With millions of people on the move around the world, the top United Nations refugee official today called for new strategies to tackle the causes, scale and complexity of global displacement and migration.
“The present century is a time of human displacement,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres said at the opening of the weeklong annual meeting of the agency’s governing Executive Committee. “With each economic opportunity and departing vessel, with every calamity and conflict, the 21st century is being marked by people on the move.”
After several years of decline, the number of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution rose last year and continues to climb in 2007, according to UNHCR. At the end of last year, the agency was caring for 32.9 million people, including nearly 10 million refugees, 13 million people displaced internally within their own countries and 5.8 million stateless people.
Mr. Guterres told delegates gathered in Geneva’s Palais des Nations that there were several reasons for the dramatic growth in migration, including poverty and the pursuit of a better standard of living. Safeguarding refugees and others in need of protection means that “we must recognize the mixed nature of many present-day population flows.”
He highlighted the need for targeted strategies and innovative solutions to address the increasingly interlinked factors causing people to move. “Many people move simply to avoid dying of hunger,” he noted. “When leaving is not an option but a necessity, this is more than poverty. On the other hand, natural disasters occur more frequently and are of greater magnitude and devastating impact.”
It iscrucial to examine the reasons, scale and trends of present-day displacement, Mr. Guterres said, adding that “it involves much more than understanding refugee flight.”
He also noted that the more than 4 million uprooted Iraqis in and outside their country constitute the biggest single group of displaced people and largest ever population of urban refugees. Of the more than 2 million outside Iraq, most are in cities in Jordan and Syria.
The High Commissioner also provided an overview of UNHCR's ongoing internal reforms, including budget restructuring, the out-posting of more than 120 posts from Geneva and other efforts aimed at strengthening the agency’s capacity in the field.
Also addressing today’s opening session, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes predicted that the demands for humanitarian relief were likely to grow with traditional reasons for flight – conflict and persecution – compounded by new dynamics such as environmental degradation and climate change.
Mr. Holmes called on donors to support UNHCR, emphasizing the vital role the agency was playing in the humanitarian sphere. “A healthy and vigorous UNHCR is fundamental to a healthy and vigorous international humanitarian system,” he said.
The UNHCR Executive Committee reviews and approves the agency’s programmes and budget, advises on protection issues and discusses a wide range of other topics. Special sessions will focus on issues such as Iraq, refugee protection and mixed migration.