OIC Ministerial Conference on Refugees in the Muslim World; Opening Remarks by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Ashgabat, 11 May 2012
Mr. Secretary General, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates,
It is with great pleasure that I join you today as a co-organiser of this historic conference with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Government of Turkmenistan, to discuss refugees in the Muslim World.
As United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I greatly value the close cooperation we enjoy with the OIC and its member States. That our strong cooperation is crucial is clear from the realities of displacement in today's world.
In 2011, the 57 OIC States hosted 50% of the persons who are of concern to UNHCR, some
17.6 million in total, comprising not only refugees, but also asylum-seekers, returnees, internally displaced persons and stateless people. But this is only part of the story. The proportion of refugees in the Muslim world is, of course, much higher, some 68%, when one adds the Palestinian refugees in territories under UNRWA's mandate.
Today OIC members are grappling with conflict-induced displacement in the Sahel, the Middle East, along the Sudan's southern border and large-scale flight in the Horn of Africa. It is certainly true that the majority of these refugees are Muslims, although UNHCR does not maintain statistics based solely on religious affiliation. This conference is therefore timely. It is incumbent upon us to work together, in a spirit of cooperation and mutual support, to address the plight of those UNHCR was created to serve.
More than 80% of refugees remain within their own regions of origin, often in developing countries already struggling to meet the needs of their own citizens. Much of my personal advocacy as High Commissioner consists of calling for greater recognition and support to refugee-hosting States, so that effective burden sharing provides them with the means to shoulder this responsibility, both in the emergency response phase and through the collective pursuit of durable solutions. This solidarity may take the form of development activities in refugee-hosting areas or providing essential services and job opportunities in countries of origin to ensure that reintegration is sustainable. Burden sharing should also include the provision of increased resettlement opportunities.
As an example to be followed, the Governments of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan have come together to prepare a solutions strategy for Afghan refugees, to support voluntary repatriation, sustainable reintegration and assistance to host countries. The strategy was presented on 2d and 3d of May in Geneva in a stakeholders' conference co-hosted by the Swiss Government and UNHCR.
Just as Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan are forging a common vision and approach, there are other opportunities for a structured dialogue to further solutions in other protracted refugee situations in the Muslim World, with the active participation of the country of origin, refugee-hosting countries and other interested States.
While this Conference is specifically about refugees, internally displaced persons and stateless persons are also significant populations in the Muslim World and equally require protection and durable solutions. I am therefore most appreciative that our host, Turkmenistan, will be presenting its experience with statelessness. We hope its policy of social and economic integration, leading to naturalization, will be emulated elsewhere in the OIC and beyond. I also know that many OIC members are in the process of formalizing their accession to the African Union Kampala Convention on Protection and Assistance to IDPs, the world's first binding international treaty on internally displaced persons.
Other areas in which the OIC and its member States have a key role to play is in the prevention of conflict, peace building, and the resolution of protracted refugee situations. There are no purely humanitarian solutions to refugee problems. Solutions require political will and leadership.
I am a Christian; one of the faiths of the book. And from what I have learned about Islam, I know that in its teachings and practices one can find the foundation of contemporary tenets of refugee protection. From its very beginnings, from the Holy Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet, may peace be upon him (PBUH), Islamic law has elaborated upon the provision of asylum and given the asylum-seeker ("Al mustamin") prominence, dignity and respect. The institution of "Aman" (safety) calls for the protection of those who seek asylum and guarantees it. Asylum for believers and also for non-believers, is reflected in the Surat Al-Tawbah (verse 6): "and if anyone of the disbelievers seeks your protection then grant him protection so that he may hear the word of Allah, and then escort him to where he will be secure, that is because they are men who know not." Indeed, one measure of a community's moral duty and ethical behaviour was how it responded to appeals for asylum. The extradition of "Al mustamin" was explicitly prohibited. This same principle, known as non-refoulement, remains the cornerstone of modern refugee law today.
Asylum within Islamic practices goes beyond an act of mercy. As articulated by many scholars, asylum creates a contractual relationship between the asylum-seeker and the provider of asylum, linking the rights of the first with the duties of the second. This is a remarkably "modern" view and belies the often expressed opinion that asylum is a "western" invention and the refugee convention is an outdated remnant from the Cold War era. While the timing may suggest otherwise, surely the content of international refugee law has its source in Islamic law, and even the Arab tradition, African custom, as well as practices from Latin America which precede it.
As recognition of this, we have collaborated with a variety of Islamic scholars to refine and prepare the second edition of a book, The Right to Asylum in Islam and Contemporary International refugee Law, that will be launched here tomorrow afternoon. It is a project to which I am personally committed, as I believe the linkages between the two deserve greater recognition, both in the Muslim World and beyond it.
As Islamic law and tradition embrace the same values enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, I use this opportunity to encourage those States gathered here today that are not yet signatories to accede to these instruments, as well as the Statelessness Conventions, and translate their provisions in your domestic law. Doing so, of course, remains your sovereign right. I would, however, encourage OIC member States providing asylum based upon the Islamic tradition to anchor this in national legislation and institutions.
Signing the Refugee Convention and joining UNHCR's governing body, the Executive Committee, would enable us to benefit from your active participation, ideas and advocacy, to improve the effectiveness of our collective refugee response and to promote the values of peace and tolerance, and combat racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.
As the norms subsequently codified in international refugee law are found in Islamic law, so are they present in the work of the OIC. Indeed, Article 12 of the Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, adopted by the OIC in 1990, provides that: "every human being ... if persecuted is entitled to seek asylum in another country. The country of refuge shall ensure his protection until his safety has been attained ... " We are delighted to work hand in hand with the OIC.
I would like to close by again thanking His Excellency President Berdimuhamedov and the Government of Turkmenistan, both for generously hosting this Conference and their ongoing support to UNHCR and our mission.
Thank you very much.