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"The challenge of a world on the move" - Op-ed by High Commissioner Lubbers

"The challenge of a world on the move" - Op-ed by High Commissioner Lubbers

Human migration and displacement is one of the most complex challenges in today's globalized, interdependent world. Finding lasting solutions to the problems raised by the mass movement of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants will require commitment and partnership on a truly global scale, says Ruud Lubbers.
21 January 2004
Welcoming the returnees with an Agasimbo dance.

The following article appears in, and is reproduced by kind permission of, "Global Affairs," the official magazine of the Davos World Economic Forum, (Davos, Switzerland, 21-25 January).

People have always moved across the world in search of a safer, better or more prosperous life. Human migration is as old as mankind - and so is the institution of asylum.

But in today's globalized world, the enormous scale of human movement presents unprecedented and extremely complex challenges. For my office, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), one of the biggest challenges is trying to identify - within this constantly moving mass of humanity - a relatively small number of people who are fleeing persecution because of who they are, what they are or what they may think.

Not only must we distinguish between them and all of the others on the move, but we must do everything possible to ensure that not a single one of them is sent back into harm's way.

Working under our international mandate, UNHCR's 5,000 staff in some 120 countries are currently helping 20 million refugees and others of concern. This is a daunting task in a post-9/11 world dominated by legitimate security concerns and the war on terror - but also a world where traditional compassion and hospitality toward the displaced are being increasingly overshadowed by xenophobia and fear.

Faced with this new, global reality, UNHCR, its partners and governments are together seeking innovative new ways of meeting our collective responsibility to protect and find lasting solutions for refugees.

Expanding refugee protection

Our starting point remains the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which expanded the Convention's validity beyond 1950s Europe. The Convention was adopted in the aftermath of World War II and was initially designed to deal with an estimated one million people uprooted by the war. UNHCR's founders gave the organization a relatively brief, three-year mandate. But four years later there were still 100,000 war refugees and tens of millions more were to be uprooted in the decades to come. Today, a half-century later, UNHCR is still at work in some of the most difficult and dangerous places on earth.

Through five decades, the 1951 Convention has remained a remarkably resilient document. It lays down the legal obligation of individual states not to "refoule", or forcibly return, refugees by sending them back into danger.

But in our globalized, increasingly interdependent world, individual state obligations alone are no longer enough. Today's complex migration and asylum challenges cannot be solved solely by individual states working in a vacuum.

Instead, we need a system of joint responsibility and burden-sharing to deal with what has become a global problem requiring multilateral strategies and solutions - an approach I call "Convention Plus."

Convention Plus is UNHCR's blueprint for a new, expanded international refugee protection regime - which, in my view, addresses some of the important issues not covered by the 1951 Convention.

They include questions such as how the responsibility for admitting and protecting refugees should be shared, how lasting solutions for refugees should be pursued and how to tackle the root causes of refugee flows.

Convention Plus is about designing a system of multilateral special agreements to address modern asylum and refugee challenges. Such a system would help coordinate the roles and responsibilities of all of those involved in seeking durable solutions - including countries and regions of origin, host governments, transit states, resettlement destinations and donors.

Such new arrangements can distribute more fairly the cost and the effort of receiving and protecting those who had already fled from their countries, as well as the cost and the effort of preventing new refugee flows. It allows a more global response to a global challenge.

In normal, everyday usage, the word refugee is used to describe nearly anyone fleeing just about anything - natural disasters, poverty, civil war or despotism.

While all of them may deserve our help and our sympathy, they are not all refugees as strictly defined under international law. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person with a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

UNHCR's job is to help people who flee their countries because of violence and persecution and whose premature return could result in further persecution, imprisonment or death. Over the past decade, the number of people of

concern to UNHCR peaked at 27.4 million in 1995 and has hovered between 20 million and 22 million since 1997. The composition of our current population of 20.6 million (as of January 1, 2003) reflects some of the progress that is being made as well as some of the problems.

For example, the number of new refugees generated in 2002 actually dropped by 69% over the previous year. At the same time, 3.6 million refugees and other groups assisted by UNHCR returned home in 2002, primarily to Afghanistan but also to Angola, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Sri Lanka and the Russian Federation.

These people remain "of concern" to UNHCR until we are confident that the reintegration process is truly sustainable and irreversible.

