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Lubbers calls for lasting solutions for world's refugees

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Lubbers calls for lasting solutions for world's refugees

1 October 2001

GENEVA - U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers warned Monday that the international community's failure to find lasting solutions for the plight of millions of refugees is driving them increasingly toward human smugglers and resulting in growing intolerance and xenophobia in asylum states.

Opening the weeklong annual meeting of UNHCR's 57-nation Executive Committee, the agency's governing body, Lubbers said too many of the world's refugees are languishing in camps for years on end and that the failure to provide solutions for them "makes us all guilty of their degradation."

"It can also lead to a rise in crime and the threat of further conflict or instability," he said of the lack of durable solutions for refugees. "We must guard against this. The unacceptable alternatives are more protracted refugee situations, more refugees languishing in refugee camps year after year, more refugees taking desperate measures to find safety and a better future, and more refugees being exploited by criminal networks."

Declaring that protection of refugees without lasting solutions is "not protection," Lubbers said UNHCR and the international community must focus more on voluntary repatriation, local integration in countries of first asylum, or resettlement to third countries.

"Smuggling and trafficking of people are on the rise," he said. "With regular arrival routes closed, many refugees continue to turn to smugglers to reach safety, in spite of the dangers and the financial costs involved. Other migrants portray themselves as refugees to overcome immigration barriers. The result is that refugees are often stigmatised in the public mind. This presents two main challenges: governments must find ways of handling asylum applications more quickly and fairly; and politicians and people in receiving countries must avoid stereotyping all asylum seekers as 'phoney' or 'bogus,' if not 'criminals'."

Lubbers also warned of a "rising tide of xenophobia and intolerance" in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks in the United States, and cautioned that the fight against terrorism should not become a war on Afghans or Islam. No people, no region and no religion should be condemned because of the unspeakable acts of a few individuals.

"Refugees and asylum seekers are already the objects of considerable mistrust and hostility in many countries, and they are particularly vulnerable in the current climate," he said. "We should beware of those politicians who claim to pursue the public cause but simply exploit racial instincts. Fighting against xenophobia must be a top priority."

The High Commissioner noted that Afghans are particularly vulnerable.

"Even before the barbaric acts of 11 September, Afghans constituted the largest refugee population in the world, with some 4 million spread out between Iran, Pakistan and a multitude of other countries across the world," he said. "A war on terrorism should not become a war on Afghans. Neither should it become a war on Islam."

Lubbers said the terror attacks and the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and surrounding countries are a "sobering reminder that emergencies are hard to predict." While funding shortfalls have forced UNHCR to undergo substantial budget and staff reductions this year, the agency still needs to be ready to respond to new crises, he said.

"We are preparing for a massive relief operation," he said of the current Afghanistan emergency and UNHCR's contingency plans for a worst-case scenario of up to 1.5 million new refugees fleeing into neighbouring states. "I hope that donors will respond positively to our appeal for $268 million to cover the next six months."

Elsewhere internationally, refugees and asylum seekers have been in the media spotlight a great deal in recent months - from West Africa to France, from the Balkans to the decks of a Norwegian freighter crowded with asylum seekers off Australia's coast.

"Each of these situations has illustrated the severity of the refugee problem," said Lubbers, who took up his post on January 1. "Each has also illustrated the need for UNHCR to adapt to a changing international political environment - an environment that is not changing to the good.

"We face many threats," he continued. "These include restrictive interpretation of the 1951 (Refugee) Convention; the deteriorating quality of asylum; the high costs and burdens of hosting refugees - especially in protracted refugee situations with no solutions in sight - and the perceived abuse of asylum systems."

Against this backdrop, UNHCR last year launched Global Consultations on International Protection to promote the full and effective implementation of the 1951 Convention, as well as to develop new approaches, tools and standards to ensure that refugees are provided the protection and durable solutions they deserve. The first ever meeting of States Parties to the 1951 Convention is set for Geneva in December.

He listed several other challenges facing by UNHCR, including staff security - a concern tragically underscored by the murders of five field workers over the past year. Another is managing complex population flows, including "mixed flows" of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants, and "mixed-motive" migration, where people leave their homes for a combination of political, economic and other reasons.

To meet all of these challenges, he said, UNHCR needs a stable source of funding. He noted that UNHCR this year is reducing its staff by 16 percent and its budget by roughly 10 percent to meet projected income. The agency currently cares for some 21.7 million people with a budget of $882 million, excluding the new Afghanistan emergency.

"The current working budget amounts to less than $40 per year for each person of concern to UNHCR," he said. "This is considerably lower than most previous years. I consider this budget to be the absolute minimum.... If any governments feel that UNHCR can effectively operate with less, I would like them to explain how."