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Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 10th Annual Midwest Light of Human Rights Awards, Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Centre, Chicago, 19 June 2009

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 10th Annual Midwest Light of Human Rights Awards, Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Centre, Chicago, 19 June 2009

19 June 2009

(Check against Delivery)

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a privilege to be with you here in the city your President calls home.

Uniquely among UN agencies, I believe, our founding statute enjoins us to cooperate with governments and the NGOs many of you belong to. But this is not the only or most important reason why we do it.

People's fundamental human rights, including those of refugees, the displaced and the stateless, are best protected and promoted by civil society. Acting alone or merely with other UN agencies, we would not be able to meet the "real needs of real people.

We rely on the government and people of the United States not only for funding but for the daily example of commitment and compassion.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In 2008, there were more than 42 million people uprooted worldwide. Approximately 16 million were refugees, including the 4.7 million Palestinians for whom UNRWA has responsibility. Roughly 26 million were people internally displaced as a result of conflict. While that is about 700,000 fewer people than the previous year, the decline has been more than offset by new displacement in 2009.

About 80% of all refugees are hosted by countries in the developing world - the largest of all being Pakistan with nearly 1.8 million. The governments of Jordan and Syria estimate that between them they host about 1.6 million Iraqis, almost all in urban settings. Chad, Tanzania and Kenya together host nearly one million refugees.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There are two major types of crisis evident in the world today. The first is an arc of crisis stretching from Pakistan and Afghanistan through Iraq and Palestine to Sudan and the Horn of Africa. These crises are clearly relevant to global security and feature some form of interface between the West and the Muslim world. The situations are increasingly interlinked and most of them are deteriorating.

Beyond Pakistan and Iran, there was a 60% increase in the number of Afghan asylum seekers in 2008 compared with 2007. New internal displacement in Pakistan exceeds two million people. The government of Sudan expelled international NGOs providing vital assistance to the displaced. In Somalia, the glimmer of hope has vanished: more than 100,000 people have been displaced in the last weeks and increasing violence between different religious affiliations represents a new threat to regional stability.

The second type of crises are the more isolated but multiplying situations evident, for example, in Central African Republic, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe. Sri Lanka, where the humanitarian needs have not diminished with the end of conflict, would also come within this group.

These crises can command some attention from the global media but the attention does not last. Lacking obvious relevance to global security, their impact is seen as local or regional. So too, usually, are the efforts to resolve them. Since solutions are invariably political, the absence of sustained worldwide attention encourages these situations to continue and the needs of people to be ignored.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Three major challenges confront humanitarians today. Each is as relevant here in the United States as it is to UNHCR in the more than 100 countries in which we operate.

Responding to these challenges has been made more difficult by the global economic crisis. Jobs are being lost, remittances are falling, xenophobia is rising. More people are under pressure to migrate while those who have already migrated may come under pressure to return. The number and scale of humanitarian crises seem set to worsen while humanitarian and development budgets may be reduced.

The first challenge is the contraction of humanitarian space. There are several reasons for this. Increasingly, conflict is internal rather than international, and asymmetric, often involving a multiplicity of actors. A theatre of conflict today likely includes multiple rebel factions, politically- or ethnically-linked militias, bandits, government soldiers, and foreign forces, including regional bodies and the UN.

Such complexity existed in the past but it was exceptional. Now it is nearer the norm. In situations where militaries are present, civilian and military spheres are increasingly blurred. Peacekeepers are sent where there is no peace to keep while militaries increasingly undertake humanitarian activities in an effort to win hearts and minds. Humanitarian actors become identified with one or another of the parties to a conflict and are targeted in consequence.

At the same time, government attitudes on state sovereignty have hardened. Particularly since September 11th and the responses to it, the concept of foreign intervention, even if humanitarian in orientation, has come under suspicion. The result has been less room for humanitarian actors to operate.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Here in the United States, the challenge of shrinking humanitarian space is different. It is not about room for international actors to operate. It is about the ability of those in need of and entitled to protection, to get it.

In responding to the devastation of September 11th, wide bars to admissibility were enacted for "terrorist" related activity. As a result, however unintentionally, some of those victimized by terrorism have themselves been prevented from acquiring protection or permanent status in the United States.

Recognizing the potential for injustice in overbroad restrictions, the US Congress provided the Administration with a wide authority to grant waivers in appropriate cases. This authority, however, has been under-utilized. Thousands of cases and thus thousands of lives languish on hold.

Ultimately, careful redrafting of the relevant legislation, such as the definition of "terrorist activity," is the solution. Until that is done, a number of practical measures could be taken to ensure that asylum seekers and refugees are not wrongly caught up in provisions aimed at perpetrators and supporters of terrorism.

The waiver process could be simplified. Strict interpretations of the provisions could be eschewed. Authority to grant could be delegated to Citizenship and Immigration officers in the field, for certain categories of persons. Where large numbers of refugees are being resettled to the United States, group exemptions could be established.

