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UNHCR chief praises achievements of US refugee programme, calls for continued reform


UNHCR chief praises achievements of US refugee programme, calls for continued reform

Marking the 30th anniversary of key US refugee legislation, High Commissioner Guterres hails successes while urging new strategies
17 March 2010 Also available in:
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres hails US refugee law during an address at Georgetown University.

WASHINGTON, DC, United States, March 16 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has praised US refugee and asylum policies, citing the almost half-a-million people granted asylum and the more than 2 million refugees resettled to the United States since 1980.

Speaking at an event commemorating the 30th anniversary of the United States' Refugee Act, held at Georgetown University Law School and sponsored by Human Rights First, Guterres said the core concept of the legislation was to provide protection to the persecuted, one sustained by the American tradition of "support and concern for the displaced."

The Refugee Act of 1980 established the United States' asylum and resettlement systems. It also established the significant role that the United States plays in refugee protection and assistance abroad, by authorizing the annual expenditure of US funding to support such programmes. The legislation was introduced and championed by the late Senator Edward Kennedy, who in 2009 was posthumously awarded UNHCR's highest honour, the Nansen Refugee Award.

Guterres said that each of the millions of refugees who have been welcomed to the United States brings "an enduring gratitude for the hope which has been restored and for the capacity to contribute to the community in which they lives."

While praising the achievements of the Refugee Act, Guterres also highlighted areas where the protection of refugees in the US could be improved. Pointing to the policy of holding most asylum-seekers in detention centres while their claims are processed, the High Commissioner said more use could be made of alternatives to detention, and that the places used for detention "could be made less remote and prison-like."

He highlighted new parole guidelines for asylum-seekers issued recently by the Department for Homeland Security, which he said "better balance security interests with the needs of people fleeing persecution who should not be detained".

Conflict and displacement around the world have become more complex, Guterres told the Georgetown University audience. "These are challenging times for refugees, asylum-seekers and the internally displaced," he said, pointing to a wave of involuntary returns of asylum-seekers in the Mediterranean, the Horn of Africa and South-east Asia.

Faced with a proliferation of bad practice, Guterres said, the Refugee Act's commitment to the principal of refugee protection takes on greater meaning.

Tim Irwin in Washington, DC, United States