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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Informal Meeting of the European Union Ministers for Justice and Ministers for Home Affairs, Stockholm, 8 February 2001

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Informal Meeting of the European Union Ministers for Justice and Ministers for Home Affairs, Stockholm, 8 February 2001

8 February 2001

Madame Chairperson,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am honoured to be with you. I wish first of all to thank Minister Klingvall for her kind invitation. I am in Stockholm after meetings in Brussels with President Prodi and several Members of the European Commission, including Mr. Vitorino. I also passed through London, where I had very useful discussions with Mr. Straw.

My visit to the European Commission and this meeting of the European Union Ministers for Justice and Ministers for Home Affairs are among my first stops after taking up my responsibilities as High Commissioner. This is intentional. My ambition is to build a real relationship between UNHCR and the European Union.

People fleeing across borders to escape persecution and violence are a sad phenomenon of our world. They represent a common responsibility not only for the European Union Member States, but also for all Members of the United Nations. UNHCR is a uniquely mandated international organisation charged with protecting and finding solutions for refugees - people who cannot turn to their own government for protection. My message is that UNHCR is your essential multilateral partner in meeting the governance challenge posed by the world's refugees.

Can we do better together? Yes. As partners, we can be more strategic and comprehensive in our approach. Where a State fails and we face a humanitarian crisis, an emergency response will be necessary. But let us also explore the possibilities for meaningful preventive action in countries of origin and for a serious commitment to building the capacity of refugee hosting countries.

Let me offer you the same invitation that I extended to President Prodi. Work with us as partners - partners in the global governance system for refugee protection. Help us to define UNHCR's contribution toward meeting the challenges facing the Member States and Brussels. In the aide mémoire for EC-UNHCR partnership (which has been distributed to you) I suggested, amongst others, several elements concerning the crucial enlargement and association process:

Assist in building full fledged asylum systems in Central and Eastern Europe and, eventually, in the CIS countries, within the EU enlargement and association strategies.

Further explore ways to integrate these efforts within the PHARE and TACIS programmes and the follow-up to the CIS Conference.

Jointly send out the message that the enlargement process is an important opportunity to broaden the European asylum space.

Let us be frank and honest. If the EU (as a part of its enlargement and association programmes) would only spend a small percentage of the amount that the Member States together are spending on their national asylum systems, it would be a good investment.

And I add to this: If the EU would only spend a small percentage of its development funds (including the funds for the Lomé/ACP countries) for preventive and durable solutions for the large numbers of refugees in protracted situations in many corners of the world, it would make an enormous difference.

Fifty years ago, UNHCR was born in Europe to resolve refugee problems on this continent. Today, Europe again presents great opportunities and challenges. Not least among these is the search for a Common European Asylum System - an undertaking that is chiefly the responsibility of the Ministers gathered here.

After a common market and a common currency, the European Union needs a common asylum system. But the Union must also have a common policy regarding institutional capacity needs in Central and Eastern Europe and common policy on preventive action and global humanitarian efforts. A coordinated and proactive approach will be necessary in each of these areas to complement and reinforce the Common European Asylum System.

UNHCR, the European Union and its Member States share the concern to protect refugees and to do it more effectively. What is needed is not only partnership with UNHCR, but also recognition and acceptance of your co-ownership as stake holders of this multilateral institution to fulfil its mandate to protect refugees. My conviction is that, world wide, membership in the community of nations - being a Member of the United Nations - also entails co-ownership of UNHCR and a shared responsibility for the world's refugees.

UNHCR has a rich history, a highly motivated staff and an enormous capacity for effective humanitarian action. But today I see a fantastic gap between what the world asks UNHCR to do and what is on the table in financial terms. As High Commissioner, I will insist upon a collective commitment that goes beyond the limited "coalition of the willing" that currently funds UNHCR's activities.

But ownership means more than committing resources. We also look to you to take responsibility for the heart of our work - protection. UNHCR has launched Global Consultations to revitalise the international protection regime - in this, the 50th anniversary year of the Refugee Convention. Last October, UNHCR's Executive Committee warmly welcomed the Consultations. Still, some ask why we initiated the process, what we hope to achieve and - to put it bluntly - what is in it for them.

UNHCR launched the Consultations because we see the international refugee protection regime as having reached a crossroads. Some question whether the existing framework meets today's needs. In many countries hosting refugees, massive displacement caused by seemingly insoluble conflicts are placing tremendous strains on social stability, security and the environment. Just beyond the borders of the European Union, well over a million refugees and displaced people in the former Yugoslavia await a durable solution - not here, but there.

In the European Union - and in other affluent areas of the world - the entanglement of migration and asylum also poses an enormous challenge. Governments are frustrated by the high costs and difficulty of identifying those who need protection within "mixed flows" of people whose individual motivations may likewise be mixed.

