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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the One World Media Awards, London, 13 June 2002

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the One World Media Awards, London, 13 June 2002

13 June 2002

(Check against delivery)

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I'm delighted to join you tonight in honouring one of the world's great media institutions, the BBC World Service. In my 18 months as High Commissioner, I've gained a whole new appreciation for the global reach of the BBC. I can't go anywhere - and I go to some pretty rough places - without finding a BBC correspondent already there. And on those rare occasions when I do manage to arrive first, I invariably get a phone call from Bush House wanting to know where I am and what I'm doing. There's simply no escaping the BBC.

Right now, in some of the most remote and difficult places on earth, UNHCR staff are listening to the BBC World Service. So are many of the 20 million refugees and others we care for in over 100 countries. They trust the BBC. That's one reason we work so closely with the BBC on a variety of projects. These range from the BBC World Service Trust's "lifeline" programmes broadcasting humanitarian information to refugees, to a recent series on asylum. Titled the "Road to Refuge," the series traces the refugee journey from home into exile and asks why they flee, where do they go, how do they get there, how are they treated, and how can they can be helped?

Those are some very good questions and there are no easy answers. But one thing is certain: UNHCR is part of the solution.

As the BBC series notes, the road to refuge can be long and difficult. To understand it and those who travel it, we need to approach it in its entirety - from the point of departure in regions of origin; through the countries it traverses; right up to the end.

Thousands of people are on the road right now. Many are refugees and need protection. Many more are not, travelling mainly for economic or other reasons. Although the great majority of refugees only flee as far as neighbouring states - most often poor nations that can least afford to care for them - some move onwards, transiting several countries before claiming asylum in Europe or elsewhere.

Europe's efforts to manage this complicated mix of migrants and refugees is causing major headaches for governments and making daily headlines. As you know, Prime Minister Blair helped convince President Aznar to place illegal migration atop the agenda for next week's Sevilla summit. And rightly so. More and more Europeans are concerned - sometimes even angry - over what they perceive to be weak policies in handling illegal migration. Something needs to be done.

I want to tell all Europeans that UNHCR is part of the solution. In fact, I have made recommendations to President Aznar for consideration in Sevilla - concrete suggestions on how UNHCR can help the EU to find effective solutions here in Europe, further afield and especially in the countries and regions where refugees originate.

What's effective in Europe? Some think European borders can simply be sealed. Forget it - a globalised world doesn't work that way. Trying to seal borders will be no more effective now than it was 70 years ago when prohibition failed to stop liquor flowing into the United States. Today's human smugglers are smart. Close one route and they'll open another.

To be effective, we need some strict and workable policies to help sort the migrants from those who need asylum. One measure sought by EU countries is better policing, especially on their periphery. I have no problem with strengthening Europe's outer borders, provided that refugees arriving here still have access to a just and fair asylum procedure. The last thing any of us want to see is a refugee sent back to imprisonment, torture or death under a dictatorial regime. Even one such case would be one too many. So if we're going to be more strict in policing our borders, we need to do it properly with highly trained staff. Here, UNHCR can be part of the solution by providing the necessary training in EU countries and beyond.

Along with stricter controls, Europe needs legal channels of entry, including refugee resettlement schemes. For migrants, it means a managed system controlled by governments under a set of EU-wide immigration policies. This makes sense in a lot of ways. With its ageing population, Europe's labour needs are growing. Managed migration is a logical way to help satisfy those needs, while providing a safe and legal channel that can help break the grip of smuggling networks.

In the case of the asylum channel, there are already complex national systems, but they are badly in need of harmonization. The current EU harmonization process, if well carried out, would solve a lot of our problems. Harmonize reception standards, procedures and definitions across Europe and we remove many of the reasons people keep shifting from one country to the next in search of better treatment. Indeed, we have to stop "asylum shopping." UNHCR is providing advice throughout this crucial process. Here, too, we are part of the solution. Governments should use us.

Some European states need to speed up their asylum systems. I am all for streamlining the system and for simplifying appeals processes - as long as the quality of the refugee determination procedure is fair. Be strict, but be just and fair as well.

A fast, fair and efficient EU asylum system will benefit all of us, including refugees. It will make integration of refugees into host societies a great deal easier, while non-refugees could be removed from the system more quickly. If the quality of the decision-making process remains high, I have no problem with governments deporting failed asylum-seekers as long as their needs have been properly assessed. Indeed, the fundamental credibility of the asylum system depends on it. UNHCR is ready to take a more active role in helping with the return of non-refugees to their countries of origin.

Those are some of the ways UNHCR can be part of the solution in Europe. What about elsewhere? One of UNHCR's greatest advantages is its field presence - 5,000 staff in 120 countries, from Albania to Zambia. It's in the field, where refugees originate, that real solutions begin. If UNHCR's field work gets the support it needs, we'll see fewer people on the move. Without it, desperate people will continue to take desperate measures. This includes resorting to human smugglers, fuelling crime. We shouldn't forget this is a security issue as well. Here again, UNHCR is part of the solution.

