UNHCR calls for strengthening protection of refugees, IDPs, stateless
GENEVA, 3 October (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Thursday called for strengthening the protection of refugees, the stateless and internally displaced people (IDPs) to ensure they enjoy their full human rights.
While terming the agenda challenging, Volker Türk, UNHCR's Director of International Protection proposed specific goals in a major speech in Geneva to UNHCR's Executive Committee, which meets annually to set policy for the refugee agency. Protection is the core responsibility of the organization.
"First and foremost," Türk said, "it means that refugees, the stateless, IDPs and other persons of concern are able to enjoy the widest possible array of human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination. This focus must permeate all our interactions with persons of concern."
Part of that means providing prompt, quality services, such as care to victims of sexual violence, legal assistance and support for the voluntary return home of refugees or their resettlement to third countries, he said.
"It also means advocating for and intervening on behalf of refugees and other persons of concern when they are at risk, for example when in detention or in danger of refoulement [forced return]," Türk said. "UNHCR is committed to exercising our supervisory role in relation to relevant international treaties."
UNHCR's focus on protection of individuals must be incorporated in every aspect of its work, he said, from providing education to ensuring refugee camps are located away from threatening borders and designed so women do not face dangerous routes to collect water.
"To be effective, we need to understand their particular needs, not as homogenous groups, but as individuals with specific backgrounds, aspirations and hopes," he said. UNHCR was implementing that approach through policies such as improving child protection, preventing sexual and gender-based violence and increasing education.
In his overview of UNHCR's goals, Türk said the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, the cornerstone of international refugee law, remained essential. But new challenges - such as broader migration flows, treacherous crossings of seas and human trafficking - also needed to be addressed through additional channels, including human rights law.
Türk called on the delegates from some 80 countries attending the meeting to help the organization meet specific targets in the overall drive to strengthen the protection of the millions of people for whom UNHCR has responsibility.
"UNHCR is particularly concerned about the increasing use of detention in some countries, including of children, at times in conditions that are inhumane or where release is conditional on leaving the territory," he said.
"Could we not collectively strive to ensure that there are no asylum-seeking children in detention within the next five years?" Türk said on the fourth day of the week-long meeting.
To improve the process of determining who is entitled to refugee status, Türk asked for countries to assume more of the responsibility, with UNHCR support. Last year, UNHCR had sole responsibility for the determination process in nearly 50 countries.
UNHCR is the international agency responsible for protecting refugees and the stateless, a key partner for protecting IDPs who remain in their own countries. UNHCR's top protection official said while it was important to help people in long-term refugee situations become more self-sufficient, the ultimate goal of the refugee agency was to find solutions.
"The very objective of efforts to protect and assist refugees and internally displaced persons is to find a solution to their plight," he said. This includes the return of refugees home when it is safe - the goal they most often want - and other ways to end their refugee status such as local integration in the host country and resettlement of refugees to third countries.
"By the end of 2012, nearly 6.5 million persons, more than half of the refugee population under UNHCR's mandate, remained trapped in exile for five years or more. Protracted refugee situations are found in 25 countries, and in all of the regions where UNHCR operates. The number of situations involving protracted internal displacement is also increasing,'' he said.
"Let's strive to reduce the number of refugees and IDPs in protracted situations further over the next three years through a wide range of creative solutions options," Türk said.
The UNHCR official also called for more efforts to end the problem of stateless people, whose lack of nationality can undermine their human rights. Despite progress since UNHCR launched a campaign more than two years ago - 350,000 formerly stateless people gained nationality and 19 states signed up to the international agreements - Türk said challenges remained.
"It is absurd that in a world where everything can be monitored and tracked, we still have some 10 million people in relation to whom no state has formalized the legal bond of nationality,'' Türk said. "Would it not be a major achievement if in a decade from now statelessness was but a faint memory of a bygone era and our mandate rendered redundant?"
Türk said protection provides essential stability for those UNHCR must help. But it also needs constant action, updating and creativity "to be true to its founding ideas of equality and justice."
By Jack Redden in Geneva