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Statement by Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, to the 33rd Meeting of the Standing Committee, (Geneva, 28-30 June 2005)

Speeches and statements

Statement by Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, to the 33rd Meeting of the Standing Committee, (Geneva, 28-30 June 2005)

28 June 2005

Check against delivery

Agenda item 4: International Protection

The June meeting of the Standing Committee is traditionally devoted to protection. This focus is important and has to be maintained. I make this opening observation against the fact that recent years have seen protection competing for attention, and perhaps lagging behind, in the Committee's increasingly heavy agenda.

My task is to introduce to you the annual Note on International Protection (EC/55/SC/CRP.12). In so doing, I do not intend to go deeply into the details of the Note, which are clear, I believe, on their face. I will, though, endeavour to set the document into its context of protection delivery in the field and the obstacles thereto. These latter have to be understood for the material in the Note to be properly comprehended.

You will recall that the Note is intended to serve a twofold purpose. First, it is a report on how UNHCR is implementing the Agenda for Protection in the field. For this reason, over the past two years, the Note has been structured around the six goals of the Agenda. Second, the document provides an overview of what the "doing" of protection actually means in practice, how protection is delivered and with what content. Given the very strict page limitations for Executive Committee documents, the Note cannot be, and does not purport to be, a fully inclusive overview of every protection activity UNHCR offices undertake. Rather, the Note uses the technique of illustrating by way of selected examples, secure in the knowledge that it never stands alone as the only account of what UNHCR does, protection-wise.

For example, in March you had the opportunity to receive and consider quite detailed, region-specific presentations on programme delivery, each of which had a central focus on protection initiatives. You heard, as well, an update from me on implementation of the Agenda for Protection, as well as on DIP's plans and activities more generally to improve globally protection delivery. On issues related specifically to women, you also have before you at this meeting a report on implementation of the High Commissioner's Five Commitments to Refugee Women. In addition, you will be considering various more detailed documents under agenda item 4, to serve as the basis for adoption of protection Conclusions by the Executive Committee. It is only by appreciating all such material, interconnected and mutually reinforcing as it is, that the mosaic of what constitutes protection during any one year can be properly appreciated.

This year's Note presents, not unusually, a picture of advances and also of setbacks. Physical security of refugees has been a central concern. It is with great consternation that we have to continue to report, year after year, such practices as rape of women refugees as a weapon of conflict, or abduction and humiliation of children as a routine feature of displacement situations. Refoulement continues, even pursuant, very worryingly, to arrangements specifically reached between asylum host states and the countries of origin to somehow legitimate it. Even while numbers of asylum-seekers go down, quite often attributable to amelioration in the circumstances hitherto forcing departures, those coming still have to confront a plethora of State controls which inadequately distinguish between arrivals who have protection needs and those who do not. Boat arrivals have re-emerged as a complex challenge, both for States and for protection agencies. There is definitely a need for greater clarity as to the responsibilities at play here, as well as the possible responses, and we will do our best in this regard. Almost unprecedented levels of return through voluntary repatriation programmes in a number of countries brought sizeable refugee situations to a decent resolution, while resettlement has certainly been "rehabilitated" as a durable solution for larger numbers. We very much welcomed the support received for this solution over the past year. Less positive is the score card on local integration which, with some admirable exceptions, remains an elusive solution, in spite of the need for it in some circumstances. Members will soon begin working on a Conclusion on local integration for adoption by the Executive Committee later this year. We hope this can lay the ground for progress.

The Note brings out the multifaceted and action-oriented nature of the international protection function. It has become popular, if in my view a little artificial, to refer to its main components as comprising legal, physical and social protection. I say "artificial" because clearly physical protection can be closely linked to, or even dependent upon having, for example, some sort of legal status or legal personality in the asylum country. This is, not least, why registration or refugee status determination processes are so important. Similarly, social protection describes activities to address broad-ranging needs of women and children which, again, have a significant impact not only on their dignity but also their security of person. The Note does not, as a result, make such differences between types of protection interventions. The goals and objectives of the Agenda for Protection, around which the Note is currently structured, offer a more useful set of distinctions.

