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Address by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Board of Directors of the International Rescue Committee, New York, 14 November 2001

Speeches and statements

Address by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Board of Directors of the International Rescue Committee, New York, 14 November 2001

14 November 2001
An Agenda for ProtectionTerrorism and its impact on refugee protectionThe Afghan crisis

Colleagues, Friends, Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here today. UNHCR's effectiveness depends largely on the quality of its partnerships, and the International Rescue Committee is, without question, one of UNHCR's most important partners. You are, as you know, our largest implementing partner in funding terms. But your importance to UNHCR goes well beyond this. Through your advocacy, you have proven to be a key ally, both in the field and in Washington.

When I addressed the NGOs at the pre-ExCom meeting in Geneva in August, I was asked whether or not the Partnership in Action (PARinAC) process was dead. To my mind, the Framework Agreement for Operational Partnership between UNHCR and IRC that we signed earlier today proves that it is not dead, for it addresses in the clearest possible terms the need for a common approach towards the provision of protection and assistance to refugees. It is, I believe, a model for joint humanitarian action in favour of refugees.

The Framework Agreement solidifies a partnership that has been growing for many years. It is a partnership that is constantly developing and expanding into uncharted territory. An interesting example of an innovative approach is the resettlement project which was initiated in Pakistan last year. Under this project, IRC works together with local NGOs to identify refugees who are at particular risk. These refugees are referred to UNHCR for consideration for resettlement, or they are given other forms of special assistance. So far, more than 500 refugees have been processed for resettlement as a result of this project, which is proving to be extremely successful.

Another example of a new form of cooperation is the "Protection Surge Capacity Project" which will start next month, in which IRC will deploy qualified personnel with experience in refugee protection to assist UNHCR in its protection work. Under this project, staff deployed by IRC will assist UNHCR in a range of activities relating to voluntary repatriation, local integration, physical security of refugees, detention, border monitoring, registration, refugee women, refugee children and statelessness. This will increase the number of protection staff in the field.

A number of people, both within UNHCR and outside, have expressed concern about this project, arguing that certain functions - particularly those relating specifically to the legal aspects of refugee protection - are the exclusive preserve of UNHCR and should not be delegated, out-sourced or sub-contracted. This, I believe, is short-sighted. It is true that UNHCR has a unique mandate from the United Nations to lead and coordinate international action for the worldwide protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems. But this does not exclude the involvement of NGOs in assisting UNHCR to carry out its mandate.

I recognize that UNHCR's first priority is to ensure that it has an appropriate internal protection staffing level. Indeed, I have taken a number of steps this year to address this issue, particularly within the context of the Actions 1-2-3 process. But I also recognize that there will always be circumstances where UNHCR's internal protection staffing capacity will not be sufficient to cover all requirements, especially when there are unexpected temporary surges in protection staffing needs. The "Surge" project should help to address this. It has been carefully thought out, with careful checks and balances built in to maintain confidentiality of sensitive protection information and to ensure that UNHCR retains full control over its protection activities.

I am confident that this project will have a positive impact for refugees and others of concern. I am encouraged that IRC is willing to venture with UNHCR into new forms of cooperation. I find it particularly heartening that IRC, together with a number of other NGOs, are taking an increasing interest in addressing displacement issues in a holistic manner, focusing not only on the distribution of material assistance, but also on prevention, protection and solutions.

An Agenda for Protection

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you know, last year UNHCR commemorated its 50th anniversary, and this year we mark the 50th anniversary of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. These two occasions have provided an important opportunity for us to reflect on the work of UNHCR and on the continuing challenges of protecting refugees and finding solutions to their plight.

A major challenge today concerns 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.

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 stigmatized in the public mind as people trying to break the law.

We also face many other threats. These include: restrictive interpretation of the 1951 Convention, the deteriorating quality of asylum, the high costs and burdens of hosting refugees - especially in protracted refugee situations with no solutions in sight - and the perceived abuse of asylum systems.

Against this backdrop, and as a way of marking the 50th anniversary of the Convention, a year ago UNHCR initiated a process of Global Consultations on International Protection. The purpose of this process, on the one hand, is to seek to promote the full and effective implementation of the 1951 Convention, and on the other, to develop complementary new approaches, tools and standards to ensure the availability of international protection and durable solutions.

The Global Consultations are providing a unique opportunity for an open, frank and constructive dialogue with governments, NGOs, refugee experts and refugees themselves and will help to shape an Agenda for Protection for the coming years. I am grateful to IRC for the active way in which it has contributed to this process. There have already been good discussions on concrete policy and operational problems, such as the separation of armed elements, registration of refugees and mechanisms of burden and responsibility sharing. New standard setting, operational guidelines and policy approaches are expected outcomes of this process. Together, they will provide a guiding road map for UNHCR, States, NGOs and other protection partners, setting out shared strategic goals and recommending key actions for the years ahead.

Terrorism and its impact on refugee protection

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me now say a few words about the subject that is uppermost in everyone's minds at this moment: terrorism and its impact on refugee protection. The environment for refugee protection has changed considerably since the appalling events of 11th September. While concerted action is needed to rid this world of the scourge of terrorism, my concern is that in the current climate of understandable anxiety about national and individual security, innocent people - including refugees and asylum seekers - may be unfairly victimized. They may even become convenient scapegoats. Refugees and asylum seekers have for some years been the objects of considerable mistrust and hostility in many countries, and they are now particularly vulnerable.

