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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the European Conference on Migration, Brussels, 16 October 2001

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the European Conference on Migration, Brussels, 16 October 2001

16 October 2001
Mr. Chairman,

Only a few years ago, immigration in Europe was a taboo subject. This is strange, because migration and displacement has been a fact of life in Europe throughout history. Now immigration is on the agenda, and the challenge is integration: accepting cultural differences and ensuring that we have law abiding citizens. I am pleased to address this gathering of Ministers of Interior and Justice today, since you are the ones best placed to meet this challenge.

Another major challenge today is the management of complex population flows. This includes "mixed flows" of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants, and "mixed-motive" migration, where people leave their homes for a combination of political, economic and other reasons. Managing these mixed flows is a complex problem to which there are no easy answers. States have legitimate interests, and duties, in controlling the entry and residence of non-nationals, but they also have international legal obligations to provide protection to those fleeing persecution. I was pleased to note that all the speakers today reaffirmed the importance of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

A particular concern is the issue of human trafficking and smuggling. This is on the rise. With regular arrival routes closed, many refugees continue to 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. Another result is that refugees are often stigmatised in the public mind as people trying to break the law. This presents two main challenges: governments must find ways of handling asylum applications more quickly and fairly, and politicians and people in receiving countries must avoid stereotyping all asylum seekers as "phoney" or "bogus", if not criminals.

There is now also a new dimension. Following the terrorist attacks of 11th September, our work has become even more difficult. It is important to fight against international terrorism, but at the same time we must all guard against a rising tide of xenophobia and intolerance. Refugees and asylum seekers are already the objects of considerable mistrust and hostility in many countries, and they are particularly vulnerable in the current climate.

I would specifically like to emphasise one point: the UN Refugee Convention should not be misrepresented as an instrument that provides a safe haven for terrorists. The Convention does not provide protection to terrorists, nor does it extend any immunity from prosecution to those engaged in terrorist activities. On the contrary, it is carefully framed to exclude persons who have committed particularly serious offences. I fully recognise that in practice the abuse of the asylum channel needs to be addressed, but no unwarranted linkages should be made between refugees and terrorists.

UNHCR has a mandate to ensure the protection of refugees. But protection is not adequate protection if there are no solutions. Refugees need real solutions. The first solution is going home, which is of course the best solution under the right conditions. The second solution is local integration in the first country of asylum, which is often in the region of the country of origin. The third solution is resettlement in far-away countries.

These durable solutions are the best investment in peace and stability. If they are not provided, refugees remain in camps where they are degraded. Camps are only a temporary solution, and it is not acceptable that refugees spend years of their lives in confined areas. Another result of not finding durable solutions is that refugees are forced to go on the move illegally, using criminal networks.

UNHCR stands ready to work together with the EU and its member states to find and implement durable solutions. Good governance involves finding solutions for refugee problems. Failure to ensure good governance in issues relating to refugees will only fuel crime, and the law of the jungle will then prevail. I realise that this sounds rather harsh, but we simply cannot say: "the crime is theirs, not ours". If there are no solutions for refugees, then the EU is partly responsible for the rise in crime.

Let me say, at this point, a few words about the co-operation between the EU and UNHCR. Working together with Commissioner Vitorino on the Tampere process has indeed been gratifying. We have had a productive dialogue, with mutual understanding, on issues that are clearly at the heart of UNHCR's mission. However, when I take a look at the whole spectrum of EU/EC activities related to refugee problems, I must say that these are rather scattered. They are not integrated into one single, coherent refugee policy. I will give you a few concrete examples.

A first example is that more could be done to include capacity-building of asylum systems, and funding for this, in the enlargement agenda. This most notably applies in the case of Central and Eastern European countries, to help them to prepare for a common European asylum system, and to strengthen their capacity to receive asylum seekers, as they prepare for EU membership.

A second - and perhaps more obvious - example relates to development assistance. It is essential that a certain percentage of development budgets be reserved for durable solutions in countries of origin or of first asylum in the region. Refugees, by definition, are not able to benefit from the care provided by their own government, and - not being part of its constituency - they often lack the attention of the host government as well. Local integration, and also return, require the ownership of the governments concerned. This ownership needs to be promoted by the EU, through specific funds made available for this purpose, and with the necessary political support. Related to this is the EU High Level Working Group, which is an important, innovative instrument seeking to address the migration-asylum nexus in a comprehensive way. But yet again, funds are lacking. I also think that the High Level Working Group, in developing its Action Plans, needs to focus on countries with which a meaningful dialogue can be developed and on programmes that offer a reasonable chance of success.

A third example relates to resettlement: inviting specific refugees to come to Europe. Mr. Vitorino has wisely proposed to leave it to EU member states to individually determine numbers when it comes to managed immigration. However, the Commission could play an important role in encouraging all member states to reserve a certain segment of the managed immigration quota for resettlement of refugees. This is already current practice in countries such as the USA and Canada.

I have given you three examples of possible EU action in support of solutions. What would be the outcome? Less crime, less illegality. Focusing on solutions that are legal, thereby reducing the amount of illegal practices - that is the challenge for the EU. In this context, I should also mention the Global Consultations on International Protection, being organised by UNHCR, which I am sure are known to many of you here today. These consultations are precisely aimed at addressing these new challenges - particularly mixed flows of refugees and other migrants, crime related aspects of migration, and durable solutions.

As part of the Global Consultations process, a Ministerial Meeting of States Parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol will take place in Geneva on 12 and 13 December. This meeting will reaffirm the centrality of the Refugee Convention and Protocol. The Laeken summit will start on the following day, and I hope that it will benefit from the meeting in Geneva, and will produce good results in the same spirit, taking decisive steps towards a common European asylum and migration policy. I hope that Laeken will also represent the beginning of a deepened partnership with UNHCR. I have shared my thoughts on this in a letter to the EU Presidency, outlining ways to strengthen our co-operation in order to provide real solutions and to push back crime.

There is considerable co-ownership of UNHCR by the USA, which funds over 25% of our budget, and which always engages with us actively in the planning and implementation of our activities. The same goes for Japan, which funds around 10% of our budget. However, the input and engagement of the EU, which represents a population of some 370 million people, is rather limited. There is no co-ownership by the EU as a whole. To be fair, there are several member states which show great commitment to UNHCR and which work actively with us. But, again, the EU as a whole is rather absent and fragmented in its support for refugee protection and assistance, and in its co-operation with UNHCR, seen from a global perspective. This is in stark contrast with the work undertaken in the context of Laeken and the Tampere process. I admit I am biased. I am a European, and as a former Prime Minister who has been deeply involved in the work of the EU, I cannot help feeling responsible. But I do say this also as a world citizen and as a High Commissioner: the world needs the active support of a responsible European Union.

Thank you.