NGO's begin Geneva meeting ahead of Global Consultations conference
GENEVA, Dec. 11 (UNHCR) - More than 50 non-governmental organisations who work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees around the world met Tuesday to discuss ways of better implementing the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The session was opened by Anders Ladekarl, the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies. High Commissioner Lubbers and Alain Guidetti, the head of Humanitarian Affairs for the Swiss government, also addressed the gathering.
The one-day meeting was a prelude to the first-ever ministerial-level meeting of the 142 States that have signed the Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol. That conference will chart the future of refugee protection as migration flows become more complex and asylum seekers around the world feel the fallout from the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Approximately 80 ministers were expected to attend the plenary sessions on Wednesday and Thursday, which High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers has described as "the most important global meeting on refugees since the Convention was first drawn up 50 years ago."
An estimated 80 NGOs were expected to attend the ministerial meeting as observers.
"The focus of attention at the meeting is to canvass NGO views on how to strengthen implementation of the 1951 Convention, which is one of the themes of a series of roundtable discussions at the Ministerial Meeting," said Eve Lester, NGO liaison for the Global Consultations at UNHCR.
Lester said the discussions Tuesday focused on how to strengthen refugee protection through better supervision of the 1951 Convention. There was an emerging consensus among NGOs, she said, that any arrangement to strengthen implementation would have to be independent, transparent, and impartial.
In addition to adopting the landmark declaration reaffirming the commitment of signatory states to effectively implement the Convention, the ministerial meeting later in the week would highlight the importance of the Convention's "exclusion clause."
That clause makes those guilty of serious crimes, including terrorism, ineligible for refugee status. The issue has taken on added importance following a tightening of immigration and asylum regulations in many countries after the September attacks.
In a statement last October, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it was "particularly concerned" about the impact of the attacks on those persons who are most in need of protection by the international community. The agency listed ten areas of concern, including racism, xenophobia, the withdrawal of refugee status, deportation, and extradition.
"UNHCR is concerned," the statement said, "about the increasing public perception of refugees and asylum seekers as 'criminals' and over attempts to create unwarranted links between refugees and terrorism."
"The question being posed - what additional, security-based procedural safeguards can be taken by governments - is an inherently reasonable one," the statement continued. "But we need to insure that it is answered correctly, and that any new safeguards strike a proper balance with the refugee protection principles that may be at stake."
Some 11 ministers from the European Union were expected to attend the meeting, along with three deputy prime ministers and the President of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, herself a former refugee. In all, about 29 Interior Ministers and 17 foreign ministers will be present.
The 27 African ministers in attendance will hold a follow-up session Friday devoted to the serious refugee problems on the African continent.