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Address before four Commissions of the Mexican Senate by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the Commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, Mexico City, 15 November 2004

Speeches and statements

Address before four Commissions of the Mexican Senate by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the Commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, Mexico City, 15 November 2004

15 November 2004

Mr. President of the Foreign Affairs Commission,
Distinguished Senators,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to address four Commissions[1] of the Senate today. It is indeed a great honour to be here with you, on the occasion of my first official visit to Mexico. I am also delighted to be participating in the commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Cartagena Declaration on the protection of refugees in Latin America, which is being graciously hosted by the Mexican Government.

I consider my visit to the Senate today an opportunity to express, on behalf of the United Nations, our recognition and appreciation of Mexico's long tradition of asylum and refugee protection.

Mexico has a proud history of opening its doors to persons seeking international protection. Since its independence, Mexico has provided protection to important political figures, intellectuals and artists fleeing political repression, as well as social groups seeking shelter from intolerance, persecution and armed conflict. Mexico has provided protection for the persecuted from the Spanish civil war, Germany's Nazi regime, the USA during the McCarthy era, the former Soviet Union, and the dictatorships of the Southern Cone, among many others who found asylum in Mexico throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The protection granted to tens of thousands of Guatemalans and other Central American refugees during the 1980s is perhaps the most striking reflection of Mexico's refugee protection tradition. The naturalization of thousands of Guatemalans through an innovative Migratory Stabilization Programme is an exemplary model for other countries searching for comprehensive solutions to large-scale refugee situations. UNHCR feels privileged to continue to work in partnership with Mexico, to face new and emerging challenges in refugee protection. My Office is grateful for the increasingly active role that Mexico has taken in international fora as well as technical commissions related to refugees. Mexico's active participation within UNHCR's Executive Committee, the intergovernmental body which advises my Office on international refugee policy, is one manifestation of this.

Indeed, the fact that Mexico is hosting the commemorative events taking place this week is a clear indication that Mexico remains a leader and proponent of refugee protection in the Americas today.

Mr. President and distinguished Senators,

I would like to turn my attention to one of the most pressing issues UNHCR faces today. The countries of the Northern Hemisphere, growing more concerned with security, are, in ever-greater numbers, applying restrictive asylum policies which threaten to erode refugee protection. Migratory policies in many countries have also been narrowed with the overriding objective of preventing the flow of undocumented migrants.

UNHCR fully recognizes the right of states to control their borders and regulate the entry of foreigners in their territories. But within the current context, it is increasingly important that states strive to achieve an appropriate balance. It is possible for states to exercise sovereign functions while maintaining space for the protection of human rights of persons moving across borders.

In this area, there have been important advances in the human rights of migrants. The entry into force of the UN Migrant Workers' Convention is a major step forward for the rights and dignity of migrants. Another historic advance was recently made with the opening for signature of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, and the entry into force of the two Palermo Protocols on Smuggling and Trafficking of Human Beings. The combat of migrant smuggling and human trafficking for the purposes of economic and sexual exploitation are issues that transcend migration. The prevention and punishment of modern forms of slavery go to the heart of human rights and human dignity. Refugees too are increasingly the victims of smuggling and trafficking and the means used to put an end to the practice should consider them first as human beings. I would like to strongly commend the Senate for having ratified these important instruments. Despite these advances, migrants still face a hostile environment.

Refugees, of course, leave their countries for different reasons than economic migrants. Even though refugees are fleeing persecution or the effects of armed conflict, they often resort to the same human smuggling channels as undocumented migrants to escape their dire situation. As a result of the increased confusion today between refugees and economic migrants, restrictive migration policies around the world affect refugees, and though UNHCR's mandate does not encompass economic migrants, progress in the area of migrants' rights is therefore important to ensure that bona fide refugees receive the protection they need.

