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Lubbers calls for "Convention Plus" approach to new challenges

News Stories, 13 September 2002

Current challenges like people smuggling, reflected in the heightened security at Britain's Dover Dock, call for new solutions for refugees. © UNHCR/A.Johnstone

COPENHAGEN, Denmark, September 13 (UNHCR) UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers today unveiled several proposals to help governments tackle current migration problems, calling for a system of international burden-sharing to provide solutions for refugees in their regions of origin.

At a meeting of the European Union Justice and Home Affairs Council in Copenhagen on Friday, Lubbers acknowledged current challenges like "asylum shopping" and people smuggling. Reiterating UNHCR's desire to work with governments to find solutions for refugees, he suggested some new agreements to "supplement" the 1951 Refugee Convention, the cornerstone of international refugee protection.

While stressing the continuing centrality and validity of the 1951 Refugee Convention a status reaffirmed in Geneva last December by states parties to the instrument the High Commissioner said it had also "become clear that the Convention alone does not suffice".

He called for a new approach which he termed "Convention Plus" involving "a number of special agreements aimed at managing the challenges of today and tomorrow in a spirit of international co-operation".

"A major concern today is the issue of secondary movements of refugees and asylum seekers," said Lubbers, referring to those who had already reached a first country of asylum but then decided to move on. "I am convinced that the international community needs new agreements to deal with cross-cutting issues such as this. These new agreements would supplement the Convention and form part of multilateral frameworks for protecting refugees and achieving durable solutions, primarily in regions of origin."

He said the ultimate goal of such agreements would be to build an effective system of international burden-sharing that would also enable refugees to find adequate protection or assistance as close to home as possible.

One way to do this could be to make it possible for those in need of protection to apply for asylum visas at embassies in their home countries or regions.

"In the case of secondary movements, a special agreement could be drawn up to define the roles and responsibilities of countries of origin, transit and potential destination, with regard to potential asylum seekers," said Lubbers. He added that other special agreements could deal with massive refugee movements, resettlement and post-conflict reintegration and reconstruction.

Such agreements, he noted, would be a concrete outcome of the process of Global Consultations on International Protection, as reflected in the action points of UNHCR's Agenda for Protection.

Addressing EU-specific issues, the High Commissioner pledged UNHCR support in finding a common EU-wide interpretation of the definition of a refugee one that recognises that persecution could be inflicted by non-state agents and accommodates the notion of gender-based persecution. He also called for the creation of an EU-wide advisory body to monitor the jurisprudence of national refugee status determination bodies.

An efficient system could be established to provide governments with up-to-date information on the countries of origin, said Lubbers, noting that the UN refugee agency could provide support in identifying specific groups of asylum seekers for whom simplified, accelerated appeal procedures could be applied. He also suggested using tripartite agreements between UNHCR, the host country and the country of origin to better facilitate returns, including of those persons found not to be in need of international protection.

Focusing on the need to address conditions in regions of origin, the High Commissioner urged those attending the EU meeting to convince their governments to channel development funds toward programmes that also benefit refugees in developing countries and which facilitate their repatriation or assimilation.

"With a greater emphasis on ensuring lasting solutions in regions of origin, the numbers of refugees requiring settlement in European countries will be lower, and the need to integrate these people into your societies will be easier to explain to your citizens," he told the EU delegates. "Above all, the problem of refugees falling into the hands of human smugglers and traffickers will diminish, and refugee movements will no longer fuel criminal networks in the way they do today."




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Convention Plus

International initiative aimed at improving refugee protection worldwide and to facilitate the resolution of refugee problems through multilateral special agreements.

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story