Human smugglers one step ahead of law enforcement officials.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Iran Sivanka Dhanapala said human smugglers are always one step ahead of law enforcement authorities.
The full text of his interview with Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) comes as follows:
The definition of a refugee and their rights and the responsibilities of host countries are indicated in the 1951 Refugee Convention which is one of the most important documents of international law in the field of refugees.
The 1967 Protocol which has been signed by a number of 146 countries has removed the geographical and temporal limits of the 1951 Convention.
Countries hosting refugees are responsible for the protection of refugees regardless of whether they have signed the Convention. In addition to its role in providing support and assistance to host countries, UNHCR also renders international protection to refugees whilst guiding them in finding solutions to their situation.
According to ISNA Foreign Policy journalist, Mr. Sivanka Dhanapala who started his work in 1992 in The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has been UNHCR Representative in Iran since May 2014.
Dhanapala, born in 1968 and 47 of age, says he started working at UNHCR after graduating from law school. Being active, conducting field work and being in direct contact with persons of concern were reasons that attracted Dhanapala to work at UNHCR.
UNHCR Representative in Iran says, “This work is very meaningful to me as the results of our work are tangible, I can hear the refugees and it is their voice which guides me in my work and my continued cooperation with the Government and other partners.
I was recently in Geneva and whilst there I was briefing a newly appointed Deputy High Commissioner I stated that there is no where I would rather be working than Iran.
It is an honor for me to work in Iran where with the assistance of the government, we can do so much for the refugees.
According to ISNA, UNHCR has its country office in Tehran, with field offices in Isfahan, Mashhad, Dogharoun, Kerman and Shiraz where they address to refugee needs.
UNHCR is known as the UN refugee agency. UNHCR has a mandate for refugees but also for other persons of concern, we have a mandate for statelessness and when requested we will help those who have been displaced due to conflict or other reasons.
We are operational in certain countries where we are assisting with activities that directly involve refugees like in the Islamic Republics of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There are countries where we might not have direct operation but we still have an office, where we are engaged in fundraising and in the legal dimension of asylum and refugee law. For example in the UK; we are one of the only UN organizations to have an office in London where we principally aim at the legal aspects of refugee law, working with academic institutions, the government and the legislator.
According to ISNA, quoting the Refugee Convention, the term refugee applies to a person who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
UNHCR has certain responsibilities upon the arrival of refugees in a host country; we must meet their basic needs and provide them with shelter. There is a lot of material assistance they need which is provided directly through the government or with the assistance of our partners.
What services does UNHCR offer to refugees and from what time is the organization responsible for them?
One of the first services rendered to asylum seekers by UNHCR is shelter in the form of tent, semi-permanent structure where they can take refuge.
Secondly we can refer to non-food items such as kitchen sets, water buckets.
All of this is part of a larger assistance measure which UNHCR provides. However the assistance of UNHCR is not limited to what has been mentioned as from the moment a refugee crosses an international border and enters into the borders of another country they seek and are in need of international protection.
UNHCR in Iran is very grateful for the protection and assistance that the Islamic Republic of Iran has provided to refugees. Some of this assistance, like that of food items is tangible; however there are also intangible items of assistance like the provision of documentation. For refugees in Iran this documentation (the Amayesh card) is provided by the Iranian Government.
Does the registration of asylum seekers vary based on the conditions of the host country?
In this regard I would have to say that varies based on the conditions of various countries as some countries have better work opportunities and financial resources. Some countries however are confronted with many problems which makes it very difficult for them to assist refugees.
In this line, UNHCR does help countries with limited resources with the issuance of ID cards. Of course in a country like Iran who has this capacity it is the government that produces and distributes the Amayesh refugee cards to refugees.
The Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affaires (BAFIA) of the Ministry of interior is UNHCR’s main governmental counterpart in Iran. BAFIA is responsible for tending to refugee affairs in Iran and works closely with UNHCR in finding solutions to various challenges in line with the improvement of refugee conditions.
When does group asylum seeking take place?
In some instances a refugee is fleeing war and generalized violence which is what happened in the case of Afghanistan to Iran. What happens in those instances is that UNHCR working with the host country, on what we call the legal terms of prima facie basis you can have an entire group of persons who are immediately determined to be refugees.
What is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?
When a person flees across an international border they are called asylum seekers. Accordingly they submit themselves in the host country to the refugee status determination procedure which is where the government will advise if their request for asylum has been accepted, in which case they will be recognized as a refugee, or whether it has been rejected in which case they must return to their home country.
If a request for asylum is accepted the government must award all refugees with the assistance and protection as required by international refugee law. In this line in Iran, when a request for asylum has been accepted, for the purpose of identification, the government issues Amayesh cards for the relevant individuals.