Refugees in the Americas today may not arrive in large, identifiable groups from neighbouring countries in conflict, as in certain periods of the past. They may be present within larger migration movements and are often difficult to identify. But when migration control measures are applied to refugees it undermines the international refugee protection regime: it is essential for us to work together to preserve asylum space in Latin America.

We note with satisfaction that the number of refugees within Latin America has declined as a result of the proliferation of democratic governments in the region. Peace processes have brought an end to a number of internal armed conflicts. Democratic institutions in many Latin American countries remain fragile, however. Poverty, inequality and insecurity threaten democratic governance and human rights in many States.

The region faces new problems which continue to generate population displacement. It is impossible to speak about refugees in Latin America without mentioning the most serious situation, Colombia. The Colombian conflict has created over 2 million internally displaced persons in the past twenty years and tens of thousands of refugees have sought protection outside the country. Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela and Costa Rica continue to bear the largest burden of these refugee flows. The magnitude of displacement generated by the conflict in Colombia reminds us of the urgent need to strengthen the refugee protection regime in Latin America. We must ensure too that responsibilities are shared equitably between the asylum countries.

Faced with this evident need, it is absolutely essential that Mexico continues to maintain an open door for refugees seeking shelter from persecution and armed conflict. Mexico has responded to the needs of Colombian refugees as well as other refugees fleeing persecution and civil conflict, including from countries outside the Americas. Although these refugees are arriving in small numbers today, it is very encouraging that Mexico continues to uphold the same high protection standards as in the past.

The adoption this week of a regional Plan of Action during the Cartagena commemoration will provide a unique opportunity for Latin American countries to renew efforts to address humanitarian needs in the region. It will provide an opportunity to strengthen and modernize the legal framework in each country, and to find pragmatic, durable solutions to refugee problems. In a world where restrictive policies are diluting standards of refugee protection, it is encouraging to see that Latin America remains committed to the core principles of refugee protection, in a spirit of solidarity.

Mr. President and distinguished Senators,

Despite the fact that Mexico had not yet signed the international refugee instruments, refugees in the 1980s and 1990s received protection in your country. The refugee provisions contained in the General Population Law, which include the refugee definition of the Cartagena Declaration, have for many years served as a legal framework for Mexican refugee protection practices.

Mexico's accession to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol in the year 2000 was a key step towards the consolidation of your national refugee protection tradition within the global refugee regime.

I believe that amending the existing legal framework through separate refugee legislation would enable Mexico to harmonize its national legislation with its new commitments under the international refugee instruments. It would also serve to institutionalize best practices in refugee protection - some of which are already being implemented in an ad hoc fashion in Mexico today. This would send a strong and positive signal within the region.

As many of you are undoubtedly aware, UNHCR has been working closely with the Mexican Government through the Mexican Commission on Assistance to Refugees, as well as with a civil society partner Sin Fronteras, to develop a draft legislative project. This initiative aims at strengthening and modernizing Mexico's legal framework for refugee protection. This is of the utmost importance in order for Mexico to meet emerging and future challenges of refugee protection.

It is my hope that, at the appropriate moment, the Senate will find it possible to take this legislative initiative under favourable consideration. UNHCR is fully prepared to cooperate with and support you on the rationale and the contents of this project.

Mr. President and distinguished Senators,

I could not have visited Mexico without paying tribute in this chamber to the contributions that the Senate has made to Mexico's tradition of refugee protection. This contribution is evident in the passage of legislative provisions such as article 42 of the General Population Law, and more recently the ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. The ratification of instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of Migrants and the Palermo Protocols, while improving the framework for the rights of migrants, also create a better environment for the protection of refugees.

With your support and leadership, I am confident that Mexico can face the future challenges of refugee protection with the same spirit and determination as in the past. Mexico can certainly continue to count on the full support of UNHCR in this regard.

I hope my comments will serve as a starting point for our dialogue today. I welcome your comments, and would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.

Thank you. 1 Commissions on Human Rights; Border Issues; Foreign Affairs; and Foreign Affairs/International Organisations.