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Introductory Remarks on "Refugees, Migration and Human Resources" by UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres G8 Ministerial Meeting – Outreach Event Trieste, Italy Saturday 27 June 2009

Speeches and statements

Introductory Remarks on "Refugees, Migration and Human Resources" by UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres G8 Ministerial Meeting – Outreach Event Trieste, Italy Saturday 27 June 2009

27 June 2009

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to introduce this very timely topic. Refugees, migration, and human resources are issues immediately relevant to the Afghanistan-Pakistan situations but to the broader challenges of the management of population movements.

The key issue I believe is how to resolve the tension between the sovereign rights of states and the need of individuals to seek safety and livelihoods when confronted by war, economic deprivation and hunger.

Many pertinent lessons can be drawn from the three decades of Afghan refugees.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

For Afghanistan, international refugee and humanitarian law provided policy coherence during a period of great instability. Millions of Afghan refugees received protection and assistance thanks to the generosity of the neighbouring countries hosting them. Since 2002, millions have returned home in one of the unscripted success stories of the Bonn Agreement.

Such huge repatriation movements would normally signal the end of a refugee situation. But 2.7 million Afghans remain registered in exile. Tens of thousands more cross into neighbouring countries daily. And recently, we have witnessed the re-emergence of large numbers of Afghans seeking asylum well outside the region.

It would be tempting to conclude that the refugee policy framework has been a failure, that absorption capacity has been overstretched, and that we should be preparing for yet another phase in Afghanistan's protracted refugee problem.

The situation is indeed complex and challenging. But it is not hopeless.

Refugee protection and assistance has provided important stability for millions of Afghans. Nobody foresaw that the Afghan refugee situation would last three decades, but we have learned from this. We know that better designed assistance can enable refugee lives, that the impact of refugee flows on local communities needs greater attention, and that improved institutional arrangements can reduce dependency and foster self-reliance.

Excellencies, ladies and gentelemen,

Refugee situations, even when they are protracted, are not static. More than half the current Afghan refugee population is under 18 years of age. This is a demographic fact posing important questions for policy makers.

Few countries as poor as Afghanistan could experience a 20% increase in their population over a short period of time without significant stress. Yet the contribution of repatriating Afghans to national recovery is evident at all levels of political, economic, and social life. Far from burdening the country and the economy, returning refugees have been an important force for growth and development, in large part due to the knowledge, assets, and capital accumulated while abroad.. Repatriation should remain our principal solution.

It is clear, however, that there are difficult challenges ahead. The majority of refugees still in exile have been outside Afghanistan for more than a quarter of a century. Sustaining further return and reintegration will require additional and well-targeted investment, particularly for the majority of remaining refugees in Pakistan originally from border areas.

Mobility has always been a critical livelihood strategy for Afghans, both during peace and war. Refugees fleeing Afghanistan in the 1980s did so for reasons that were clear. But new patterns of cross-border movement have now emerged. Some reflect traditional tribal movements. Others are linked to expaning commercial and economic activity. Seasonal temporary migration is extensive. In quantitative terms, these movements are now far more significant than refugee returns. Yet no adequate arrangements exist to differentiate and manage them.

Identifying who is moving is necessary to disentangle legitimate social and economic exchanges from criminal- and security-related ones. It has been made more difficult since there is no legal framework for temporary migration, and so migratory movements are largely irregular and undocumented.

From the refugee perspective, an important issue is at stake: the preservation of asylum space. Afghanistan is still a long way from the peace and stability that its citizens want and deserve. It is important that those who need to seek safety from physical violence, persecution and intimidation, can do so, without resort to smugglers and traffickers.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The best approach for sustaining refugee repatriation, addressing displacement and reducing irregular migration is to build a stronger Afghan state, with a more prosperous economy and improved security. These objectives will require long-term engagement and patience.

More specifically, and more immediately, I would suggest there are three critical areas that require the attention of policymakers.

First, generating employment for a largely youthful population is critical. Otherwise, young people risk social exclusion and alienation. Over half the refugees in Iran and Pakistan were born outside Afghanistan. Addressing their needs requires particularized support for education, vocational training, and skills development.

Second, it is necessary to document why and how people are moving to and from Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is a prerequisite to the development of a legal framework for migration and the design of practical border management arrangements. If legal migration options are not available, many Afghans will continue to cross frontiers irregularly. Getting the balance right is important. Too much emphasis on control will strengthen the hand of smugglers and traffickers. Insufficient investment in border management will result in illegal networks, insecurity and an erosion of state sovereignty.

Third, we must maintain the legal and operational framework for refugees. An important element is the inclusion of formal provisions ensuring access to asylum. This reduces the reliance of refugee and asylum seekers on smugglers and traffickers and lowers the risks to which asylum seekers are subject in seeking protection. The better the access to asylum, the less asylum seekers will pursue irregular movement.

I hope these remarks provide a useful basis for beginning our discussions.

Thank you for your attention.