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States support global action plan for refugees

States support global action plan for refugees

The UN refugee agency's 61-nation Executive Committee has endorsed a detailed strategic framework that deals with many of the most controversial issues in the current global asylum debate.
3 October 2002
For refugees such as these Sudanese displaced by a camp attack in Uganda, a food ration card is often the only form of identification and and protection they have.

GENEVA, October 3 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency's 61-nation governing body today endorsed a global action plan for refugees that could prove to be a key tool in managing many of today's most pressing asylum dilemmas.

The Agenda for Protection is the result of an unprecedented and exhaustive UNHCR-led process known as the "Global Consultations". Spanning the world over the past 20 months, these consultations involved a wide array of government specialists, non-governmental agencies, academics, judges and other refugee experts - including refugees themselves.

In the preface to the Agenda for Protection, a landmark declaration issued last December by a meeting of 127 out of the 144 signatory states renewed the states' commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and confirmed its place as the cornerstone of international efforts to protect refugees. At the same time, it recognised that the Convention does not provide all the answers to today's problems.

The declaration also contained a number of recommendations that fed into the main body of the Agenda for Protection - its "Programme of Action".

"The Agenda is not an abstraction, but is directly relevant to the management of today's asylum dilemmas," said Erika Feller, UNHCR's Director of International Protection, addressing the agency's Executive Committee a day before its member states endorsed the document.

Besides stating clear objectives through six main goals, the Agenda for Protection also outlines a number of specific activities designed to support them. Topics include measures for preventing sexual and gender-based violence; improving the protection of women and children; maintaining the civilian character of refugee camps; clarifying responsibilities for refugee protection during rescues at sea; and strengthening individual asylum systems and procedures that are often cumbersome and prone to abuse.

Feller added that UNHCR itself had already begun to implement some of the measures contained in the Agenda, even before it was officially endorsed, and despite the constraints imposed by the agency's repeated funding crises.

"It is difficult to make protection a meaningful concept where one field officer has responsibility for three refugee camps," she pointed out, adding that the agency had nevertheless found ways of deploying specialists to boost urgent protection activities in understaffed locations.

However, Feller said, "The Agenda is not only for UNHCR. It is also a framework for actions by States, who are, of course, the principal providers of protection."

She noted that when discussing the problems of refugees, "we are in the first instance talking about human rights problems.... At the root of many of the dilemmas confronting the protection of refugee rights today lies not the regime of rights itself, but rather some confusion about how to determine who is responsible to protect these rights."

"States must bear their responsibility," she said, adding that the failure of State responsibility, lack of accountability and shortage of resources presented systemic problems that needed urgent attention.

"The difficulties confronting refugee protection stem not insignificantly from this disconnect between rights and responsibilities. How to bridge that gap is perhaps the challenge confronting the viability of asylum today."

The Agenda for Protection should prove to be "a key tool" to remedy failings in the global system, and "give needed direction to the process of defining who is responsible to do what, and when," said Feller before concluding, "Our common task is now to give substance to its vision."