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Statement by Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, to the 27th Meeting of the Standing Committee, (Geneva, 24 June 2003)

Speeches and statements

Statement by Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, to the 27th Meeting of the Standing Committee, (Geneva, 24 June 2003)

24 June 2003

As delivered

Agenda item 4: International Protection


Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates,

International protection is not an abstract legal concept. It is, instead, an action-oriented function, directly affecting the lives of millions of refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR. We often tend to forget the "concreteness" of protection and its impact on individuals of all ages, when we gather here in Geneva to talk about it. In fact, I would even venture to say that there is a widening gulf between the exhortations and the commitments discussed or made here in Geneva and the practice of many States we observe daily in the field. As I have said before, protection is the most preferred function of UNHCR in the rhetoric of States, but is often the most actively disliked in practice. In the field there is another reality that we need to appreciate fully, if we are to develop tools adequate to meet the variety of challenges that protection faces today.

Among these challenges, refoulement of recognized refugees is no longer an exceptional occurrence. UNHCR is being outright denied access to persons of direct refugee concern or access is seriously impeded. Confinement of vulnerable groups to inhospitable situations in border regions - often in areas of so-called "no man's land" - is a recurring worry. Refugees, particularly women and children, continue to face a wide array of security problems including, but not limited to, sexual and gender-based violence and forced recruitment. There has been a downward trend in regional harmonization efforts and a worrying tendency of a number of countries, globally spread, to restrict further the grant of asylum. We have also witnessed, especially post September 11th, the growing practice of detaining asylum-seekers and refugees.

The negative climate towards asylum-seekers and refugees, in some instances tinged with xenophobia, is prevalent in all too many countries, both in the North and the South. We know, as well, that refugee situations continue to receive disparate treatment, depending on whether they are in the glare of the media spotlight or not. Forgotten refugee situations remain forgotten. While the number of asylum applications in industrialized countries has dropped, we have not witnessed a rise in funding for UNHCR's programmes. It is not the practice of this Committee to name names. For our part, however, we have always believed that the protection debates of the Standing Committee could benefit from some reinvigoration, some clearer targeting of problems. One way, of course, to achieve this would be to be more specific on the nature and location of protection problems. We wonder whether this Committee would also see merit in the debate going in this direction.

Note on International Protection

This year's Note on International Protection, (bearing the symbol EC/53/SC/CRP.9,) focuses on the doing of protection - how it is done and with what array of tools. This Committee presented in October 2002 with a substantive Note on International Protection. Less than a year has since elapsed. To regain the reporting rhythm, we are providing this Standing Committee meeting with the subsequent note, but we ask you to take into account that it accordingly covers quite a short timeframe. In addition, there is some overlap with the update on implementation of the Agenda for Protection, given that the focus of that update is also on field-based protection activities. Hence, the two documents constitute two parts of an integral whole report and need to be read together to obtain a comprehensive overview of how and what we are doing protection-wise.

The Note on International Protection explores some of the different mechanisms needed to secure protection for refugees, with registration and the provision of documentation particularly highlighted. It provides information on how physical security concerns are approached; also information on the tackling of the asylum/migration nexus; on strengthening protection capacities; on averting the need for flight; on adopting an age and gender-sensitive approach; on working with communities, and promoting and implementing durable solutions. The tools highlighted include training, advocacy and lobbying, intervention approaches and the legal protection tools available, deriving from international refugee, human rights and humanitarian law. More broadly, the Note examines the importance of fostering greater public awareness of refugees' situation, the particular onus in this regard on the media and the role of political figures in reporting on issues more responsibly and shunning xenophobic rhetoric.

Not least in view of the funding constraints that the Office is currently facing, the Note reminds us that the delivery of international protection is a staff-intensive service not to be simply equated with the distribution of relief assistance. The protection function is indeed more difficult to measure and quantify, albeit that is the raison d'être, the added value of UNHCR. As the Note makes clear, protection deployments by Headquarters to the Field strengthen field capacity and have been proving very necessary over the reporting period. For example, since 2002, 43 protection officers have been deployed to operations in Africa, Asia and the Americas. All preceded by detailed briefing sessions at Headquarters, they have made a demonstrable impact on UNHCR's protection responses in Ghana, Malaysia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Rwanda, Chad, Nauru, India, Cambodia, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. We hope that governments will see the "added value" of these deployment arrangements and, at this time of resource constraints, will concretely support their continuation.

