Distinguished honourable members of Parliament, ladies and gentlemen, honourable chair, at the outset I would like to thank you for the invitation to appear before the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development to speak on the Somalia refugee situation. It's an honour for me to take part in this special event, and indeed it's a recognition of the importance and centrality Canada attaches to durable solutions for refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people around the world.
As a country with cherished democratic values that stands up for human rights, Canada is a global leader and a strong advocate for persons of concern to the UNHCR. We, as the UNHCR, lead the global efforts in responding to the protection needs of refugees and finding lasting and dignified solutions for them and for other forcibly displaced people.
Madam Chair and honourable members, on behalf of the High Commissioner, Mr. Filippo Grandi, I would like also to applaud the contributions of the Government of Canada to UNHCR that have enabled us to support and strengthen protection and assistance for displaced people around the world.
In September 2016, honourable members, I was appointed by the High Commissioner as his special envoy for the Somalia refugee situation with a view to refocusing global attention on the protracted nature of this displacement. There have been nearly one million Somali refugees who have been in exile over the last 27 years, mostly in the countries neighbouring Somalia—Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Uganda and Yemen—and to a further extent, southern Africa, with a substantial number still in camps and in need of international protection, care and assistance.
Similarly, more than two million Somalis are internally displaced inside the country. Due to emerging displacement crises globally—the crises that emerged and we continue to witness in South Sudan, Syria and Yemen in our region—the Somali refugee situation is at risk of being forgotten.
To end the plight of displaced Somalis, crucial political engagement is needed at all levels to mobilize resources and to find durable solutions, including attending to their immediate needs: nutrition, care, education, shelter and health.
In the recent past, developments in the Horn of Africa, including the rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, are increasing the potential for progress toward solutions to one of the region's most prolonged displacement crises. My mandate has since been expanded to address the matter of the Horn of Africa refugee situation.
Madam Chair and honourable members, the preservation of asylum space and the provision of international protection in refugee-hosting countries remain UNHCR's core priority in responding in particular to the Somali refugee needs. We express our gratitude to the countries in the region—Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea, Uganda and Yemen—that have been generous in hosting them over the last two decades. To this end, I seek the support of the international community in sharing this responsibility with countries of asylum.
In the search for solutions, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD, member states held a special summit in Nairobi in March 2017, demonstrating a decisive, unprecedented political commitment to strengthen protection and to pursue solutions for Somali refugees and internally displaced people in the Horn of Africa region. Under its auspices, the Nairobi Declaration on Durable Solutions for Somali Refugees and Reintegration of Returnees in Somalia, with its plan of action, was adopted.
This declaration and plan of action encompasses focused action on creating conditions for voluntary and dignified return to Somalia, delivering durable solutions while maintaining protection and asylum space, promoting the self-reliance and inclusion of refugees in the countries of asylum, and strengthening subregional co-operation—with all these elements underpinned by international co-operation and responsibility sharing.
The Nairobi declaration and its action plan have provided the engine for translating the comprehensive refugee response framework, or the global compact, annexed to the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants into action.
Under the agreement of this declaration, a regional thematic meeting took place in Djibouti in December 2017 to discuss regional refugee education, which marked another step forward on the inclusion of refugees and on responsibility sharing in line with the global compact on refugees.
Madam Chair, honourable members, today, with the recent developments in Somalia and on the regional and global stages, we stand at a critical juncture.
With the peaceful transition of power in Somalia in 2017, the new government has embraced reforms aimed at institutional reform and economic development. The government and the people of Somalia continue to make important achievements, but they face daunting challenges, which include armed insurgency and cyclical droughts that contribute to undermining progress. To confront these challenges sustainably, I encourage Canada to consider Somalia as one of its priority countries for support.
Madam Chair and honourable members, unprecedented numbers of Somali refugees are now making the decision to voluntarily return home to rebuild their lives after years of seeking protection abroad, some for more than two decades. Some 121,000 have already made the decision to go back, mainly from Kenya, Yemen and Djibouti, despite the challenges linked to the conditions inside the country.
I thank Canada for supporting projects inside Somalia to improve conditions, but a lot more needs to be done. I would like to call upon Canada to seize the opportunity of the renewed commitment of countries in the region to support their efforts in line with the principle of responsibility sharing, as enshrined in the global compact on refugees.
I applaud Canada's decision at the last G7 it convened on girls' education in emergency settings. UNHCR seeks to support education and vocational training for Somali refugees, particularly girls and boys, which would be key to equipping them with the necessary skills and knowledge.
Madam Chair, honourable members, I would like to applaud Canada's leading role in welcoming thousands of vulnerable refugees every year. While we hope that most Somali refugees will be able to return home one day, some continue to require a durable solution in a third country. Resettlement therefore remains a crucial protection tool for the most vulnerable groups, who cannot go back to Somalia or even remain in the countries where they first found asylum in the region. I wish to thank the Canadian people and the government for their continued generosity, and I wish to appeal for more opportunities geared toward the refugees, particularly those protracted cases in the Horn of Africa.
We continue to commend Canadians and post-secondary institutions across Canada for their support of refugee youth in providing post-secondary education through a World University Service of Canada program. The result of this initiative has been outstanding, and it's a global model of refugee youth empowerment, as we speak today. I wish to plead for more, for an expansion of this program to cover more cases that need support.
