Statement to media by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the conclusion of his Mission to the People's Republic of China, Beijing, 23 March 2006

UNHCR Spokesman: Good morning and thank you for coming. High Commissioner António Guterres has just concluded three days of meetings with Chinese officials on a range of issues he will discuss here this morning. During his mission, he has been accompanied by the Director of our Asia-Pacific Bureau in Geneva, Ms. Janet Lim, as well as Michel Gabaudan, who is our Regional Representative based here in Beijing. Mr. Guterres is just on his way to the airport, but has a bit of time to talk with you. We take a few questions after makes his statement. Mr. Guterres....

High Commissioner António Guterres: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, for your presence. First of all, I would like to express my gratitude to our hosts, who allowed us very fruitful discussions on this first mission to the People's Republic of China in my role as High Commissioner. I have been here for three days of hard work, having had more meetings than those we had previous scheduled. And I am glad to conclude what has been globally a successful mission.

I want to express my deep commitment to see China increasingly engaged as a global player in international humanitarian action, and also express our full support to the construction in China in the context towards the development of the framework of rule of law, of a truly national asylum system.

In this respect, we have had an opportunity to discuss all areas of our cooperation and to try to find the best ways to improve and increase good cooperation in the future. I think that we can build upon something that was very successful in the past. One of the world's most meaningful examples of integration of refugees in the last decades has been the extremely successful integration of Indo-Chinese refugees in China. During this mission, we have initiated the last steps of our cooperation regarding this issue, and I think it's my duty to congratulate the Chinese authorities for the work well done, and for the success of this integration process.

Having this as solid support for the future, we have engaged during these three days in very meaningful debates on all the areas of our possible cooperation in the years to come. I will start with the first point I mentioned - our commitment to Chinese engagement in world humanitarian action. We have discussed this at length; the pattern of displacement in the world today. Displacement is taking place more and more intensively in developing world. We all agree that the most important issue is to address the root causes of displacement - the root causes are in poverty and in conflict. We very much welcome an enhanced presence of China, both in conflict prevention and resolution and development cooperation as a constructive element in order to avoid displacement all over the world.

We have also discussed forms of cooperation in emergency response in which China has very relevant capacities. We discussed the ways of facilitating the presence of Chinese citizens - maybe of young people - in humanitarian action abroad, and namely in UNHCR activities. We established several platforms of practical cooperation in many of these areas to make sure we are successful in its implementation.

A central area of the debate has been related to China's present efforts to build a national asylum system. As you know, the state is currently preparing national refugee regulations. I had the opportunity to fully commit my office to technical support for efforts in the elaboration of these laws, and afterwards in the training mechanisms and all other forms of support for the implementation of such a system.

We had the opportunity to launch a handbook, in Chinese, on refugee law. And this will be, I hope, a very important element of study in the preparation of Chinese legislation. It addresses the core of the most complex problems you deal with when you are making an asylum system - in particular, attention is given to the linkages between national sovereignty and international law, and how to establish these linkages in a way that is fully compatible with the present global system of protection for people in need, in this case of refugees.

You might ask me if we also discussed the more delicate areas, and my answer is very clear - we discussed everything. We discussed everything in a very open and frank state of mind from both sides. Knowing the press, I can imagine that a large part of your curiosity is in relation to one of issues that is an important topic in today's media. That is the presence of North Korean citizens in China. Of course, this was also an area of very intense, frank and meaningful discussions during this visit. I would like to make a few initial comments on that. First, UNHCR is a strictly humanitarian agency. We are not a political agency, and we will not be engaged in political activities. We don't want to interfere in the nature of the political relations in the Korean Peninsula or between any country of the region and the countries of the Peninsula. That is very clear. We don't serve any interests. We have only one master. And our master is the refugees and other people of our concern; their needs in protection and solutions for their plight, and our capacity to address their needs in the most effective way.

I think this qualification is very important. Because this also allows us to have an objective analysis of what in our opinion is the very nature of the problem. We don't think that we are facing a massive flow of refugees as we can witness in other parts of the world - for example, Darfurian refugees in Chad in which 200,000 refugees who have flowed into Chad as a result of civil war and conflict. We believe that the large majority of the people that have been crossing the border from North Korea have done so for economic reasons - because of economic hardship, because of hunger, and they represent a typical situation of migration.

