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Introductory remarks by Mrs. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, at the Global Consultations on International Protection Fourth Meeting within the Third Track (Geneva, Palais des Nations, 22 May 2002)

Speeches and statements

Introductory remarks by Mrs. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, at the Global Consultations on International Protection Fourth Meeting within the Third Track (Geneva, Palais des Nations, 22 May 2002)

22 May 2002

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Thank you, Jimmy, for your introduction. Let me join the Assistant High Commissioner in wishing you much success in chairing these consultations. As with your predecessor, we will rely on your wisdom and good humour to help us get through the heavy agenda before us.

Global Consultations on International Protection

As the Assistant High Commissioner mentioned, the Global Consultations process needs, I hope, no further introduction as to its aims and its progress to date. As some of you know, informal consultations have already begun, within the Standing Committee framework, on the first draft of the Agenda for Protection deriving from the process. The Declaration of States Parties adopted at last year's Ministerial Meeting recognized the enduring relevance and importance of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol, unequivocally reaffirmed political commitment to upholding the values and principles they embody, and urged all States to strengthen their implementation. The Declaration serves as the framework for the Agenda for Protection. The Agenda will be further developed to take into account the conclusions and recommendations coming out of this meeting.

Ownership of the Agenda for Protection does not lie solely with UNHCR. It is intended as a guide to action by UNHCR, together with States, NGOs and other partners, in strengthening refugee protection during the years ahead. I also want to emphasize that the Agenda for Protection is a forward-looking document - it is not about maintaining the status quo or recapitulating problems and actions in train. Follow-up has, in fact, begun. An Executive Committee Conclusion on Registration was adopted last year, our Working Group on Asylum and Migration (AGAMI) with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is already meeting, and an extraordinary meeting of the Working Group on Resettlement has met to consider resettlement criteria in the context of mass influx. During the next three days, we will look to you for clear recommendations for action that will round out the Agenda on the remaining themes for this consultative process.

I will make a short presentation on the Agenda for Protection tomorrow at 2 p.m., in a venue that has been communicated to you by the Secretariat.

Format of our discussions

Turning to the themes of today's meeting, each of the background papers will be introduced separately, so I will not go into too much detail on their substance. It is, though, useful at this point to set them into the overall Global Consultations context. The themes are protection-based solutions, and the protection of refugee women and refugee children. There are five separate papers to be considered variously under these themes. Each theme might well merit a three-day meeting in itself. This was, though, impractical - both because of the cost involved and your own wishes. Delegations made it clear to us that their capacity to resource more than this meeting was limited and would be unacceptably stretched were there to be separate sets of discussions, plus the Standing Committee in June.

We were comfortable with a three-day meeting in light of the fact that relevant issues have already come up, on occasion in some detail, at earlier third track meetings. Issues relating to security of women and children, their protection in mass influx situations, the handling of claims of women and of children in the context of individual procedures, or protection dilemmas for both groups associated with human smuggling have already figured in UNHCR background material, meeting discussions and conclusions. On a similar note, the resettlement solution, for example, has featured in background material and discussions on burden-sharing and on protection in mass influx.

In addition, particularly as regards women and children, but also resettlement, there have been meetings both in the framework of the Global Consultations process specifically, but also complementary to the process, which have been held over the last 15 months. I have in mind, to name just a few, the meeting on children affected by armed conflict and forced displacement, held in Norrköping (Sweden) in March of last year; the Nordic regional resettlement meeting focusing on resettlement as a multi-faceted protection tool and its relationships to migration, held in Oslo (Norway) in November of last year; the international expert seminar on improving the security of refugee and displaced women, held in Oslo (Norway) at the end of January; as well as the extensive local and regional consultations with refugee women, which culminated in last June's Dialogue with Refugee Women.

I think it is also important to recall that there are certain cross-cutting issues of the Global Consultations which have, too, benefited from particular reflection, but which will come up again at this meeting and, hopefully, will do so in a manner which takes due account of the earlier discussion. I have in mind, for example, the issue of burden sharing, discussed in March of last year, and again in September, when we examined strengthening protection capacities in host countries. It was also the subject of the regional meeting in Cairo in July of last year. Delegations are encouraged to pick up the theme where we left it in our discussions last year and to build upon suggestions currently in the Agenda for Protection, in order to take that document forward, rather than going back to where we began our analysis last year.