Agenda for Protection

The Note has to be read together with the second document on your agenda, that is the update on "Implementation of the Agenda for Protection" (which bears the symbol EC/53/SC/CRP.10.)

The update provides information on developments in the field and at Headquarters since the oral updates which the Bureaux Directors and I provided to this Committee last March. I would now like to use the time available to me to build on the written report with some non-exhaustive additional examples of initiatives in field operations that are continuing to further implementation of the Agenda. I do so not least to make the point that implementation of the goals and objectives of the Agenda is, for us, an ongoing responsibility, and not only in major operations. Our protection mandate benefits individuals, regardless of public profile or location. It is this "nitty-gritty" aspect of protection which is the reality underlying the broad policy directions; it is also how well the "nitty-gritty" is managed which is the test of the adequacy or otherwise of the policy parameters.

Goal 1 of the Agenda calls for strengthened implementation of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol. This necessarily, in turn, calls for detailed appreciation of the protection needs of individuals, especially vulnerable groups. Operations in Turkey present a good practice here. The Ankara office established an Inter-Unit Committee for Special Cases, to respond more concertedly to the particularly vulnerable, such as the mentally ill, separated children, victims of sexual assault or domestic violence. The Committee acts promptly, once a case has been identified, and participating staff members coordinate an agreed plan of action that assigns specific responsibilities for further follow-up.

Better registration and documentation is a key objective under Goal 1. Progress on this front has been broadly described in the Note and also in the Agenda update. In Colombia, UNHCR has been pursuing a widespread documentation and registration campaign targeting, amongst others, internally displaced women whose lack of documentation has been limiting access to basic social services, for example in the areas of health and education. Some 31,000 women have been registered and have received the necessary personal documentation. In tandem, a mobile registration unit has also been used to register and document the internally displaced more generally.

Consistent with the second goal of sharing burdens and responsibilities more equitably and building capacities to protect and receive refugees, UNHCR has been strengthening its empowerment of refugee communities. Encouraged by UNHCR and NGOs, refugees in Kissidougou camp in Guinea have established refugee associations to enhance protection, particularly in regard to prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence. Among them are the Men's Association for Gender Equality, the Community Association against Drug Abuse, and Women of Today. These refugee organizations have been instrumental in dismantling ghettos in the camps, where drug abuse and prostitution were prevalent, and working to reintegrate former prostitutes. Volunteers in the Men's Association for Gender Equality have been particularly active in modifying male attitudes to domestic violence.

The Agenda encourages UNHCR to strengthen partnerships for protection and awareness raising not only with governments, but also NGOs, as well as refugee women and children. In Pakistan, for example, UNHCR has established eight Advice and Legal Aid Centres (ALACs). Located in areas with concentrations of Afghan refugees, they provide legal aid and counselling, assist refugees in making submissions to administrative bodies, lodge petitions before courts and assist the refugees in obtaining documentation. In 2003, these are being expanded through mobile teams that will reach out to refugees in camps and settlements.

The written update provides information on UNHCR's efforts to address security-related concerns, including by reinforcing camp security. In Ghana, for example, UNHCR recently developed with refugees a neighbourhood crime-watch system in a refugee settlement with a high crime rate. Implemented in close cooperation with the Ghanaian Ministry of the Interior, the initiative has not only notably cut crime in the settlement, but is gradually building confidence between the refugees and the local police authorities. UNHCR not only developed the initiative with the authorities, but also has provided advice and training, as well as uniforms, torches, boots, raincoats, walkie-talkies and first aid kits.

UNHCR has also been working closely with States to support the separation of armed elements from refugee populations. To take one recent example, UNHCR hosted the visit of Guinean security officials and refugee committees to Tanzania and Zambia to look into issues of camp management, as well as the screening and separation of armed elements. The visit enabled UNHCR to build upon successful security-related initiatives in neighbouring countries. As a direct result, the Guinean Government agreed to allocate a site location to accommodate Liberian armed elements, following their separation from the civilian population.

