Guterres: Humanitarian Response System is “Broke”

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres told an IPI audience that as millions of refugees flee war and persecution, the multilateral system has failed to mobilize the resources necessary to move them to safety in a dignified and efficient way.

“The humanitarian response system is today financially broke,” the High Commissioner said. “We are no longer able to provide the minimum needed for both core protection and lifesaving assistance.”

The uncoordinated responses of development and humanitarian actors are inadequate for a crisis of this magnitude, he emphasized. The “business model is to a certain extent exhausted,” he said. “We have been essentially on a care and maintenance model, with solutions dwindling, and with the possibility to ensure the suffering of refugees severely limited,” he said.

Humanitarians and development agencies not only need more funding, but also have to engage with one another from the outset of a crisis.

“For me, what is absolutely crucial is to understand that it no longer makes sense to talk about the gap between humanitarian aid and development cooperation, with this idea that first humanitarians address the crisis, and then the development actors come, to guarantee the sustainability of the solutions,” he said. “Now we came to a situation in which humanitarians and development actors need to be acting together since the very beginning of a crisis.”

The November 20th event, “Leadership and Global Partnerships in the Face of Today’s Refugee Crisis,” aimed to contribute to the development of proposals to more effectively help refugees through multilateral cooperation.

IPI Vice President Walter Kemp, the conversation’s moderator, noted concrete steps to help save refugees which had been suggested in the Salzburg Declaration on the Refugee Crisis, drafted by high-level participants at an IPI seminar.

Olof Skoog, Permanent Representative of Sweden to the UN, made opening remarks in which he highlighted his country’s commitment to welcoming refugees. Together with Germany, Sweden has born the brunt of resettlement in the EU. Sweden received the most asylum-seekers per capita in the EU, equal to 2% of the country’s population, he said.

Of Sweden’s priorities for the future, he said, “We strive to ensure that every one of those people receive a dignified [treatment,], and have rights fulfilled and implemented on arrival in Sweden,” he said. “But it is also true that the system has put a lot of strain on our capacity, so another priority is to ensure there is a genuine partnership within the EU and globally to jointly handle migration flows, while safeguarding of course the right to asylum.”

Sweden has been a model in this regard, but many other refugee-hosting countries struggle to provide services for the new arrivals, given the nature of their economies. New kinds of partnerships will be necessary to improve refugee lives in middle-income countries, as well as offer benefits for these states, Mr. Guterres said.

He proposed offering economic support to neighboring countries that have received a total of more than 3 million Syrians—Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey—in exchange for policy changes that could make refugees more self-reliant, such as allowing them to participate in the labor market, and access educational and other public services. These changes are necessary “in order to avoid this current maintenance model that is not only unsustainable from the financial point of view,” but also militates against “the dignity and hope for the future of the refugee community,” he said.

He praised one such agreement between Jordan, the United Kingdom, and the World Bank, which will create industrial zones inside Jordan that will be a source of employment for both Syrians and Jordanians. “This is the kind of formula that is necessary—humanitarian actors, development actors, and the countries—acting together in order to create this kind of win-win situation to ensure that refugees can have a dignified life in the countries of first asylum,” he said.

Many of the top refugee-hosting countries, like Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Niger, and Chad, are important to their regions, Mr. Guterres said. It is essential to ensure these nations have the resources to remain bulwarks against global terrorism. “Unfortunately many of these countries are not a priority in development cooperation, and so, a fundamental review is required,” he emphasized.

The lofty goals of the just agreed to UN Sustainable Development Agenda cannot be achieved without basic security first, he said. “A large part of the poor in today’s world are in conflict areas, and that number is growing, and we cannot have a development strategy at the global level if we do not take seriously into account the problems of global security, and the multiplication of conflicts we are witnessing in today’s world,” he said.

Since 2011, 3.9 million people have fled the Syrian civil war, and 7.6 million have been internally displaced. The High Commissioner described the situation as “the most dramatic of the crises we face.”

In July 2015, as hundreds of thousands risked their lives to leave their war-torn and poverty-stricken countries for Europe, a new crisis emerged. A number of factors influenced this mass migration wave, but “the trigger in my opinion was the reduction of international assistance in 2015,” which had devastating results for the quality of life in Syria and for refugees in neighboring countries, Mr. Guterres said.

He offered three suggestions on Syria, moving forward. Firstly, he said it was essential to establish humanitarian aid at adequate levels inside Syria. Secondly, living conditions would need to improve in neighboring Middle Eastern states serving as countries of first asylum. Finally, illicit smuggling and trafficking networks, operating largely in the open, must be shut down. “This will require cooperation between the EU and Turkey, and this cooperation, I hope, will be established in the near future,” he said.

Mr. Guterres also noted that the journey of refugees to resettlement in Europe would only become more trying as temperatures drop. “I’m afraid that we will have difficult moments on the western Balkan route this winter,” he said.

The High Commissioner said the failure of European institutions to manage this migration flow in an organized way has fostered xenophobia on the continent. He emphasized the power of images in raising fear for host country populations. “The perception from looking at the television day after day after day was that Europe was being invaded by a flow of people, and all of a sudden my village is going to be completely overwhelmed, and government was not in control.”

To manage the influx properly, Europe needs to receive and screen people at the point of entry, he said.

Mr. Guterres refuted any connection between the arrival of refugees and the coming of terrorism to Europe. “Those fleeing the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, or the Afghan conflict, are overwhelmingly victims of terror, so to say that this flow of refugees is responsible for terrorist acts is absurd, ” he said.

“For Daesh, it is very important to stimulate in Europe anti-Muslim sentiments, because anti-Muslim European societies are the best instrument they have for their propaganda and recruitment,” he said. “So, I think that a simplistic approach in trying to link refugees and terrorism need to be clearly denounced, because the security problems Europe faces at the moment are more complex and need a much more effective and comprehensive response.”

Summarizing his wide-ranging recommendations, the High Commissioner said it would be essential to redesign development cooperation around crisis prevention, and to invest in the improvement of refugee living conditions so that they “are more in line with the normal aspirations of anyone, anywhere—and that is the right to work, the right to property, for children at school, access to health systems.”

He suggested that the May 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul would offer a prime opportunity to bring the development and humanitarian communities closer. “If we could establish in the World Humanitarian Summit a new plan of action to bring together the development actors, and the development money, to humanitarian actors, I think the World Humanitarian Summit would do a fantastic thing,” he said. “Another important aspect will be to make the humanitarian system universal. The system is still very much Western conceived, to bring other actors into the system and give it a clear universal approach, that will increase its capacity to respond.”

The event was held as part of IPI’s “Global Leaders Series,” and was co-hosted with the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the UN.

Walter Kemp, IPI Vice President, moderated the conversation.

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