The protection dilemmas facing the European Union and refugee hosting countries are undeniably different in nature. But they are related aspects of the same global problem. Global Consultations are needed because no country or region acting alone will be able to address the problems in an effective way.

The Global Consultations - first and foremost - will promote the full and effective implementation of the Refugee Convention. The Convention has proven its resilience by providing protection from persecution and violence to millions of refugees over five decades. It is the hub upon which the international protection regime turns, and we would tamper with it at our peril.

The Convention and its Protocol give coherence to the protection system because they are clear on basic principles, focused on rights and grounded in universal values. These instruments allow us to start from a basic consensus regarding the most fundamental issues. Who is a refugee? Who does not deserve protection? And when - exceptionally - do a state's security or public order interests overcome the fundamental obligation not to return a refugee to danger.

The Global Consultations will seek to clarify the application of these basic principles in our times. The passage of fifty years has brought changes in the nature of conflict, as well as to our common understanding of persecution. Through the Consultations, UNHCR aims to develop greater global consistency in interpretation. We also hope the process will provide the impetus for practical new approaches to address gaps in the current system.

UNHCR's overarching goal for the Global Consultations is to reconsolidate broad political support for refugee protection - both as an international responsibility and a profound human value. Shared values provide the strongest point of convergence between the Global Consultations process and your own efforts to create a Common European Asylum System.

The European Council's "Tampere Milestones" firmly root European integration in "a shared commitment to freedom based on human rights, democratic institutions and the rule of law." From this premise, the Council concluded "it would be in contradiction with Europe's traditions to deny such freedom to those whose circumstances lead them justifiably to seek access to our territory."

These same values underpin the Refugee Convention. So I find it encouraging that the "Tampere Milestones" also reaffirmed the importance of "absolute respect of the right to seek asylum" and called for the Common European Asylum System to be "based upon the full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention."

How to translate the Council's commitment into a workable policy framework and acceptable protection standards? The Global Consultations can help. Many of the issues before you are on our agenda as well. The Consultations will also offer a valuable forum for exchanging views with States facing similar problems and with countries of origin and transit.

I encourage you to see the Global Consultations and the development of the Common European Asylum System as complementary processes - rather than as competitors for your limited time. Writing in last Friday's International Herald Tribune, Minister Klingvall made the case more eloquently and - especially for this group - more persuasively than I ever could.

I hope to see your full engagement in the Consultations. Most especially, I would look forward to your personal participation in the first formal Meeting of States Parties to the Refugee Convention and its Protocol, to be held in Geneva on December 12th this year.

From UNHCR's perspective, the success of the Global Consultations will depend upon European Union's viewpoint being fully reflected in the discussions. The principles of the harmonised European asylum system - for better or worse - will spread rapidly. The "export value" of European practice extends most obviously to the candidate and associated States, but also more broadly as a model for the world. So we share a strong interest in consistency and coherence in approach.

I would add here that UNHCR sees the enlargement process as an important area for cooperation with the European Union. Fully functioning asylum systems are in the interest of both the Union and the associated countries. They are also a crucial safeguard and counterweight to measure focus on immigration control and enforcement. The now concluded PHARE Horizontal programme shows what we can achieve by working together.

The effective management of refugee matters is key to the success of efforts aimed at controlling irregular migration, migrant trafficking and organised crime. The question is simple. Do we accept the rules of the jungle or do we aspire to a world of law? Establishing a world of law requires strong and principled governance within the European Union and a proactive commitment to good governance beyond its borders.

Our shared concerns are global in scope. For this reason, I hope that the forthcoming G7/G8 meeting in Genoa next July will consider the need for governance in this area and the role UNHCR can play. I will make a plea for them to do so.

The "Tampere Milestones" highlighted the need for a comprehensive approach to asylum and migration that addresses political, human rights and development issues in countries of origin and transit. In this connection, UNHCR has a strong interest in seeing the work of the High Level Working Group on Migration and Asylum move forward. We are ready to assist with the protection elements of the Action Plans and hope that they will be implemented on an equal footing with those aimed at strengthening enforcement and control.

Of course, imaginative efforts to tackle the problem at the source will not justify closing the asylum door in Europe. Offering asylum to people in need of protection will remain a fundamental responsibility of the Member States. In any case, no wall will be high enough to prevent people from coming. The European Union faces a real governance challenge in making fair asylum decisions faster and removing people who have no right to remain. But real courage and leadership also will be needed to create meaningful integration prospects for refugees.

A final point I wish to touch briefly upon the issue of refugee resettlement in the European Union. Of course, resettlement is just one available tool of protection within the whole governance structure for refugees. But let us take a fresh look at the useful role that fair and global resettlement quotas in the mature economies might play in helping to realise a world of law and give practical meaning to human rights standards.

We want to be your partner in these efforts. We want you to be the co-owners of UNHCR, and I hope you will see the unique contribution that this truly multilateral institution can make to the European Union's endeavours.