Lubbers outlines progress, challenges as ExCom session opens
GENEVA, Oct 4 (UNHCR) - UN refugee agency chief Ruud Lubbers has opened this year's Executive Committee meeting by warning of a "less friendly" environment for refugees despite a sharp fall in the number of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide.
The High Commissioner was addressing the 66 member States of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee (ExCom) as the 55th annual session opened in Geneva on Monday.
"In the past few years, the politicisation of immigration, confusion between refugees and economic migrants, and fears of criminal and terrorist networks have combined to erode asylum legislation in many States," said Lubbers. "Paradoxically, this has taken place against a backdrop of declining numbers of refugees and asylum seekers."
The global number of refugees and others of concern to UNHCR fell to 17.1 million at the start of 2004, a decline of nearly 22 percent from the 21.8 million when Lubbers first took office in January 2001. The number of people seeking asylum in industrialised countries has reached the lowest level in 17 years.
"We are finding solutions for more and more people," said the High Commissioner, pointing to several UNHCR initiatives to promote greater sharing of the "burden" of asylum. This is notwithstanding emergencies like the one in western Sudan's Darfur region.
Fresh from a donor mission to Chad and Sudan - his third to the region since 2003 - Lubbers lamented that it took "the international community half a year to wake up" to the seriousness of the situation in Darfur, where hundreds and thousands of people have been uprooted by militia attacks since early 2003. Some 1.4 million people have been displaced within Darfur while close to 200,000 have crossed over to Chad, where UNHCR is helping them in camps.
"The large-scale killing and clearing of villages in Darfur has now ended," said Lubbers. "We finally have humanitarian access and UNHCR is there. I listened to the victims and my fellow humanitarians and was faced with these questions: how to protect; how to reconstruct lives; and how to rebuild after this total darkness?"
While much remains to be done to rebuild trust and confidence in Darfur, Lubbers noted that "all in all, Africa is on the march with repatriation." In Liberia, UNHCR has just started assisting some 340,000 refugees home over a three-year period. Sierra Leone recently completed the repatriation of over 280,000 refugees, while return movements are continuing to Angola and Eritrea.
In Burundi, which is receiving an average of 10,000 returnees every month, Lubbers stressed that there is a pressing need to consolidate the peace process. He added that the recent massacre of more than 150 Congolese refugees in western Burundi was "tragic evidence" that a solution must also be found for eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where renewed fighting continues to uproot civilians.
Lubbers lauded the international community's growing commitment to enhance voluntary repatriation and find solutions to some of the world's most protracted refugee situations. However, he stressed, "There must be a similar pledge to post-conflict reconstruction and sustainable reintegration in order to break the cycle of violence."
Repatriation is also ongoing in Bosnia and Herzegovina - which welcomed its 1 millionth returnee last month - and in Afghanistan, where some 3.5 million refugees have returned home since early 2002. The High Commissioner also said UNHCR was working with the governments of Pakistan and Iran on ways to manage the movements of Afghans after the expiry of the current tripartite agreements.
In Asia, Lubbers announced positive developments in Myanmar, where UNHCR has been granted broad access to areas of refugee origin in the country's east. This could provide the basis to plan for the eventual return of 120,000 refugees in Thailand.
Less encouraging is the situation of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal, as well as North Koreans of concern to UNHCR in China. In the latter case, the refugee agency continues to request access to the North Koreans and a chance to discuss the issue with the Chinese authorities.
In the Americas, where the 20th anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration for Refugees is coming up next month, Lubbers said, "I hope that the spirit of Cartagena will produce a regional humanitarian response to the increased number of displaced people in Colombia."
He also welcomed assurances from the United States that more resettlement places will be created for refugees, and looked forward to putting into practice the "Multilateral Framework of Understanding on Resettlement" facilitated by Canada.
At the same time, UNHCR is trying to better understand and hopefully manage the irregular secondary movements of refugees and asylum seekers, through a UNHCR-published document, "Basic Propositions on Irregular Secondary Movements", and a Swiss-led survey of secondary movements of Somali refugees and asylum seekers.
Lubbers also stressed the agency's global priority of ensuring proper protection and assistance for refugee women, including their participation in camp management and food distribution.
On UNHCR's funding situation, the High Commissioner announced that the agency's Annual Budget is not in a funding crisis for the first time in recent memory. "UNHCR has achieved a certain measure of financial health and stability due primarily to your generous support but also to improved financial management," he told the Executive Committee. "While UNHCR performs, I would ask States to act on the principles of 'good donorship' by making predictable, consistent contributions early in the budget cycle. The refugees under our care deserve and need it."
Lubbers thanked Ambassador Jean-Marc Boulgaris of Switzerland for his work as Executive Committee Chairman over the past year, and welcomed the new Chairman, Ambassador Herman Escudero Martinez of Ecuador. Zambia and Egypt were welcomed as the newest members of the committee. The 55th annual session ends on Friday.