The Agenda, with its focus on refugee security, also encourages UNHCR to set up remedial mechanisms in case of sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation, including a complaint mechanism and arrangements for legal redress. Work on this aspect of the Agenda is described in the update. As a supplementary example, in Tanzania, UNHCR is supporting the functioning of mobile legal courts that bring magistrates to camps to listen to the refugees' crime-related complaints and judge offenders. Dealing largely with issues of assault and rape, as well as burglary, the courts have proved helpful in combating sexual and gender-based crime. In Sierra Leone, police and UNHCR have recently signed an MOU whereby the police agreed to increase the number of female police officers patrolling camps.

In Guinea, a pilot legal clinic has been set up in one camp to provide legal assistance to victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Part of a referral and response mechanism aimed at ensuring legal counselling and representation in courts, it enables refugee survivors of violence to seek redress through the criminal justice system.

Training is an important element of prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence. In early June, UNHCR held a regional workshop on SGBV in Kinshasa, targeting offices in West Africa, using the May 2003 revised Guidelines for Prevention and Response to Sexual and Gender-based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons. Participants shared best practices from their own experience.

In Iran, elders of the Afghan community and local judges participate in legal committees which play a role in the peaceful settlement of disputes between Afghan refugees and the local population, before these disputes escalate and resort is had to the court system. This is a good example of efforts to spur conflict resolution and peaceful coexistence at the grass-roots level.

The Agenda also encourages States and UNHCR to redouble the search for durable solutions, including through sustained cooperation to make repatriation viable. In Afghanistan, UNHCR has been working with the Judicial Commission and the Land and Property Dispute Court to address issues impeding property and land restitution to returnees and internally displaced persons. On 15 May, UNHCR signed a Letter of Understanding with the relevant Afghan ministry envisaging capacity building in the area of property and land restitution and the establishment of 10 provincial-level teams. In Sri Lanka, UNHCR and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka have embarked on a project identifying the obstacles to return also in the property area. They have made a series of recommendations as the basis for a framework that will allow the repatriation of refugees and return of displaced persons to their former homes and lands.

The Agenda also asks States to consider expanding opportunities for income-generation. In mid-May, UNHCR signed a Letter of Understanding with the Ministry of the Interior of Pakistan's National Alien Registration authority, allowing same non-Afghan refugees recognized by UNHCR to register and obtain work permits. Although small in number, these refugees unable to resettle to third countries or to repatriate voluntarily have had to depend on UNHCR for monthly subsistence allowances.

The Agenda also includes a specific goal on meeting the protection needs of refugee women and children. UNHCR is encouraged to ensure their direct participation in the identification of protection problems, and in the action taken to alleviate them. UNHCR Liberia and Save the Children (UK) are now making a concerted effort to involve children in the planning of assistance and protection activities, at project level, to ensure that the core principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child are respected in programme design and implementation. Priorities in a number of cases have changed as a result. For example, educational facilities were established to cater for a significant number of teenage mothers, which is an approach now being applied to other programmes in West Africa.

I have chosen these somewhat random examples to show how the Agenda is being implemented in practice. They cannot do justice to the full range of activities being implemented throughout the world. They are, though, illustrative of how action in furtherance of the Agenda for Protection qualitatively can improve refugee protection.

All this being said, there are a couple of important points to note in addition. Despite all of the tools at UNHCR's disposal, we can only do so much in terms of physical protection. This remains the primary responsibility of host States. UNHCR would not and cannot supplant States in discharging their own protection responsibilities. Other factors also constrain ability to protect refugees. The first is diminished staffing resources. The second is staff safety. Staff must be able to rely on an operating environment where their own safety is not in serious jeopardy. Another increasingly important constraint is the often distorted and negative environment in which we operate, fuelled by alarmist media reporting and negative political rhetoric. This is a global problem.

We are looking forward to hearing from all delegations about your own efforts to implement the Agenda for Protection. I must confess some disappointment to date in this regard. The Agenda, as I keep repeating, in not only - perhaps even principally - about how UNHCR should do protection. It was meant to be and was accepted by you all as a collective responsibility. You will recall that ExCom Conclusion 92 tasked UNHCR with reporting not only on what it was doing, but also on the activities of States and other partners. The update suggests States and organizations like to consider putting forward their own ideas on how to ensure that our reporting covers the follow-up activities being implemented also by all partners. We would welcome your concrete views on this issue at this session.