The Search for Protection-Based Solutions

Regarding durable solutions, as the background papers on each of the three solutions makes clear, UNHCR is concerned about the protracted nature of many refugee situations; the unavailability of timely or safe solutions; the need to have a more coherent approach to the search for solutions which integrates more directly, voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement as part of the one comprehensive approach; and the necessity to find interim responses between the emergency relief and protection phase, and the realisation of solutions which resolve the problem and which last. On this last point, self-sufficiency for refugees, short of local integration or reintegration at home or in third countries, is an important step that would benefit from careful reflection.

While voluntary repatriation will continue to be the durable solution sought and attained by the largest number of refugees, a comprehensive approach to durable solutions must bring all solutions into play. The availability to refugees of the full range of durable solutions is - first and foremost - a matter of political will. But it is also a question of maximizing their synergies and, hence, their impact. For example, Mexico is completing the process of local integration of Guatemalan refugees, including through naturalization and the grant of land, following the repatriation of over 40,000 refugees. A number of recent programmes, from those for Bosnian refugees in the mid-1990s to those for Afghan refugees today, have demonstrated that the three solutions are complementary in nature and can indeed function simultaneously

Neither UNHCR's Statute nor any other international instrument relating to refugees indicates that durable solutions must have an inherent hierarchy. It is the situation on the ground - of the refugees, of the host States, of the country of origin - together with the framework and level of international support for the operation, which will be instrumental in determining priorities. A priori assumptions about a hierarchy of durable solutions often neglect political realities, and ignore either, or both, the international legal framework and the operational exigencies.

One case in point is local integration. When the international refugee protection regime was established over 50 years ago, the international community recognized the potential for certain refugee problems to be resolved by means of local integration. In practice, however, local integration can be difficult to realize for a range of both practical and political reasons. Whether in developed countries with well established asylum systems or in host countries in the developing world or with economies in transition, key factors include a preference for temporary protection in mass influx situations, in the expectation of return as soon as it is safe to do so, or the portrayal by many host States of voluntary repatriation as the sole solution to be pursued - with the resulting discouragement of self-reliance. This approach leaves many refugees, particularly those in camp settings, caught in protracted refugee situations and, in effect, condemns them to a state of material dependency.

Fully mindful of the sensitivities here and of the burden-sharing dimension of the discussions, the background paper is, nevertheless, a plea for "rejuvenation" or rehabilitation of local integration as a component part of any comprehensive durable solutions strategy.

The paper is also predicated on the belief that promoting self-reliance and reducing the need for external support is in the interests of refugees, host States and the international community generally, whatever the durable solution may ultimately be. Self-reliance does not presuppose that refugees will find a durable solution in the country of origin. Self-reliance does, though, contribute to the realization of durable solutions at a later stage, since self-reliant refugees have acquired skills and experience that they will be able to put to good use wherever they are. In short, Mr. Chairman, a key message today is that a comprehensive durable solutions strategy will need to recognize the proper place both of local integration and of self-reliance in resolving protracted refugee situations.

At informal consultations with African ministers convened by UNHCR in December of last year, UNHCR's Regional Bureau for Africa sought to engage States on potential new approaches to refugee situations in Africa, with a focus on self-reliance strategies and the resolution of protracted refugee situations. An annex to the background paper on local integration summarizes certain more relevant proposals put to the informal consultations with African ministers. They might also provide an interesting starting point for consideration of this matter in other regions where similar strategies and self-reliance are warranted. I am very pleased that David Lambo, Director of UNHCR's Regional Bureau for Africa, will join us for this discussion.

In April of this year, the High Commissioner constituted an Informal Consultative Group on Durable Solutions. The group serves as a think tank for ideas and initiatives relating to durable solutions and self reliance projects for refugees and returnees, and is charged with strengthening or developing partnerships on this issue with external collaborators, including UN agencies, NGOs, donors and refugee-hosting countries.

Mr. Chairman, just as with local integration, we must also give resettlement more place in comprehensive durable solutions strategies for refugees - despite heightened security-related restrictions on refugee admissions in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the vulnerability of the resettlement process to some abuse. The Nordic Regional Resettlement Meeting on "Resettlement as a Multi-faceted Protection Tool and its Relationships to Migration", kindly co-hosted by the Norwegian Government in November of last year, furnished valuable conclusions and recommendations for our discussions on resettlement. These will be presented in greater detail when we reach that point of our agenda.

