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UNHCR asylum policy: setting the record straight

Briefing notes

UNHCR asylum policy: setting the record straight

20 June 2003

There is at the back of the room a signed editorial by the High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, on asylum. This op-ed has been published over the past couple of days in a number of newspapers around Europe, but we would like you to see the full original version. It lays down UNHCR's current suggestions for ways to improve protection of refugees in their regions of origin, and also for possible actions in the context of the EU and in individual domestic asylum systems.

In the run-up to the Thessalonika Summit, UNHCR's position has been widely misinterpreted, and we would like to set the record straight. UNHCR has NOT been talking about "zones of protection." We're not sure what this concept means exactly.

We are primarily concerned with making more concerted and imaginative efforts to grapple with specific situations in refugees' regions of origin, not with creating some sort of new geographical or physical entities. We are very interested indeed in working with states to build more effective protection in asylum countries neighbouring the refugees' own countries. One result of this would be that fewer refugees feel the need to move further afield, to Europe and elsewhere. We're interested in removing the pressures on them to move, not in somehow containing them. There was a lot of positive discussion of this type of initiative in the run-up to Thessalonika. Unfortunately, it has - hopefully only temporarily - been completely overshadowed by the heated debate about so-called "zones of protection."

That said, UNHCR recognizes that there are legitimate concerns about the current management of asylum systems globally. We fully agree that there are many things that can be improved. In particular, there needs to be a much greater effort to find solutions for refugees while they are still in their regions of origin, so that they don't lose hope and feel the need to keep on moving in search of security and reasonable living conditions. Too many refugee situations have been allowed to fester, and too many developing countries are left hosting huge numbers of refugees with inadequate resources.

All these issues were examined in depth during the exhaustive two-year Global Consultations process that came to an end in early 2002, involving more than 150 states as well as many other actors all across the world. The key issues are laid out in the so-called Agenda for Protection - an extremely important map for future developments in asylum that resulted from that process. These in turn have already led to a number of new initiatives such as the High Commissioner's Convention Plus plan and the various proposals made recently to governments that are laid out in the editorial he presented this week.