Madam Chair, honourable members, in conclusion, to strengthen and expand the protection and asylum space while increasing access to durable solutions, in particular for the Somali refugees at the global, regional and national levels, the Nairobi declaration and its plan of action are landmark, groundbreaking instruments to respond to the prolonged plight of the Somali refugees, and a call to action by states around the world is necessary.
I wish to thank you most sincerely for the opportunity to speak with you today. I will be happy to address any questions you may have.
Thank you so much, Mr. Aboultaif.
First of all, it's important to consider that in the context of the Somalia situation, we're speaking about 27 years. It's not 15. We're speaking about the fact that a generation of Somali refugees have been trapped in exile since they first left Somalia. Their character has changed. Half the population of the refugees that we're dealing with are of school age, between the ages of three and 17. A great majority are youth. This is the future of our whole country.
The challenge we have is to equip them with the necessary skills before they return, or, even if they don't return in good time, to allow them to be useful citizens globally. This is what we are now involved in, and I come to Canada to seek support for education and vocational training for this large number of refugee children who have matured in the camps.
The other issue you spoke about is the demographic change. As I speak, we have youth, but of course the birth rate doesn't stop for people who have been trapped in camps for the last 27 years. Children continue to be born on a daily basis.
How to take care of the future of those children is a challenge for all of us. I call upon Canada and countries around the world to join the efforts of the UNHCR to address these challenges of the refugee population, which is changing demographically but is also a very protracted situation.
I visited all the camps, and I haven't seen anybody who has told me he doesn't want to go back to Somalia. Every day all of them wish to go back. The challenge is that the condition of the country now cannot allow for a massive return. This is where I call upon all of us, in the spirit of the global compact of which Canada is a champion, to assist the countries of origin to create better conditions.
In my statement I have asked for support to be given to the Somali government so that the conditions inside the country can be much better than they are now to allow its citizens to return to the region. This is the best solution, and we need to pursue it.
Thank you so much. That's a very, very important question.
In order to maintain asylum space and protection for the refugees, we need to consider the host communities and the countries that continue to host this population. As the UNHCR and the international community, we are very grateful to these countries for the patience and support they have given to the refugee community, and not only Somalis. As we speak today, we have South Sudanese refugees and refugees from Eritrea, from Ethiopia, from Congo and from the DRC. We have refugees from a mix of all those neighbouring countries.
The reality is that these countries produce refugees, but they also host refugees. We want to really thank them. The great impact on the environment, on water and on the social fabric is massive. In the spirit of global responsibility sharing, we as the UNHCR wish to advocate for support to be given to the host countries, with the resources required. We are asking the host countries to continue to provide more support to refugees, including having refugees in their national plans and their national activities and programs, all of which demand more resources, be it for environmental conservation, for education or for infrastructure and road networks that have suffered over the years as a result of support given to refugees.
We are advocating very strongly for support to host countries and host communities, in order to maintain asylum and also to avoid tension between the host communities and the refugees, so that they become allies and friends.
First of all, as you correctly observed, honourable Chair, the future of any country is the youth, and the youth of Somalia need to get an opportunity to grow Somalia. The ones in exile, the ones I have spoken to, want to go back to Somalia. The challenge is that the conditions in Somalia require much more work to be done so that they will able to go back and thrive in their country. Because of the displacement and the destruction of the institutions, the Somali institutions need to be strengthened so they can secure the country.
Second, we need investments in Somalia. We need financial investments in the country in order to grow the economy of the country so that the youth can have hope and find opportunities to work and get jobs.
Third, it is particularly the youth in exile who are more threatened because of a lack of resources to develop skills. This is why a country such as Canada....
We have a limited number of opportunities here for young Somalis who come to Canada to train and to be in the WUSC program, as I just stated. If we can increase the slots for that program, we can get many more out of limbo. As we speak now, the great majority of them require more training inside the country, and they also require outside support to train them and equip them so they can go back to Somalia with the necessary skills.
The danger is that if youth become hopeless, they get radicalized, and that radicalization becomes a threat not only to Somalia but to all of us around the world, including here in Canada. To confront that challenge, I think we need to provide the necessary support. We need to equip them with the necessary skills and vocational training in the camps, in the subregion, so that when they go back to Somalia they are nationals who go back with skills. For them to go back to Somalia, all of us around the world need to rally around the priorities of the Somali government so that we improve the conditions inside the country.
I'm interested in how your work would align with certain issues that you have no responsibility for. I'll give you an example.
If we take the economy, in 1960, the British and the Italians created Somalia by reducing their land. In 1969, you had a coup. In the 1990s, you had deterioration of the government. In 2007, you had an invasion by Ethiopia. You have two strong federalist states, Puntland and Somaliland.
Your work that you're doing is extremely important. However, within the context of your work—and I know that questions were asked about the institutions—15% of the country is electrified. Sixty per cent of your population are under 25. You have 40% participation in primary school education. You have a 77% external debt obligation to your GDP, and your economy there is less than $20 billion.
How are you going to work under these circumstances? The work that you're doing is extremely important, but you have not only internally displaced people but people who are coming from other countries also—not only Somalis, but Ethiopians and Eritreans.
How, in that context, are you going to make sure that the work you do sustains itself when the economy itself is in trouble?