Top UNHCR official flags protection problems at annual board meeting
GENEVA, October 4 (UNHCR) - Despite continuing efforts to safeguard asylum worldwide, half of UNHCR's 116 country offices last year raised concerns over the actual or potential forced return of refugees or asylum seekers to situations where they could face danger, according to the agency's top protection official.
In an address Wednesday to the annual meeting of UNHCR's 70-nation Executive Committee, Assistant High Commissioner Erika Feller provided an overview of international refugee protection during the past year. While there were several successes, there were also some disturbing trends, including mounting concerns over refoulement, or the forced return of refugees to situations of danger in breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
"As regards basic physical security of refugees, incidences relating to refoulement were reported by 50 per cent of UNHCR's country offices worldwide," Feller told delegates attending the week-long meeting.
Feller began her address by referring to a statement on Tuesday to the Executive Committee by a representative of the government of Uzbekistan in which he questioned UNHCR's efforts to prevent the refoulement of Uzbek refugees and asylum seekers from other countries in the region.
"It is rare indeed that a state - party or not to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees - would contest the authoritative character of the voice of the High Commissioner when it comes to the most fundamental of all protections, the principle of non-refoulement," Feller said.
"Although UNHCR is accorded a special status as the guardian of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol, it is important to note that the office is not limited in the exercise of its protection functions to the application alone of these treaties.
"UNHCR does not have to be invited to become involved in protecting refugees. This is an obligation, regularly recognized in this committee, and it is what makes UNHCR's mandate distinct, even unique, within the international system," she added.
Citing a new draft report on protection compiled by her office, Feller also noted that up to 30 percent of all refugee children are not regularly attending school; that military recruitment of children occurred in some 6 percent of refugee camps; that fewer than 50 percent of refugees in 82 countries surveyed enjoyed full freedom of movement and the right to work; and that at the end of 2005 there were 38 so-called protracted refugee situations involving a total of more than 6.2 million refugees who have been in exile for five years or longer.
Feller suggested that the international community consider broadening its focus on the so-called "responsibility to protect" beyond extreme situations such as intervention in genocide, and apply the concept to more pro-active efforts to help governments and humanitarian agencies build capacity to protect refugees, stateless people and the internally displaced.
"It would be a great advance, from our perspective, if the responsibility to protect could serve to encourage higher prioritisation being accorded to programmes to underpin restoration of national protection," she said.
"It would also considerably assist if this notion were to be interpreted as imposing a positive obligation on states to take steps to reduce statelessness, prevent its occurrence and redress the dire circumstances for those who have no national rights," the Assistant High Commissioner added.