Interestingly, the question "What is, exactly, International Protection" is quite frequently asked. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that it is, in some senses, quite fashionable for a number of disparate activities, by very varied organisations, to be given a protection label. When asked to explain what protection is, we point first to all those activities designed to ensure that people forced to flee their country gain access to safety and are protected, to the extent possible, against further physical threats. Then come activities enabling refugees to enjoy a wide range of rights to which they are entitled, both as human beings and as beneficiaries of the legal regime set up to protect them. Protection, put simply, is firstly about safeguarding physical security and the enjoyment of rights. Beyond this, protection is also about creating an enabling environment making it genuinely accessible, with the support and backing of governments, host communities, the public at large and the refugees themselves. In its broadest terms, protection then involves advocating for higher rather than lower standards and advancing the development of refugee law in positive directions. All the activities described in the Note are reflective of this multi-purpose character of the international protection function.

If we know what protection is, or should be, we also know it is far from easy to deliver. The Note additionally brings out some of the difficulties here. In the time remaining I want to look at some of the obstacles to the delivery of protection in the field, because I think it is important for this Committee to know that there are no absolutes here, to appreciate also that protection is, almost by necessity, an imperfect art.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Darfur today. I have just returned from a four-day mission to Khartoum and West Darfur where, accompanied by our Coordinator for the Sudan operation and the High Commissioner's Gender Advisor, I met with UNHCR colleagues and government and agency interlocutors to discuss the protection directions of our programme, present and future. Protection remains, of course, primarily the responsibility of the Government. Nevertheless the UN has an important additional role here. All staff on the ground are grappling with an environment where distances and logistics are huge hurdles to covering the territory in an adequate way from a protection perspective. Ongoing security considerations are a major constraint, often in practice cutting off affected populations from meaningful contact with the many humanitarian workers in situ precisely for this purpose. Inter-agency collaboration among all concerned, which is obviously so necessary and the best framework within which to address the many issues at stake, is nevertheless beset by an unclear, and therefore not so effective, demarcation of responsibilities. There is also a certain lack of clarity about the extent to which these responsibilities extend to encompass actual interventions on protection. Budget shortfalls, which are serious, among other things mean for UNHCR, the protection arm of the UN operation in West Darfur, that insufficient staff are on the ground to do full justice to the protection responsibilities entrusted to UNHCR. Protection costs money. Darfur reminded me yet again of the gap between the supportive rhetoric which protection activities regularly attract and the actual support protection interventions can muster. It is very different when it comes to the delivery of assistance, for which, in Darfur, donor support is much more forthcoming.

The Darfur operation is not alone in having to contend with such obstacles to protection delivery on the ground. Our global programme of Protection Management Workshops with field protection colleagues, about which I have briefed this Committee at previous meetings, regularly brings such obstacles to light.

Security concerns are a serious obstacle in many operations. Refugee-hosting areas are rarely conducive to a secure working environment and quality protection delivery, particularly when these areas involve camps. When refugees are located in areas that are at considerable distances from branch offices, the logistics of access and communications are daunting. Location of camps is often too close to borders, making them vulnerable to military incursions, militarisation and forced recruitment. However, government policy and refugee inclinations rarely support relocation, which is a security threat both for the refugees and for the humanitarian staff assisting and protecting them. Where refugees are competing with local populations for scarce resources in ecologically fragile environments - which is also often the case - this provokes a volatile security environment for protection and can limit what it is possible to achieve. At another level, where protection equates with formal recognition of status and particularly where it carries with it the possibility of a resettlement solution, the incentive for fraud and violence to obtain it climbs quite high. This is also a security issue for staff, constraining their freedom of action and the availability of solutions.

The absence of a supportive environment more generally for protection can be simultaneously a programme challenge and an operational constraint. UNHCR is trying to realise protection in a climate of "asylum fatigue" which has manifested itself over recent years in asylum and protection being less accessible generally and, where it is available, on less and less favourable terms. The triggers are well known and oft repeated. They include the difficult-to-manage asylum/migration mix of problems, the growth of international crime, terrorism and people smuggling and faltering support for asylum systems among civil societies. As a by-product of these developments, the basic tools, including the 1951 Convention are being put into question and, as a result, UNHCR's capacity to advocate for better protection within a strong and predictable framework is being eroded.

