and Energy
A glaring gap in the discussion on refugees in Africa was the lack of any reference by governments, UNHCR or other UN agencies to the critical importance of providing refugees and displaced persons with safe access to fuel and energy (SAFE). More than a third of the world's population relies on traditional fuels—firewood, charcoal, animal dung and agricultural waste—for their energy needs, including cooking, heating and lighting. In refugee settings in Africa, far and away the vast majority of people rely on these fuels. This dependence on natural resources for survival puts communities at risk.
Food distributed by humanitarian agencies must be cooked before it can be eaten but cooking fuel is rarely provided. As the Women's Refugee Commission has long argued, a failure to provide refugees with the means to safely cook their food forces families – women and girls in particular – to collect firewood in unsafe areas where they face great risk of sexual violence. Moreover, a lack of safe and sustainable cooking fuel has significant impacts on environmental, health, nutritional, economic and educational needs. It was particularly disappointing that the Executive Director of the World Food Programme did not mention the importance of providing refugees in Africa with a means to safely prepare their food. Access to cooking fuel should be a basic part of the food assistance package, and a failure to meet this need can undermine fundamental humanitarian principles of “do no harm” if refugees' lives are put at risk.
Glimmers of Good News
There was not much good news at this year's UNHCR Executive Committee meeting. With a few exceptions: in a long-awaited development, the Tanzanian government announced that it would be providing citizenship to over 200,000 Burundian refugees who have been living in Tanzania since the 1970s.
Guterres also underlined the importance of tackling sexual and gender-based violence as a central pivot of UNHCR's work and hailed new initiatives such as the global Call to Action to address gender-based violence in emergencies and the U.S. government's initiative under the Call to Action which is known as “Safe from the Start.” The WRC is working with the U.S. government and other Call to Action partners to develop an action plan or road map to guide the next phase of the Call to Action.
Responsibility to Respond
Even though nine out of 10 refugees today live in developing countries, a clear message from the 2014 ExCom was that we live in an ever more interconnected world: refugee crises touch all of us and we all have a responsibility to respond, rich and poor nations alike. As Ban Ki-moon told the meeting: “I understand something about the hardships that refugees and other displaced persons face for a simple reason: I was one of them…. One of my earliest memories is fleeing [during the Korean War] with my family into the hills surrounding my village….Where I had played – where I had gone to school – where I had lived with my family – all of it was in flames. Our lives went up in smoke.” He told the gathering that the United Nations rushed to help, give food, text books and pens, helped them rebuild and gave them a beacon of hope. He explained that he carries a simple message when he travels to refugee camps around the world: “The world is with you, the United Nations is with you, do not despair, I am with you.”