Worryingly high levels of displaced people are both a symptom of and a potential issue to finding common ground on global crises, the UN's refugee chief said in New York on Tuesday.
While the world’s attention at the UN General Assembly this week is largely tied up with the war in Ukraine, food security, energy, climate and the Iranian nuclear programme, the issue of displacement continues to be one of significance across all of the challenges facing the world.
This year, the number of refugees and displaced people reached 100 million, a figure that UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called “a very worrying symptom” of the problems facing the world.
Speaking exclusively to The National in New York at the start of the UN General Assembly high-level debates, Mr Grandi said: “The point that I am making at the General Assembly is that there is a thread that somehow runs across all these aspects of the global challenges … because hunger and war and climate change, all of them in different ways cause people to flee their homes.”
Mr Grandi’s message to world leaders this week is that displacement “is an important angle through which to look at the world crises, it's an important angle through which to be worried about the trends that prevail in today's world, and it is an important angle more positively through which to try and sustain humanitarian responses, but also explore solutions to this crisis”.
Syrian refugees should not be forgotten
On the status of the refugee crisis in the Arab world, Mr Grandi said it was a “mixed picture”. He highlighted progress in Iraq that “the majority” of those displaced by conflict have gone home and “that’s progress”.
However, he added “of course, we're watching with some apprehension the recent unrest in the country, because it's the political problems that then cause conflict, that then causes displacement”.
“Let us hope we don't see a trend reversing because that's one better spot in the region from our perspective, but we know that the political challenges are huge,” he added.
Another country with a relative lull in violence is Yemen, where a truce has been set for several months.
“We must hope that we can build on that truce, to build a real ceasefire … but certainly, as soon as the truce took hold, we were able to do more humanitarian work. So there is a direct correlation, even with minimal positive steps,” he said.
Mr Grandi stressed the importance of not forgetting Syrian refugees, saying that “the humanitarian crisis in Syria remains one of the largest in the world, comparable to the Ukrainian displacement crisis in numbers”.
Despite the magnitude of the problems facing Syrians, “interest is waning, including interest in the victims of this unresolved situation, primarily the refugees and internally displaced”.
“Ukraine has absorbed, in terms of political investment, huge energy around the world, not to mention resources. And as a result, humanitarian operations around the Syria crisis, just like is the case in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and many other places, humanitarian operations are suffering from underfunding,” he said.
On Syria, which Mr Grandi visited last week, there is a substantial funding gap, with only 28 per cent of the UN’s appeal for $2 billion being met this year. In good years, this was closer to 60 per cent.
Mr Grandi was clear in his assessment of the situation in Syria, saying it is not yet time for refugees to go back there. While he visits Syria annually, he said that this year, “I found the situation of ordinary people extremely challenging”.
Visiting Aleppo for the first time since 2017, Mr Grandi said: “I found pretty much the same level of destruction … some rubble has been cleaned up, but by and large, people live amidst the rubble, those few who have returned live in terrible conditions in a very large part of the city.”
He went on to clarify that “not the whole city is destroyed, it is the eastern part of Aleppo that is destroyed”.
“But I've seen the same last year in Homs, for example, or the year before in Ghouta, all the places that were affected by the conflict, bombed and destroyed,” he added.
“There has been no reconstruction.”
There is hope that this could change as the latest UN Security Council resolution on humanitarian work in Syria, including cross-border operations, stipulates for the first time that early recovery can be carried out.
Mr Grandi acknowledged that “it's always complex in countries that are under sanctions to do longer-term work, but humanitarian work is possible and early recovery is possible”.
He urged countries to do more of that early recovery work.
“I do understand the political constraints, but I think that humanitarian work and early recovery is an extension of humanitarian work [and] must not be tied to political considerations,” Mr Grandi said.
Some countries hosting Syrian refugees, particularly Lebanon, have been advocating the return of the refugees back to their country. Mr Grandi clarified that the “UNHCR is not promoting return, clearly not under the present circumstances”.
He said there are two primary reasons that returns to Syria are currently problematic.
“One is resources because people won't go back in large numbers if kids cannot go to school, or patients cannot visit clinics, or there's no economy to speak about, therefore, no employment or self-sustainability for returnees.”