One of today's award winners, Mr. James Morsch, was involved in the representation of an individual from Eritrea who had been denied adjustment of status due to the material support bar. Through energetic and effective advocacy, the case was resolved. I sincerely applaud these efforts.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The second challenge is the changing nature of forced displacement.

Conflict, climate change and extreme poverty are more and more inter-related, compelling more and more people to move. The food and energy crises of 2008 followed by the global financial and economic crisis, amplified this trend.

Responses based on traditional distinctions between refugees and migrants are less and less adequate. UNHCR's core focus will remain refugees but we have welcomed additional responsibilities. Increasingly, wherever protection needs and forced displacement converge, you will find UNHCR.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In the United States, untangling those who are in need of international protection from those who are not is the main function of the asylum system. The number of new asylum claims in the United States in 2008 was just under 50,000. This makes it the second largest recipient country for individual claims of asylum in the world, after South Africa.

In the United States's complex and highly legalized asylum process, legal representation plays a vital role in ensuring that procedures are respected and the correct decision is reached. Studies here show that legal representation more than doubles an asylum seeker's chance of achieving protection.

It is with deep appreciation therefore that I extend my congratulations to the other award winner today, the law firm of Winston and Strawn. And indeed to all of you who have provided legal assistance to asylum seekers on a pro bono basis.

Your clients are fortunate. About a fifth of asylum seekers in the United States do not have counsel. The figure balloons to 85 percent for asylum seekers detained in remote facilities.

The heavy recourse to detention of asylum seekers in the United States remains a significant concern. The situation could be significantly improved in UNHCR's view through the introduction of less restrictive guidelines for parole. Currently, only about 5 percent of asylum seekers are released on parole. Rather than requiring applicants to apply for parole in writing, it should be automatic. The burden of proof could be reversed so that responsibility for justifying continued detention rests on the government. And more use could be made of alternatives to detention, such as release to community-based shelters.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Recognizing the vital role of reviewing bodies in a system that makes frequent use of detention and incorporates an adversarial process for some asylum applicants,

I would like to thank all those present who work in an appellate capacity. UNHCR is deeply grateful to individuals such as the Honourable Ilana Rovner and her colleagues on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals for identifying systemic deficiencies.

To help understand and redress such deficiencies, UNHCR has undertaken a study of the US asylum system. We intend of course to look at what works well also, with a view to sharing examples of good practice. This initiative is not UNHCR's alone. You are important partners and we rely on your expertise to ensure an accurate and useful result.

I am encouraged by the openness to discussing these issues shown by the new Administration. My talks with officials in Washington earlier this week were frank and constructive. UNHCR is ready to help on all matters relevant to the well-being of asylum seekers and refugees.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The final challenge is the diminishing availability of solutions. There are only three solutions for refugees:

Voluntary repatriation, meaning an informed choice by individuals to return to their country of origin in conditions of safety and dignity.

Local integration, meaning the progressive realization of the rights and obligations of citizens of the host state.

And third country resettlement, with which you are already fully familiar.

The number of refugees voluntarily repatriating has declined continuously since 2004. The 604,000 returns in 2008 represent the second lowest number in the last 15 years. The explanation is simple - the situations giving rise to large numbers of refugees are increasingly seen as unfit for return. Two recent examples are Afghanistan and southern Sudan. Without access to another solution, the inevitable result of fewer returns will be an increase in the approximately 6 million refugees already living in protracted situations.

Despite some local integration successes --in Tanzania and in West Africa, for example-- receptivity to this solution is low. The burden borne by host countries is not adequately shared by the international community. As a result, there is strong resistance even to self-reliance activities since these tend to be seen as the thin end of the local integration wedge.

Resettlement is a bright spot. More than 121,000 refugees were submitted for resettlement consideration by UNHCR in 2008, the highest number in a decade and a half. This reflects UNHCR's increasing use of resettlement as a strategic solution as well as a tool of individual protection.

The United States is UNHCR's largest resettlement partner. With its ceiling last year of 80,000 places, 85% of which were referrals from UNHCR, it surpasses by manyfold the next largest individual country resettlement program.

The funds the United States provides for resettlement are irreplaceable. For the refugees who are resettled, however, this support is only the beginning. The success of their integration depends on the support of the communities they go to, their ability to find work and the availability of counseling and other services. In difficult economic times, all these things become more challenging. I preach to the converted when I urge you to advocate as forcefully as you can for their continued provision.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Given an opportunity, refugees can and will contribute to their new communities. I want to commend today's awardee Luol Deng who has donated $50 for each basket he made for the Chicago Bulls last year for a total of $31,650 to fund education and schools for children in South Sudan, where Luol was born and from where he and his family fled civil war 20 years ago.

I would also like to acknowledge in particular those engaged in the resettlement and integration of refugees here in Chicago. Despite the challenges presented by the economic downturn, you have continued to welcome those desperate to come. You give them hope. And you do us proud.

UNHCR looks forward to working with all of you to engage the challenges I have outlined today in order to ensure that refugees' human rights are respected and that they receive the full extent of the protections guaranteed by the 1951 Convention.

Thank you very much.