Statement by Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, at the First Meeting of Track Three of the Global Consultations: Protection of Refugees in Mass Influx Situations
Thank you Mr. Chairman,
This is the first substantial meeting of the third Track of the Global Consultations process launched by UNHCR in July of last year. The agenda for it, and indeed for the two additional third track meetings, scheduled for June and September 2001, were broadly agreed at the organizational meeting on 12 December 2000.
As participants will be aware, this part of the Consultations process was structured by UNHCR to allow States and their protection partners - including UNHCR, other concerned organizations and non-governmental partners - to explore, through a protection-driven set of discussions, possible practical responses to asylum dilemmas for which there are only inadequately developed tools. An impetus also for these discussions was the concern of a number of States about various sorts of costs involved in hosting large numbers of refugees or about the uneasy mix of asylum and migration driven demands being made on them.
Hopefully, we all stand to gain from this process - the refugees first and foremost, through a more thorough and effective protection coverage; but also UNHCR, through enhanced understanding and better international cooperation, as well as better tools, to address refugee protection problems; and States as well, as a result of clearer definition of responsibilities and better demarcation of their limits. For all these purposes, we are very happy to welcome such a wide ranging group of participants, a marked number of whom have come from their capitals all over the world. UNHCR, thanks to generous contributions from a number of States, has been in a position to sponsor the travel of certain of the participants who otherwise would not have had the means to attend. Aside from Executive Committee members, some fifty States are attending in an observer capacity, including a number who have sought this specifically to participate in the global consultations process. The presence of all is welcome and now our challenge is to ensure that the high expectations accompanying this process are not disappointed. This is a common challenge, fully dependent on the input which will be invested by all participants.
UNHCR has made committed efforts to ensure effective participation also of non-governmental organizations. We are pleased to host Eve Lester in UNHCR for this purpose. Eve has been seconded to us through ICVA and will be the counterpoint for the non-governmental community. Similarly, the participation of refugees in the process - as requested in the Executive Committee Conclusion last year on the Global Consultations - is an important objective for us. A number of proposals in this regard are being investigated, on which we can elaborate further at the end of this session.
Participants will also be aware that in December of this year, the first ever meeting of States Parties to the 1951 Convention and its Protocol will take place, to be hosted jointly by the Government of Switzerland and UNHCR. That meeting will hopefully achieve one of the central purposes of the Consultations, which is to re-consolidate support around the foundations principles of refugee protection, and re-confirm the collective commitment of States to implement the 1951 Convention fully and effectively, in accordance with its objects, purposes and intent. It is hoped by all involved in the organization of this meeting that new accessions or withdrawal of reservations to the Convention will accompany this meeting. This meeting should also provide the opportunity for States to reflect more broadly on the governance system for international refugee protection of which the Convention is a part and within which it remains central, against the background of the evolution of the refugee and displacement problem since 1951.
In this connection we intend to present in consolidated form the results of the Consultations process on its several Tracks to that point and the recommendations it has generated. This presentation we anticipate might constitute, in effect, the agenda for protection for the coming period, which will have been crafted through this discussion and analysis process. This agenda should be a mix of directives to UNHCR, of encouragement for processes underway or to be started, of requests for follow-up by the Executive Committee, of commitment by States to approach certain problems in specific ways and even of suggestions for further, needed standard setting.
Our meeting today substantively begins this process of setting the protection agenda for the future. There are four main areas for discussion under the overriding theme of Protection of Refugees in Mass Influx Situations. Each will be introduced to you shortly and separately on the basis of the four papers you have. Let me though, right from the outset, flag with you what direction we would hope discussions might take on each paper.
The overall protection framework paper assesses some strengths and weaknesses of existing response tools in a mass influx situation. We are asking States to take a fresh look at these tools, including the 1951 Convention, so as, in the first instance, to see how they can be made more compatible, one with another. The focus is also on making these tools more effective. For example, for prima facie status, we would hope States could agree that there needs to be some adjustment in their resettlement criteria to meet the protection needs of individuals in a way which does not undermine the prima facie concept. Another question we pose is whether the potential of the 1951 Convention itself has been fully realized, given that resort to substitute approaches quite often carry their own set of problems. Would it be useful to clarify or make more precise the applicability of the Convention in different displacement situations through, for example, some additional Protocol provisions tailored to the particularities of mass influx. A comparative study of protection-based responses to mass influx, inter alia, could examine the value and feasibility of such a suggestion.
With the paper on the civilian character of asylum and the handling of armed elements, or former combatants, among the refugees, we have proposed a set of framework guidelines which, if accepted by all actors identified therein, would ameliorate the problem of militarized camps, which is a major protection threat for refugee occupants. We would like to see States at this meeting endorsing the working framework. We also hope you will draw on the specific suggestions which have come out of the regional meeting held in Pretoria on 26-27 February, in making recommendations on how to operationalize this framework. These suggestions have been circulated to you in the form of a summary report, for the preparation of which we are very grateful to our colleagues in the UNHCR Regional Directorate for Southern Africa, as well as the participating Governments, NGOs, academics and researchers who also most constructively participated.
Turning to the topic of registration, there is a need in our assessment for recognition of its importance in the protection context. UNHCR has a project, Project Profile, to improve our registration capacity. It would benefit from the endorsement and support of all stakeholders, which is why we have brought it to this meeting today. Protection related standards for registration could also, we suggest, usefully be reflected in an Executive Committee Conclusion.
Finally, the paper on Mechanisms of International Cooperation to Share Responsibilities and Burdens in Mass Influx Situations brings together a number of approaches employed in past refugee situations, to spread the share of responsibilities and to ease the asylum burden on any one State unable to shoulder it entirely. These approaches have never been collectively reflected upon, particularly as regards their precedent value outside their specific situation context. Responsibility sharing is ever more key for States hosting large refugee populations and, in our assessment, there is a need to introduce greater predictability in this area and ensure that burdens are a multilateral responsibility. How to trigger timely responsibility sharing in any one situation could be discussed today, together with the checklist of possible responses you consider should be retained. This issue is unlikely to be concluded at this meeting. Perhaps, though, participants would see value in pursuing this discussion, for example through the process of regional meetings.
One final though on the question of standards. The Global Consultations Third Track is not principally about new standards, but rather about improving our overall capacity to manage refugee or asylum situations within a proper framework, with the existing instruments (1951 Convention, Protocol, OAU Convention) as one but not the only stand-alone set of tools. We are hoping for quite practical guidance and agreement on what additional tools are required. This being said, standard setting is one - amongst a number - of additional tools which should not be lost sight of. Compared to international human rights law, the development of refugee law has some way to go. It may well be that one or other of the issues on the Consultations agenda could lend itself to such development, to complement the existing 1951 Convention framework. For example, in a very useful meeting on children in armed conflict organized last week by the Swedish EU Presidency, we floated the idea of an Optional Protocol to the 1951 Convention, to make certain of its provisions, or its application, more specific as regards refugee children. This was received enthusiastically. Others have said that giving greater clarity to the process of refugee protection in situations of mass influx could lend itself to further standard setting. We look forward to hearing your views also on any possibilities in this regard.