Care urged in balancing security and refugee protection needs
GENEVA - UNHCR on Wednesday urged governments considering new asylum safeguards in the aftermath of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States to strike a careful balance between additional security needs and existing international refugee protection principles.
In a statement to UNHCR's governing Executive Committee, the agency's director of international protection, Erika Feller, noted that the 1951 Refugee Convention already excludes persons who are a danger to national security, or who are convicted of a particularly serious crime.
"The Convention, if properly applied, should not offer safe haven to criminals," Feller told the 57-nation committee's annual meeting. "UNHCR is aware that, nevertheless, a number of states are currently examining additional security safeguards which they might build into procedures for determining refugee status so as to strengthen the guarantees offered by the exclusion provisions" already contained in the Convention.
Feller said UNHCR considers such an examination "reasonable," and stated that her Department of International Protection will itself examine the "best practices of states in this regard."
"Our purpose in doing so is to avoid wrong answers being given to this inherently reasonable question," she said. "Put another way, our hope is to see any additional security-based procedural safeguards striking a proper balance with the refugee protection principles at stake."
Feller declared that UNHCR clearly endorses multilateral efforts to root out and combat international terrorism. At the same time, it was unfortunate that there seems to be an increasing trend towards the "criminalisation of asylum seekers and refugees." While there are some persons in both categories who may be associated with serious crime, "this does not mean that the majority should be damned by association with the few," she said.
"Asylum seekers increasingly have a difficult time in a number of states, either accessing procedures or overcoming presumptions about the validity of their claim which stem from their ethnicity, or their mode of arrival," she said. "Because they arrived illegally does not vitiate the basis of their claim. Because they have a certain ethnic or religious background which may be shared by those who have committed grave crimes does not mean they, themselves, are also to be excluded."
Feller said resolute leadership is required "at this difficult time" to de-dramatise and de-politicise the essentially humanitarian challenge of protecting refugees and to promote better understanding of refugees and their right to seek asylum.