More attention must be paid to underreported conflicts, says top UN refugee official

8 January 2009

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today called for stepped up action to help victims of conflicts, rising in number worldwide, who do not receive international attention because they are not believed to affect global security.

Unlike the “increasingly interrelated” situations in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq, the impact of these underreported crises is “local or at best regional,” António Guterres told the Security Council in an open meeting.

He cited the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as an example, noting that the world’s attention has recently been focused on the volatile North Kivu province, where the “current tragedy” has a “complex historical heritage coming from the colonial rule and exacerbated more recently by the Rwanda genocide and two Congolese wars.”

The escalating conflict between Government forces (FARDC) and the rebel group known as the National Congress in Defense of the People (CNDP) has uprooted an estimated 250,000 people since late August on top of the 800,000 already displaced.

“But the DRC is not just North Kivu,” Mr. Guterres reminded the Council, noting that significant population displacements and rights violations targeting women and girls are taking place in other parts of the vast African nation.

“Every six months, the number of people who die unnecessarily in the country as a result of armed conflict and material deprivation is equivalent to the number of people killed by the 2004 Asian tsunami.”

The High Commissioner also warned of new forms of displacement, with natural disasters on the rise due to climate change.

“Conflict, climate change and extreme deprivation will inter-relate, strengthening each other as a cause of displacement,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges in responding to humanitarian crises is how to respond in situations where there is no peace to keep, Mr. Guterres said, underscoring the need for “sufficiently clear and strong” protection mandates that are backed by political and material support.

The safety of relief workers is also of paramount concern, he said, adding that “ensuring staff safety must be a top priority of every humanitarian organization and the UN as a whole. That is non-negotiable.”

Compared to 2006, when he reported to the Council that the number of refugees had dropped to just over 9 million, the lowest level in 25 years, he said today that the total number of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate now stands at 11 million, driven mainly by the situations in Iraq and Somalia. That figure, he said, does not include the nearly 5 million Palestinians for whom the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has responsibility.

Today, UNHCR works in almost 120 countries on behalf of 32 million refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and others.


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