UNHCR continuously monitors the conditions of the countries of origin. Refugee status remains until such a time when UNHCR deems that the country of origin of a refugee is no longer dangerous and a fear of persecution no longer exists, for example when a peace agreement is signed between two parties (even though the signing of an agreement does not necessarily mean peace and security will follow within that country) in which case UNHCR issues an advisory statement declaring cessation, which indicates that people can now return to their country of origin.
Are refugees obliged to return to their countries of origin once UNHCR has provoked the cessation clause?
In cases of prolonged violence and insecurity within the country of origin, refugee situations become protracted.
Like in the case of Vietnamese refugees, following the war in Vietnam, refugee camps were set up for the Vietnamese in many Asian south eastern countries like in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Malaysia. With the persistent unrest in regional countries, Vietnam and UNHCR came together for finding a comprehensive solution.
There was a legal agreement for invoking the cessation clause. At this time many refugees had been resettlement to 3rd countries and were now citizens of those countries. However for those still having refugee status, they were informed that the cessation clause was invoked and that they would be going back to their country.
They were some who were very concerned because their only memory was of a Vietnam in conflict or they were worried they would be discriminated against upon going back because they did not support the ruling party at the time.
But the agreement was UNHCR and the intentional community would be present on the ground when they got back so they could observe their return and ensure protection mechanisms. UNHCR acts accordingly in other similar situations.
According to ISNA, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been host to one of the largest and most protracted refugee populations in the world for the past 30 years; the Afghan refugee situation.
Afghan refugees who have Amayesh cards and legal residency are able to attain a work permit. The Government of Iran, identifies vulnerable refugees and exempts them from certain fees (e.g. municipality tax and school tuition fees), vulnerable refugees may also receive financial assistance from UNHCR.
What is your outlook on the conditions inside Afghanistan and the situation of asylum seekers from this country?
Unfortunately despite the fact that we have a New Unity Government in Afghanistan and the fact that that international presence was investing in the rebuilding of Afghanistan, sadly we are still not at the stage to advise invocation of the cessation clause, sadly security has not been placed in all areas within Afghanistan.
While insecurity has decreased in some regions we are still not in a situation where we can suggest Afghan migrants to return to their country.
So you would say that at this point you would not advise Afghans to return to their country?
We are currently not in a situation to invoke the cessation clause. However, there are many returnees who are still choosing to go back home and we are not advising them against to do so.
I would say we are proactively promoting a regional framework called the Solutions Strategy for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran and within that voluntary repatriation is a key component but also assisting the two host countries of Iran and Pakistan.
What UNHCR is very vocal about is that the international community focus its assistance on bettering the conditions inside Afghanistan as to ensure more stability. It is only by rebuilding the country and improving the services and opportunities within the country that we can more effectively promote return so that return becomes a more attractive option.
Today return is not an attractive option but it is an option nonetheless. We would like to enhance to development activities within Afghanistan which will then serve as a pull factor for voluntary repatriation.
What are UNHCR’s objectives for ameliorating the conditions of asylum seekers?
When we talk about objectives in UNHHCR it is to find solutions to displacement, durable solutions for a refugee. The best possible solution is when you have voluntary repatriation to a person’s country of origin, because they are able to go home and everybody wants to go home.
What assistance does UNHCR offer in cases where voluntary repatriation of refugee in not possible?
If the option of voluntary repatriation is not possible, we strive for finding solutions in the country of first asylum.
The last option is resettlement to a third country where for example an Afghan national because of their very vulnerable situation is resettled to Sweden or Australia. I say it’s the least preferred option because the individual is going very far away from their area of origin because it’s very difficult for them to adapt culturally specially because in most cases they are moving even further away from their country of origin which can cause even further problems for the refugees.
In your view how has the government of Iran treated Afghans?
The efforts of Iran and Pakistan, the two main Afghan refugee hosting countries, are truly laudable and exemplary which has also been stated by the High Commissioner.
The government of Iran has been very generous in allowing refugees education, access to healthcare and livelihood opportunities.
Australia has set up several camps in various islands for asylum seekers that attempt to enter this country illegally, which according to witnesses and reports lack humanitarian conditions and are not in line with United Nations Conventions on the rights of refugees. What actions has UNHCR taken in this regard?
If you refer to our website, you will see UNHCR has released a number of reports that have been presented to the Australian government regarding our own concerns about the conditions there; not only regarding the situation of the camps but also the policy of Australia to have camps off shore, outside Australia, centers where people are processed for refugee status determination. UNHCR position on these issues has been very clear. We currently have an office in Canberra through which we try to address the situation of refugees in the region.
To date how many refugees have been registered in Iran?
Currently Iran hosts some 950,000 registered Afghan and 29,000 Iraqi refugees. These are individuals who are recognized as refugees by the Government of Iran and UNHCR, they are legal and hold Amayesh cards. We do not however have accurate statistics of those individuals who are undocumented. The Government of Iran however has shown great humanity even towards those who do not have legal documents.
