Ancient principles inform current laws, UNHCR chief tells gathering on Muslim refugees

UNHCR urges member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to take long-standing principles of providing asylum and enshrine them in legislation.

The UN refugee chief, António Guterres (right), flanked by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan, delivers his opening remarks to the OIC conference.   © UNHCR

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan, May 11 (UNHCR) - Citing parallels between Islamic teachings and current refugee law, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, has urged member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to take long-standing principles of providing asylum and enshrine them in national legislation.

The UN refugee chief was speaking at the start of a two-day conference organized jointly by the OIC and UNHCR. The conference, which is being hosted by the government of Turkmenistan in the capital Ashgabat, is the first ministerial meeting to deal specifically with the issue of refugees in the Muslim world.

"Islamic law and traditions embrace the principle of providing protection to those who seek asylum," Guterres told delegates representing the 57 OIC member states as well as non-members, NGOs and international organizations. "It also forbids the forced return of those asylum seekers. Both of these principles are cornerstones of international refugee law."

He urged those OIC countries that have not already done so to accede to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

Pointing to conflicts affecting OIC member states in North Africa, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and along the Sudan-South Sudan border, the High Commissioner called on delegates to work together to address "the needs of those UNHCR was created to serve."

In 2011, he said 50 per cent of those of concern to the UN refugee agency were hosted in OIC member states. That amounted to more than 17 million people, comprising refugees, asylum-seekers, returnees, internally displaced people and the stateless.

The conference, opened by Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, is aimed at highlighting the continued generous hospitality and assistance extended by OIC member states to refugees and asylum-seekers, many of whom have been hosted in large numbers over a long period of time.

Addressing the Afghan refugee situation, now more than 30 years old, Guterres pointed to a regional solutions strategy agreed between the Islamic republics of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan and UNHCR, as a recent success. That strategy received international endorsement at a conference in Geneva on May 2 and 3.

"Just as Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan are forging a common vision and approach, there are other opportunities for a structured dialogue to promote solutions in other protracted refugee situations in the Muslim world," Guterres said.

In recognition of the connection between Islamic teachings and international refugee law, UNHCR has collaborated with Islamic scholars to prepare the second edition of a book entitled, "The Right to Asylum in Islam and Contemporary International Refugee Law." It will be launched here on Saturday.

By Tim Irwin in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan