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Opinion: The Refugee Crisis – Past, Present and Future

13 January 2016

When I started as High Commissioner 10 years ago, there were 38 million people in the world displaced by conflict and persecution, but UNHCR was helping over a million people return home every year. Global refugee numbers were declining, and old wars had recently been laid to rest in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and South Sudan to make way for reconstruction and hope.`

Today, there are more than 60 million refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide as a result of conflict and persecution. Last year 126,000 refugees were able to repatriate - that is 11% of what we had in 2005. Fifteen new conflicts have broken out or reignited in the past five years, while none of the old ones got resolved. The number of people globally displaced by conflict every single day has nearly quadrupled in that time - from almost 11,000 in 2010 to 42,500 in 2014.

The world has changed in these ten years. There has been meaningful economic growth, the number of absolute poor has decreased, and technological advances have brought many important benefits. But it is also true that the world has become more fragile, conflicts have spread in unpredictable ways, and the nature of conflict has grown highly complex.

Over half a million people have arrived on Europe's shores since January 2015. In a continent of more than 500 million inhabitants, 5,000 people arriving daily is a very significant number. But it is not an unmanageable one - provided it is properly managed. The decision taken by the European Union (EU) to relocate internally 160,000 asylum-seekers is a key step in the right direction.

I am deeply grateful to UNHCR's donors - governments, private citizens, corporations and foundations - who together provided a record USD 3.3 billion in 2014. But clearly, humanitarian budgets are vastly insufficient to cover even the bare minimum, and we are starting to see what happens as a result of that. There is a need to rethink the way the world finances response to humanitarian crises - and this cannot be a long-term project, we have to start now.

All our nations and communities are becoming multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi­cultural societies - something that is not only inevitable, but also a good thing. Building and maintaining tolerant and open communities is a slow and delicate process which requires significant investments from governments and civil society alike.

The events of recent months in Europe have illustrated this battle of compassion versus fear, of tolerance versus xenophobia. We were touched deeply by European citizens pouring out by the thousands to help and welcome refugees, but we were equally shocked by the violent hostility of some of the acts and slogans those fleeing war have had to face in places where they thought they were safe.

UNHCR has therefore been focusing on new approaches, emphasizing comprehensive solutions strategies and working with partners and governments to strengthen refugees' resilience and self-reliance in the near term and prepare them for future solutions.

The organization and the humanitarian world will be very different twenty years from now. The future will be determined by our readiness to change and adapt, provided that this change takes place within the same framework of organizational values - the respect for humanitarian principles, human dignity, diversity and human rights.

The current refugee crisis has also shown, more clearly than anything else, how crucial it is to uphold the principles of international protection and to preserve the High Commissioner's firmly established legal mandate to intervene with governments on behalf of refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR. Let us not forget that the duty entrusted to us is to protect non-citizens who, sadly and all too often, are considered not desirable in the places to which they flee.

For refugees, their legal status is their biggest vulnerability - being poor at home is not the same as being poor in a country that is not your own. It is no coincidence that those crossing the Eastern Mediterranean today are Syrian refugees, and not poor Turks, Jordanians or Lebanese.

This is an extract of the opening remarks by António Guterres, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at the 66th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Program in October 2015. Reprinted with the kind permission of UNHCR.

The full speech can be found at the following link: