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UN Refugee Chief uses Oxford University speech to call for international action on global refugee crisis

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UN Refugee Chief uses Oxford University speech to call for international action on global refugee crisis

13 October 2010

OXFORD, 13 October 2010

In a speech at Oxford University, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has raised the alarm about the diminishing space in which humanitarian organisations are obliged to operate. He said that the intractable nature of armed conflict is one of the most preoccupying challenges for UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations:

"Major crises (that) have generated huge numbers of refugees and displaced people show no signs of being resolved (…) Humanitarian organisations such as ours are denied access to affected populations and expelled from countries where our presence is not welcomed for one reason or another."

Guterres said that another implication of intractable armed conflict is the emergence of global refugee populations seeking protection and opportunities not available in their countries of origin. Refugees, asylumseekers and other people on the move from countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia are the most obvious examples of this phenomenon. In this context, he specifically mentioned the difficult situation for Somali refugees worldwide. "I do not believe that there is any group of refugees who are as systematically undesired, stigmatized and discriminated against as the Somalis," said the High Commissioner.

Guterres also pointed to the growing number of so called protracted refugee situations, which is putting developing countries under serious strain. The 25 countries most affected by a refugee presence are all in the developing world. "In this context, UNHCR has called for a new deal on burden-sharing, to ensure that the generosity of host countries and communities is matched by solidarity from the developed world," said the High Commissioner, adding that the resettlement of refugees is one tangible and effective way of achieving this objective.

He noted that there nevertheless is a significant gap between resettlement needs and resettlement capacity. For example, Europe is currently providing only 7.5 per cent of all resettlement places worldwide. A larger EU resettlement programme would provide solutions to refugees and at the same time demonstrate solidarity with the major host countries.

In his speech, António Guterres also expressed concern about the threat to asylum space in the developed world, with ever greater difficulties for people seeking refugee status to have access to the territories of industrialised states. Although 120,000 persons were granted refugee or complementary protection status in the industrialised world last year, there is still no true European asylum system but a patchwork of different national ones. For example, the recognition of Somali asylum-seekers in EU member states in 2009 ranged from 4% to 90%.

Finally, the High Commissioner pointed to the increasing difficulty in sustaining the traditional distinction between refugees and migrants and between voluntary and forced movements. He said that UNHCR needs to adjust the way it provides protection and assistance to reflect the changes in the composition and location of refugee flows. Today, more refugees live in cities than in camps and tend to be more dispersed, more diverse and in more irregular movements than before. Also, UNHCR needs to examine how to provide protection to people who need it but who do not fall within the existing definitions of a refugee. Original and creative new thinking will be needed on these new policy issues.

The High Commissioner was delivering the Harrell-Bond Human Rights Lecture at the Refugee Studies Centre of the University of Oxford. This is an annual lecture given by a prominent person within the humanitarian field.