When two neighboring countries suffer from economic disparity, like that between Iran and Afghanistan, there will always be an economic attraction for employment and other reasons for the people of the less economically advantaged to move to the country of more economic advantaged.
On the other hand there is justified concern on the side of the Iranian Government that the more assistance they provide to those that are undocumented, the more individuals it will attract to the country. How to deal with this population is being discussed bilaterally between the Governments of Iran and Afghanistan.
What is your outlook regarding the decree of the Supreme Leader enabling all Afghan children to study in Iranian schools?
The very enlightened decree made by the Supreme Leader this April, announcing that all undocumented Afghan children can study in Iran is one of the more generous statements I have heard coming from any Head of State which can save many children from cultural poverty.
If you have an undocumented population in your country it is in national interest to ensure that these people are educated. There have also been attempts to see how they can be registered in some form or manner. Adapting this measure is important as it will somehow bring them out of the darkness.
It is a great challenge to translate the Supreme Leader decree into reality but the Government of Iran is working hard to actualize this decree.
Do you know of any other country where undocumented children are allowed to study in schools?
There aren’t many examples that come to mind this is where Iran is truly a leader in ensuring that this generosity reaches the vulnerable.
What are the underlying reasons for the recent increase wave of migration towards Europe and what help can UNHCR extend in this regard?
It’s a very complicated flow of people. You have Syria that is the fifth year of war and the largest population to arrive in Europe is from Syria, there is Iraq who has again sadly experienced conflict and there has been a lot of displacement within Iraq in addition to people leaving the country. There is also the instability and the economic situation inside Afghanistan.
Who are economic migrants?
Economic migrants are those leaving as a result of a number of economic factors and hard living conditions within their country of origin. These are individuals who migrate to another country in hope of finding better work opportunities and a better income like those migrating from the Sub Saharan Africa region and Bangladesh towards Europe.
What is the reason for the presence of such a big population of economic migrants amongst this wave of asylum seekers?
Poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity are a few of the reasons. The international community needs to do much more to address the root causes of this migration which have accumulated over time and has now manifested into a burst volcanic flow of migrants.
More has to be done to ensure people are given opportunities in their own countries, like ensuring work opportunities for those from economically troubled countries. This enables those who have migrated due to these reasons to return home.
On the other hand it is necessary to pave the way for legal migration. For example for those who would like to continue their studies.
Working for UNHCR we try to look at the positive aspect of things and be an optimist. The silver lining for this crisis is that it will wake people up and drive them towards finding fundamental solutions to these problems.
According to the UNHCR High Commissioner and as he reiterated in Brussels to speak to European leaders, this is overwhelmingly a refugee crisis where the majority of people are running for their lives from their country of origin. We also have people who are looking for a better life economically who are not refugees but it is important to treat everybody with a degree of dignity.
What solutions do European countries have underway for this refugee crisis?
UNHCR has been urging a collective unified approach among the European countries. Once we have such an approach, there can be some degree of burden sharing amongst the wider group of European countries.
Populations are now gathering in particular entry points in Greece, Croatia. UNHCR is currently sending emergency teams to try and assist host countries. The assistance they require is not so much material assistance but advice on how to proceed.
What has happened with many local authorities and municipalities in these European countries is that when confronted with a sea of humanity it can be overwhelming to deal with it but you can look at it in a technical way and you can detangle the knot.
First is stepping up the equipment, facilities and processes at the initial reception areas that receive the people, it is important there is adequate water and sanitation and those kinds of basic facilities that when people arrive it is a systematic procedure.
The next stage is conducting screening procedure at these reception facilities (refugee status determination) which determines if the individuals are in fact asylum seekers who have fled from war in fear of their life or whether they are economic migrants; are some of these individuals in need of protection? If yes that they require our protection , if not and they are economic migrants then they should be returned to their country of origin in a dignified way in full respect of their rights.
The people who are identified as needing protection need to be registered in order to take the stress off from that particular entry point. The idea is that there is a burden sharing where we try to relocate a number of these people to different countries within Europe. At present there is a disagreement on where these countries of relocation will be.
What activities does UNHCR undertake to combat smugglers?
We must effectively combat the issue of smugglers. It is an organized criminal global network that is always two steps ahead of law enforcement authorities. The international community needs to step up their efforts in trying to combat and prevent these people for continuing to exploit the vulnerable people in the world.
Why is it that many people are willing risk their lives in taking these long and arduous paths to Europe?
Unfortunately many are harassed or exploited along the way and can be confronted with various problems along the path to Europe. However in the case of a refugee it is because they are fearful due to the situation of conflict back home.
What is your analysis on Syria and what assistance can UNHCR provide in line with solving this crisis?
In regards to Syria I hope that a political solution will be found in line with ameliorating the situation of the country. I hope that member states that can have a positive influence will use that influence towards finding a permanent and political solution to this crisis.
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