We have always said that success of the Agenda for Protection would hinge on strong commitment as well as partnership, particularly with States. Organizations, particularly NGOs, have a role, as do intergovernmental organizations. Within the UN system, WFP is a valued and vital partner. So too UNICEF, for example, in Afghanistan where we are working closely in areas of high return and/or IDP presence, in conjunction with relevant government ministries. We are exploring further areas for collaboration, including with a view to revising the prevailing MOU. UNHCR has been cooperating actively with IOM on issues relating to the asylum and migration nexus, notably but not exclusively in the framework of the Action Group on Asylum and Migration (AGAMI). UNHCR launched a Heads of Agency dialogue on the asylum-migration nexus in April, associating OHCHR, ILO and IOM with the aim of better coordinating UN and related agency efforts on migration issues.

ICRC too is always an important partner, providing advice and assistance with demobilization, separation and internment issues, among other operational issues. UNHCR has been actively strengthening its links with the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the African Parliamentary Union, to sensitize parliamentarians to their unique role in legislation for refugee protection frameworks at the national level that are in line with the 1951 Convention. Partnership with the OSCE has been expanding. Areas of cooperation include the prevention of forced displacement, property restitution, joint assessments of the situation of minorities, and collaboration on trafficking issues. The High Commissioner addressed the OSCE Permanent Council in April. UNHCR's partnership with the Council of Europe has helped UNHCR to spotlight and address refugee and displaced persons problems in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. Among other important civil society partners we include AALCO and IARLJ.

ExCom Conclusions

Looking ahead to the work of this Committee in preparation for the Executive Committee Plenary in the autumn, four protection-related Conclusions are planned for this year. It is anticipated that the General Conclusion on International Protection will build on the Note and the report on the Agenda for Protection, and will include segments on resettlement and statelessness. There will, in addition, be three issue-specific Conclusions, in follow-up to the Agenda for Protection. One will deal with the return of rejected cases, another is to be on protection safeguards in interception measures and the third is intended to deal with protection responses to sexual exploitation.

As part of the update on the Agenda for Protection, during this session we will hear a presentation from Denmark on the deliberations of the Working Group on Resettlement on the strategic use of resettlement. I should like to take this opportunity to encourage States who have not yet responded to UNHCR's survey on statelessness, being carried out pursuant to the Agenda for Protection, to do so promptly, so as to enable UNHCR to present a comprehensive report, complete with recommendations, to the Executive Committee in October.

I am also pleased to inform you that we have made available a new publication, entitled Refugee Protection in International Law. It compiles all of the materials from the second track of UNHCR's Global Consultations on International Protection.

Closing Remarks

Mr. Chairman,

Last June together we formally brought the Global Consultations on International Protection to a close and began a new phase, focusing on the consolidation of the results and the launch of follow-up activities. This is what the Agenda for Protection and its offshoot, the Convention Plus initiative, are all about. The first meeting of the High Commissioner's Forum this coming Friday will give us the opportunity to begin substantively to elaborate the Convention Plus initiative.

In this connection, I have an important message. Some States like to tell us that we have to be somehow more "modern", not so "legalistic" - which, incidentally, is a much bandied around word that actually boils down to little more than being oriented towards the 1951 Convention. We are told to distance the framework of principles from the new situations not in mind when they were drafted. Accountability of States, they go on, should only be for what was possible under the circumstances. UNHCR is urged not to be just another advocate of what is desirable, but to go for what is practical.

We say, in response, that this misunderstands the real flexibility of the 1951 Convention. I do appreciate that it is not so easy to speak about a Convention now over 50 years old in a way that captures the imagination of those impatient to move on and away. Yet without understanding where the Convention has brought us to, it is not really possible in our estimation to even begin to design realistic policy directions for the future. The norms of international refugee law are, still, among the most useful tools of today, from a refugee protection perspective.

So when we talk about Convention Plus, what is meant is an initiative which rests on two indispensable bases, on the 1951 Convention and its Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees and on the arrangements we are committed to put in place to complement it. It would be very wrong to understand the initiative as somehow relegating the legal basis for refugee protection, the 1951 Convention regime, to obscurity or irrelevance, in favour of some form of new humanitarian pragmatism. My message is that there can be no Plus without the Convention firmly in place.

We now look forward to hearing this Committee's views first on the Note on International Protection, as well as, at a later point, on the update on implementation of the Agenda for Protection.

Thank you.