Does that mean that our office has nothing to do with that? No. And no for a very simple reason: in all areas of the world where you have migration flows of whatever nature, you always find a certain number of persons in need of international protection. That is where our mandate is relevant. And that is why it was so important for us to engage in a meaningful discussion with the authorities of the People's Republic of China.

What that means is that in some circumstances, some of these people might become refugees, and for different reasons. The most frequent reason - when we deal with this problem not only here but all over the world - is when there is a risk of deportation back to their countries of origin and this is associated with the risk of persecution in those areas covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention. In those situations, these people become what are called "refugees sur-place." And they become people in need of protection that will, of course, justify our intervention. That was obviously at the very core of our discussions.

These discussions have been very open, very frank and very constructive. Nothing was left under the table. We had the opportunity to make different proposals. We have all agreed that in the months to come, we will look at them objectively and try to find the best ways to cooperate in what it is naturally a very complex and sensitive matter.

I have to tell you, to the credit of our Chinese interlocutors, that even when raising more delicate issues - for instance when I expressed my clear objections in relation to news that there had been a recent deportation, in my opinion in breach of the 1951 Convention - there was a very open attitude of dialogue. That attitude of dialogue allowed us to go in-depth in the analysis of the gaps that naturally exist between our analyses, and beyond that in a common engagement to a plan of action for the future to bridge those gaps - to find more common understanding about those problems, and to be able to have more meaningful cooperation when addressing them. Thus I am able to say that I am leaving the People's Republic of China with a very strong sense of commitment and hope. Commitment to an improved and enhanced cooperation between my office and China, and hope that the enhanced cooperation will translate itself into positive and concrete results in the months and years to come.

Thank you very much.

Question: I presume from your point, that as the High Commissioner, you should act regarding North Korean refugees not because they are refugees but because they will be deported. Is that correct?

High Commissioner: What I said is that what we are facing is a general problem everywhere in the world. We are not a migration management agency. We are not an agency that should deal with migration problems. But within every migration flow anywhere in the world, there are people in need of international protection. That is where our mandate is relevant. One of the reasons why this international protection might be meaningful is where there is the possibility of return to country where people might face persecution based on reasons that are expressly defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. That is the problem and it's important to put it very objectively. It is a problem that can happen and is happening today in many parts of the world and needs to be dealt with everywhere with deep commitment based on principles, not on politics. And we must try to establish effective cooperation with authorities in hosting countries in order to create the best environment for the protection that is required. Of course, one thing that is very important - and I would say it's at the very centre of our debates here in Beijing - was the establishment of a Chinese asylum system in which, under Chinese law, these things can be entirely clarified.

Question: Did you get access to interview the North Korean refugees in China that you requested a year ago?

High Commissioner: I didn't make a request a year ago because a year ago I was not in UNHCR. The only thing I can tell you is that everything that we requested during this visit was available and the discussions we had were very meaningful. There's something I learned in 30 years of politics: it is always impossible to agree about the past. It is always possible to try to agree about the future.

Question: The same question, but in a different way. How will somebody from North Korea who is endangered make contact with you? It would be impossible for them to get into this office. See the security outside? How could you contact these people who would need your protection?

High Commissioner: Of course there are many specific issues in relation to this that we are discussing with the Chinese authorities. I am not going to give you an answer on those issues because they are issues which, in my opinion, should not be public. The only thing I can tell you is that we have been in contact with several persons with those problems. We are establishing with the People's Republic of China - as I said we now have a lot of homework to do in the next few months - is a plan of action in which it can be clarified how we can have our mandate fully accomplished in the framework of our action in the People's Republic of China. That is one of the crucial areas that is being discussed in a very open and frank atmosphere.

Question: Does your office have an estimated number of North Korean migrants living in China? And among them, what percentage would you say constitute needing your protection? A second question: you mentioned the integration of Indo-Chinese refugees in China. Are you referring to Vietnamese from the Sino-Vietnamese war?

