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UNHCR chief addresses Oxford's Refugee Studies Centre on challenges


UNHCR chief addresses Oxford's Refugee Studies Centre on challenges

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres issues a fresh warning about the diminishing space in which humanitarian organizations can operate.
14 October 2010
Somali refugees in Kenya. UNHCR chief Guterres said Somali refugees were systematically undesired, stigmatized and discriminated against.

OXFORD, United Kingdom, October 14 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has issued a fresh warning about the diminishing space in which humanitarian organizations can operate. Giving the annual Harrell-Bond Human Rights Lecture at Oxford University's Refugee Studies Centre, Guterres said on Wednesday that the intractable nature of armed conflict is one of the most preoccupying challenges for UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations:

"Major crises [that] have generated huge numbers of refugees and displaced people show no signs of being resolved . . . Humanitarian organizations such as ours are denied access to affected populations. Our assistance is diverted or manipulated. And sometimes we are expelled from countries where our presence is not welcomed for one reason or another," the High Commissioner said.

Guterres said that another implication of intractable armed conflict was the emergence of global refugee populations seeking protection and opportunities not available in their countries of origin. Refugees, asylum-seekers and other people on the move from countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia are the most obvious examples of this phenomenon.

In this context, he specifically mentioned the difficult situation for Somali refugees worldwide. "I do not believe that there is any group of refugees who are as systematically undesired, stigmatized and discriminated against as the Somalis," said the High Commissioner, who called on countries to stop sending refugees back to the war-torn Somali capital, Mogadishu, and the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Guterres also pointed to the growing number of so-called protracted refugee situations, which is putting developing countries under serious strain. The 25 countries most affected by a refugee presence are all in the developing world.

"In this context, UNHCR has called for a new deal on burden-sharing, to ensure that the generosity of host countries and communities is matched by solidarity from the developed world," said the High Commissioner, adding that the resettlement of refugees is one tangible and effective way of achieving this end.

He noted that there was, nevertheless, a significant gap between resettlement needs and resettlement capacity. For example, Europe is currently providing only 7.5 per cent of all resettlement places worldwide. A larger European Union (EU) resettlement programme would provide solutions to refugees and at the same time demonstrate solidarity with the major host countries.

In his speech, Guterres also expressed concern about the threat to asylum space in the developed world, with ever greater difficulties for people seeking refugee status to have access to the territories of industrialized states.

Although 120,000 people were granted refugee or complementary protection status in the industrialiized world last year, there is still no true European asylum system. Instead, the region has a patchwork of different national ones. For example, the recognition of Somali asylum-seekers in EU member states in 2009 ranged from 4 per cent to 90 per cent.

The High Commissioner pointed to the increasing difficulty in sustaining the traditional distinction between refugees and migrants and between voluntary and forced movements. He said that UNHCR needs to adjust the way it provides protection and assistance to reflect the changes in the composition and location of refugee flows.

Today, more refugees live in cities than in camps and tend to be more dispersed and more diverse than before. Also, Guterres said UNHCR needed to examine how to provide protection to people who need it, but who do not fall within the existing definitions of a refugee. Original and creative thinking would be needed on these new policy issues.

By Mans Nyberg in Oxford, United Kingdom