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Note on International Protection (Submitted by the High Commissioner)

Executive Committee Meetings

Note on International Protection (Submitted by the High Commissioner)

11 August 1980


1. The principal developments in regard to international protection from 1 April 1979 to 31 March 1980 are contained in the High Commissioner's Report submitted to the thirty-fifth session of the General Assembly through the Economic and Social Council (E/1980/79). This period witnessed a number of situations involving a large-scale influx of asylum-seekers which gave rise to particularly serious difficulties for the States most directly concerned. These situations may, in the context of international solidarity and co-operation, call for new initiatives and for renewed efforts to ensure that the basic principles of international protection are fully respected. The period since the Executive Committee's thirtieth session has also been marked by the continued existence of a number of specific problems having a direct and particularly serious impact on asylum-seekers and refugees. Efforts to find solutions for these problems constitute a major outstanding task in the field of international protection.

2. The following paragraphs outline the major problem areas in the field of international protection together with the more positive trends that have occurred since the thirtieth session of the Executive Committee.

Developments and outstanding problems in regard to asylum.

3. At the Executive Committee's thirtieth session, the High Commissioner drew attention to the serious problems existing in one area as result of refusal of even temporary asylum to asylum-seekers arriving in boats, and to the forcible return of such asylum-seekers to the high seas. Following special efforts by the international community to relieve the burden on first asylum countries in that area, the States concerned have shown an increased willingness to grant temporary admission to asylum-seekers arriving in boats. Nevertheless, several further reported cases of asylum-seekers being forced to return to the high seas by the authorities of one country, resulting in severe hardship and in some instances death for the persons involved have been brought to the attention of the High Commissioner and have been the cause of the utmost concern.

4. Moreover, the granting of asylum merely on a temporary basis, a practice which some States in different parts of the world still feel compelled to follow, continues to give rise to considerable problems. Efforts to find a country of resettlement for refugees who have received only temporary asylum may not always meet with success or may require an extended period during which the refugees may find themselves in a situation characterized by great anxiety and uncertainty as to the future. The fact that their presence in the country is regarded as purely temporary may also result in a number of disadvantages of a more tangible nature. The refugees may thus be required to reside in camps or reception centres under difficult conditions, in some cases for long periods of time.

5. A related problem concerns the practice, followed by a number of States, of generally regarding asylum-seekers as illegal immigrants. This practice frequently results in asylum-seekers being exposed to a number of difficulties including serious measures such as detention and expulsion.

6. These situations, which very often involve much human suffering, could be avoided if Governments could find it possible to grant durable rather than temporary asylum, and to ensure that refugees who have not been granted durable asylum are provided with satisfactory living conditions pending resettlement.

7. It should of course be stressed that a majority of States, in accordance with long-standing humanitarian traditions, continue to follow liberal practices in granting durable asylum to refugees.

Refoulement of refugees and asylum-seekers

8. At the Executive Committee's thirtieth session, attention was drawn to the measures taken in one area involving the large-scale forcible return of asylum-seekers to their country of origin in disregard of the principle of non-refoulement. It is gratifying to note that in the area in question there have been no further such instances and that great numbers of asylum-seekers arriving by land have been given at least temporary refuge.

9. The High Commissioner has, however, received disquieting reports concerning the refoulement of groups of asylum-seekers in another area. He has also continued to receive reports of measures of refoulement being taken in different areas against individual asylum-seekers and refugees. Such measures inevitably result in considerable human suffering and constitute a serious violation of the internationally accepted principle of non-refoulement. The need for scrupulous observance of this principle has been repeatedly stressed by the Executive Committee and also by the United Nations General Assembly.

10. Measures of refoulement have also resulted from the absence of appropriate procedures for ensuring that refugees or asylum-seekers are identified as such. The importance of procedures for determining refugee status has been stressed repeatedly by the Executive Committee.

Pirate attacks on asylum-seekers

11. The problem of pirate attacks on asylum-seekers in one region has assumed alarming proportions since the Executive Committee's thirtieth session. As mentioned in the High Commissioner's Report to the General Assembly (E/1980/79, para.29), a very high percentage of asylum-seekers leaving their country of origin in boats are reported to have been victims - and in some cases repeatedly - of such pirate attacks. The survivors of these attacks have given harrowing accounts of robbery, abduction, rape and murder. The action being taken by those Governments which are directly concerned to ensure that pirate attacks on asylum-seekers are effectively intercepted and that those accused of organizing or participating in such attacks are duly brought to justice are greatly to be welcomed. The High Commissioner is in close and regular contact with these and other interested Governments with a view to examining what further action to eradicate this grave problem might be envisaged. He trusts that these efforts will receive the full support of the Executive Committee.

12. In view of the fact that the problem of piracy is a general one and is not limited to asylum-seekers, the High Commissioner has also brought this matter specifically to the attention of the Secretary-General with a view to its being given consideration by the United Nations.

International instruments relating to refugees

13. Since the Executive Committee's thirtieth session, a further seven States have become parties to the United Nations Convention and to the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. This represents a record number of accessions in any one year and brings the number of States parties to the Convention and/or to the Protocol to 83. The question of accession is, moreover, under active consideration by a number of States. These developments are of particular significance since accession to the international refugee instruments represents a further strengthening of the legal framework for the protection of refugees. Accession also implies a reaffirmation of the internationally-recognized standards for the treatment of refugees which, in view of the serious problems currently existing in the field of international protection, is of the utmost importance. Despite the progress achieved, however, it is still the case that in various parts of the world where major refugee problems exist, refugees continue to be without the basic minimum protection afforded by the Convention and the Protocol. It is therefore of the utmost urgency that further States accede to these instruments in the near future.

