“Empathy and a Sense of Responsibility Motivate Communities Around the World to Help Refugees”

– Shelly Pitterman
UNHCR Regional Representative for the United States
and the Caribbean
Address delivered at
“Refugee Crises in the Middle East: A Shared Responsibility”
May 18, 2016 | Washington D.C.

Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

“Empathy and a Sense of Responsibility Motivate Communities Around the World to Help Refugees”

We’re about to commemorate another World Refugee Day. While we all hope for peace, millions languish and remain on the move: 263,000 Burundi refugees, 987,000 refugees and IDPs [internally displaced persons] fleeing violence in Central African Republic, and then more than twice as many from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and even more fleeing within and from Somalia and South Sudan. The second largest refugee population is from Afghanistan, a protracted situation for most but still, 380,000 Afghans were newly displaced in 2015. In 2015, 370 refugees and migrants died in the Bay of Bengal. This year so far, 1,360 died or went missing crossing the Mediterranean. A million Syrian refugees will have found sanctuary in Europe and we will have to see how many more will be as fortunate in the months to come. UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] continues to appeal for more resettlement places and other legal avenues for Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, there are 4.8 million in the host countries neighboring Syria.

The unprecedented scope and magnitude of forced displacement has been coined a ‘global refugee crisis.’ This is a call to find political solutions – to end war; and to meet the needs of the victims of conflict, discrimination and persecution. It is a call to engage global responsibility – states and other stakeholders; individuals, civil society and the private sector.

Millions and global are big ideas. But the first thing to remember is that we are talking, in the case of each parent and their children, about victims. It may seem self-evident to us here, evidenced by the stories of people we serve and work with. Now we also read or watch them in the media, since the ‘global refugee crisis’ also became a compelling subject for global traditional and social media.

Public opinion has been polarized, with fear underpinning a disturbing anti-refugee populist sentiment that politicians in several countries have massaged and manipulated. Reasonable concerns about national security and the changing environment have had an impact on refugee policies and procedures. But the stirring of xenophobic fear about national identity has led some to portray refugees as the threat, when surely they are actually victims.

Empathy and a sense of responsibility motivate communities around the world to continue to help refugees. Refugees around the world continue to benefit from generous policies of asylum coupled with access to services and opportunities for self-sufficiency. Refugee resettlement still brings out the best in local communities who work in partnership with professional agencies and government to receive refugees and help them take care of their families and contribute to the community

The last year has revealed that no one country can provide solutions but each one has a responsibility, and in the absence of collective responsibility-sharing, the crisis will deepen. It has revealed that all countries of asylum need the support of their regional neighbors and the international community for asylum to truly be a public good.

UNHCR has appealed to all States to keep their borders open to people in need of international protection; to provide access to safety through resettlement and other legal pathways; to protect refugees and asylum-seekers from refoulement; to offer refugees and the communities where the live economic and educational opportunities and social services; and to increase global financial support through multiple channels.

This year, even more than last year, we are confronting the most troubled political – humanitarian landscape than at any time since World War II.

There is a multiplicity of crises that is shaking the international stage simultaneously. The new emergencies are protracted, as the violence persists for months and years, with a proliferation of non-state and de facto-state actors, organized criminal elements and traffickers. Operating in territories where governments are party to conflict or too weak to exercise even minimal authority.

And just to complete the picture, the old situations do not get resolved, or at best very slowly. Violence and persecution persist, political solutions are elusive, and wars have bled economies.

So much loss: The number of people killed, the brutality of the wars, the devastation of infrastructure – roads, residences and hospitals, especially, and the targeting of doctors – the loss of educational opportunities for a whole generation of children, the violence against women and children, the abuse of traffickers, the spread of xenophobia, the destruction of cultural heritage, and the attacks on humanitarian workers, in particular the courageous first responders of the Red Cross and of Non-Governmental Organizations [NGOs], as well as UN humanitarian workers and peacekeepers.

The unprecedented challenges created by the multiplicity of conflicts in the 21st century have provoked reflections on collective responsibilities for protection and solutions.

The governing imperatives of asylum as codified in the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees remain largely intact. Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Cameroon, Mali, Niger, Tunisia, Egypt, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, and Djibouti – the list goes on of states which allowed thousands, hundreds of thousands, of refugees to seek sanctuary. The numbers of people seeking asylum in Europe and the United States grow as well.

