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Summing-up of the Protection Debate by Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, at the Fifty-fourth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme

Speeches and statements

Summing-up of the Protection Debate by Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, at the Fifty-fourth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme

1 October 2003

We have welcomed the highly substantive debate on international protection this year. A lot of ideas and concerns have been expressed. I, of course, cannot do justice to all of them.

Agenda for Protection

We have noted strong support for the Agenda for Protection, which has variously been described as a "road map" (USA), an "important set of tools" (Germany), "an essential programme of multi-year activities" (Canada), and "an important platform for action" (Norway). Some of you agreed on the gap between discourse and reality I highlighted in my introductory remarks. Many of you have also reiterated UNHCR's call for States themselves to structure their practice around the Agenda, but also to report on activities. We welcome the announcements made by a number of you that you have begun a process of internal consultations focusing on implementation and have submitted or will submit reports on implementation at national level (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA). I was taken by the very inclusive approach taken by Switzerland to draw ideas and recommendations from a broad range of players at national level. It is a laudable way to go about this.

We have also noted that, in talking about the Agenda for Protection, there have been a number of expressions of appreciation for UNHCR's progress on implementation (Canada, Finland and Germany). Many of you have referred to the Agenda's call for accessible and fair asylum systems (e.g. Germany). Canada, for example, referred to the benefits, in terms of speedier decision-taking, already accruing from the single asylum procedure it has set in place. Other stressed that the refugee protection regime set in place by the 1951 Convention remains highly relevant, but it is implementation that is lacking (USA, France). Some of you referred to UNHCR's study of protection responses is mass influx situations which is called for in the Agenda. We have a draft text which is very close to completion. We will enter into consultations with you on the study when we believe that the text is ripe for wider discussion.

Convention Plus

Convention Plus was broadly welcomed as creating a useful framework to strengthen international solidarity and burden-sharing (Denmark). A number of you referred to the 1951 Convention as being at the core of the international regime for refugee protection and requiring effective implementation. Many of you also see Convention Plus as a way to strengthen implementation of the 1951 Convention (Canada). We noted the comments of Algeria regarding the importance of training and advocacy for capacity-building.

Some of you noted that Convention Plus is already being implemented, for example through tripartite agreements regarding voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan (France). We welcome the readiness of a number of States to play a facilitating role on the various strands of Convention Plus. We would encourage States to come forward and indicate that role they wish to play in the initiative. We welcome Denmark's expression of support, as Chair of the Working Group on Resettlement, for a practical analysis of how to implement resettlement schemes in the context of Convention Plus.

Project Profile/Registration and Documentation

Many of you (for example, the USA, Germany and Morocco) have highlighted registration and documentation as crucial tools of protection. Denmark called for the creation of a support group of States for Project Profile. There were many expressions of satisfaction with the progress already made on implementation of this project (USA). Some of you especially welcomed the recent publication of the Handbook on Registration. Denmark called for progress on designing the related software, and stressed the importance of biometrics.

Physical Protection/Security of Humanitarian Workers

In terms of other issues, many of you have highlighted both the importance of and challenges to the physical protection of refugees. For example, Thailand referred to environmental impact of the refugee presence as being an important constraint. Several States also underlined the need to ensure the security of both refugees and humanitarian workers, and noted that lack of security for humanitarian workers is often an important constraint on the doing of protection.

Country of Origin Information/Protection Information Section

There was broad support for the relaunch of Refworld. One delegation asked to see more public positions included on particular refugee situations (USA). Offers to provide financial support to sustain this effort are most welcome. I am also grateful for the appreciation expressed by recent signatories to the 1951 Convention for UNHCR's traineeship programme.

Refugee Women and Refugee Children

There was strong support for resolute cooperation and partnership on security issues, especially those impacting on refugee women and children. Sexual and gender-based violence was cited as a particular concern in this regard. In terms of State practice, we were pleased to hear the positive developments in addressing issues specific to the protection of women and children, such as specific safeguards for unaccompanied minors and victims of trafficking. The developments described by Sweden and New Zealand can be deemed best practices, which we would encourage them to make available more widely. A number of you, notably Finland, encouraged an age- and gender-sensitive approach. We are pleased that this is already being translated into legislation in some cases. Some of you encouraged UNHCR to act resolutely on the recommendations contained in the three recent evaluations relating to women, children and community services. A number of you expressed concern about the downgrading of the posts of Senior Co-ordinators for Refugee Women and Refugee Children.