The resources gap is a strong impediment to protection delivery. Insufficient funding means UNHCR cannot always count upon an adequate number of appropriately staffed protection and community services posts. This can lead to the delegation of protection-related duties to relatively junior staff and UNVs, lacking the necessary seniority or experience. Some donors have a tendency to fund big operations that attract high media attention. The "CNN-factor" means that smaller, protracted and difficult situations are neglected, if not altogether forgotten, and are often painfully under-resourced. The negative impact on protection can be marked. In a visit to Tanzania in April of this year, I saw how food insecurity, owing to unavailability of sufficient funding for proper food rations, can compound the protection problems anyway faced by refugees. In Kibondo and Ngara camps, food insecurity has contributed to a worrying increase in SGBV, in the form of rape, domestic violence and prostitution. This impact has been confirmed in a number of other countries, where cuts in food rations have additionally led to drop-out from schools, increased child labour and exposure to trafficking. Where refugees have no access to land, limited opportunities for work or trade and are confined to camps, any breaks in the food pipeline, or the delivery of basic services, immediately hits protection.

Limited resources make partnerships in protection all the more important. UNHCR has come to rely more and more heavily on protection through partnering. However, the success of this approach is heavily dependent on the extent to which all partners are prepared to work in a fully collaborative manner. A number of our field offices report some difficulties stemming from operating partners on occasion being unwilling to work jointly and on the basis of UNHCR's overall protection framework. Where objectives or methods are at odds, the coherence of protection suffers. This being said, we do appreciate that partnership is a two-way street!

Further on partnerships, the UN system, and very much UNHCR as a part of it, is committed to the collaborative approach. The implications of this approach for actual protection delivery, though, is not always so clear. Who has the protection mandate to deliver protection, within what framework of responsibilities and ultimate accountability, are key questions to resolve in planning operations. However, the formula for resolving them is still being worked out. This has been an impediment to fully effective protection delivery in some current operations, like Darfur.

Mandate gaps are a problem more generally, outside complex emergencies, for full protection coverage. Displacement, regardless of its causes, will often produce vulnerabilities which are quite similar. Exploitation of women and children, sexually-based violence, human smuggling and trafficking, precipitate return to unreceptive environments, and land and identity issues, go hand in hand with the demands of survival. It is beyond doubt that the need for assistance and protection is not restricted to refugees and asylum-seekers. The situation may be equally acute for a Tsunami victim in Sri Lanka, for a displaced person in the Sudan, or for a victim of trafficking in Eastern Europe. Being destitute, confronting intolerance and fear, being a foreigner in someone else's town or land, searching for a safe haven and having to wait for elusive solutions, these are recurring features of many displacement experiences. Categories and definitions, around which mandates are structured and their limits are set, can sometimes lead to the unfortunate situation of some vulnerable people being helped and other equally vulnerable people being ignored. Mandates are a necessary reality. This should not, though, preclude efforts to ensure greater complementarity between them, just as between the various forms of protection governments may make available to assist the vulnerable. The aim has to be to eliminate protection gaps. This Committee will also have the opportunity, later in the session, to discuss complementary forms of protection on the basis of a paper which has been written from the angle of flagging such gaps and promoting their closure.

What I have described are but some of a number of constraints to the doing of protection on the ground. They resolve down for UNHCR - with DIP having an important response role here - to some key challenges. These are, in short:

  • how to ensure that the resources at the disposal of protection are adequate to the tasks;
  • how to capacitate our managers, who come from many different disciplines, to manage the protection function in all its aspects [operational, practical and legal];
  • how to ensure that the expertise and knowledge of the staff doing protection is commensurate with the responsibilities falling on them;
  • how to minimise the unavoidable security problems inherent in doing protection;
  • how to work within the current operational climate for UNHCR's work, which includes "asylum fatigue";
  • how to realise solutions in an environment of unresolved or rekindling conflicts, protracted stay, uneven burden sharing and limited asylum space.

As the Note illustrates, these are indeed daunting challenges. Resolute implementation of the Agenda for Protection by all concerned has the potential to make a significant contribution. We still do not hear enough from you about what is being done here. We did gratefully receive one new report, from the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, on their implementation activities. I am prompted to ask again, are there other reports coming?

Thank you, Mr Chairman.