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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Vienna, 8 April 2003

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Vienna, 8 April 2003

8 April 2003
OSCERecent developments relating to the situation in IraqPositive developments in AfghanistanPhasing down UNHCR's operations in Southeastern EuropeRecent developments in the CaucasusStatelessness"Convention Plus"Human smuggling and trafficking

(Check against delivery)

Mr. Chairman,

Secretary-General Kubis,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here with you today. I am grateful to Ambassador De Visser for inviting me, and I would like to express my appreciation to the Secretary-General, Ambassador Kubis, for his continued commitment to strengthening the partnership between our two organizations. My Office continues to work closely with the OSCE on issues related to forced displacement, including prevention, protection and the search for solutions. We also co-operate closely on statelessness and citizenship issues, as well as on the situation of minorities.

Recent developments relating to the situation in Iraq

Let me begin with a few words on Iraq. Although Iraq lies outside the OSCE area of operations, when we consider the refugee dimension it is clear that the situation there affects many countries in the OSCE area. Indeed, Iraqis today represent the largest group of asylum seekers in the industrialized world. Even before the war in Iraq began, there were already some 400,000 recognized Iraqi refugees in more than 90 countries around the world, as well as many more Iraqis in refugee-like situations in neighbouring countries. In addition, in the last three years alone, some 150,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in various countries - a sad testimony to the state of their country.

I hope that the current war will not lead to another major refugee crisis, as did the 1991 Gulf war. On that occasion, more than two million people fled their homes. So far, this time there have been only a handful of refugees; though within Iraq itself - particularly in the North - large numbers of people have moved from urban centres to the countryside. If there is a large-scale refugee crisis, we are ready to respond. Our current emergency preparedness level, together with our partners, is for up to 600,000 refugees. It is true that there are not yet many refugees, but experience has taught us that they may still come.

Last month I called for a complete ban on forced returns of Iraqi asylum seekers to any part of Iraq, for an initial period of three months. In view of the current situation in Iraq, and the large number of Iraqi asylum-seekers whose claims are still pending, I have also advised that decisions on asylum claims by Iraqi nationals be suspended until further notice. This recommendation does not preclude the granting of refugee status by countries that wish to do so. Where decisions are frozen, the individual asylum seekers concerned should in our view be granted a temporary form of protection, for an initial period of three months. Depending on the numbers present and arriving in European Union countries, my Office will also keep under active consideration a possible proposal to the Commission and Member States to activate the Directive on temporary protection of July 2001.

Once the situation in Iraq stabilizes, my Office will seize the opportunity to facilitate the repatriation of all those wishing for this - be they refugees or asylum seekers whose applications are still pending. I hope that the time will come, in the not too distant future, when Iraqis are able to return to a stable and secure country, where they are able to live with dignity and with full respect for their human rights.

Positive developments in Afghanistan

Another country which lies outside the OSCE area, but which is still of relevance when considering the refugee dimension, is Afghanistan - which produced millions of refugees during the 1980s and 1990s, and which by 2001 was producing the largest number of asylum-seekers in the industrialized world.

For much of the last decade, UNHCR struggled to find solutions for millions of Afghans, while the international community gradually lost interest. We saw humanitarian programmes suffer as funding decreased, and neighbouring asylum countries grew tired of welcoming refugees. In desperation, many Afghans left the region in search of a future in other parts of the world. They had made a simple choice. Since they could not find adequate protection, assistance and solutions in the region, they set off to find help elsewhere.

It was not until last year that the international community was finally forced to turn its attention to Afghanistan, and today the country is on the mend. More than two million Afghans, including some 1.8 million refugees, have gone home since the UNHCR-assisted repatriation operation began in March 2002. We are planning to assist some 1.5 million more returnees in 2003, provided that donors come forward with the necessary funding.

The web of tripartite agreements for voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan now covers both countries in the region and three countries in Europe: France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The effects of this return operation are being felt in many parts of the world, including Europe. Statistics for 2002 show a sharp plunge in Afghan asylum seekers. In Europe, they were down by 50 percent.

I am encouraged by the interest that the OSCE has shown in Afghanistan, even though this lies outside the OSCE area. Strengthened security and co-operation in adjacent areas of Central Asia is an important factor for the overall stability of countries in the OSCE region. In particular, I welcome last week's decision of the Permanent Council to grant Afghanistan the status of OSCE Partner for Co-operation.

