New UN refugee chief takes over at time of record numbers and unprecedented challenges

Filippo Grandi of Italy, a veteran of United Nations efforts to help refugees, took up his post today as head of the UN refugee agency at a time of unprecedented challenges, with record numbers of people worldwide forced to flee war and persecution.

UNHCR is navigating extraordinarily difficult waters, said Grandi, a 27-year UN veteran who succeeds Antonio Guterres of Portugal as UN High Commissioner for Refugees for a five-year term. The combination of multiple conflicts and resulting mass displacement, fresh challenges to asylum, the funding gap between humanitarian needs and resources, and growing xenophobia is very dangerous, added the former head of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

More than one million refugees and migrants, mostly from war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe during the past year, the highest number of people displaced by war and conflict seen in Western and Central Europe since the 1990s, when several conflicts broke out in the former Yugoslavia.

Other challenges facing the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has twice been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – in 1954 and 1981 – include critical shortfalls in humanitarian funding, fewer voluntary returns than at any time in over three decades, people staying in exile for longer periods and increased politicization of refugee issues in many countries.

The road ahead is a challenging one, but I hope that – working with governments, civil society, and other partners – we will make progress in ensuring international protection and improved living conditions for millions of refugees, internally displaced and stateless people, Grandi stressed. I also hope that solutions to crises of displacement will be pursued with renewed determination by addressing their root causes and investing adequate political and material resources. UNHCR, whose mandate includes the search for solutions, stands ready to work with all those pursuing this goal.

Mr. Grandi, 58, has worked in international affairs for over 30 years, 27 of them with the UN. Prior to heading UNRWA, he worked for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) as Deputy Special Representative, following a long career with UNHCR in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and at the agency’s Geneva headquarters.

Established by the UN General Assembly in 1950, UNHCR has helped tens of millions of people restart their lives. Today, a staff of over 9,700 people in 126 countries, many working in humanitarian emergencies and in close proximity to regions of conflict, continues to help and protect millions of refugees, returnees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and stateless people.

In June 2015, it reported that worldwide forced displacement had reached a new post-Second World War high of 59.5 million people. Displacement levels have continued to rise since, most visibly with the more than one million refugees and migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe over the past year.

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