Zero Reserves for 2,5 Million Refugees Trapped in Acute Crises

Human Wrongs Watch

Geneva – With its financial reserves at zero, the United Nations refugee agency is facing an “unprecedented” combination of crises, its top official warned today as he appealed to the international community to provide the necessary financial support. The total number of refugees worldwide is estimated at more than 42 million.

*Mali refugee students set up “government” in UNHCR-backed school in Niger. Photo: UNHCR

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, noted that his agency, known by the acronym UNHCR, is currently dealing with four acute crises as it tries to protect and assist 700,000 people who had fled conflict in Syria, Mali, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by the end of September, on top of last year’s record exodus of 800,000 refugees worldwide.

“As a matter of fact, UNHCR is presently overstretched,” the UN refugee chief said in Geneva on 5 October, stressing that all the current problems come on top of dealing with long-standing chronic problems, such as one million Somali refugees who have fled conflict and drought in their homeland to Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen.

Four Simultaneous Acute Crises

Guterres was addressing a news briefing, following a meeting of UNHCR’s governing Executive Committee, which meets in Geneva annually to review and approve the agency’s programmes and budget, advise on international protection and discuss a wide range of other issues with UNHCR and its intergovernmental and non-governmental partners, the UN reports.

“At the present moment,” Guterres said, “we deal with four simultaneous acute crises with the impact of last year’s very dramatic refugee situation and then with all the protracted problems that unfortunately are not yet able to find a solution from Afghans to Eritreans to the Colombia situation and Myanmar.”

To confront “these very dramatic circumstances,” the UN official called on all countries to keep borders open to provide adequate protection, and issued “a very strong appeal” for financial support for UNHCR’s operations worldwide.

Reserves Came to Zero

“At this moment our reserves came to zero,” he said. “We have been able until to now to respond to all the emergencies, but this dramatic combination of new crises and chronic ones that do not end creates an enormous pressure over our resources, and we are badly needing international solidarity.”

Asked whether this was the worst crisis in UNHCR’s history, Guterres said what made it different this time is the number of simultaneous crises, noting that there were millions of refugees from Afghanistan and massive outflows from the DRC but these taking place one crisis at a time.

“What I don’t remember in the recent history of the UNHCR is four simultaneous acute crises as measured out for the refugees and other dramatic humanitarian problems together with the strong impact of unresolved problems that occurred in the near past, and this combination is indeed unprecedented in our recent history,” he added.

On the issue of the agency’s reserves, the UN refugee chief noted that current programmes were all funded.

New Emergencies, Aggravation of Present Situations

“Of course if new things are needed that’s where we are now in great difficulties to respond and so when a pot is empty the only way to solve the problem is to fill it,” he stressed. “We are talking about contingencies for the future, so it’s not of any fixed amount; it’s the need to have marginal manoeuvre to respond to the new emergencies or the aggravation of present situations.”

One such situation, he noted, is that of Syria, where the 19-month long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to neighbouring countries while hundreds of thousands of others have been displaced internally, in addition to more than 18,000 people, mainly civilians, killed.

“We are gearing up to be prepared for an escalation of conflict if that happens and an increase in the number of people going out,” Guterres said. “So this is indeed very much in the centre of our concerns, at the centre of the work we are doing with our partners to get ready for whatever happens.”

As possible contingency measures for financing, the UNHCR is considering cutbacks on non-core activities, such as training and travel, as well as potentially slowing down some processes like the return of refugees so that “in those acute situations when you have core needs and basic lifesaving requirements you do not fail,” he stressed.

Giving the latest breakdown of the current crises, Mr. Guterres noted that there 320,000 registered refugees from Syria as well as large numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs), over 200,000 refugees from Mali as well as 300,000 IDPs, “an acute outflow” of some 200,000 Sudanese from South Kordofan and Blue Nile states into South Sudan and Ethiopia, and 60,000 people who have fled DRC into Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

More Than 42 Million Worldwide

On 3 October 2012, a senior United Nations official appealed for strengthened political will to help the world’s more than 42 million refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced and stateless people, amid a recent rise in new humanitarian emergencies in Africa and the Middle East.

Drawn-out displacement, insecurity, difficulties in helping acutely vulnerable people, funding shortages, and a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude are major current obstacles to quality protection, the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller, of UNHCR, told the annual meeting of the refugee agency’s governing Executive Committee in Geneva, the UN reported.

“UNHCR still has to make efforts to improve its own response. By the same token political will is not consistently enough behind protection. This is disturbingly evidenced in a prevailing attitude in a number of states to the effect: ‘Yes, we sympathize with your plight, but resolve it please elsewhere,’” she said.

UNHCR’s Executive Committee meets annually to review and approve the agency’s programmes and budget, advise on international protection and discuss a wide range of other issues with UNHCR and its intergovernmental and non-governmental partners.


In her remarks, Feller cited Mali – where Islamic militants have seized control of the north, imposing strict Sharia law and sending 260,000 refuges fleeing into neighbouring countries in a major humanitarian emergency for UNHCR – to highlight the difficulties involved in providing quality protection to individuals among the 700,000 worldwide who have become refugees so far this year.

In countries neighbouring Mali, she said, the proximity of refugees to the insecure border, physical difficulties in accessing and monitoring refugees spread across wide areas, tensions among different displaced groups and shortages of funds are combining to ensure that refugees get nothing more than basic life-saving help.

Military Recruitment of Children, Child Labour , Sexual Exploitation

In such environments, she noted, preventing problems such as military recruitment of children, child labour or sexual exploitation of children is becoming more difficult.

While noting “very positive” efforts under way by states to collaborate on regional strategies to tackle these issues, Feller cautioned that regional cooperation is not an end in itself.

“Its aims must include stronger national asylum systems, not their replacement, and for States to share more equitably the burdens and responsibilities of protecting refugees,” she said.

Mass Displacement in Africa, Middle East

This year has so far seen mass displacement in areas of Africa and the Middle East, principally from conflicts in Syria, South Sudan and Sudan, Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

People newly displaced in these areas are an addition to the 42.5 million refugees, internally displaced people and asylum-seekers globally.

Feller echoed a call made by the High Commissioner for Refugees for states to do more to help those countries that host major refugee populations, including by supporting funding arrangements for the local integration of people who are unable to return home, and she cited the need for more resettlement places as a further solution. Globally, demand for resettlement places currently outstrips availability by a factor of 10 persons for each resettlement place available.

Vulnerable Groups, Children, Women…

The UN official also underlined the need for more concerted action to reduce risks for specific vulnerable groups, including the growing numbers of unaccompanied refugee children worldwide, disabled people and people fleeing persecution because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Displaced children lose access to education or end up being placed in immigration detention, and girls and women often have particular difficulties, she said.

“Situations of forced displacement are not gender neutral; they affect women and girls disproportionately. Exposure to rape, human trafficking, survival sex, in tandem with lack of documentation and exclusion from support and services, is commonplace,” she stressed, adding that UNHCR was working to fight impunity by strengthening its work in preventing sexual- or gender-based violence, and ensuring that justice is more accessible for victims.

*Photo: Julien Harneis | Source: | Wikimedia Commons.

Read also:

Dramatic Situation of Over 100,000 Refugees in South Sudan

‘Alarming’ Health Situation in South Sudan Camps

Manhunt: This is Racism, Pure and Simple

S. Sudan Returnees Complain of ‘Harsh Treatment’ in Israel – UN

South Sudan: Yet Another Kitchen-Garden?

South Sudan the Year After – Violence and Misery Everywhere

South Sudan: “People are Dying, People are Suffering—This Is a Crisis”


2012 Human Wrongs Watch

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