In many parts of the world, democracy has triumphed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, expanding free and open societies to former refugee-producing nations.

In the mid- and late 90s, international intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo helped reverse some of the results of the infamous policy of ethnic cleansing that became synonymous with the Balkan wars.

In 2001, the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan led to the large-scale return of Afghan refugees and displaced people - involving some three million people to date in one of the largest repatriation operations in UNHCR's 50-year history.

Such examples show that despite the many problems that remain, international efforts that address the root causes of displacement can produce remarkable results.

This is true both in regions of origin - primarily poor countries where most of the world's refugees reside - and beyond.

It is a fact, for example, that the numbers of asylum seekers in industrialized countries from places such as the Balkans and Afghanistan plummeted once the international community began giving these regions and their problems the sustained attention and resources that they deserved.

Forgotten situations

Unfortunately, however, there remain many other displaced populations around the world that have attracted little or no attention - in so-called "protracted refugee situations."

In Africa alone, there are hundreds of thousands of displaced people for whom there are no obvious solutions in sight. Many live in the most degrading conditions of abject poverty.

They are often accommodated in remote, economically marginalized and insecure areas where there are few opportunities for self-sufficiency. UNHCR programmes to help them are often under-funded and we struggle to provide even the barest of essentials.

These forgotten situations, like the camps in Europe that still operated 20 years after World War II, are a scar on the map of the world. My Dutch compatriot and the first UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, once said that such places should "burn holes in the conscience of all those privileged to live in better conditions".

As High Commissioner, I certainly feel a deep sense of responsibility because it is my job to find lasting solutions for refugees so they can begin to rebuild their lives.

When people are left to languish for years in desolate refugee camps, surviving largely on international handouts, I cannot in good conscience say we are meeting our international protection obligations.

Nor can we blame these people when they finally lose hope and go on the move in search of a better life elsewhere for their families. In their shoes, we would probably do the very same thing.

So what more can be done? For one thing, we need to focus much more attention on countries and regions of origin, particularly those that are out of the international spotlight. Obviously, the international community cannot intervene militarily or politically every time a regime abuses its citizens and drives them into exile.

But there are other types of interventions - through trade, investment, humanitarian support and development aid, for example - that can make the lives of people more meaningful, prosperous and independent.

Around three-quarters of those of concern to UNHCR are in developing nations. Even though these countries are among the world's poorest, they receive only minimal support in providing for the refugees on their soil.

Thus, UNHCR is urging the international community to target more development assistance at both refugees and the local communities that host them.

We need programmes aimed at fostering self-reliance among refugees, who - given the chance - can make major contributions to their societies. And when repatriation home or local integration in first asylum countries is not possible, we need more opportunities for resettlement in third countries.

In the longer term, these various kinds of interventions can also help reduce the numbers of refugees who feel compelled to embark on perilous journeys - often using smugglers and traffickers - across the globe in search of better prospects.

Throughout the industrialised world today, there is much talk of the need for stricter asylum policies as a means of controlling irregular migration. But the enforcement approach to migration and asylum has not solved the problem of large numbers of migrants entering these countries in an irregular manner. Instead, it has tended to drive both economic migrants and asylum seekers into the hands of criminal smugglers and traffickers. This has compounded the problems for governments, while at the same time putting the individuals concerned at great risk.

These smugglers and traffickers are specialists at misusing asylum systems, and they are part of the reason that both asylum systems and asylum seekers themselves have been given such a bad name.

To be effective, we need strict and workable policies to help sort the economic migrants from those people who are truly in need of international protection. One measure sought by EU countries is better policing, especially on their periphery. I see no objection to strengthening Europe's outer borders, provided that arriving refugees still have access to a fair and fast asylum procedure.

The last thing any of us want to see is a refugee sent back to persecution, imprisonment, torture or death under a dictatorial regime. Asylum procedures should be made faster and fairer, and better mechanisms should be put in place to return those asylum seekers who are found not to be in need of international protection.

Downward fluctuations in the numbers of asylum seekers on the move are generally linked more to an improvement in conditions in countries and regions of origin than to the imposition of restrictive measures in destination asylum countries.

That is why it is so important for us to take a more comprehensive approach to the problem, to understand why people move in the first place and how we in the international community can work more closely together to find real solutions for the dispossessed and the displaced.