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Solidarity “essential” to refugee protection

Newly arrived South Sudanese refugees in Uganda. Refugees need solidarity to survive. © UNHCR/Amelia Shepherd-Smith

Newly arrived South Sudanese refugees wait at the Yumbe Reception Centre in Uganda, September 2016. The group had just received relief items and are waiting to be shown to their plots of land. Refugees need solidarity from the international community. © UNHCR/Amelia Shepherd-Smith

GENEVA – With wars and violence uprooting record numbers of people worldwide, UNHCR’s international protection chief today called for a renewed spirit of multilateralism and solidarity to provide effective refugee protection and curb xenophobia.  

In a speech to the UN Refugee Agency’s annual Executive Committee meeting in Geneva, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Türk painted a grim picture in which the “monsters” of war and rights abuses have driven a record 65.3 million people from their homes worldwide.

“The monsters in today’s world most certainly are the horrors of raging conflict, violence, and human rights abuses, which people flee within or outside their countries year after year,” he told an audience made up of representatives from 98 states that make up UNHCR’s Executive Committee.

Türk noted that too often an existence of “displacement with no end in sight” has become a daily reality for men, women and children fleeing countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, or Iraq.

“Solidarity is essential to the effective functioning of the international protection regime.”

As conflict and persecution drive displacement worldwide, Türk stressed the need for greater international solidarity to provide effective protection for those driven from their homes, and in the case of 21.3 million refugees, across international borders.

“Solidarity is essential to the effective functioning of the international protection regime,” he told the forum gathered at the Palais des Nations on Wednesday (October 5).

“It is a fundamental value behind any form of international cooperation and is a crucial part of the contract between and among nations, large and small, and irrespective of the resources at their disposal,” he added.

Volker Turk calls for solidarity with refugees. © UNHCR/Jean Marc Ferré

Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Türk addresses UNHCR’s Executive Committee in Geneva calling for solidarity with refugees. © UNHCR/Jean Marc Ferré

Last year, the number of people forcibly displaced worldwide reached the highest level since UNHCR records began. In addition to 21.3 million refugees, they included 40.8 million people displaced within the borders of their countries.

Türk highlighted advances in the past year in multilateral cooperation. Among them, the Sustainable Development Agenda, and the Paris Climate Agreement COP 21, which established a task force to avert, minimize, and address displacement driven by climate change.

Most recently, the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants was adopted at the UN Leaders’ Summit on September 19. It included a Comprehensive Refugee Response framework and set in motion a process for formulating a Global Compact on Refugees that aims to address refugee situations more comprehensively, predictably, and equitably, as well as a Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

In a longer version of his address, Türk also praised the commendable example of solidarity shown by countries that continue to keep their borders open, providing refugees with opportunities to start anew. By way of example, he cited Uganda’s “generous refugee law and policy regime” in response to the influx of refugees from neighbouring South Sudan.

“Among other benefits, Uganda grants refugees freedom of movement and the right to seek employment, and provides them with plots of land on which to build new homes and to grow agricultural crops,” he noted.

On the international plane, Türk paid tribute to the increased engagement of organizations such as the ILO and the OECD, as well as international financial institutions, particularly the World Bank. “We have also witnessed a more acute realization that major host countries will require continued support, translated into concrete commitments,” he said.

The need for greater multilateralism and solidarity has also been thrown into sharp relief by reaction against the arrival of refugees fleeing wars and persecution around the world, Türk said.

“Protection will have to be the guiding voice of our renewed professed multilateralism.”

“At the same time, we have seen from other sectors of society a wave of vitriolic opposition to new arrivals, couched in concerns about security and integration capacity, and fuelling even further xenophobia and racism,” he said.

“We know that retreat into identity politics – recalling a past that never existed – rather than embracing diversity, is counterproductive and can even be dangerous.

There is lots of room for innovative thinking and creating win-win situations as we develop comprehensive refugee responses.”

Despite all the doom and gloom, in the shadow of the monsters of conflict, violence, and xenophobia, Türk concluded that there is a “harbinger of a better world to come.”

“With sufficient political will and demonstrated commitment to responsibility-sharing through the Comprehensive Refugee Response framework, we can together honour the people who too often have been an afterthought rather than the focus of attention,” he said.

“Protection will have to be the guiding voice of our renewed professed multilateralism because it is so deeply entrenched in the people, their rights, hopes, needs, and aspirations.”

By: Tim Gaynor