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UNHCR's Volker Turk warns of threats to global asylum environment in key address

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UNHCR's Volker Turk warns of threats to global asylum environment in key address

5 October 2017

Violations of international refugee law, such as attacks by troops and families being driven back across borders, jeopardized the safety of people fleeing for their lives in 2017, UNHCR’s international protection chief said today.

In a key annual address to the UN Refugee Agency’s annual Executive Committee meeting in Geneva, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Türk – the UN’s leading expert on international protection – said such breaches are “wide-ranging and occur in all parts of the world”.

“In particular, they have included killings of refugees by the military,” he said, adding that there has also been a surge in serious incidents of refoulement, the forced return of refugees.

“Terrified families have been deported in the middle of the night, often with the connivance of security agents from the countries of origin,” he told an audience of representatives of 151 states that make up the Executive Committee.

Some in power are disregarding the tradition that asylum is a humanitarian, non-political act, he said. Some politicians have cast aside humanity in favour of short-term political gains, arguing that they were acting in defence of the liberty, security, and safety of their citizenry

“This is dangerous – not just for the many refugees whose lives are affected as a result, but also for the citizens in whose defence governments purport to act.”

Another major worry is an increasing trend in deterrence measures by governments, which in some instances have become “deliberate policies of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment directed against the very people who were fleeing such circumstances in the first place”.

“There is no justification to keep families apart, or to keep refugees in limbo, or to keep them languishing in substandard detention sites off-shore, in inappropriate reception facilities, or confined to border areas.

“A refugee is a refugee.”

“Treating human beings in this way is not only harmful for them, but also for society at large, since its effects ultimately lead to the dehumanization of individuals and the brutalization of a society as a whole.” 

Sexual and gender-based violence remain major causes of flight, as well as posing serious risks en route. It takes many forms, from rape, to sexual assault, domestic violence, child marriage and sexual exploitation.

Türk referred to the growing number of child refugees, who account for more than half the world’s 22.5 million refugees.

Last year alone, 64,000 unaccompanied and separated children were apprehended at the US-Mexico border, more than 2.4 million Syrian refugees were children and more than one million fled South Sudan.

He touched on the use of language and name-calling when referring to refugees, for example calling them “queue jumpers”, or branding them as terrorists or criminals.

“Emotionally charged topics are raised to gain votes, to misinform, and to scapegoat, often in a manner that dehumanises, creates divisions and polarises,” he said.

A variety of terms are used to describe refugees, such as “undocumented people” or “vulnerable migrants”, possibly with the idea of making a stronger case for the rights of all people on the move. However, this has caused confusion and “inadvertently provided fodder for those who wish to undermine refugees’ rights”.

“I have to say that, quite apart from the erroneous legal depiction, I find it inappropriate to present people as a sub-set of anything, migrants or otherwise,” he added. “A refugee is a refugee.”

“International refugee law provides for safeguards to protect those in need of international protection.”

In some academic and international circles it has become fashionable to argue that the refugee system was broken, but these arguments often do not hold up.

“Reopening a discussion of what has been the bedrock of international protection for nearly seven decades risks becoming an exercise in weakening existing standards, reducing them to the lowest common denominator, again to the detriment of the millions of refugees who must rely upon this system for their survival,” he said.

Türk paid tribute to efforts being made towards promoting peaceful coexistence in host communities. 

“In Lebanon, Iraq, and Chad, urban development projects, such as building and improving schools and child-friendly spaces, clinics, water and sanitation facilities, in areas where many refugees reside, are benefitting both refugees and host communities and reducing potential tensions between them,” he said.

He spoke of motivating “the silent majority and those on the fence”, so that refugee affairs became a “whole of society” matter. 

He added that it was encouraging that more than 1.5 million people have signed up to UNHCR’s #WithRefugees campaign in support of action to ensure education, shelter, jobs, and skills training for refugees.

Security and protection must go hand-in-hand and one is not possible without the other.

“International refugee law provides for safeguards to protect those in need of international protection from persecution, conflict, and violence – including terrorism – while bearing in mind the security interests of host countries and their communities.” He noted that refugees were often the first victims of terrorism.

“There is no doubt that multilateralism is the way of the future.”

In the longer term, the cycle of displacement needed to be broken, he said.

“In some way, a broader understanding of solutions, which includes addressing root causes, immediate needs, and longer-term development, could be an avenue to achieve this.”

Ideally, this means preventing the problems from arising in the first place by addressing the root causes of displacement. These often are a result of the lack of good governance and the effective functioning of the state.

“Unfortunately, in too many situations, we are confronted with huge inequalities, a lack of accountability towards people, and massive and unchecked exploitation of natural resources at the expense of local populations. In an increasingly interconnected world, these issues are not isolated, but affect us all.”

Access to education and promoting self-reliance were parts of the solution. Of the six million refugees of school age, 3.7 million had no access to education and refugee children able to go to school typically still missed out on three to four years of schooling. 

“In the longer term, sustainable access to national education is key to ensuring refugee children have access to accredited examinations, promoting social cohesion, investing in existing programmes and infrastructure…”

For those who eventually wish to return to their country of origin, sometimes after many years in exile, the decision is often fraught with difficulties.

“Should individuals wish to return in such circumstances, they have the right to do so, and UNHCR’s responsibility in such circumstances is to make every effort to ensure that their decision is free and informed and that they can access the essential support they need upon arrival in their home country,” Türk added.

In his conclusion, he said that building on the CRRF experience, our work on next year’s Global Compact on Refugees will help to maintain the momentum.

“There is no doubt that multilateralism is the way of the future and is in the specific national interest of each and every country. This is most apparent in the refugee context.”