Countries hosting Syrian refugees in the Middle East have demonstrated remarkable generosity. They have spent millions to provide services and safety. Turkey now hosts the largest number of refugees in the world. Lebanon has the highest per capita ratio of refugees in the world. Syria and Iraq have among the largest numbers of internally displaced in the world. The majority of Syrian refugees are not in camps. They are living with families, renting, and yes, many are in terrible, substandard conditions as well. The host governments have received refugees in the national schools and health centers. Some refugees now have the right to work. The governments are collaborating well with international agencies and non-governmental organizations. National NGOs play an instrumental role in service delivery.

Around the world, with each passing day, the humanitarian needs grow. The funding appeals of the UN have reached unprecedented levels. There is more money being committed, and the United States remains the most generous of donors. But the amounts secured are simply not enough to keep up. There is some diversification of the donor base and growth in private sector engagement is beginning to make a difference in some sectors and specific operations.

UNHCR and its partners are reaching more people and providing more assistance in more innovative ways using 21st century technology, but still more refugees and displaced are being left behind. The resources the refugees bring with them – after all, many of the refugees had businesses, professions, property – are being depleted. There is now more evidence of poverty among Syrian refugees and the increased vulnerability that triggered secondary migrations toward Europe, in particular; one that is fraught with unknowns and dangers of unsafe sea travel and smuggling.

Available funding levels permit us to provide minimum relief, but while this heals in the short term, the pressures on host communities and on national budgets continue to rise as long as the triggers for displacement persist.

There is a growing realization that the situation cannot be fixed, or perhaps even contained, just by the traditional humanitarian responses. The emergency response has to happen, of course, when thousands of people cross a border to seek some security from the war. But the Syrian-Iraq mega-crisis and other “protracted emergencies” in South Sudan, CAR [Central African Republic], Yemen, Libya and Myanmar – oblige the international community, such as it is, to adopt a multi-dimensional response that takes into account the still so precarious situation of the large numbers who were forced to flee in recent years as well as those who continue to arrive in the new waves of displacement.

The funding and programmatic gaps that challenge us today – and which will only become exacerbated tomorrow – can be addressed in part by the infusion of development planning and funding from the very outset of a forced displacement. Sixty-five percent of the world’s refugees live outside camps – in cities, towns and villages – and this has an economic impact on communities and the state, stretches the social welfare services and infrastructure, and introduces new demographic challenges as well as political and security risks, especially for those countries of asylum on the front line of international collective security.

This will require important shifts in the approaches of bilateral development agencies and international financial institutions. There are some promising steps being taken by the World Bank, for example, which need more backing and institutional framing. The governments which have provided such generous humanitarian support over the years, and some which have not, will need to see that it serves ‘collective good’ to ensure that those frontline states providing asylum to hundreds of thousands of refugees are offered additional help to sustain, if not grow, their economies and to maintain a peaceful environment for asylum in the face of nearby threats that pose significant risks to regional and international security.

The United States remains UNHCR’s most generous donor – and the United States also contributes generously to ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], IOM [International Organization of Migration], UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East], WFP [World Food Programme] and to NGOs.

We count on you to encourage the United States to sustain bipartisan support for humanitarian assistance for refugees and to advocate for the United States to take the lead with countries so that international financial institutions and bilateral development agencies introduce mechanisms to help States at the outset of an emergency to reinforce their national capacities to not only just cope with the arrival of refugees, but to transform the diverse capacities of the refugee population for the benefit of the host economy.

The United States also remains one of the top countries of asylum in the world, and the single largest country of refugee resettlement.

Here, too, we count on your influential voices to promote more public awareness of the benefits of refugee resettlement and to cultivate the spirit of welcome and tolerance that has, for decades, characterized American national and domestic policies toward refugees.

One day there will be political solutions that will allow the refugees and displaced persons to return and rebuild their homes, America’s leadership in humanitarian diplomacy remains vital. You advocacy and influence remains equally important so that the United States remains the beacon of hope for refugees that it has always been.

Thank you.

Author Names

Shelly Pitterman

Date of Publication May 18, 2016