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133rd Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union
General Debate. Remarks by Volker Türk, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection. Geneva, 19 October 2015

Speeches and statements

133rd Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union
General Debate. Remarks by Volker Türk, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection. Geneva, 19 October 2015

19 October 2015

Mr. Chair, Distinguished Members of Parliament, Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are living in a world in turmoil. One of its most visible manifestations is the magnitude, scope and complexity of today's refugee and displacement challenges, which are part of the broader picture of human mobility. This debate on the "Moral and Economic Imperative for Fairer, Smarter and More Humane Migration" is very timely. Just last month all 193 UN Member States unanimously adopted the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, which makes numerous references to migrants and migration, and promises to 'leave no one behind' on the road to sustainable development.

About 242 million migrants or 3 per cent of the global population reside outside their country of birth. When migration takes place as a matter of genuine choice - rather than desperate necessity - and through safe and legal means, it increases human development potential and benefits host and home societies alike.

As UNHCR, I'd like to focus on the refugee dimension of broader migratory movements by sea and over land, which have recently captured international attention. Today there are over 60 million refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons worldwide, as a result of conflict and persecution. The number of people globally displaced by conflict every single day has nearly quadrupled - from almost 11,000 in 2010 to 42,500 last year.

Over the past months increasing numbers of people are relying on Europe for their protection and survival. Over 591,000 refugees and migrants to date have braved dangerous sea crossings in search of safety in Europe. The majority comes from the top 9 refugee-producing countries, notably Syria. European States bordering the Mediterranean, in the Western Balkans, and elsewhere in Europe are struggling to deal with the influx. The phenomenon is not limited to the Mediterranean and also plays out in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea in South-East Asia, and in the Gulf of Aden, the latter owing to the conflict in Yemen.

Many refugees and migrants fall prey to human smugglers in the absence of opportunities for legal migration and in the face of increasingly restrictive border control measures in regions of origin and transit. Moreover, trafficking in human beings - the modern-day slave trade - is being reported along routes in West Africa, the East and Horn of Africa, as well as during transit through Libya, but also in South-East Asia and other parts of the world.

The European Union has deployed increased naval patrols and robust search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean, saving countless lives. Yet, over 3,000 people have perished or are reported missing at sea in 2015. The rapidly changing scenarios in respect of routes and movements towards western and northern European countries have complicated the responses immensely. Efforts to devise an EU-wide approach, which UNHCR is actively supporting, have proven to be complex with no easy solution in sight.

Security concerns often seem to trump humanitarian and protection concerns, but they are not mutually exclusive. We have seen time and again how giving primacy to a security focus at the expense of protection has failed to bring about the desired results. An effective response cannot come from push-backs, building walls, increasing detention, and further restricting access. This simply diverts refugee and migrant movements along other routes, aggravates their situation, and contributes to the flourishing business of smugglers and traffickers.

Restrictive measures compel more people who have nothing left to lose, to risk dangerous journeys in the hope of finding safety and stability. The logic of exclusion also reinforces the perception of refugees as a burden and a threat, although more and more studies indicate that host societies actually benefit tremendously from their presence and contributions when the right policies and approaches are adopted.

In recent months we have been heartened to see the spontaneous groundswell of solidarity and generosity from civil society organizations, faith-based organizations, political and opinion leaders, indeed entire communities, as well as families and individuals, and the poignant scenes of welcome. They were instrumental, in many cases, in driving changes in policies and rhetoric.

Yet the single-most important challenge to the protection of refugees, as well as to reaping the development potential of migration more broadly comes from populist politics and uninformed public debates. They engender a climate of fear. In some countries there has been a proliferation of xenophobic and Islamophobic narratives, hate speech, fear-mongering, and inflammatory statements - both at the political and civil society levels. In some instances this has even led to arson or other violent attacks directed against refugees as well as migrants.

We have also noted with concern that the terms "refugee" and "migrant" have in many instances been used interchangeably in the media and public discourse. The two terms have different meanings, and conflating them has serious consequences for the lives and safety of refugees. Both migrants and refugees are protected under international human rights law, but the failure to mention refugees specifically is a failure to recognise their unique predicament - their lack of national protection, the risks they face should they return to their home countries, and our obligations to protect them under a legal framework crafted specifically for them. This can undermine public support for the institution of asylum at a time when more refugees need such protection than ever before.

Preserving the institution of asylum is critical. Asylum is literally life-saving, and has ensured the survival of millions of people for decades. This is not to say that the problems and challenges of today's large-scale mixed migration movements are not real, particularly in relation to adequate shelter, reception, security concerns, as well as burden- and responsibility-sharing. However, the situation is manageable and needs to be addressed in a manner that is consistent with obligations under international law to protect asylum-seekers and refugees.

All of this suggests that the more fundamental crisis that we are facing today is perhaps one of values - the same values that we had sworn never to forget after the atrocities of the Second World War and that are embodied in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

You, as parliamentarians, are the elected representatives of your constituencies. In today's interdependent and globalized world, the 'local' level resonates as never before with the 'global' and vice-versa. One the most vivid examples is when refugees fleeing war and persecution arrive in your constituencies seeking safety and protection. This bridges the local and the global. The best way to address these issues is by reaffirming and honouring our fundamental values and shared humanity.

Thank you.