UNHCR annual meeting closes with call for enhanced protection of displaced

News Stories, 2 October 2009

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
High Commissioner Guterres talks to the press after closing the annual ExCom meeting.

GENEVA, October 2 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres closed the annual session of his agency's governing Executive Committee (ExCom) on Friday by informing delegates of plans to increase UNHCR's refugee protection role even as he pushes for greater efficiencies elsewhere.

Committing the UN refugee agency to a zero growth policy at headquarters, Guterres said the challenges of the future would be met through improved productivity and prioritization.

In its field operations, he said, UNHCR will "strengthen its protection capacity, particularly as it relates to urban refugees." Refugee protection, he said, "is an area that cannot be outsourced."

UNHCR's demonstrated ability in dealing with people forced from home as a result of conflict makes the agency well placed to take on an enhanced protection role in the field for people displaced by natural disasters, Guterres told delegates from ExCom's 78 member states.

While some 600,000 refugees returned home in 2008, said Guterres, the figure was among the lowest recorded in the past 15 years. As large-scale repatriation decreases, the need for additional opportunities for local integration and resettlement will increase, he said. "Voluntary repatriation remains UNHCR's preferred refugee solution," said the High Commissioner. "Additional options for local integration and resettlement do not undermine" that preference, he said.

In closing the 60th session of ExCom, Guterres praised the life-long commitment to refugee causes by this year's Nansen Award recipient, the late Senator Edward Kennedy. Senator Kennedy will be honoured for his powerful advocacy on behalf of refugees at a ceremony to be held in Washington, DC on October 28.

Refugee protection ... is an area that cannot be outsourced.

High Commissioner António Guterres

In a press conference that followed, Guterres praised the generosity of countries who continue to host millions of refugees despite having limited resources themselves. Humanitarian work is becoming more difficult and dangerous, he said, as the nature of conflict becomes more complex.

"In some situations humanitarians have become targets," the High Commissioner said. "Not because of who they work for, but simply because they are doing humanitarian work." In Pakistan alone, he said, three UNHCR staff have been killed this year and one kidnapped and subsequently released.

In Europe, he called for a harmonization of refugee asylum schemes to end what he called "huge difference in refugee recognition rates." By limiting access to meaningful asylum procedures the "asylum space" in the developed world was being eroded, just as challenges in the developing world were limiting the humanitarian space.

The five-day annual ExCom meeting reviews and approves UNHCR's programmes and budget, advises on protection issues and discusses a wide range of other topics.

By Tim Irwin in Geneva





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2009 Executive Committee Meeting

UNHCR's 60th Executive Committee met in Geneva from 28 September to 2 October 2009.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

The Faces of Asylum

Everyone has a right to be treated humanely and with dignity. But asylum-seekers can sometimes be detained for years, forced to exist on the edge of society and struggle for their right to protection, while in some cases suffering human rights abuses. Their temporary new homes - a long way from the ones they left behind - can be sports halls, churches, closed centres, makeshift shelters or simply the street. Lives are put on hold while people wait in the hope of receiving refugee status.

Although it is the legitimate right of any government to secure its borders and prevent irregular immigration, it is important that anyone seeking asylum in a country have access to it. According to international law, states are obliged to provide protection to those in need, and must not return a person to a place where their life or freedom is threatened.

This photo set looks at the faces of people seeking asylum in industrialized countries - the real people behind the numbers, crossing land borders and oceans in search of safety, work or just a better life.

The Faces of Asylum

Beyond the Border

In 2010, the Turkish border with Greece became the main entry point for people attempting by irregular methods to reach member states of the European Union, with over 132,000 arrivals. While some entered as migrants with the simple wish of finding a better life, a significant number fled violence or persecution in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia. The journey is perilous, with many reports of drowning when people board flimsy vessels and try to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the River Evros on the border between Greece and Turkey. The many deficiencies in the Greek asylum system are exacerbated by the pressure of tens of thousands of people awaiting asylum hearings. Reception facilities for new arrivals, including asylum-seekers, are woefully inadequate. Last year, UNHCR visited a number of overcrowded facilities where children, men and women were detained in cramped rooms with insufficient facilities. UNHCR is working with the Greek government to improve its asylum system and has called upon other European states to offer support.

Beyond the Border

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Italy: Fashion Designer in Milan

Single mother Lamia had her own fashion workshop in Syria, she comes from a comfortable background but lost all her money in the war. Under the sound of gunfire she closed the workshop, took her two children and headed to Sudan in a lorry with dozens other people. She is now seeking asylum in Italy's fashion capital, Milan.

Italy: Haunted by a Sinking Ship Play video

Italy: Haunted by a Sinking Ship

"Every time I try to sleep I see what I saw in the water, what happened to me, the dead children" Thamer & Thayer, brothers from Syria, escaped war, then unrest in Libya only to be faced with death on the Mediterranean The Lampedusa boat tragedies sparked a debate on asylum policies in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch a search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea. Called Mare Nostrum, the operation had rescued more than 63,000 people at the time this video was published in July 2014.
Italy: Mediterranean RescuePlay video

Italy: Mediterranean Rescue

The Italy Navy rescues hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers on the high seas as the numbers of people undertaking the crossing of the Mediterranean from North Africa grows.