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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 7 November 2002

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 7 November 2002

7 November 2002
Third CommitteeThe "Convention Plus" approachThe "UNHCR 2004" process

(Check against delivery)

Mr. Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Between December 2000 and December 2001 the total number of people of concern to UNHCR fell by two million, from 22 million to 20 million. This is encouraging.

Despite some new emergencies, this positive trend has continued this year, with successful returns in a number of countries. A major challenge now is to ensure the effective reintegration of those who return to their homes.

In Afghanistan, more than two million people have gone home since the UNHCR-assisted repatriation operation began in March 2002 - including some 1.7 million refugees. On top of this, we estimate that 1.2 million more refugees may return in 2003. Now a shift in emphasis from repatriation to rehabilitation and reconstruction is needed, if those who have gone home are to stay, and if more are to follow.

In Africa there have also been some positive developments. Large numbers have returned to their homes in Eritrea and Sierra Leone, and in Angola there are hopeful signs that many will be able to return. In Asia, there are also new prospects for durable solutions. Most of the refugees who fled from East Timor have now returned, and in Sri Lanka there is cause for optimism that a long and bitter conflict may finally be ending, paving the way for large-scale returns. Meanwhile, in South-Eastern Europe, my Office is continuing to phase out its activities. This frees up scarce resources for use elsewhere in the world - particularly Africa.

However, we continue to face new emergencies. The turmoil in Liberia has resulted in new refugee flows, and recent events in Côte d'Ivoire have reminded us of the fragile situation in that region. Other areas where we continue to face major challenges include Colombia and the Caucasus region. We are co-operating closely with OCHA, sister UN agencies, ICRC, NGOs and other partners.

In West Africa, we have taken remedial and preventive actions to strengthen the protection of refugee women and children against the threat of sexual exploitation and abuse. Indeed, there is now a heightened awareness of this issue, not only in Africa, but globally. In line with the recommendations of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), we have also issued a Code of Conduct for all staff. We will continue to strictly enforce our policy of zero tolerance.

Following the events of September 11, and in response to the growing problem of human trafficking and smuggling, a number of States have strengthened measures to combat illegal migration and the misuse of asylum systems. While UNHCR supports measures to combat misuse of asylum systems, I am concerned that in some cases indiscriminate measures have led to non-admission, denial of access to asylum procedures, and even incidents of refoulement. I see no objection to countries strengthening their border controls, provided that arriving refugees still have access to a fair and fast asylum procedure. The last thing any of us want to see is a refugee sent back to persecution, imprisonment, torture or death under a dictatorial regime. Even one such case will be one too many.

Detention of asylum seekers is another problem that needs to be addressed. While many States have been able to manage their asylum systems without detentions, a more general trend towards increased use of detention - often on a discriminatory basis - is worrying. I am also concerned that some parts of the media and a number of politicians have continued to demonize asylum seekers and refugees, particularly during election campaigns. This has undermined public support for their reception. Rather than this negative rhetoric, we need strict and workable policies to help sort the economic migrants from those people who are in need of international protection.

Mr. Chairman,

Article 1 of the UNHCR Statute specifically states that the mission of the High Commissioner is to provide international protection to refugees and to facilitate their voluntary repatriation or their "assimilation within new national communities". To strengthen our capacity to find durable solutions, particularly for those in protracted refugee situations, we have developed a number of new approaches - bottom-up and in partnership with others.

In post conflict situations, I have proposed an integrated approach to what I call the "4-Rs" - Repatriation, Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. This approach brings together humanitarian and development actors and funds. Pilot "4-Rs" programmes are now being carried out in Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. In these programmes, UNHCR works in close partnership with the World Bank, UNDP and other key UN agencies, particularly UNICEF and WFP. The programmes also rely on the active participation and support of the United Nations' Country Team, as well as bilateral and multilateral donors. As opportunities arise, we intend to add more countries and more partners to this list.

Likewise, for protracted refugee situations, where local integration of refugees in countries of asylum is a viable option, I have proposed Development through Local Integration "DLI". The basic idea here is that rather than treating refugees simply as a burden, host governments and the international community should recognize that refugees can be agents of development.

It is well known that the majority of countries hosting large refugee populations are poor countries. In fact, of the 48 Least Developed Countries, 35 are currently hosting refugees. It makes sense, therefore, for donor countries to channel more of their development funds to refugee populated areas, where they can be of benefit to both refugees and the local population. This will help diminish the burden on the local community, contribute to the local development, and broaden the prospects for refugees' integration. By allowing them to become self-reliant, refugees can be an asset, and not a burden.

The DLI concept is currently being tested in Zambia, where the government has taken the lead in enabling refugees to become self-sufficient through activities aimed at supporting agricultural projects and small businesses. I hope that other equally innovative approaches will be developed in other parts of the world, and that they will be generously funded.

I warmly welcome the new joint ECHA/UNDG Working Group on transition issues. My Office looks forward to taking an active part in the work of this group, to ensure that the needs of refugees and returnees, which have often been neglected in the past, are explicitly considered. Promoting partnership for 4-Rs and DLI programmes, and closing the famous "gap" both institutionally and financially through more effective bottom-up development assistance, will help people of concern to my Office to once again become productive and integrated. This joint ECHA/UNDG Working Group will be under the leadership of Carol Bellamy, and I am confident that it will address these issues.

We need to build new partnerships to achieve durable solutions. The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) explicitly mentions refugees and durable solutions in its agenda. This is good. NEPAD offers a fresh opportunity to address refugee problems in Africa. Without solutions for refugees, there is little chance for peace and development in Africa. During the UN General Assembly's High Level Plenary Meeting on NEPAD in New York, I called for a broad-based partnership of governments, humanitarian and development agencies to help bridge the gap between emergency relief and development assistance in Africa. This received a positive response from African delegations, and my Office will continue to work closely with the NEPAD Secretariat and donor governments to examine ways to translate this into concrete plans.

