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Erika Feller, Director of International Protection, UNHCR: Address in the Spanish Congress of Deputies, Madrid, Friday 20 June 2003

Speeches and statements

Erika Feller, Director of International Protection, UNHCR: Address in the Spanish Congress of Deputies, Madrid, Friday 20 June 2003

20 June 2003

Event: Commemoration of World Refugee Day (this year's theme refugee youth) as well as the 25th anniversary of the Spanish ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its additional protocol.

Venue: "Salon de Actos", Congress of Deputies, Madrid

Audience: 180 people, among whom: parliamentarians, refugees living in Spain, government officials, NGO representatives, artists and other people committed to the refugee cause.

Other speakers:
Ms. Luisa Fernanda Rudi, President of the House of Parliament
Mr. Eduardo Zaplana, Minister of Labour and Social Affairs (to be confirmed)
Mr. Ignacio González, Junior Minister for Immigration (to be confirmed)
Mr. Ramón Gil Casares, Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs
Mr. Jonathan Fessahaye Wolderugal, young Eritrean refugee living in Spain.
Mr. Carlos Boggio, UNHCR Representative in Spain

Speech (10 minutes)

Madame President
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be present today in the Congress of Deputies, on a day which is both World Refugee Day and the 25th anniversary of the Spanish ratification of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.

On the occasion of this 25th anniversary, Spain deserves sincere commendation for its generosity and international solidarity over the years in accepting refugees from around the world, from Latin America, to Equatorial Guinea, Viet Nam, the Middle East, and the former Yugoslavia. Spain has also responded favourably to calls from UNHCR to take refugees produced during an emergency who could not stay in their first country of asylum, when it temporarily hosted close to one and half thousand (1,426) Kosovo Albanian refugees in 1999.

As for World Refugee Day, this year's focus is on refugee youth. My colleague Carlos Boggio has spoken about this issue in greater depth. Let me though just underline some of the special needs which young refugees have. Displacement often means they become separated from their families or carers. It makes them more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, abuse and violence, and to military recruitment. Refugee children also suffer disproportionately if detained, as unfortunately happens in some countries. Proper registration of young refugees represents an important tool to ensure their protection and their access to basic rights, as well as facilitating family reunification and the identification of specific needs. Education is also especially important, helping raise awareness about the particular predicaments they will have to face, as well as ensuring they do not fall so far behind their peers that integration in new societies or reintegration in their home countries becomes too difficult. It provides a viable alternative to harmful options that may present themselves, and enables intellectual development and psycho-social recovery. Finally, the particularities of caring for and interviewing young asylum-seekers during the course of a refugee status determination process have to be accommodated through specially tailored programmes if the protection needs of refugee children are to be properly assessed and met.

Contemporary challenges

More broadly, I would like to concentrate in my address to you today on contemporary challenges to the refugee protection regime and the continuing importance of the 1951 Convention in meeting those challenges. The ending of the Cold War, the process of globalisation, the threat of terrorism, and growing illegal migration are among the factors which have led some to call into question the contemporary relevance of the 1951 Convention. Asylum systems are today often perceived as widely abused, with the result that there is a perception that they need to be tightened further and that new concepts are needed to respond to contemporary needs. A sense of crisis currently prevails in many European countries, including Spain. This sense is fuelled by a perception of lost control over illegal migration and the new security environment prevailing in the post 11 September world.

It is important, however, to keep a sense of perspective and to adopt a responsible approach. Otherwise there is a risk of undermining the humanitarian and human rights values which inspired the 1951 Convention and on which democratic societies the world over are built. Declaring the Convention irrelevant will not resolve today's challenges. On the contrary, the situation demands the strengthening of its application in a more effective manner through well-resourced and efficient procedures which are in accordance with international standards. And this is not only our view. Ministers and senior statesmen from 144 states parties said as much in a joint declaration adopted by consensus December 2001 in Geneva.

The Convention has proven well able to adapt to changing circumstances. Reflecting broader developments in international human rights law, the Convention has now been interpreted in many countries to include victims of gender-based persecution and of persecution by non-state agents. The Convention is also so phrased as to exclude from its ambit those not deserving of international protection and the proper application of its exclusion clauses will ensure, for instance, that perpetrators of terrorist crimes are not able to secure refugee status.

Ultimately, the consequences of seeking to undermine the 1951 Convention may be to the detriment not only of those fleeing persecution but also of states. The Convention and the asylum systems which are based upon it represent vital tools for states to identify those towards to whom they have obligations among the numerous people seeking to cross their borders. The Convention also establishes a framework in which the international cooperation and solidarity needed to address the global refugee problem and secure solutions can operate. In this respect, it is worth remembering that the majority of the world's refugees remain in developing countries, often for many years, and have far fewer resources to host them. In industrialised countries, the number of asylum applications fell by 5 per cent in 2002 compared to 2001, and this trend was accentuated further in the first three months of 2003. In Spain, the number of asylum applications fell by more than a third in 2002 compared to 2001.

Asylum/migration nexus

I would like to turn now to an issue of particular concern in Spain, where fears are strong about being one of the gateways for illegal immigrants to Europe: the interface between asylum and migration.

As a reaction to increased migration pressures, countries of destination have tightened migration control. Coupled with the measures to address security concerns, this has increasingly turned their external borders into fortresses. Yet, as migration management measures become tougher and do not distinguish among the different groups, more and more people feel compelled to resort to illegal means and the services of unscrupulous smugglers and traffickers who often put individuals' lives at risk in exchange for large amounts of money. The lack of legal migration channels in many countries also tends to increase abuse of the asylum system by those seeking a better life, who may see it as the only way to reach rich countries. States have legitimate concerns to control entry and stay on their territory. However seeking to seal borders alone does not work. Furthermore failure at the same time to put in place adequate procedures to identify and protect persons in need of international protection is at odds with legal responsibilities while not addressing broader insecurity and economic problems in countries of origin renders border control alone not a sustainable approach to the problem of illegal migration.

