UN refugee chief calls for greater efforts to avert humanitarian crises

3 October 2011

The head of the United Nations refugee agency today called on the international community to ramp up its efforts to pre-empt humanitarian crises, citing the current deadly famine in Somalia as an example of a lack of both foresight and of means to take preventive action.

The head of the United Nations refugee agency today called on the international community to ramp up its efforts to pre-empt humanitarian crises, citing the current deadly famine in Somalia as an example of a lack of both foresight and of means to take preventive action.

“All of us could see this escalation coming from a long way away,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres said of the drought and famine that has already killed tens of thousands of Somalis, threatened the lives of 750,000 others, put over 3.2 million more on the brink of starvation, and affected 13.3 million people overall in the Horn of Africa.

“Nonetheless, we, the international community, were slow to react to signs that things were starting to deteriorate. What is worse, we also didn’t have the capacity to prevent them from getting this bad in the first place,” he told at the opening of the annual meeting in Geneva of UNHCR’s governing executive committee.

With more than 43 million people worldwide refugees, internally displaced or stateless people, Mr. Guterres warned that an increasingly complex international environment is making it harder to find solutions and the international community must do much more collectively to prevent conflict, adapt to climate change and better manage natural disasters.

UNHCR, which relies on voluntary contributions for its work and raised $1.86 billion from donors in 2010, an amount likely to grow this year, aims to be able to respond within 72 hours to simultaneous emergencies affecting up to 600,000 people. Accordingly, it boosted its emergency stockpiles in 2011 by 20 per cent, reinforced its capacity to deliver aid, increased the number of senior staff on standby for rapid deployment, and created new posts to protect refugees.

Mr. Guterres promised a new drive over the next two years to complement these measures with strengthened accountability and oversight, and warned that the funding environment was becoming more difficult, making it necessary for UNHCR to intensify its efforts to broaden its income base, including by reaching out even more to the private sector for support.

“Unpredictability has become the name of the game,” he said. “Crises are multiplying. Conflicts are becoming more complex. And solutions are proving to be more and more elusive. In such challenging circumstances, we must recognize our shared responsibility. And we must exercise our shared commitment.”

This year has seen a succession of full-blown displacement and refugee crises, from Côte d’Ivoire, to uprisings in the Arab region, as well as the flight of hundreds of thousands of people from and within famine-stricken Somalia. Mr. Guterres paid tribute to all countries neighbouring the crisis zones in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, particularly for keeping their borders open, even under the pressure of large-scale refugee or migrant-related influxes.

He cited the example of a Somali mother named Musleema, whom he met in a refugee camp in Dollo Ado in south-eastern Ethiopia. She had lost three of her six children in the flight. Humanitarian organizations, prevented from working in many areas of Somalia, were in little position to help.

He also warned of the dangers of rising xenophobia threatening the protection available to refugees. “In my view, multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious societies are not only a good thing, they are inevitable,” he said.

“Building tolerant and open communities is a slow and delicate process. But non-discrimination is a core human rights principle, and it is the duty of all States to acknowledge and give effect to it. Refugees cannot become collateral damage of anti-immigrant attitudes and policies.”

Mr. Guterres also appealed to the executive committee for better understanding of UNHCR’s need for flexibly earmarked funding to help manage the many refugee crises it deals with in locations that receive few international headlines. Last year, 82 per cent of donor funding was partly or tightly restricted to specific situations or issues.

He devoted much of his speech to the drive to improve efficiencies and to strengthen UNHCR’s capacity to respond quickly and in a more structured way to fast-breaking crises and their aftermath. Since 2006, he said, the agency had reduced its headquarters costs from 14 to 9 per cent of overall expenditure and staff costs from 41 per cent to 27 per cent.

 

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