The international community is firmly committed to halving the proportion of people living in poverty by 2015. The eight Millennium Development Goals reflect a global consensus on development priorities, but they do not make clear reference to refugees per se. They tend to speak about the poor. Yet refugees have special needs which must be explicitly addressed. At present, refugees are not treated like other citizens. Indeed, they are often excluded altogether from international development assistance. This is wrong. In targeting its development assistance, the international community cannot afford to neglect the specific needs and, more importantly, the productive capacity of refugees.

The fight against poverty is taking place on many different levels. UNHCR, in providing assistance and protection to millions of refugees, is directly engaged in fighting poverty, and is in that way contributing towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. Whether meeting the special needs of refugee women or providing education for refugee children, it all relates to the eight Millennium Development Goals.

The "Convention Plus" approach

Mr. Chairman,

The process of Global Consultations on International Protection ended earlier this year. One of the outcomes of this process was a new Agenda for Protection. This is a strategic policy document which is intended to serve as a guide for concrete action not only by UNHCR, but also governments, NGOs and other partners.

Protection work today demands new tools, as well as new multilateral commitments to ensure burden sharing and durable solutions. This requires new strategies, new thinking and new partnerships. Above all, we need to find ways of improving international co-operation and burden sharing.

The 1951 Refugee Convention remains the cornerstone of the international refugee protection regime. This was clearly underscored at the Ministerial Meeting in Geneva last December, where there was a unanimous reaffirmation of the Convention's centrality and continuing validity. But as all of those who were present at the Ministerial Meeting themselves agreed, the Convention alone does not suffice. What is needed, therefore, is a new approach, which I call the "Convention Plus". By that I mean supplementing the Convention in areas that it does not adequately cover - particularly with regard to durable solutions, in line with Article 1 of UNHCR's Statute. The ultimate aim in protecting refugees is to find solutions for them.

The "Plus" concerns the development of multilateral agreements to better address the whole chain of displacement and the nexus between migration and asylum. The aim of these agreements is to ensure improved burden sharing, with countries in the North and South working together to find durable solutions for refugees. Such agreements include comprehensive plans of action to deal with situations of massive outflow, and agreements on "secondary movements", whereby the roles and responsibilities of countries of origin, transit, and potential destination are better defined. There may be agreements aimed at better targeting development assistance in refugees' regions of origin, in order to facilitate local integration in countries of asylum as well as reintegration of returnees (through 4-Rs programmes). Potentially, they may also include multilateral commitments for resettlement of refugees. In developing these special agreements, I intend to consult the UNHCR Executive Committee as well as to establish a multilateral Forum, bringing UNHCR together with Governments and other relevant parties at the expert level.

The "UNHCR 2004" process

Mr. Chairman,

In his recent report on UN reform, the Secretary-General stresses that the need for a strong multilateral institution has never been more acutely felt than it is today, in the era of globalization. This is true for the UN as a whole. It is equally true for UNHCR.

With this in mind, one year ago I initiated the "UNHCR 2004" process. This process is specifically about strengthening UNHCR as a multilateral institution. It involves a review of the Office's capacity to carry out its mandate. The idea is to report on this before 2004, when UNHCR's current mandate comes up for renewal, with the aim of implementing it in the next term. The draft resolution on the extension of the mandate is being co-ordinated by Sweden on behalf of the Nordic countries. I hope it will be sponsored by many of the delegations in this Committee.

A key issue relates to UNHCR's governance structure. Refugee movements have become a globalized phenomenon, and therefore states from all regions should participate in addressing the issue. UNHCR's Executive Committee currently comprises 61 member States, and the number of members continues to grow each year. It has to grow from today's limited "coalition of the willing" into a real World Refugee Assembly.

To be a truly multilateral institution, UNHCR also needs a broader financial basis, so that it can respond effectively to the demands being placed on it by the international community. Time and again, one speaks about predictability. But how can we make progress on this? The original decision made in 1950, as reflected in UNHCR's Statute, was that administrative expenses should be covered from the assessed contributions of the UN Regular Budget, and that operations - only operations - should be funded on a voluntary basis. I consider this to have been a wise decision. However, since then the reality has been different. We currently receive only some US$ 20 million from the UN Regular Budget. This does not at all reflect the intention of UNHCR's founders when they met here in the UN in 1950.

Through the "UNHCR 2004" process, I have also given much thought to the interrelation between voluntary and forced migration. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that there is a need to address the broad spectrum of international migration in a concerted, comprehensive and forward looking manner. I have therefore been working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) to take stock of the co-operation between our organizations, and to examine how we can address global realities more effectively. I hope that we will be able to move towards more structured strategic partnerships, especially where asylum and migration issues intersect.

Mr. Chairman,

Persecution and conflict produce refugees. At the same time, unresolved refugee problems can themselves be a cause of conflict and instability. It is vital, therefore, that the international community supports UNHCR in its efforts to find durable solutions for refugees and other persons of concern.

Protecting refugees and searching for durable solutions to their plight is a humanitarian imperative. But it is also fundamentally about contributing to international peace and security. For how can we live in a world without crime, and how can we live in a world without terrorism, if we do not address the critical need to give new hope to those whose lives have been torn apart by injustice, violence, conflict and persecution? We live in a globalized world, and we cannot afford to turn our backs on people who have been severely affected by any of these. Let us therefore give these people the chance to contribute to peace and development, and to become a positive part of our future.

Thank you.