Afghanistan illustrates how the resolution of refugee problems is inextricably linked to the achievement of political solutions and subsequent stability in countries of origin. The challenge now is to ensure the security and effective reintegration of those who return. It is vital that the international community continues to invest in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country, if those who have gone home are to stay, and if more are to follow. It is a worthwhile investment.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Phasing down UNHCR's operations in Southeastern Europe

Let me turn now to countries in the OSCE area. Like the OSCE, my Office has been intensely involved in Southeastern Europe over the last decade. Our organizations have complemented each other, with common goals of finding solutions for the displaced, ensuring continued stability, and supporting peace and democracy.

Today, more than seven years after the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed, the time has come for UNHCR to phase down its humanitarian assistance programmes in the Balkans. This was agreed in June last year at the meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group, which endorsed a plan for UNHCR to phase down its Dayton obligations within two years, as well as its obligations under the Ohrid Framework Agreement in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. At the meeting we agreed that our operations in Kosovo will continue for somewhat longer.

As we phase down our humanitarian assistance programmes, there is an urgent need for even more longer term development assistance both in countries of return and in countries continuing to host large displaced populations - notably Serbia and Montenegro. Without this, it will be difficult to consolidate the return process and to prevent secondary, renewed or reverse migration flows.

Return figures have steadily increased. In 2002, Bosnia and Herzegovina saw record returns with over 100,000 people going back to their homes. This momentum in minority returns must be maintained. I remain concerned, however, about the much lower rate of returns in Croatia. It is vital that authorities both at the national and local levels honour their stated commitments to the return process.

In the case of Kosovo, more needs to be done by the Provisional Government to improve the security situation and promote inter-community dialogue. Meanwhile, I am encouraged by the increased support being given by both UNMIK and the OSCE to minority returns. The OSCE's work in terms of institution-building, democratization, strengthening the rule of law and promoting respect for human rights is of critical importance.

The region is experiencing significant migratory flows - including refugees and asylum seekers - most of whom are transiting through it to the European Union. While phasing out our more visible assistance operations in Southeastern Europe, my Office is boosting its efforts to assist governments in the region to build up effective asylum systems, from access at the borders to durable solutions. There is also a need for further legal and institutional reform, the development of civil society and regional co-operation. We look forward to work with the OSCE in some of these areas.

Recent developments in the Caucasus

Another area where the OSCE remains an important partner for UNHCR is the Caucasus. As part of the UN Country Team, we also co-operate closely there with ICRC and a number of NGOs. In the Northern Caucasus, my Office continues to advocate for a safe haven for displaced Chechens in Ingushetia. However, depending on how the security situation develops, we will also increase our operations to assist returnees inside Chechnya, making this a two-pronged approach. The security situation in the Northern Caucasus area as a whole is still volatile. As you know, the MSF Head of Delegation, Mr. Arjan Erkel, abducted more than seven months ago, is still missing.

In the Southern Caucasus, UNHCR continues to be involved in a number of IDP situations which are largely dependent for their resolution on progress in various stalled peace processes. Meanwhile, we are continuing to phase down our assistance as opportunities for self-reliance and integration into alternative programmes increase.

In Georgia, security problems continue to affect Chechen refugees in the Pankisi gorge and have increased the potential for further displacement. In the framework of the UN-led peace process in Western Georgia, the UNHCR-chaired Working Group on the return of refugees and internally displaced persons was able to meet in mid-2002 after more than four years of inactivity. However, there has been only limited progress and our operations there will be reduced further by the end of 2003 unless I receive clear indications that our work is complementing a viable political process and is having an impact in enabling at least some displaced people to return.

Ladies and Gentlemen,


An important issue, and one on which my Office continues to co-operate closely with the OSCE, is that of statelessness. I am encouraged by the commitments to addressing problems of statelessness in the Charter for European Security which you adopted in Istanbul four years ago. I hope that the informal briefing on statelessness given to you by my staff last June contributed to a better understanding of this problem. At that briefing session, some participating States indicated that they are considering accession to the Statelessness Conventions, and my Office remains ready to assist as needed. UNHCR is currently undertaking a survey on the steps which have been taken by States to address problems of statelessness, and on the challenges that they face in doing so. We have sent out questionnaires, and I encourage your Governments to participate actively in the survey, which I hope will ultimately lead to more effective ways of addressing the problem of statelessness globally.

"Convention Plus"

Another key issue for UNHCR today is that of burden sharing. As you know, the global refugee protection regime is firmly rooted in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. However, as I mentioned at a recent informal meeting of the EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers, the application of the Convention involves much more than properly functioning asylum systems in Europe. It means effective international protection and solutions for refugees everywhere.