High Commissioner: I refer to about 300,000 people who came into China a few decades ago who have had a very successful integration programme for them, and I would say it is one of the most successful integration programmes in the world.

About the figures in relation to North Korea, I don't think there is any accurate estimation. If I give you a figure, it could be as good as anyone else's. The only thing I can tell you is that I remember in my own country when I was the Prime Minister, we had a special operation to legalize migrants, and discovered that we had more than double the number that we had expected. This is not to say that it is the case here or there. What I am saying is that normally in situations where you have people illegally crossing one border, you never know exactly how many people you are dealing with. The important thing for us is not the question of quantity. It's a question of principles. And as I said, we are not a migration agency; we do not intend to be involved in migration issues. Migration is a prerogative for which each country would define its policies. What I am interested in is finding the best way to protect people in need of international protection. And that was at the core of our very open, frank and meaningful discussion in China. This is not an easy issue as I said. It is in the very centre of a crucial problem: how to establish the linkage between national sovereignty and international law.

Question: Who did you meet in the past three days? Second, China sees the North Koreans here as illegal border-crossers, not as refugees, or asylum-seekers. In that context for the next few months, what kind of homework would you and China be doing to establish a system to deal with this?

High Commissioner: First, I have had the privilege to meet with the State Counsellor, Mr. Tang Jiaxuan, who was previously the Minister of Foreign Affairs. We both had the pleasure to work together very closely in the negotiations in association with the handover of Macau to China. I had the pleasure to meet the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and with several members of cabinet in the Ministry of Civil Affairs, of Public Security, of Commerce and of course of Foreign Affairs, which means we didn't try to avoid any problem. We addressed every relevant area where we believe we need to have a meaningful discussion. These are complex issues that will not be solved from one day to the other. But the issues require commitment and engagement, and we are committed and engaged to make sure that we are able to develop our cooperation and make it more perfect in the future.

With regard to your other question, I think I have already answered the question, but I'll try to answer it again. What is crucial in relations between my office and any host government in the world is the clear definition of what are the areas of national sovereignty and what are the areas that come under international law. And how do they relate in the protection of people in need of international protection? What we intend to do - and for that I believe the creation of a Chinese asylum system is a crucial element because it allows for a clarification that is very important and we'll be very strongly engaged support of those efforts - what we need is to clarify the rules in order to allow for that cooperation to be smooth and what we have detected is that we still have several relevant problems there. We need to solve them. But we are both committed to face them and to solve them.

Question: I apologize for raising the same topic again, but may I ask for specific detail; in your meetings with Chinese officials, did you specifically ask the Chinese government to treat North Korean migrants as refugees, or potential political asylum seekers, and what was their response?

High Commissioner: As I said, there are situations in which people become in need of international protection. There are even situations where they become refugees sur-place. And exactly what we have discussed is the nature of those situations and how should international law be guaranteed in those situations. And that, of course, is a crucial issue. It's a difficult issue and there is a lot of homework we still have to do to make sure that these things work well in the future. What is important to say here is that it was not a question that we didn't raise; it was not a question for which there was no answer or no interest. It is a question both sides recognize exists, and both sides want to face and solve together. Is it easy? No. Is it complex? Yes. Not only in China, everywhere in the world, these are particularly complex situations. But we are deeply committed to be engaged in finding for these problems a good solution within the framework of our mandate.

Question: You mentioned that China is trying to set its own national asylum system. How long has this been in progress? How close is it to meeting your concerns? And how far is it from international law? Where are the gaps?

High Commissioner: We have been working. The system is not yet in place. There is a national refugee regulation that is being prepared by the State Council. We are in close contact with the people who are drafting those documents. We have had recently a workshop for technical discussions on those issues. And we will be fully engaged in supporting the Chinese authorities to make sure that this legislation is in full compliance with international law. That's our commitment and we will be working very actively on that.

About the time framework, it's difficult for me to give you an answer. What I was told was that the agenda of the work is for the present year. So it's something that is being done now. I think that there was a point in which there was very clear mutual understanding, that this is a very important element. These are the most difficult issues which we tackle around the world - for example, we have been tackling these issues in the Mediterranean.... Protection problems and refugee problems in between migration flows are very complex. They are in the very centre of the bridge between national sovereignty and international law. The existence of a national asylum system, clearly identified as such, is a very important element to make this linkage easier.