The second reason is linked to the security of refugees, the lack of documentation and legal challenges they may face.
Ultimately, the choice of return must be with “the people themselves”.
“This is not a decision that anybody can take on their behalf. But we all have a responsibility to create conditions that are conducive to return,” Mr Grandi said.
However, he said, “primarily, this is a responsibility of the government of Syria”.
“This is their country, but there is a subsidiary responsibility on the part of donors to fund those activities that may be useful within the early recovery,” he said.
Refugees in Lebanon are also facing challenges as the country deals with its own crises.
“Lebanon is a country that is facing its own steep challenges — economic, political, financial — and where the impatience for the burden represented by refugees is really escalating and becoming very, very visible,” Mr Grandi said.
That means “we also need to make sure that in the countries hosting refugees, those programmes are adequately funded”.
As funding becomes more constrained or redeployed to deal with Ukraine, Mr Grandi said: “We risk having a decline in humanitarian programmes that would be catastrophic under the present circumstances.”
He added that securing funding is “urgent” and that he is urging Arab regional donors to give more aid to Syrians.
“It is still important to support host countries, but also this early recovery inside Syria,” he said.
Winter threat for Ukraine's displaced
On Ukraine, where more than 13 million have had to flee their homes due to the war, Mr Grandi said that this could also become a protracted conflict.
“We see the conflict evolving; it's clear that it doesn't seem to be moving towards any cessation of hostilities anytime soon,” he said.
“It is a very vicious conflict … and this is a very fluid and dynamic situation in a bad way, in the sense that people move all the time. They flee from insecure areas to better ones.”
As winter approaches, there are concerns for refugees all over the world but particularly in Ukraine, as the weather is more severe.
“The big humanitarian concern that we have in all these in the short term is winter. We have these concerns in Syria but the winter in Ukraine is one of the harshest in the inhabited world,” Mr Grandi said.
“In the long run, of course, the fear is that this becomes another protracted conflict, that the large humanitarian resources that we did have in Ukraine for sure, to help the government face the crisis will dwindle. That's inevitable in any protracted crisis.”
Taliban rule in Afghanistan
Another country suffering from years of conflict and displacement is Afghanistan.
Mr Grandi said that since the Taliban takeover, “it's a bit of a mixed picture”.
He has visited the country twice since then and said it was a “good choice by the UN and humanitarian organisations to stay”.
He said that international organisation are engaging with the Taliban “and that is where the mixed picture arises”.
The previous phase was characterised by conflict between the Taliban and the so-called Republic of the previous government. This had caused a lot of insecurity around the country, Mr Grandi said. Now that fighting has subsided, as the Taliban control most of the country.
While it “sounds paradoxical, that has given us much more access to the people in need”, he said.
However, “because of the Taliban, of their history, of their position on some crucial issues, like rights of women or rights of minorities, engagement has been limited and has been fundamentally humanitarian in nature”.
While the immediate concerns for a humanitarian disaster have not risen, there isn’t a “sustainable situation, because there is no funding for development for institutions”.
He expressed hope that “the Taliban will start engaging more constructively also on other issues so that we can favour the expansion of aid also to other areas”.
Impact of climate change
One of the main themes of this year's UN General Assembly is that of climate change.
Advocates for climate action have said previously that action is needed to avoid the creation of “climate refugees”. Mr Grandi advocates action to avoid climate change but urges caution around the term.
“The relationship between climate and displacement is not a simple one. Climate change pushes people to move in many different ways,” he said.
Some people displaced in the short term due to climate disasters, as recently witnessed in Pakistan following flooding, can often return home.
Yet “when climate generates conflict, and this happens very frequently in the Horn of Africa, for example, or in the Sahel”, then there are refugees as a result.
“Climate change impacts dramatically countries that are already fragile for other reasons, like Afghanistan, and it's a complicating factor,” he said.
The UNHCR stressed the argument that displacement and refugee flows are complex, but ultimately the message to countries is “whoever moves, for whatever reason, treat them with humanity, because that's fundamental. It's not their fault, and that they have to move”.