The background paper for today's meeting examines the role of resettlement in the modern refugee context, and suggests ways to expand the scope and impact of resettlement as a protection mechanism in the individual case, but also as a durable solution and as a burden-sharing mechanism. In addition, there are complementary benefits of resettlement, including the impact it can have on attitude and practice with regard to asylum policy in countries of first refuge, and on asylum systems in new resettlement countries. Resettled refugees enrich the host countries with the skills and resources that they can bring. Finally, resettlement may help to reduce, to some extent, onward or secondary movements of refugees.

The discussion on realization of this solution takes place, of course, against the background of certain specific, "high profile" difficulties confronting UNHCR in particular field operations. There is a level of fraud and abuse in certain resettlement programmes. This problem has been discussed on a number of recent occasions, and you have been kept well briefed of developments and our responses. UNHCR set in train an extensive examination of the scope of the problem and, indeed, has already put in place measures to redress the situation and to improve management controls and accountability. Measures include instructions to all UNHCR staff on the management of protection activities, a review of the chapters of the Resettlement Handbook to include guidelines on management controls and on universally applicable standard operating procedures, with built-in control mechanisms and clear lines of responsibility. Tailored training modules for regional protection workshops and for a Resettlement and Refugee Status Determination Learning Programme are being developed, with components on accountability. Given that collective analysis of the problem, identification of appropriate responses and their implementation is already well advanced, we have not deemed it necessary to provide this information again in the background note on resettlement.

Before turning to voluntary repatriation, let me sound a word of caution, as does the background document, about resort to resettlement as a migration-management tool. Efforts either to limit, or to expand, labour migration are having an impact on resettlement. UNHCR sees no difficulty if countries wish to create new migratory categories - but not as resettlement under another guise. Pursuing migration options should not be to the detriment of resettlement as a tool of international protection and as a durable solution. This danger would benefit from some reflection at this meeting.

Moving to voluntary repatriation, the background paper provides a salutary reminder of the fact that this solution, while clearly the preferred one, is most feasible within a quite structured framework, but may have to be pursued even absent certain elements of this structure. Obviously, voluntariness remains the pre-requisite. The line, though, between voluntary choice and lack of alternative options can be a fine one, necessitating a clearer understanding than hitherto of concepts like return in safety. The focus of the paper is on pre-requisites for the voluntary repatriation solution to constitute a durable one, including access to property. Obstacles in this regard beset many of our operations, and are a seriously constraining factor to return and proper reintegration. Especially in view of the increasing importance of property issues in the context of repatriation, we hope that the guidance contained in the Annex can find its form in an Executive Committee Conclusion addressing legal safety issues generally and property concerns more specifically.

The paper also suggests taking a fresh look at some of the forgotten refugee situations, to see what can be done to unblock them. In some situations, there may indeed be the necessary political will to address obstacles to return and to pave the way for voluntary repatriation. We need collectively to take stock of such situations, with a view to designing appropriate strategies to address them.

Protection of Refugee Women and Refugee Children

Mr. Chairman, turning to the protection of refugee women and refugee children, the notes were prepared against the backdrop of already considerable examination of the problems. The problems do not suffer from a dearth of written analysis, nor do they suffer from a lack of guidelines. Protection on the ground is more the victim of a lack of capacity to implement the guidelines and, to some extent, of lapses in commitment on the part of all actors to translate systematically the theory into practice and at all stages of the response to a refugee outflow.

It is my conviction that the doing of protection is what we should be concentrating on at this point - less so on identification of the problems. UNHCR is a principal "doer" in this regard. So, too, however, are the agencies that work with us, or beside us. So too, and very directly, are the governments who host refugees, who receive them back or who support, financially or otherwise, the necessary programmes. The Global Consultations discussions offer an opportunity for each actor to reflect on how and where its own role can be enhanced, even while, at the same time, reflection is called for on how we can pull together better as an international community committed to better protection of women and children.