This should not be perceived as a downgrading of the important work being done by the Co-ordinators, but instead reflects a consolidation and re-thinking of how to mainstream their work more effectively into operations. We will maintain, within the Department of International Protection, a protection focus on the problems of refugee women and children, so that they continue to receive heightened attention in our work, pursuant to the Agenda for Protection. Many of you expressed support for the Plan of Action of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee's Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crisis. Norway also reminded us of a number of important points, including the need to recognize that refugee women can be agents of change. There was also a request for progress on gender policies inside UNHCR.

Protection Staff/Protection Training

Many of you spoke of the importance you attach to adequate protection staffing and presence on the ground in field locations, as well as protection training for staff members and partners. Italy reminded us of the importance of staff development and, in particular, of committing more resources for protection training for UNHCR staff. The United States offered to seek additional funding in 2004 to help increase the number of protection and community services field staff, for which we are grateful. It is not just an issue of funding, but of also of staff availability and tools to enable staff to do protection better. For example, as of 15 September 2003, 37 protection posts were vacant, of which 27 are, in fact, newly created posts. We had a briefing this morning on the Surge Project as well as the deployment schemes to boost the capacity of field offices. My Department is also working on protection staffing benchmarks to enable us to determine the ideal protection staffing configuration for field offices. So, quite a lot of effort is being made, but more can be done to ensure that staffing is commensurate to the protection challenges. Regarding Canada's comment about the need to ensure that, wherever possible, protection and resettlement posts are filled by permanent employees, I would like to recall that the various protection-related deployment schemes are intended to supplement the capacity of field offices and are not intended to serve as a substitute for UNHCR's own protection staffing.

Framework for Durable Solutions

Durable solutions were a focus of many interventions. Many of you spoke of the need to operationalize follow-up on the search for durable solutions, particularly for protracted refugee situations. Algeria, on behalf of the African Group, invited us to redouble efforts to place refugees on the development agenda and to share the "4Rs" initiative with relevant international organizations and financial institutions. Many of you reminded us that rehabilitation and reintegration assistance are fundamental to underpin the durable solution of voluntary repatriation. Local integration was also recognized by many of you as a valid quest. A number of you pointed to the socio-economic limitations facing refugee-hosting countries, as well as countries of origin in situations where voluntary repatriation is being actively pursued. Many of you welcomed the High Commissioner's Framework for Durable Solutions as a contribution to finding solutions for refugee situations, but Canada reminded us of the need to test these concepts in the field, combined with subsequent evaluation and assessment.


Algeria commented on the negative impact that the security climate has had on resettlement. Canada reminded is that other factors, such as resources, were important contributing factors. Australia reported on the new emergency rescue arrangements, enabling UNHCR to resettle refugees within 24 hours. The Australian model is indeed a good one and we are grateful to Australia for this innovative arrangement. A number of you also mentioned how you are making or plan to make a more strategic use of resettlement (New Zealand). Some welcomed the expansion of resettlement sought by UNHCR. Others reminded us of the need to avoid imposing undue limitations in selection criteria. For example, the United States said that resettlement should focus on protection needs but not on other extraneous considerations, such as language skills.

Interface between Asylum and Migration

Turning to the asylum/migration nexus, Algeria, on behalf of the African Group, said that strengthened protection in host countries is an important activity to pursue, but we should not lose sight of the "push" and "pull" factors of socio-economic deprivation. Thailand pointed out that the notion of protection in "regions of origin" needs greater definition. A number of you expressed support, however, for strengthening protection capacity in regions through capacity-building. Some, like Finland, cautioned that this should not amount to "burden-shifting" and called for practical pilot projects to be implemented. More generally, it was interesting to hear Australia point to the risk of skewing the debate on migration by giving undue weight to the "problems", instead of focusing on the considerable benefits that can accrue to both migrants and their States of origin and destination.

