Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks at the opening of the Global Refugee Forum, in Geneva on 17 December:
It is a pleasure to join you. If I may, I would like to begin with a short personal reflection. Coming to Geneva for this refugee forum carries great meaning and emotions for me. I feel I am among friends – not only good colleagues past and present, but also friends of one of the great causes of these or any times: answering the plight of people forced from their homes by war, conflict or persecution.
I have been fortunate to have had many formative experiences in my life: as a social volunteer in the poor neighbourhoods of Lisbon; being part of a democratic revolution in my country; [and] public service in Parliament and Government. But, without diminishing any of those involvements, I would place at the top of the list the decade I served as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Those were difficult years – a period that saw skyrocketing flows of people, plummeting solidarity among nations and spreading discrimination against victims that compounded their already dire circumstances. We tried our best to reduce suffering and improve lives. Thanks to outstanding work by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the humanitarian community, and support from many leaders and partners, I believe we were making a difference.
Of course, there is far more to do: the numbers of refugees, the levels of hatred and the threats to long-established norms and standards all remain high. Working as High Commissioner brought me in touch with people at their most vulnerable moments. They shared with me their suffering, their yearnings, their anger. I could never return to the comfort of my own house without feeling shaken and frustrated myself.
Through their eyes I saw, in dramatic fashion, certain basic facts about our world today. I saw the way lives can be upended in an instant when struck by conflict or disaster; the way new mega-trends, above all the climate change, are creating new movements of people; and the way we are all connected, as disruptions and economies bleed across borders near and far.
And I also saw a fundamental human trait: the will to kindness. Acts of compassion, the impulse of one person to help another in trauma – these are among the essential hallmarks of humanity and inspired my day here and in the past. I have brought those encounters and memories into my current role. In all it does, the United Nations is measured by how we treat the most vulnerable among us.
One might say that as refugees go, so goes the world. That sensibility is what brings us together today. So, I very much wish to thank the Government of Switzerland for co-hosting this important event together with UNHCR. I am also grateful to the co-convenors — the Governments of Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Germany, Pakistan and Turkey — which are all generous hosts of refugees and long-standing champions of the cause.
I have always been amazed by the generosity of least developed and middle-income countries that have hosted millions of refugees with very little support from the international community but with an enormous generosity. And I learned that generosity is not always proportional to wealth. The world owes all countries and communities that welcome large numbers of refugees a debt of gratitude.
But gratitude is not enough. At this time of turbulence, the international community must do far more to shoulder this responsibility together. The global context can seem forbidding. Divisions and rivalries around the world are contributing to unpredictability and insecurity. The climate crisis is deepening existing fragilities. Many in our societies feel alienated and left behind.
More than 70 million people have been forced from their homes, including 25 million refugees. UNHCR has described these numbers as the “highest levels of displacement on record”. Now more than ever, we need international cooperation and practical, effective responses. And this is the reason why we are here.
We need better answers for those who flee and better help for communities and countries that receive and host them. Developing and middle-income countries admirably host the vast majority of refugees and warrant greater support, not just in the humanitarian response but also in the context of development plans, as well as more financial support.
More fundamentally, we need to re-establish the integrity of the international refugee protection regime, with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol at its core. Indeed, at a time when the right to asylum is under assault, when so many borders and doors are being closed to refugees, when even child refugees are being detained and divided from their families, we need to reaffirm the human rights of refugees.
And the Global Compact on Refugees gives us the blueprint. And this Forum is an opportunity to give the implementation of the Compact energy and dynamism – by drawing together the expertise, ideas, resources, commitments and new forms of collaboration that will drive it forward.
I urge you to be bold and concrete in the pledges you will make. This is a moment for ambition. It is a moment to jettison a model of support that too often left refugees for decades with their lives on hold: confined to camps, just scraping by, unable to flourish or contribute.
It is a moment to build a more equitable response to refugee crises through a sharing of responsibility. Humankind came together to address many huge refugee challenges across the twentieth century; we should be able to do the same in the twenty-first. This is not an unmanageable situation.
This is a moment to mobilize international cooperation and solidarity to galvanize real progress on access to education, livelihoods, and energy; to build the resilience of refugees and their host communities; to preserve humanitarian space and access to people in need; and to strengthen services, in particular for people with disabilities and people who have faced sexual or gender-based violence.
This work needs diverse coalitions. I am encouraged that this Forum brings together States, refugees and Stateless people, international and regional organizations, business leaders, financial institutions, the civil society, faith organizations, the arts and the world of sport.
I am also glad that bilateral, regional and multilateral development institutions are emerging as central to these efforts. Large refugee flows can create enormous structural strains, and undermine development advances, especially where displacement becomes protracted and hosting countries have huge development challenges. Data and technological innovation will also be crucial. And we must ensure a comprehensive approach that addresses humanitarian, development, human rights and security aspects, targeting root causes and working to build and sustain peace.
United Nations reforms will help us advance this work by connecting the pillars and better supporting Governments. We stand by refugees and will work with Governments to include refugees and returnees in relevant development projects. We will advocate for refugees and returnees to have access to national services in countries of origin, countries of transit and refugee-hosting countries.
We will advocate for their inclusion in regional frameworks and national development plans and reviews, as well as the new United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework. And we will work to provide technical, financial and programming support to host countries for this purpose.
The Global Compact on Refugees is our collective achievement and our collective responsibility. It speaks to the plight of millions of people. And it speaks to the heart of the mission of the United Nations. Throughout human history, people everywhere have provided shelter to strangers seeking refuge – bound to them by a sense of duty and humanity.
Solidarity runs deep in the human character. Today we must do all we can to enable that humanitarian spirit to prevail over those who today seem so determined to extinguish it. We cannot afford to abandon refugees to hopelessness, nor their hosts to bear the responsibility alone.
Next year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations – a moment when tens of millions of people uprooted by war and persecution were piecing together their lives and starting to rebuild a future. Helping them to secure that future and ensuring a right to refuge for the generations that would follow, were pressing priorities of the new United Nations then born.
Today, protecting refugees and resolving displacement remain an imperative. This work is an expression of our determination to live and prosper together as a community of peoples and nations. Together, through this Forum and implementation of a landmark Global Compact, we can chart a bold and practical path to help millions of people find protection and dignity and to help all of us find a shared path towards a better future. Thank you.