While the Refugee Convention clearly spells out the rights and obligations of refugees, as well as the obligations of states towards refugees, the question of sharing burdens and responsibilities amongst states is not adequately addressed. It was with this in mind that I launched the "Convention Plus" initiative. This initiative is fundamentally about two key issues: burden-sharing and responsibility-sharing. It involves building on the Convention framework by drawing up new special agreements with and between States, to address some of the specific challenges that we face today.

The sharing and apportioning of responsibilities was one of the main cross-cutting themes of the UNHCR-led process of Global Consultations on International Protection which ended last year with the adoption by UNHCR's Executive Committee of a new Agenda for Protection. The Agenda provides a roadmap for action not only for UNHCR, but also for governments, NGOs and other partners. It is not about preserving the status quo, but is a forward-looking document intended to strengthen refugee protection in the years ahead.

I am convinced that this sharing of burdens and responsibilities must take place both among European countries, and globally between mature economies and the developing world. One of the key issues is to strengthen protection capacities in first countries of asylum and to ensure greater access to durable solutions in regions of origin. Such an approach requires effective burden sharing, with the provision of development assistance for refugees in host countries, as well as reintegration and self-reliance activities - extending also to host communities.

Development assistance should also be better targeted towards countries hosting large refugee populations over protracted periods. To support these countries, I have proposed a concept which I call "Development Assistance for Refugees" (DAR). This brings together the 4Rs initiative (for an integrated approach to repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction) and the DLI initiative ("Development Through Local Integration"). By the same token, resettlement - on a much bigger scale than today - must be part and parcel of any comprehensive approach. This is all about investing in solutions.

Human smuggling and trafficking

A major challenge for all of us concerns the nexus between asylum and migration. With an increased focus by governments on policies of deterrence and migration control over the last few years, it has become increasingly difficult for refugees and asylum-seekers to reach asylum countries or to achieve family reunion through legal means. This trend has been exacerbated in the post-September 11 environment, with the increased focus on security concerns. With regular arrival routes closed, many refugees turn to smugglers to reach safety, in spite of the dangers and the financial costs involved. Others fall into the hands of human traffickers - women and children being particularly susceptible.

The difference between smuggling and trafficking is clearly articulated in the Palermo Protocols. It is important that States recognize this distinction. Many OSCE countries are faced with mixed migratory flows including refugees, asylum-seekers, economic migrants who resort to smuggling for lack of a legitimate alternative, and persons trafficked for the purpose of exploitation. Smugglers and traffickers often use the same routes, and in some cases there are direct links between the criminal networks involved. For asylum systems to function well, it is vital that they take into account the broader issue of irregular migration and the forces that shape it.

My Office is examining new ways of protecting asylum seekers who have fallen prey to traffickers or who are potential victims. For example, in Albania, UNHCR is an active player in a rapid screening exercise designed to ensure proper channelling and follow-up of individual cases entering Albania. UNHCR co-operates with other actors in an initial assessment, detecting potential cases of trafficking to ensure that they are channelled to the agencies and institutions best equipped to deal with their needs.

I hope that the OSCE Anti-Trafficking Action Plan will have as its base a fundamental protection rationale, especially in the two areas of particular relevance to us - namely, victim protection and legislative developments. From our perspective, it is also crucial that such a Plan does not undermine the protection safeguards for refugees contained in the existing legal framework. The Declaration on Trafficking in Human Beings adopted at the Ministerial Council in Porto offers a firm foundation upon which we can build further. Our efforts are underpinned by a regular exchange of information between our respective organizations, facilitated through the Geneva-based IGO Contact Group on Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling, currently chaired by UNHCR and ILO, as well as through the efforts of our Liaison Office here in Vienna.

Finally, it is disturbing that some parts of the media and a number of politicians continue to demonize asylum seekers and refugees, particularly during election campaigns. This further undermines public support for their reception. Refugees, asylum-seekers and victims of human trafficking are also often associated in the media with criminals, adding to the rising tide of xenophobia and intolerance. I fully endorse the broad range of OSCE efforts in the field of tackling racism, xenophobia and intolerance. I also welcome the Porto Ministerial Council Decision on Tolerance and Non-Discrimination and the OSCE Chairmanship's intention to convene, amongst others, a conference on racism, xenophobia and discrimination.

We need to find more effective ways of managing the asylum-migration nexus, so that people in need of international protection find it, people who wish to migrate have appropriate opportunities to do so, and abusive manipulation of entry possibilities is curtailed. We need a multilateral approach, which addresses migration and forced displacement in a concerted, comprehensive and forward-looking manner. For countries in the OSCE area, continued close partnership, and exploration of comparative advantages between our two organizations is, of course, vital to achieve this.

Thank you.