Regarding the growing practice of interception, many stressed that it must conform to international norms and recalled the Agenda for Protection's call to ensure that protection safeguards are built into such measures. Important developments were reported, such as by Sweden, in the sensitive treatment of trafficking cases, which will also contribute to combating smuggling. On the question of interception, many of you recognized that this practice must be based on human rights standards and, notably, should not undermine the right to seek asylum. New Zealand usefully added that interception has to conform to international law provisions, including the Law of the Sea. Other noted that the migration agenda is evolving, making inter-agency cooperation all the more important. Russia reminded us to the important link of migration to peace and stability and that States need assistance is distinguishing mixed movements.

International Organization for Migration

Many of you welcomed our cooperation with IOM. The United States asked for a briefing on the Action Group on Asylum and Migration - or AGAMI - which we set up with IOM in November 2001, pursuant to a call in the Agenda for Protection. Since that time we have had five meetings. The topics discussed have included the respective institutional mandates, roles and responsibilities of UNHCR and IOM; how to give content to the "strategic alliance" between both organizations; statistical and data issues, identifying where data is missing or more analysis would be desirable; special operational challenges, including consultations on our respective work in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as our cooperation, more generally, on voluntary repatriation. A number of you also referred to the Bali Conference process, co-launched by Australia and Indonesia, focusing on stemming trafficking and illegal migration; AGAMI has also provided a forum to coordinate our preparations for Bali. The High Commissioner was instrumental with IOM in establishing the Geneva Migration Group, which has served as a useful forum for heads of agencies with some role in migration matters to exchange information and identify areas of common interest. Indeed, Canada welcomed the creation of the Geneva Migration Group as a positive step.

Burden-sharing and International Cooperation

On the broader question of international burden-sharing and cooperation, Ecuador stressed the need for the need to set in place practical arrangements. France very helpfully reminded us that burden-sharing is not necessarily linked to Convention membership. Thailand agreed, recalling that it is not only States Parties who share the burden of hosting and protecting refugees.

Effective Protection

The NGO statement highlighted the contents of effective protection. It was both a substantial and helpful statement. It made the important point, with which we agree, that the practice of detaining asylum-seekers should be abandoned as a tool of punishment and deterrence. UNHCR is in the process of preparing a survey of alternatives to detention and we will bring this to the Standing Committee for broader debate, while offering alternatives to be considered.


Few of you commented on statelessness issues. We have difficulty in getting this Committee to focus on statelessness. I am not sure how to spark the debate. We do appreciate a call for more vigorous responses to statelessness problems. I particularly welcome the NGOs' call to States to respond to UNHCR's statelessness survey to help us develop a clearer understanding the scope of the problem with an eye to crafting appropriate long-term solutions. But the NGOs also encouraged us to work on adequate mechanisms at the national and international levels to present and to solve cases of statelessness.

Protracted Refugee Situation: Regional Reviews

A number of you requested an update on the review of protracted refugee situations requested of UNHCR in the Agenda for Protection. I would like to recall that informal consultations with African Ministers on new approaches and partnerships for protection and solutions in Africa were held in December 2001, based on a paper prepared by the Regional Bureau for Africa, entitled Addressing Protracted Refugee Situations in Africa. There is also a lot of information in the background paper presented by the High Commissioner during the first meeting of his Forum in June of this year. We also recently had a workshop sponsored by UNHCR's Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit which focused on protracted refugee situations. We hope to follow-up on all of these initiatives and feed them into the requested review of protracted refugee situations. So in terms of progress, we are not there yet, but the review can be said to be on its way.

UNHCR's Protection Function

UNHCR's protection function was described as its very raison d'être by Canada. Many of you encouraged us to focus on our core Mandate. Russia deemed protection, generally, as being far from an abstract concept.


I believe that I have taken too much of the Committee's time, Mr. Chairman. We will now need to analyze your statements in more detail. But I would like to close by saying that we have noted a more substantive debate on protection issues during this Committee, as well as greater engagement in the protection dialogue, cutting across all regions. This is positive indeed and is something we, in the Department of International Protection, of course welcome.