Contemporary efforts to manage migration and combat trafficking and criminal human smuggling encounter many challenges and have to take into account numerous overlapping, sometimes even conflicting policy interests, of which the asylum regime forms a small, albeit important, part. The focus of broader efforts needs to be more directly related to trade, employment, development cooperation, poverty reduction, law enforcement and international conflict management. It is vital therefore, to take into account the root causes that shape irregular migration. These include the expanding gap between North and South, the lack of durable solutions for refugees, returnees and the local population in post-conflict situations, and ongoing protracted conflicts, since these problems can lead to secondary movements or irregular movements to other countries. These root causes of migration, whether forced or voluntary, need to be addressed through development aid, soft credits, technical expertise, strengthening protection and creating a robust protection system, offering resettlement quotas - in sum, by demonstrating genuine international solidarity and responsibility sharing. Providing access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, which are well-resourced and informed, is an aspect of such solidarity and responsibility sharing in this respect. In addition, endeavours to strengthen protection capacities in refugee-receiving countries in regions of origin, to enable refugees to enjoy effective protection, and improve their self-reliance can reduce secondary movement pressures.

Readmission agreements with countries of origin to facilitate the swift return of asylum-seekers whose claims have been finally rejected in a full and fair procedure are likewise important. Finally, comprehensive durable solutions arrangements need to be pursued in tandem with better managed individual asylum systems.

UNHCR is fully engaged in a dialogue with different countries and with various multilateral and international initiatives in an effort to improve the management of mixed flows of illegal migrants and refugees and to promote protection-sensitive solutions. The organisation understands the serious dilemmas that such mixed flows create for governments and societies and also has concerns about such issues as trafficking and criminal smuggling.

Finally on the issue of individual asylum systems and the 1951 Convention, let me stress the importance UNHCR places on full and rigorous application of the principles of exclusion so that those who should not get asylum because of what they have done are denied refugee status. UNHCR fully shares the concerns of states to eradicate domestically and contain the spread internationally of the scourge of terrorism.

EU Common European Asylum System and Thessaloniki

Perhaps now a word or two also about the European context in which international refugee protection operates. When the establishment of a Common European Asylum System was launched with the Treaty of Amsterdam, UNHCR supported the harmonisation process in the European Union. It welcomed Member States' commitment at the Tampere summit to 'absolute respect for the right to seek asylum' and to 'a Common European Asylum System, based on the full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention'. UNHCR felt that the debate and subsequent agreement among EU Member States on the definition of those in need of protection, on the State responsible for assessing such claims, appropriate reception conditions, the procedures to be adopted, the resulting status, and related issues could help promote a more effective and balanced protection system in Europe. Such harmonisation should, we believe, be a most useful tool to reduce differences in state practice, which can otherwise lead to "asylum shopping" between participating States.

As the deadline of May 2004 for the approval of the Common European Asylum System rapidly approaches, there is, however, some doubt as to whether final negotiations will be able to bridge important policy and practice gaps, rather than result in the inclusion of an increasing number of exceptions, allowing national variations of practice to continue. We hope that harmonization will not actually weaken existing protection standards, and we encourage states with solid systems, like Spain, to export their best practices. After all, developments in the EU have considerable 'export value' themselves, for other regions of the world looking westward for practices to follow.

The EU summit in Thessaloniki next week will be crucial in this respect.

Another key topic on the Thessaloniki agenda will be a review of the implementation of the Seville Conclusions on irregular immigration. In this broader debate, we also sincerely hope that the EU Member States will bear in mind the need to preserve the spirit and intent of the 1951 Convention as the only global legal instrument to protect refugees.

Role of parliamentarians

Since we are here today in the Congress of Deputies, I would especially like to pay tribute to the significant contribution which national parliaments make to refugee protection. This is, not least, through the drafting of national legislation and, in the EU context, when national legislation in the EU Member States is reviewed to transpose EU Directives on asylum and migration into national law. Parliamentary deputies can show real leadership in setting high standards for public policy and legislation on these issues and can ensure that transposition into national law guarantees the full and inclusive application of the 1951 Convention which States committed themselves to at Tampere. Deputies can also play an important role in promoting the adoption of practices that ensure high levels of protection on those matters in the Directives which are left to the discretion of each Member State.

In the contemporary climate, with its increasing hostility towards refugees and asylum-seekers, parliamentarians and political leaders, as well as the media, have a clear responsibility to address these issues in a balanced, dispassionate and well-informed manner and to shun xenophobic rhetoric. Otherwise policy-making is too often driven by domestic political considerations and media agendas.

Of course refugee protection and refugee rights are not only issues of concern to governments, politicians and international organisations such as UNHCR. In today's globalised world, they are also of concern for all of us, for individual citizens, the corporate world and others. It is therefore vital to raise public awareness about the character and plight of refugees - about the persecution and conflict they flee, the contribution they make to society, and the value of living in open, diverse and tolerant societies.

In conclusion, I would like to take the opportunity to draw your attention to a Handbook for parliamentarians that UNHCR recently published together with the Inter-Parliamentary Union. It is called "Refugee Protection - A Guide to International Refugee Law" and has been recently translated into Spanish. We will send you the Handbook shortly. Finally, I would like to express my appreciation for the opportunity given to UNHCR to share our thoughts on the various challenging asylum-related issues in the European Union.

Thank you.