Unfortunately, governments don't seem to get it. As someone with a fair amount of political experience, I know that taxpayers want rational, cost-effective programmes. So I really wonder how governments can justify spending millions on reinforcing borders, on all kinds of deterrence measures, on custody and detention centres, on all of these costly domestic approaches, yet they refuse to invest in tackling the problem at source, where solutions should begin. This is really irrational. UNHCR is out there right now, alongside the refugees and the displaced. Use us. Helping refugees there is a lot cheaper than it is here. I may be biased, but I think every European taxpayer should insist on a well-funded UNHCR, because we can offer real solutions that allow people to go home, or at least to stay as close to home as possible.

The sad truth is, however, we're not getting the support we need - including from Europe. If we were, perhaps Europe wouldn't be facing some of these problems. How can I say this? Let's look at Afghanistan, where UNHCR has worked for more than 20 years.

For much the past decade, UNHCR struggled to find solutions for millions of Afghans, largely out of sight and out of mind of the rest of the world. Except for the BBC, of course - they were always there. We saw five years of disastrous Taliban rule. We saw the international community lose interest, funding for refugee programmes plummet, local economies decline, a prolonged drought settle over the region, and the welcome mat wear thin in neighbouring asylum states. In desperation, tens of thousands of Afghans left. If we couldn't offer protection, assistance and solutions in the region, they'd try to find help elsewhere. Last year, Afghans were the largest single group of asylum applicants in Europe - some 51,100.

Today, Afghanistan is on the mend; people are going back so rapidly that we have increased our projections for refugee returns this year from 1.25 million to 2 million. Since March 1, UNHCR has helped nearly a million Afghans go home, out of a total refugee population of more than 3.5 million.

The road to refuge is fast becoming the road to return - and the effects are being felt all the way to Europe. Today, we issued new asylum statistics for the first quarter of 2002. They showed that in Europe as a whole, there was an overall drop of just under 10 percent in asylum applications, compared with the previous quarter. Most striking was a sharp plunge in Afghans seeking asylum - down 33 percent across Europe as a whole, and 24 percent within the EU.

Our return and reintegration work for Afghans clearly shows results, shows how UNHCR is part of the solution. But we're worried. This month we passed one million returns and are probably on the way to 2 million for the year, but we're still $86 million short of our budget needs of $271 million for the region. We've already cut the shelter package we provide to those who need to rebuild and WFP is running out of food for returnees. IOM has had to cease its transport and some other crucial work. All of this work contributes to the security and stability in Afghanistan. Without it, Afghans may once again conclude they've been abandoned. Then we could see that graph of Afghans arriving in Europe start to go up once more.

I cannot imagine that Europe, that those leaders meeting in Sevilla seven days from now, will turn their backs on the millions of Afghans who have suffered for so long and who now, finally, see a future for their families. Do we really want to say "no" to the Afghan women - including my own staff - who've spent the past five years hiding in their homes? To the children who have grown up in refugee camps and have finally seen their homeland for the first time? I don't think so. I am asking those meeting in Sevilla next week to provide us with the 100 million Euro we need now to do our work. UNHCR is part of the solution - work with us, support us. You and your citizens - who are demanding solutions - will see the results.

And it's not just in Afghanistan that we face these problems. In Africa and elsewhere, humanitarian agencies are chronically short of funds, causing hardship for refugees and the poor nations that host them. Development aid is also lacking there. No wonder that people decide to move on. In Monterrey, more development assistance was promised, but part of it should be focused on countries where refugees originate and in countries of first asylum. That is the way to prevent outflows from those regions, which means fewer people coming to Europe. Perhaps if countries in the region received more aid, donors would not need to threaten to withhold it from those who are not taking back asylum seekers.

What else can we do in regions of origin, particularly for those who cannot go home and who may languish for years as refugees? Here again, UNHCR is part of the solution - either by integrating refugees in the country of first asylum or, if that is not possible, by resettling them to third countries. Both resettlement and integration enable refugees to become socially valuable and economically productive citizens. Without the promise of such solutions, people go on the move. So again, we need support to do this work effectively.

If refugees do decide to move outside the region - for whatever reason - what then? Here again, UNHCR can offer solutions. For one, we can broaden the range of countries properly equipped to deal with refugees by helping them build or improve their asylum systems. Many countries between Europe and the world's refugee crisis points have little or no capacity to help asylum seekers. If such structures are not available in those countries, asylum seekers will keep moving.

UNHCR has already done much work in building this capacity, particularly in Central Europe. And it's beginning to work. Last year, 47,000 asylum applications were lodged in Central European countries, compared to an average of some 4,000 annually in the first half of the 1990s. So it is possible that this increased asylum capacity in Central Europe may already have helped diminish pressure on the EU by about 10 percent. Still, much needs to be done and it will take a joint effort by UNHCR, the individual states and the European Union.

As part of the solution, we're ready to do our share in this and in all of the other areas I've just listed - from training border authorities and supporting harmonization in the EU, to building asylum systems in third states and promoting repatriation, integration and resettlement in regions of origin. We can deliver solutions, but we need your help.

I am pleased that many of these crucial issues figure so prominently tonight among the One World Media Award winners and finalists. UNHCR and the world's millions of dispossessed thank all of you who work so hard to tell the real refugee story, in all of its complexity. Over the years, few have told that story better or more consistently than the BBC. That is why I take great pleasure in being here to present the special One World Media Award to the BBC World Service for its seven decades of outstanding broadcasting. Again, my heartiest congratulations to all of you.

Thank you.