There have been some notable failures in this regard over recent times. Perhaps not only over recent times, even if they have recently come to light. Sexual exploitation of children in refugee camps in West Africa is one such sobering example. There are issues here of response and accountability that have to be addressed - indeed are being addressed - just as procedures have to be put urgently in place to forestall the possibility of reoccurrence, be it where the problems have manifested themselves, or elsewhere for that matter. This, of course, is not a West Africa-specific problem. I do not intend to dwell on this issue specifically, just as our papers do not. This is because, in other meetings, you are regularly being updated on what is already in hand, or ongoing, both inside UNHCR and outside, within the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and through the Office of Internal Oversight Services in New York, to respond to problems of sexual exploitation. Background material in this regard is available to all participants and you may wish, as the discussion proceeds, to indicate to what extent you would like the Agenda for Protection to reflect action to be undertaken, bearing in mind that the Agenda is forward-looking, not descriptive of activities under way.

It is important, though, that the issue of sexual exploitation not be allowed to dominate discussion at this meeting to the point that other pressing protection concerns, which are not currently benefiting from such intense scrutiny, recede into the background of our analyses and recommendations. We had this firmly in mind when drafting the background documents, which endeavour to give some prominence to issues still awaiting the necessary careful reflection and identification of follow-up action.

As regards the paper on refugee women, it advocates targeted and concrete action. Protection difficulties for women will most likely re-occur. Their consequences can, though, be anticipated and mitigated and their re-occurrence minimized. Clearly, the protection of refugee women requires a two-pronged approach: gender equality mainstreaming and targeted, specific action.

But, of course, the first step is to listen to refugee women themselves, to analyze the problems with them and to identify with them a set of general recommendations and commitments. This was the purpose of last June's Dialogue with Refugee Women, the culmination of a process involving 500 refugee women in more than 20 local and regional consultations. Following the Dialogue, the High Commissioner committed UNHCR to implementing measures that would practically and immediately improve protection for refugee women. They included:

  • to ensure women's participation in all refugee management and leadership committees in urban, rural and camp settings;
  • individual registration and documentation of male and female refugees;
  • integrated country-level strategies to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence;
  • encouragement to women to participate directly in managing and distributing food and non-food items; and
  • provision of sanitary materials to all women and girls in all UNHCR assistance programmes.

Specific measures to improve the safety of refugee women were also looked at during an international expert seminar on Improving the Security of Refugee and Displaced Women held in Oslo, Norway, at the end of January of this year. The meeting provided, in part, a valuable opportunity to develop further concerns about trafficked women and linkages between their plight and asylum and refugee protection situations. I hope this issue, among others, will get the attention it deserves at this meeting. I would like to mention here that UNHCR has just released guidelines on the interpretation of "membership of a particular social group" and on gender-related persecution. They are issued as part of a series of Guidelines on International Protection and as a direct follow-up to the Second Track of the Global Consultations. They are available at the back of the room.

In short, the background paper puts forward additional concrete recommendations, designed to complement - not to revisit or restate - the proposals of the earlier meetings, on the five more salient protection concerns facing refugee women today: safety and security; equal access to humanitarian assistance; registration and documentation; gender-sensitive application of refugee laws and procedures; and trafficking in women and girls.

Like refugee women, refugee children have been the subject of many valuable guidelines and standards to ensure their protection and care, but inadequate implementation has, on occasion, rendered these guidelines ineffectual. A recent independent evaluation of the impact of UNHCR's activities in meeting the rights and protection needs of refugee children concluded that, in practice, refugee children are all too often overlooked or considered on the sidelines of core protection and assistance work.

The background paper therefore proposes core follow-up actions relating to the six most significant and sometimes inter-related protection concerns facing refugee children today: separation; sexual exploitation, abuse and violence; military recruitment; education; detention; and registration and documentation. These concerns broadly reflect the outcomes of the Second World Congress on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, held in Yokohama in December of last year, and are consistent with the recently concluded UN Special Session of the General Assembly on Children. Here again, we look forward to your guidance as to if and where these recommendations might find their place in the Agenda for Protection.


In closing, Mr. Chairman, I wish to highlight the crucial importance of resources to help us implement the plethora of principles and standards. It is no secret that a key factor in ensuring better protection for refugees - especially refugee women and children - is greater financial support for host countries, UNHCR and its humanitarian partners. Linked to this is the fact that the standards for assistance and protection have dropped to unacceptable levels in certain regions, particularly in Africa, not least because of recurring budget cuts over the years. We will simply not be able adequately to address protracted refugee situations or to meet the assistance and protection needs of women and children within the refugee populations without a strong mix of political will and financial support.