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Lubbers launches forum on Convention Plus initiative

News Stories, 27 June 2003

© UNHCR/T.Ott
Guatemalan refugees in Honduras' El Tesoro camp during the Central American crises of the mid&;1980s, which were eventually resolved through a highly successful regional approach.

GENEVA, June 27 (UNHCR) The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, today formally launched a special forum on his new "Convention Plus" initiative aimed at producing a more structured approach to finding lasting solutions to refugee situations.

The forum, attended by a wide range of interested governments, as well as non-governmental organisations and international agencies, is also intended to stimulate concrete action plans geared to finding solutions.

Lubbers reminded the forum delegates that UNHCR's Statute gives it the twin responsibilities of protecting refugees and seeking permanent solutions to their situation, in conjunction with governments and other agencies.

"During my three years as High Commissioner," he said in his opening remarks in Geneva, "there is one central message I have heard so frequently that I have no hesitation about what our first priority should be. This message is: Without the prospect of durable solutions, our common duty to protect refugees cannot be fulfilled effectively."

He also highlighted the point that during the exhaustive two-year Global Consultations process, and the drafting of its key forward-looking product, the Agenda for Protection, it became clear there was a consensus that the second element of UNHCR's statutory responsibilities finding durable solutions "was not functioning well enough.... A strong wish was expressed that we had to do better with burden-sharing and durable solutions ... "

As well as highlighting what Convention Plus is a logical next step forward on the path laid down by the Agenda for Protection the High Commissioner also clearly disassociated it from some of the controversial proposals that were discussed during the lead-up to the European Summit in Thessaloniki a week earlier.

"I wish to dispel any misunderstanding about UNHCR's position regarding ways to enhance protection for refugees in those regions that bear the brunt of the world's refugee problem," he said, adding that "in the run-up to ... Thessaloniki, UNHCR's position has been widely misinterpreted and misrepresented.... Let me make it very clear to you all: UNHCR is primarily concerned with making more concerted and imaginative efforts, within this Convention Plus framework, to find durable solutions to refugee situations. Access to a durable solution is the ultimate protection. Where despair and hopelessness push refugees and asylum seekers into the hands of human smugglers and traffickers, we must act to address the causes, not to move the problem into a hypothetical 'zone'. This is not about burden-shifting, it's about burden-sharing."

Lubbers proceeded to describe in more detail how he envisages the Convention Plus idea being transformed into real actions on the ground. He referred to the mention in UNHCR's Statute of "special agreements".

"It is clear," he said, "that 'special agreements' mean more than vague declarations or lofty exhortations.... Special agreements must be the result of negotiation, not just consultation."

He continued by describing a number of historical precedents that fit the Convention Plus model for comprehensive approaches to protection and solutions, including the Comprehensive Plan of Action for the Vietnamese boat people (CPA) and the so-called CIREFCA process for refugees produced by the various interlinked civil wars in Central America. Both these highly complex and ambitious programmes were launched at international conferences that took place one month apart in 1989.

Five years after it was launched, the CPA succeeded in bringing the mixed outflow of refugees and economic migrants from Viet Nam and Laos down to almost zero. Also by that time, 70,000 people had returned to Viet Nam, where intensive monitoring was taking place to ensure that they were not maltreated upon their return. Many others had been resettled from their first countries of asylum and an orderly emigration programme had been installed inside Viet Nam. The CPA brought together all the neighbouring asylum states, donor countries, resettlement countries and Viet Nam itself in a combined and ultimately highly successful effort to solve a crisis that was costing many lives.

The CIREFCA process is probably the most ambitious effort in UNHCR's history to consolidate peace through durable solutions and integrated development. A total of 56 states took part in the conference that launched the process by outlining solutions for the region's complex patchwork of uprooted people caused by a decade-long mix of guerrilla warfare, sweeping counter-insurgency operations, widespread political and social unrest and sharp economic decline affecting Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador. As well as integrating targeted development early on in the process, CIREFCA was particularly remarkable in that the progress in the humanitarian sphere had a very positive catalytic effect on the peace processes across the region.

High Commissioner Lubbers told the delegates at the forum that similar opportunities exist today (he cited Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Angola and Sri Lanka as countries where the will to follow through with ongoing attempts to build lasting solutions remains crucial), and that new opportunities would continue to emerge. Referring to Somalia, Iraq and Sudan, he said, "There are opportunities for solutions that are presenting themselves, what I would call new challenges on our horizon. Again, we must be prompt at seizing opportunities, and we must muster the will to make the necessary investment in solutions at the right time."

The Convention Plus initiative is an attempt to bind what has in the past been only an occasional and ad hoc comprehensive approach to solving refugee crises into a more concerted and dynamic framework that produces measurable results that are in everyone's interests. These would include a reduction in the number of refugees and asylum seekers not by trying simply to deter them from arriving in a particular country or region, but rather by solving the crises that caused them to move in the first place and removing the roadblocks that prevent them either from going home or from being integrated in their first asylum country, or finding a future abroad through expanded resettlement programmes.

At the Friday meeting, the first of the Convention Plus forum, particular attention was to be paid to the strategic use of resettlement within comprehensive plans. The Canadian government, based on its considerable experience as a generous resettlement country, was to present some key principles for consideration after the opening statement by the High Commissioner. Under Convention Plus, in addition to focusing on drawing up specific plans for specific situations, attempts may be made to draw up some generic sets of principles on issues such as resettlement, which could then be used to make the whole process more cohesive.

The Convention Plus initiative is also placing considerable emphasis on targeted development assistance in both refugees' first asylum countries and when they start going home in their countries of origin. Such assistance would not only benefit the refugees and returnees themselves but also the local communities where they are living, in order to reduce tensions and increase stability.

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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.

A Cry for Those in Peril on the Sea

Earlier this month, within sight of shore after a long journey from Libya, a boat carrying hundreds of people foundered off the Italian island of Lampedusa. More than 300 people, many of them children, drowned and only 156 people were picked out of the water alive. The tragedy was staggering for its heavy death toll, but it is unlikely to prevent people from making the dangerous and irregular journey by sea to try and reach Europe. Many seek a better life in Europe, but others are escaping persecution in countries like Eritrea and Somalia. And it's not just happening on the Mediterranean. Desperate people fleeing poverty, conflict or persecution are risking their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden from Africa; Rohingya from Myanmar are heading into the Bay of Bengal on flimsy boats in search of a safe haven; people of several nationalities try to reach Australia by boat; others cross the Caribbean. And many remember the Vietnamese boat people exodus of the 1970s and 1980s. As then, governments need to work together to reduce the risk to life. These photos, from UNHCR's archives, capture the plight of boat people around the world.

A Cry for Those in Peril on the Sea