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Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at the High Level Segment of the Durban Review Conference, Wednesday 22 April 2009

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at the High Level Segment of the Durban Review Conference, Wednesday 22 April 2009

22 April 2009

(as delivered)

Mr. President, Dear High Commissioner, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Racism and xenophobia diminish us all. But the discrimination and intolerance to which they give rise, do not affect us equally. People without nationalities and without states to protect them suffer disproportionately. With our mandate for these people, UNHCR has a special interest in and commitment to reducing racism and xenophobia.

The Durban Declaration explicitly acknowledged racism and related forms of intolerance as among the root causes of persecution leading to displacement and statelessness. But the World Conference against Racism ended three days before the paradigm-changing events of September 1lth, 2001.

In the seven and a half years since the conference, it has likely become more difficult for those seeking protection from persecution to access territories where it may be available. More border security, more restrictive policies on visa issuance, more recourse to detention and summary return: all these measures have reduced the ability of asylum-seekers, particularly those arriving in so-called mixed flows, to find the protection they need.

Many of the adverse developments in terms of asylum are due to countries' understandable desire to enhance domestic security. States have a legitimate right to define their own migration policies and protect their borders. But tough action against criminals and terrorists has to be accompanied by protection of those who need and are entitled to it under humanitarian principles and international law.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The negative portrayal of foreigners and the risks they are supposed to represent did not start with 9/11. The conflation of 'foreign' and 'dangerous' was already well-established and exploited by some politicians and portions of the media.

Against this legacy, we and more particularly, the people we serve, continue to struggle. Many refugees are themselves victims of terror. Their claims to relief are valid on both legal and moral grounds. But this, and the very considerable contributions that asylum-seekers and refugees make to their adopted countries, are often overwhelmed by an obsessive attention to the risks they ostensibly pose. The persistence of such an unbalanced view is, I believe, in part at least, the result of racism and xenophobia.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

If there is a message for us to get across it is surely that human rights are for all, including the forcibly displaced. Non-discrimination is itself a core human rights principle and it is the duty of all states to acknowledge and give effect to it. Ensuring that non-citizens have access to state-provided services and assistance and diminishing barriers to integration are perhaps the two most important elements of a truly inclusive society.

The centrality of states to ensuring human rights are respected underscores the especial vulnerability of the stateless. The means for reducing and preventing statelessness exist. Quite simply, more states need to ratify the appropriate instruments and implement the obligations of those instruments.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I appreciate that today's economic crisis is an argument against many initiatives. But fortunately, efforts to diminish racism and xenophobia need not be among them. Many of things we need to do --for example, advocacy with politicians and media, revising discriminatory laws, changing our own perceptions about foreigners-- do not cost money. Or at least not much money.

They do, however, require resolve. I am pleased to note that the outcome document adopted yesterday contains several important paragraphs referring explicitly to asylum-seekers, refugees, internally displaced persons and those arbitrarily deprived of their nationality.

For its part, UNHCR has since Durban more systematically incorporated anti-xenophobia efforts into its operations worldwide. In the context of the reintegration of refugees in their countries of origin, UNHCR is engaged in a variety of activities to promote reconciliation and peaceful co-existence. At the same time, we have broadened the base of countries willing to resettle refugees and advocated forcefully for the even-handed treatment of all refugees by them. We have also sought to take advantage of the increased willingness of some countries, notably in Africa, to allow refugees to remain and integrate in their host countries, overcoming objections based on economic conditions or fears of disrupting ethnic balance.

We also intend to increase our anti-xenophobia efforts in developed countries, forging closer partnerships with academia and other elements of civil society, as well as international organizations with the relevant mandates.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Let me assure you that UNHCR will continue to place combating racism and related forms of intolerance at the heart of our programs and advocacy.

Thank you very much for your attention.