Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the European Parliament, Brussels, 21 February 2006
(Check against delivery)
Madame la Présidente,
Distingués Membres du Parlement Européen,
Mesdames et Messieurs,
Je suis très heureux d'être parmi vous aujourd'hui en tant que Haut Commissaire des Nations Unies pour les réfugiés, et je vous remercie de votre invitation. Je garde un bon souvenir de nos relations de travail étroites lorsque j'étais encore Premier Ministre du Portugal, particulièrement au moment de la Présidence portugaise de l'Union Européenne.
Je n'occupe plus une fonction politique, car le statut de l'UNHCR me confère un mandat strictement humanitaire et social. Nous nous efforçons d'aider des personnes qui sont parmi les plus vulnérables au monde - celles qui ont dû fuir à cause de la guerre où de la persécution. Mais en réalité, il n'y a rien de plus politique que les réfugiés, même s'ils ne sont que le symptôme d'un malaise plus général.
Les causes du malaise ne sont que trop claires. Les guerres et les violations des droits de l'homme se poursuivent. L'exil forcé n'est plus un sous-produit accidentel du conflit armé. Il en est très souvent le but explicite. Ce fut le cas dans les Balkans, ce l'est aujourd'hui au Darfour. On compte ainsi aujourd'hui 10 millions de réfugiés et 25 millions de personnes déplacées à l'intérieur de leur propre pays.
Partenariat UNHCR-Union Européenne
Le succès de notre mission dépend de façon cruciale de la relation que nous entretenons avec les institutions politiques. La collaboration avec l'Union Européenne reste indispensable à la poursuite de nos activités. J'apprécie énormément notre partenariat. L'Union Européenne est un ferme partisan - on pourrait même dire le plus ferme - du multilatéralisme et des activités des Nations Unies. Je suis particulièrement heureux de pouvoir dialoguer avec vous, représentants des citoyens de l'Union Européenne. Ensemble, nous devons démontrer l'importance d'un engagement commun en faveur des réfugiés.
Il est souvent méconnu que les activités de l'UNHCR sont financées presque entièrement par des contributions volontaires. La Commission Européenne est l'un de nos principaux bailleurs de fonds. La plus grande part de cet appui financier vient de l'Office d'Aide humanitaire de la Commission Européenne (ECHO), avec qui nous travaillons de manière très étroite. Nous comptons sur l'expérience de ses délégués sur le terrain, et sur sa capacité à réagir très rapidement. L'exemple le plus récent est l'aide d'urgence apporté aux réfugiés sahraouis vivant dans la région de Tindouf en Algérie, dont les camps ont été dévastés par des pluies torrentielles il y a dix jours.
L'appui de l'Union Européenne - à la fois financier et politique - est crucial pour nous et pour les populations dont nous défendons la cause.
Je suis donc extrêmement heureux que le Commissaire Louis Michel ait accepté de se joindre à moi prochainement pour une mission au Burundi et en République-Unie de Tanzanie.
Notre collaboration avec la Commission inclut aussi les Directions Générales pour les Relations Extérieures et pour la Justice, la Liberté et la Sécurité, pour n'en citer que deux. Je voudrais saluer la coopération permanente du Vice-Président Franco Frattini et de la Commissaire Ferrero-Waldner avec l'UNHCR.
Changing paradigm: mixed flows
Ladies and gentlemen,
The number of refugees worldwide - around 10 million - is at its lowest level in almost a quarter century. Sizeable repatriation operations have contributed to this decrease, led by Afghanistan where more than 4 million people have returned home since 2002. Since the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, over a million people have gone back. Returns to African nations like Angola, Sierra Leone, and Liberia have been completed or are underway. If peace holds, we will continue this year to help refugees return to the South of Sudan, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Burundi and elsewhere.
But this picture is not complete, and we should not be complacent. The downward trend in refugee numbers is not irreversible, nor does it signal only good news.
Yes, the decline in the number of refugees reflects peace agreements and positive developments in several countries, which have enabled many refugees to return home.
But at the same time, I fear that it also reflects the barriers which have been erected by states seeking to deter and control irregular migration. These barriers are not necessarily aimed at refugees but they do not differentiate between them and other categories of people on the move. And the less they differentiate, the fewer genuine refugees will overcome them. The result is that it is more and more difficult or even impossible for people fleeing danger at home to reach safety elsewhere.
it is becoming more and more difficult, or even impossible, for people fleeing danger at home to reach safety elsewhere.
Many people on the move risk - and lose - their lives in ever-more-desperate attempts to reach their destinations. In recent weeks, scores of bodies have been recovered off the coast of Yemen - Somali and Ethiopians who had fallen prey to smugglers promising to take them across the Gulf of Aden. We have seen the same desperation among people in leaking boats on the Mediterranean.
The reasons people are on the move are complex, whether these movements are from South to North, East to West or within the South. Serious conflict, environmental disasters and socio-economic decline in many countries of Sub-Saharan Africa often leave people no alternative for survival. The spread of lawlessness and social unrest, as in Côte d'Ivoire and the north of the Central African Republic, are forcing tens of thousands to flee. And stubborn conflicts from Colombia to Nepal, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Burma, are driving more people out of their homes and villages every day.
As a protection agency, we face two major challenges today: preserving asylum, and access to asylum, in an age when population flows are increasingly complex; and stopping the rise of intolerance and exclusion in societies.
