As global crises multiply, UN official urges rethink for overstretched humanitarian system

High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. Photo: UNHCR/Jean-Marc Ferré

High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. Photo: UNHCR/Jean-Marc Ferré

Geneva, 30 September 2014 – The global humanitarian system has become dangerously overburdened as it faces a widening front of crises and conflicts, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned today, as he urged a rethink of how the international community will confront the growing challenges of the 21st century.

“In addition to the ongoing Syria crisis, new conflicts in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ukraine and most recently Iraq have caused terrible suffering and massive displacement,” António Guterres told the annual meeting of his agency’s Executive Committee.

“The international humanitarian community has scrambled to respond to these needs. But with every new crisis, we get close to the limits of how much we can do, and we are clearly no longer able to do enough.”

According to the refugee agency (UNCHR), 2014 has witnessed a “dramatic” growth in mass displacement from wars and conflict with numbers now reaching levels not seen since the end of the Second World War. In June, the agency announced that 51.2 million people were now forcibly displaced.

The past year has also seen UNHCR and its partners cope with five “full-blow humanitarian emergencies,” requiring a widening of operations such as the deployments of 670 new emergency staff members, urgent recruitment of hundreds more people to help, and the shifting of staff members between existing and new operations.

In addition to the conflicts in Syria, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ukraine and Iraq, Mr. Guterres also drew attention to the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing by boat across the Mediterranean, the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Aden and added that the increasing number of “unpredictable and increasingly interlinked” crises would “only lead to further enormous increases in humanitarian needs in the years to come.”

In his meeting with the Executive Committee, he informed them that the record-breaking $22 billion in humanitarian funding collected in 2013 was no longer sufficient to keep up with accelerating demands and called for a fundamental rethink of the status quo.

“This clearly puts in question the adequacy and sustainability of the resources available for humanitarian response,” the High Commissioner continued. “Already today, with the exponential increase in needs we have seen just in the last three years, the humanitarian financing system is nearly bankrupt.”

Mr. Guterres called on all Member States to work with stakeholders to better resolve those tensions that inevitably lead to humanitarian tragedies, suggesting that prevention was ultimately the best philosophy.

“We humanitarians can no longer clean up the mess,” he lamented. “Someone has to stop it from happening in the first place.”