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Introductory remarks by Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, to the Pre-ExCom Meeting with NGOs, Geneva

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Introductory remarks by Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, to the Pre-ExCom Meeting with NGOs, Geneva

25 September 2002

In my introductory remarks I will focus on the Agenda for Protection and Protection Management.

This year's ExCom is particularly important: for the first time there will be an agreed plan of action, endorsed by ExCom, for States, UNHCR, the NGO community as well as others to tackle today's and tomorrow's refugee protection problems.

During the past year there have of course been positive developments. The list of accessions to the 1951 Convention has grown further, more countries have enacted refugee legislation, asylum-seekers continue to be properly received in many States, large numbers of refugees still have access to adequate protection, and many others have been able to return home in such diverse places as Afghanistan and Sierra Leone.

At the same time there are very serious problems. Refugee camps are militarized. Refugee women and children have been sexually exploited. Large numbers of refugees do not obtain proper documentation. There has been too much pressure on people to repatriate. Asylum-seekers have been automatically put in detention to punish them or to deter others. Interception measures are often not accompanied by protection safeguards. The exploitation of human misery by traffickers is rampant. Cracks have appeared in the tradition of rescue-at-sea.

The Agenda for Protection, as you know, seeks to address these and other problems: it is not an abstraction or a paper wish list. The challenge now will be to work on its implementation, and to keep alive the drive and spirit of cooperation that marked the Global Consultation's process.

For UNHCR the Agenda will serve as a platform on which to build our protection strategies and interventions, region by region, even down to the country level. It is, though, not a blueprint as such, rather a framework containing the broad lines, general directions and "yardstick" activities, to be adjusted office by office to the exigencies on the ground.

Inside UNHCR we are setting priorities and we foresee further discussions with States on this. However, we also expect States to examine where they can practically and constructively contribute. We wouldn't like to see the Agenda becoming a device to steer and co-manage UNHCR's work. We can advise, assist and influence governments. If necessary, we must remind them of their international obligations. But they are the principal actors, for they have the responsibility, the power and the resources to provide sanctuary to those who need it. The Agenda should help both of us, i.e. UNHCR and the NGO community, to engage governments and to look for improvements.

As far as UNHCR is concerned, much work will need to be done at the Geneva level, by my Department but also and especially in the operational Bureau. An important activity in the Agenda is for example the elaboration of comprehensive action plans for a number of protracted refugee situations. The High Commissioner also wishes to see real progress in the development of an organization-wide registration system and the issuance of documentation to refugees. We intend to examine new models of burden sharing. In DIP we are working on a series of new Guidelines, including on Protection Safeguards in Interception Measures.

At the same time we shouldn't rely too much on priority setting from the Geneva end. It is at the field level that much of the strategizing and the concrete activities will need to be undertaken, if only because there are different problems in different locations and because it is at the field level that the real improvements must become visible. First priorities for one office will not necessarily be first priorities for another. I therefore urge also you, the NGO community, to use the Agenda in your discussions in the field, to strategize and decide where new initiatives can make a difference.

This brings me to the second subject of this introduction: protection management. As I said earlier, States have a primary role in the protection of refugees. But clearly, we have our responsibility too, and we must improve the manner in which we organize and implement the High Commissioner's protection function. At issue is not a question of standards or even the techniques or dilemmas involved in their implementation, but rather: how can we perform better in protection? With the support of the High Commissioner, my Department is actively engaged in making progress in a number of areas.

First staffing, an absolute priority. How can our protection ever be meaningful in situations where one field officer has to cover three refugee camps? Regrettably, the Office is severely hampered by financial constraints to expand the number of protection related posts. Yet, following a review of all operations a number of additional protection and community services' posts have been created within the existing budget. In addition my Department manages three deployments schemes which are assisting offices all over the world with specialists in RSD, resettlement and field protection, to fill urgent needs.

So far this year, we have already sent out 75 reinforcements under these schemes, to our offices in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Colombia, Afghanistan, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, to name just a few. (RSD 11, resettlement 38, surge project 26). I should also mention that senior management has agreed that in each country office either the Representative or her or his Deputy must normally have a protection background. And in order to ensure that the right person goes to the right place, we are designing a procedure that strengthens my Department's say in the appointment process of protection staff.

Second, protection expertise and orientation. Our long term goal, which has the High Commissioner's full support, is to arrive at a protection based culture that is shared by all UNHCR staff. One of our tools here is DIP's protection learning programme, which has become very popular. 250 staff members working in over 85 countries will have completed the programme by December this year, with another 120 to be added in 2003. Let me use this occasion to mention that, although we give priority to our own colleagues, we are prepared to include some NGO partner staff. We also intend to target senior managers through a less elaborate training programme. Protection learning should become mandatory for all UNHCR managers.

Third, our policies, systems and procedures. Earlier this year we have distributed to all our field offices the so-called Protection Manual, which brings together in three volumes UNHCR's protection policies and guidelines. In addition, office structures, planning tools and country or regional strategies must better reflect that protection and assistance activities are closely interlinked. In order to increase the performance orientation in our protection operations, I have recently issued a Protection Checklist, which does not only suggest concrete activities to achieve certain objectives but also contains impact indicators. We have reinforced the management of resettlement: as a Senior Consultant, Ms Phyllis Coven will work on improving the implementation of resettlement standards and procedures in the field. Some of you may already be aware that the Resettlement Handbook has just been revised and updated, to further facilitate and improve the work of our field offices. You will also be interested to know that my Department is drafting detailed procedural standards for our RSD operations. This is a complex but important undertaking to ensure due process, greater consistency and integrity in our refugee eligibility work.

Fourth and last, management oversight and accountability. Here too, there is room for improvement. The Protection Checklist, the revised Resettlement Handbook and the future standards for RSD procedures which I just mentioned, are precisely the kind of tools that should assist our managers and thus lend more substance to their accountability. In addition we plan to organize a number of regional workshops with senior staff to look at the manner in which they organize the protection activities in their offices. These workshops are a direct follow-up of an overall instruction by the High Commissioner, sent out earlier this year, that highlighted the crucial importance of good protection management and the managerial accountability for it.

If there is one protection problem that should benefit from each and every measure or initiative I mentioned, then it is sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation. It is a prominent theme both in the Agenda for Protection and in our efforts to improve the delivery of protection by our own staff. I think it is fair to say that we have made progress. Within the limits of our resources, extra staff have been deployed on the ground. Comprehensive action plans have been developed and are being implemented. UNHCR now has a good Code of Conduct. Preventing and responding to SGBV is included in the protection learning programme and in our Management Workshops. Staff are more aware. We need to remain alert though, especially in refugee camp situations all over the world. And I urge you to do the same, because there is no room here for passivity and complacency.

With this I have come to the end of my introduction. Let me, however, use this opportunity to mention the forth coming International Handbook to guide the reception and integration of resettled refugees. Several resettlement countries, particularly Australia, have supported this project, and several NGOs have been involved in the drafting of this important book. A special word of thanks goes, however, to the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture in Melbourne, without which this endeavour would not have come to fruition. Finally, let me thank all of you for the many positive contributions the NGO community has made to the Global Consultations' process and the Agenda for Protection. We very much hope and intend to pursue this constructive cooperation with you in the implementation phase. Thank you.