As global conflicts become more complex – involving State armies, militias and insurgents – humanitarian efforts are increasingly put at risk, the United Nations refugee chief warned today.
Opening the 60th annual session of the governing body of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), António Guterres said that providing humanitarian relief in an environment where the line separating the civilian from the military has become blurred is both “difficult and dangerous.”
Recalling the attacks on his own staff in Pakistan in recent months, Mr. Guterres said the targeting of humanitarian workers “undermines not only the operations in question, but the very foundations of humanitarian action.”
Among the greatest challenges the agency faces, he cited shrinking humanitarian space and actions taken by some countries to limit access to their territories by asylum-seekers – which were not in keeping with international law.
Such actions add to the problem of secondary movements as asylum-seekers “search out States where they have some hope of having their protection needs recognized,” said the High Commissioner. “A truly European asylum space in this context is a must.”
He described “an arc of crisis” stretching from southwest Asia to the Great Lakes region of Africa – home to two thirds of the world’s refugees and three quarters of the 14.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) assisted by UNHCR in 2008.
In addition, almost all of the major displacement in 2009 had occurred within this area, notably in Pakistan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Mr. Guterres also noted that although some 600,000 refugees voluntarily repatriated in 2008, this is down 17 per cent over the previous year and was the second lowest return figure in the past 15 years.
“Massive repatriation movements are decelerating as the situations in Afghanistan, southern Sudan, DRC and elsewhere are less and less conducive to return and reintegration,” he said.
The High Commissioner also updated delegates at the week-long meeting on the on-going reform process within the agency which he said is aimed at “finding the resources to protect more people, rescue more lives and bring home more refugees in safety and dignity.”
Staffing at the agency’s Geneva headquarters has been reduced by 30 per cent, while global activities have increased by more than 50 per cent, he said. Work carried out by UNHCR’s Global Service Centre in Budapest would result in savings of $13 million in rent and salaries in 2010 as compared to what it would have cost in Geneva.