Question: Is China committed to a national asylum system linked to international law?

High Commissioner: That was what we have been clearly told, and more than that, we are actively engaged in cooperation, in technical support, for that process. Of course, the law would not be drafted by us. Our aim and our objective, when we discuss the European asylum system, which as you know, unifies in 2010, or when we discuss asylum legislation in other countries, is to ensure asylum legislation is in full compliance with international law.

Question: How do North Koreans, with your office or other humanitarian agencies' help, relocate outside China?

High Commissioner: That is something that I will not answer. I think it's honest and frank to tell you that this is the kind of question which when one is primarily concerned with the protection of people, it should not be answered.

Question: Maybe not by UNHCR, but in general, how many North Koreans have been relocated elsewhere? Or you don't have an idea?

High Commissioner: I have an idea, but I am not going to answer your question. I don't think that it will help to solve the problem.

Question: Did you or did you not request interviews with North Koreans in China? If not, why not? What are your reasons for not doing so?

High Commissioner: I will not directly answer your question, but I would say one thing that would allow you to understand the answer. There was no reason for not, because there was not a "Not." I think it is clear, which means I was able to meet everyone I wanted to meet. And I was able to meet everyone that was relevant to make sure that I was acting in full compliance with my mandate.

Question: You met North Koreans?

High Commissioner: Do you think I am not understanding what my duties are as a High Commissioner? It's not difficult for you to guess the answer.

Question: I am just wondering generally what happens to North Koreans who are staying here? What if they are sent back? A rough idea of what is going on there?

High Commissioner: I think area relates to international protection and one area relates to humanitarian questions. As happens in all migration flows, especially in illegal migration flows, I believe that there relevant humanitarian problems that are faced by North Koreans in China. There are relevant humanitarian problems that are faced by most poor sectors of the population. And of course this is also an area in which we have had meaningful discussions, and where meaningful proposals were put on the table. This is not, I would say, a protection issue. This is an issue related to humanitarian needs of people and this is, of course, something as human beings we all care for.

About what happens in North Korea, it is difficult to have an opinion. What is clear is that North Korean law is such that people who illegally crossed its border are in violation of North Korea law, and in some circumstances can have very severe punishment. And we tend to believe that on several occasions that might be the case. And I have no doubts about it. But then, of course, it's an area in which we do not have accurate information. But it is enough for things to be clear as they are in the law for a problem of protection to be relevant.

Question: Is it true that there are a lot of North Koreans who come to China as sex workers? Is there any access to the deportees?

High Commissioner: If you look at every migration flow, everywhere in the world, you always have patterns of trafficking, you always have patterns of smuggling. You have, in my opinion, to be very active in combating traffickers and smugglers, and you have always problems of that nature. So I do not think this is a typical situation of this or that country. These are the kinds of problems that illegal migration always brings. Our mandate is clear in relation to refugees. But that doesn't cover the entirety of problems in relation to the needs of humanitarian action.

There are lots of things that should be done and can be done in relation to the humanitarian needs of people who suffer - wherever in the world and eventually also here. This was also an issue that was discussed in our meetings in a very open and frank way. But this is not an area that is specific to our mandate, and as I said, we are not the beginning and the end. There are other problems, even in areas in which we are not competent. What I have to say is that in all these issues - and to me this is the most important thing - there was not a policy of avoiding them, there was not a policy of disguising them. There was always an open attitude to discuss them in depth. That doesn't mean that we all agree on everything, but things are discussed. We put all the questions because we believe it is our duty, and for that attitude we had a constructive reaction of discussing the issues in an open way.

Question: Is your agency going to help Spain with problems of migration, most recently to the Canary Islands from mainland Africa?

High Commissioner: It is a very interesting question that shows all these problems are common.... In the complex flow of migrants, we have a certain number of people in need of international protection. UNHCR is at the full disposal of the Spanish authorities to use all expertise and capacities.... But there is the same principle question - there are people in need of protection and for those people in need of protection, international law applies and we need to find best ways to protect them.