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"New challenges of forced displacement" - Introduction by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to a lunchtime debate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, The Hague, 8 April 2008

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"New challenges of forced displacement" - Introduction by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to a lunchtime debate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, The Hague, 8 April 2008

8 April 2008

I am delighted to be in the Netherlands today, and would like to express my gratitude for the exemplary cooperation which UNHCR enjoys with the Netherlands, a country where both government and civil society are strongly committed to human rights and refugee protection. Indeed, even the private sector is engaged: the National Postcode Lottery is one of UNHCR's largest private sector donors.

Today we encounter the word 'refugee' in all kinds of contexts. We read about 'refugees' from hurricane Katrina, from hunger, and environmental 'refugees'. Indeed, there is a growing disconnect between the legal definition of a refugee, and the way in which the word is used in public discourse.

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person with a well-founded fear of being persecuted in his or her home country for one or more of the following five reasons: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. So defined, refugees are often contrasted with economic migrants, who are seen as people on the move in search of better economic opportunities. Thus it is common to speak of forced migration on the one hand, and voluntary migration on the other.

But things are not so simple. More and more, people are on the move for a variety of reasons, and migrants and refugees are on the move side by side - as we can see today on the Italian island of Lampedusa, in the Canary Islands, at the border between Slovakia and Ukraine, and in many other places. Key to UNHCR's work is to be able to identify who needs international protection. We must ensure that persons seeking protection have access, namely to asylum procedures and to a fair treatment of their claims.

The interpretation of the refugee definition contained in the 1951 Convention has evolved and improved over time. It is now generally accepted, for instance, that persecution need not be at the hands of state agents. The refugee definition is more widely applied, to give just one example, when persons are members of specific social groups - such as women and girls at risk of genital mutilation - when the government cannot protect them from harmful cultural practices. The Organization of African Union's Refugee Convention extended the definition to victims of generalized violence ("events seriously disturbing public order"). But still we see today more and more people on the move who cannot be considered refugees strictly speaking, yet are not typical economic migrants either.

Such persons are driven to move not only because of war and persecution but also because of environmental degradation, climate change and extreme deprivation. These causes are all increasingly interlinked. Climate change can ignite conflict which can lead to displacement. The classical example is a Janjaweed attack on a village in Darfur. Indeed, there is a political dimension to these attacks, but the situation also reflects a conflict over natural resources. The population of Darfur has been growing, and rainfall has been steadily decreasing. As a result, the relationship between farmers and herders, who compete for water, has deteriorated. Similarly, war generates poverty and deprivation and has detrimental effects on the environment. In other words, it can be difficult to pinpoint precisely the reasons why a person is on the move.

It is important to note that most population movements today take place within, not across, the borders of states. To ensure that people are protected requires the cooperation of the government. Yet the government may be unable or unwilling to provide protection. It may even be part of the problem. During the 1990s, the concept of the 'responsibility to protect' emerged from the international community's experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina, East Timor and Kosovo. The idea is that when the government is not able or willing to act, the international community has a responsibility to do so.

Yet in recent years, especially in the light of events in Iraq, this concept has come under increasing pressure - not only from dictators but also from democracies. This in turn affects the international community's ability to protect internally displaced people.

Even when the same people cross international borders, there is not necessarily a consensus that they fall within the refugee definition. Some may be driven more by chronic drought and deprivation than by a fear of persecution. The international community needs to turn its attention to this.

It is sometimes suggested that the 1951 Refugee Convention should be amended to deal with this problem. I am reluctant to consider this, for if we were to re-open a discussion about that Convention, I am not convinced it would go in the right direction. I often wonder what would happen if we were drafting the International Declaration of Human Rights today?

I would suggest we not touch the 1951 Convention, but consider instead that in addition to refugees, there are other people who need protection, assistance and solutions. I believe that we can find a way to do this using the existing framework of human rights law and international humanitarian law, coupled with more cooperation among governments, the United Nations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, and non-governmental organizations. The possibility of a new international instrument for the protection of forcibly displaced people who are not refugees should also be considered.

There is no doubt in my mind that the 21st century will be a century of people on the move. If we do not address this, we will be forced into unsatisfactory, ad hoc solutions. I would therefore end with a plea for a meaningful discussion, at political and social levels, of how to address these situations.

Thank you.