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Lubbers opens historic ministerial meeting on refugees

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Lubbers opens historic ministerial meeting on refugees

12 December 2001

GENEVA - Describing the world's millions of uprooted people as "products of political failure," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers on Wednesday cautioned governments against asylum policies based on fear and mistrust and urged them to live up to their international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Addressing an unprecedented gathering of signatories to the 1951 Convention at Geneva's Palais des Nations, Lubbers noted that the 50-year-old instrument has enabled millions of refugees around the world to find safety and to build new lives.

"The Convention is fundamentally about freedom from fear," the High Commissioner told representatives of 156 nations attending the two-day ministerial-level meeting which is expected to adopt a landmark declaration reaffirming a commitment to effectively implement the Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

"This is no less important today than it was 50 years ago. Indeed, throughout history people have had to abandon their homes and seek safety elsewhere to escape persecution, war and violence," he said.

But in the five decades since the Convention was born, new problems have arisen, Lubbers told the meeting, which is co-hosted by UNHCR and the Swiss Government and chaired by Swiss Federal Counsellor Ruth Metzler-Arnold.

"In the new international political environment, we see governments refusing to accept refugees because they are so many; refusing to accept them because they are mixed up with economic migrants; refusing to accept them because of a lack of burden sharing among states," the High Commissioner said.

"Unfortunately, governments' policies towards refugees and asylum seekers are often based on fear and mistrust. We must overcome this fear. Political leaders are no leaders when they fuel anti-foreigner and anti-refugee sentiments, contributing to this cycle of fear and mistrust. We have nothing to fear. No problem is intractable when states are willing to come together to resolve it. Let us, therefore, show the same courage as the framers of the Convention."

Lubbers noted that some 22 million people are currently of concern to UNHCR, including refugees, asylum seekers, returnees, internally displaced people and stateless persons. "All of these are people who are not able to benefit from the protection of their own governments," he said. "All of them are products of political failure."

When states fail to protect their own citizens, international protection must be provided, Lubbers said. Refugees should not be seen solely as a burden, but must also be recognized for their potential as productive citizens. "Rather than marginalizing refugees," he said, "our challenge is to find ways of empowering them, so that they can contribute to our societies."

Since assuming his position as High Commissioner less than a year ago, Lubbers said, some government officials in developed nations have strongly urged that more solutions be found for refugees within regions of origin. But at the same time these calls were being made, Lubbers said, he was being told by officials in Iran and Pakistan - which together host the world's largest refugee population - of their extreme disillusionment over the fact that burden sharing was non-existent.

"This is the paradox," Lubbers said. "If all countries lived up to their obligations with respect to refugees, there would be no problem of burden sharing. But countries are not prepared to live up to their obligations unless there is burden sharing."

The High Commissioner called for more international efforts in preventing protracted refugee situations such as Afghanistan. He also urged universal accession to the 1951 Convention and its Protocol, which he described as the cornerstone of the international refugee protection regime.

"All the world's main religions incorporate concepts such as asylum, refuge, sanctuary and hospitality for people who are in distress," Lubbers said. "The values on which the Convention is based are timeless. The Convention should be seen as a hallmark of the civilized world and an integral part of nations that are united. It is about respect and responsibility towards our fellow human beings. It recognizes that this responsibility cannot be limited by borders. It spells out the obligations and rights of refugees, and the obligations of states towards refugees."

In an era of globalization and mass migration, the High Commissioner cautioned governments that the Convention is "not a migration control instrument and it must not be blamed for the inability of states to successfully manage illegal migration."

"But the difficulties of managing mixed flows of refugees and other migrants must not be underestimated," he said. "We must develop new approaches, tools and standards to strengthen the legal and physical protection of refugees, while separating out the undeserving."

The global increase in human smuggling and trafficking was a "particularly worrying development," Lubbers said. With regular arrival routes closed, many refugees turn to smugglers to reach safety, in spite of the dangers and the financial costs involved. Other migrants portray themselves as refugees to overcome immigration barriers. The result is a blurring of the distinction between refugees and other migrants, and a stigmatization of refugees as people trying to break the law.

"Here there is another dilemma," he said. "Unless governments do more to find lasting solutions for refugees, more of them will fall into the hands of human smugglers, traffickers and criminal networks. Who is then fuelling crime? Fleeing refugees or failing governments?"

Finally, Lubbers said, the international community must do more to address the root causes of forced displacement." The real challenge is to create an environment in which people are not forced to flee their homes in the first place," he said. "Of course, it is better to bring safety to people, not people to safety. But when the international community fails to do this, as it frequently does, we must uphold the right of people to seek and enjoy asylum."