Governments and peoples everyone must guard against the rising tide of xenophobia and intolerance. The recent terrorist attacks have already unleashed a wave of discriminatory assaults and provocations on people of Muslim origin in a number of countries. This is an extremely worrying development. We must not allow a clash of cultures to destroy the fabric of our increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies. A war on terrorism must not become a war on Afghans. Neither must it become a war on Muslims. Above all, we must ensure that it does not disintegrate into a war against "foreigners", minority groups, refugees, asylum seekers and other people on the move.

I am aware that several governments are now looking at additional security safeguards to prevent terrorists from gaining admission to their territory through asylum channels. This is understandable, but at the same time, we must make every effort to ensure that governments and politicians do not fall into the trap of making unwarranted linkages between refugees and terrorism. It would be a terrible irony if those who have themselves fled from terror were to become the unwitting victims of this new war against terrorism. Genuine refugees are themselves the victims of terrorism and persecution, not its perpetrators.

We must ensure continued respect for the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Above all, it should not be misrepresented as an instrument that provides a safe haven for terrorists. The Convention, when properly applied, does not offer safe haven to criminals, 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 serious crimes. This is echoed in UN Security Council Resolution 1373 of 28th September, which calls on States to work together urgently to prevent and suppress terrorist acts.

We must also ensure that the global fight against terrorism does not weaken the international refugee protection regime. Refugees and asylum seekers must not be discriminated against because their religion, ethnicity, national origin or political affiliation are somehow assumed to link them to terrorism. Governments should avoid resorting to the mandatory or arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, and to procedures that do not comply with the standards of due process, particularly as regards access to asylum procedures. Detention of asylum seekers should remain the exception, not the rule. Resettlement programmes should be maintained, and should not discriminate unfairly against people of particular ethnic groups or nationalities.

In the case of the United States, I have informed the State Department of my concerns about the current suspension of the refugee resettlement programme. I am aware that the issuance of a Presidential determination on refugee admissions for the US fiscal year 2002 has been delayed as a result of the comprehensive review of immigration and security procedures which is now underway, and that resettlement to the United States will only resume once this process has been completed. UNHCR shares the concerns of the US and other governments that refugee resettlement should not pose a threat to the safety and well being of receiving countries, but I remain fully confident that this can be conducted in a manner that meets humanitarian needs while at the same time respecting security requirements. In this respect, I have informed the State Department that UNHCR is prepared - within the terms of its mandate - to work cooperatively with the US government to address security concerns and to take appropriate measures to ensure confidence in the resettlement programme.

I hope that the resettlement programme in the United States will resume soon, as a prolonged suspension would have serious implications for UNHCR's refugee protection activities globally. I am particularly concerned about the 1,166 Afghan refugees in Pakistan, who have been approved by the US for resettlement but who have not been able to travel.

Resettlement is one of the three durable solutions for refugees, and it is vital that we sustain it as a viable option. Through resettlement programmes, we have been able to provide durable solutions for tens of thousands of refugees annually. Historically, no country has been more generous in resettling refugees than the United States. The IRC has been a major partner of UNHCR's in resettling refugees in the United States, and we count on your support at this critical time in taking steps to ensure an early resumption of the resettlement programme.

The Afghan crisis

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to end with a few words about the humanitarian crisis in and around Afghanistan. The Afghan people, as you know, have suffered more than their fair share. Even before 11th September, Afghans constituted the largest refugee population in the world, with some 3.5 million refugees in Pakistan and Iran alone, and many more spread out in some 70 countries from Europe to Australia and the United States.

I have called on all the countries neighbouring Afghanistan to open their borders to refugees, so that they can be given temporary protection and assistance. Until now, Pakistan and Iran have maintained their positions that, for security reasons and due to the large number of refugees already in their countries, the borders are officially closed. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the government has accepted that since 11th September perhaps as many as 135,000 have crossed into the country through unofficial border crossings, and UNHCR is helping to support those who come forward to be registered.

I fully understand the deep concerns about the potential security implications of a massive refugee influx of refugees from Afghanistan at this time. However, I will to call on all neighbouring countries to provide temporary protection for Afghans who have no other choice but to flee across borders to find safety and protection. I firmly believe that it is possible to devise an approach which will minimize the security risks while enabling both Pakistan and Iran to remain true to their praiseworthy and longstanding traditions of offering refuge to the endangered and oppressed.

The situation inside Afghanistan is very fluid. It is changing every hour. There are new opportunities now, that did not exist only 48 hours ago. We must seize these opportunities to provide urgently needed humanitarian assistance to those in need. We must also focus on how to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Afghans once the situation is conducive to return. Any plans for post-conflict rehabilitation, reconstruction and reconciliation activities in Afghanistan must take into consideration the needs of refugees, internally displaced persons and returnees. With more than 3.5 million refugees in Pakistan and Iran alone, in addition to the internally displaced and those displaced since 11th September, this will be a major challenge in the post-conflict period.

Finally, I would like to stress that while the world's attention is currently focused on the Afghan crisis, we must not allow this to distract us from humanitarian crises in other parts of the world. The situation in West Africa and in the Great Lakes region of Africa, which are still affected by unresolved conflict and political instability, are of particular concern. Other areas which will continue to demand our active engagement in the coming months include the Balkans and the Caucasus, while places such as Colombia and East and West Timor will demand close attention.

Thank you.