Preserving asylum requires us to be able to identify those in need of protection, and to respond to their needs. People who are in need of protection should not be forced to turn to human smugglers and traffickers to reach safety. UNHCR fully recognizes the right of countries to responsibly manage their borders and define their migration policies. We understand the complexity of the issue and are ready to help governments find innovative solutions to ensure that border controls and migration management respect the protection of refugees and international law.
We welcome the European Union's efforts to develop a common European asylum policy. The first phase of this effort has been the establishment of common minimum standards in a number of areas - including the key areas of reception of asylum seekers, asylum procedures, and qualification for refugee status. A more consistent approach to refugee protection in the EU can lead to a better quality of protection and to a reduction in irregular movements of asylum-seekers. It should not lead to a lowering of standards, to a convergence around the lowest common denominator.
I want to express my deep appreciation for the work of the European Parliament on the legislative instruments of concern to us - especially the Asylum Procedures Directive. Unfortunately, until recently, the European Parliament has only a consultative role in this regard. I am pleased that you now have the right of co-decision in asylum matters, which especially means an enhanced role for the Civil Liberties' Committee. You can count on our full cooperation.
We also welcome the European Union's interest in helping us to build the capacity of third countries to protect and assist refugees. The overwhelming majority of the world's refugees are not in Europe but in the developing world. We need to find appropriate ways to share the burden faced by those countries in looking after refugees. Better protection and more access to lasting solutions in the refugees' regions of origins is a worthy goal. But this cannot be at the expense of Europe's own responsibility to provide asylum to those who need it. Europe is - and must remain - a continent of asylum.
Stopping intolerance requires the same conscious effort to avoid the lowest common denominator. Here, that denominator is fear and suspicion - of the stranger, the foreigner, and what is different. It is the product of an oftentimes caustic public debate and the wilful and misleading confusion of asylum-seekers and migrants. Intolerance is fostered by populist rhetoric, both in developing nations and in the North. The ills it breeds - exclusion, xenophobia, racism, violent nationalism and religious fundamentalism - are a serious threat to world peace and the cohesion of our societies.
Former Commissioner Chris Patten wrote recently of his hope for "Europe to define itself as a symbol of tolerance". Tolerance, he said, should be the "element that defines our European Community." I could not agree more.
Changing paradigm: IDPs
Ladies and gentlemen,
While the number of refugees worldwide has fallen, the number of people displaced within the borders of their own countries has increased - to an estimated 25 million, mostly women and children. Although refugees benefit from a legal and institutional framework set up to protect them - the UNHCR and the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees - there is no similar architecture sheltering the internally displaced.
That fact stood for too long as one of the international community's greatest failures: The problem is complex, yes, but the moral imperative to help these people is crystal clear.
Last December, the United Nations adopted a new approach, to ensure a more reliable and predictable engagement in situations of internal displacement. Specific UN agencies will take the lead in making sure that the needs of internally displaced people are met. UNHCR has accepted to take on the lead role in the sectors of protection, camp management and emergency shelter, for persons displaced by man-made causes. The approach is now being tested in three countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Liberia.
This is a new frontier for UNHCR. It will present us with many challenges, not least of which will be financial. Funds for the internally displaced must be truly additional: We cannot allow these new responsibilities to endanger our mandate by diverting resources from refugees. The international community must live up to its commitments to the internally displaced. This is true for financial support but even more so for political action. We have received a mandate for the protection of internally displaced persons in West Darfur. But the absence of a political solution and a dramatic level of insecurity, despite the African Union's laudable efforts, keep us paralyzed on the ground, unable to fulfil this mandate, desperately witnessing massive violations of human rights and frequent loss of life.
The challenge of making solutions sustainable
Of course, protection and humanitarian assistance are just the beginning of our work. No intervention can be considered a success until and unless there is a long-term solution in sight. Despite pictures of return convoys and empty refugee camps, the return of refugees and internally displaced people is not complete unless they are part of the longer-term peace and development process.
Despite pictures of return convoys and empty refugee camps, the return of refugees and internally displaced people is not complete unless they are part of the longer-term peace and development process.
It is not enough to give a refugee or displaced person a cooking pot and a handshake when she (I say she because most refugees and displaced people are women) heads back to her village. Reintegration requires a serious, long-term commitment not only from humanitarian actors like the UNHCR but also - especially - from the development community.
When I spoke recently to Sudanese refugees in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, they told me how much they want to return home. Many are already packing up and going. Their enthusiasm is an inspiration. But they are going back to a devastated homeland. South Sudan has 14 km of paved roads, almost no schools and hospitals, and a civil administration which consists of a handful of under-resourced officials. Massive economic and political support is needed now, not later, for peace to take root in South Sudan.
The situation in the Great Lakes region is every bit as urgent. A concerted international effort is needed to break the cycle of poverty, conflict and displacement. Following last year's elections in Burundi, refugees began returning from Tanzania in large numbers. But that flow has declined significantly over the past few months as the prospect of drought has threatened the livelihoods of the largely rural population. Now, we are seeing Burundians crossing the border again into Tanzania, their enthusiasm in returning home outweighed by the impossibility of starting over.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let us be clear. The mechanisms of the international community intended to link emergency relief to development are simply not working. If we are to provide lasting solutions, this gap must be bridged. I would ask all European Institutions and Member States to join in an effort to help make this a reality. In this context, I believe that the creation of a new United Nations Peacebuilding Commission is an opportunity we should not miss.
The refugees we protect in 120 countries on all continents, our many partners and our staff, count on your support.
Thank you for your attention and I look forward to your questions.