Travel documents

14. It will be recalled that at its thirtieth session the Executive Committee considered the difficulties encountered by refugees in certain countries in obtaining travel documents and stressed the need for States to issue such documentation. The High Commissioner is encouraged to note an increasing willingness by Governments to issue travel documents with a period of validity and return clauses of sufficient length. The Office has continued to arrange for the printing of Convention Travel Documents to be made available to Governments for issue to refugees. Since the Committee's thirtieth session, the Office has received an increasing number of requests - and for increasing quantities - from Governments for such Convention Travel Documents. The Convention Travel Document now exists in four versions; English/French; French/English; Arabic/English/French; and Spanish/French/English. A Portuguese/French/English version is in the course of preparation.

Developments in regard to international protection at the regional level

15. Experience has shown that the High Commissioner's efforts in the field of international protection may be greatly assisted by action at the regional level. Such action taken either by intergovernmental or non-governmental organizations or bodies can be especially valuable in that it takes due account of the specific problems and difficulties existing in the particular region concerned.

16. In view of recent developments in Asia, the problem of the international protection of refugees in that region has assumed particular significance and urgency. Current problems relating to the international protection of refugees and displaced persons in Asia were reviewed by a Round Table of Asian Experts which met in Manila, Philippines from 14 to 18 April 1980 and which was attended by experts from countries within the Asian region, including those most directly concerned with the refugee problem.

17. The Round Table adopted the Manila Declaration on the International Protection of Refugees and Displaced Persons in Asia which, inter alia, stresses the fundamental importance of the principles of asylum and non-refoulement and calls upon States of the Asian region to consider seriously accession to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol. The Round Table also "recognized that while international solidarity and co-operation should not be a precondition for compliance with basic humanitarian principles, they are indispensable for satisfactorily resolving problems of refugees and displaced persons in situations of large-scale influx".

18. The Round Table also considered the problem of pirate attacks to which reference has been made above and adopted the Manila Declaration on Pirate Attacks on Refugees and Displaced Persons. In this Declaration the Round Table, inter alia,

"Urges States within whose waters pirate attacks occur to take immediately all measures necessary to suppress completely such attacks, to assist persons who are victims thereof and to prosecute those responsible"1

19. The Committee has already been informed of the work of the Conference on the Situation of Refugees in Africa held in Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania from 7 to 17 May 1979.2 In the Note on International Protection submitted to the Committee at its thirtieth session, the High Commissioner expressed the view that the work of the Conference would constitute an important factor in improving the legal situation of refugees in Africa and would help further to strengthen the principles established for the treatment of refugees at the universal level.3 The Office is in close contact with the Secretariat of the Organization of African Unity, which was entrusted by the Arusha Conference with the task of ensuring that its recommendations are effectively implemented. A joint OAU/UNHCR Working Group has recently been established and is proceeding with the task of reviewing on a regular basis the process of implementation of the Arusha recommendations.

20. The High Commissioner has particularly welcomed the further strengthening of the close collaboration that exists between the OAU and his Office. He has also been gratified by the further development of co-operation between his Office and the Organization of American States and the Arab League. Liaison has also been established between UNHCR and the Islamic Conference, and the High Commissioner looks forward to working closely with this organization in the future.

21. The High Commissioner wishes to express once again his special appreciation for the close and fruitful co-operation which exists between his Office and the Council of Europe in regard to the international protection of refugees. He greatly welcomes the adoption by the Committee of Ministers, on 30 April 1980, of the European Agreement an the transfer of responsibility for refugees who move lawfully from one member State of the Council of Europe to another and the examination within the Council of Europe of a number of important questions affecting the legal situation of refugees with a view to finding appropriate solutions.

Positive developments in regard to dissemination of refugee law

22. The importance of the dissemination of refugee law as a means of increasing the effectiveness of international protection was recognized by the Executive Committee at its twenty-ninth and thirtieth sessions. A report on the further action taken by the Office in this matter and of the results achieved is given in document A/AC.96/INF.161 submitted to the Committee at its present session.


23. As will be seen from the preceding paragraphs, there are a number of problems in the field of international protection which call for urgent solutions due to their serious implications for asylum-seekers and refugees.

24. In regard to asylum, the particularly precarious situation in which asylum-seekers frequently find themselves could be progressively remedied by an increasing willingness of States to grant durable rather than temporary asylum whenever possible. Where States feel compelled to grant asylum on a temporary basis, efforts should be made to provide asylum-seekers with satisfactory living conditions until durable solutions are found for them. Efforts should also be made to discontinue practices - resulting in considerable hardship for the individuals concerned - whereby asylum-seekers are, as a matter of principle, regarded as "illegal immigrants"

25. The recurrence of cases in which refugees have been forcibly returned to their country of origin in disregard of the recognized principle of non-refoulement gives rise to particularly grave concern, as does the growing problem of pirate attacks on asylum-seekers.

26. Developments in regard to accession to the basic international instruments relating to refugees are encouraging, but there is still a continuing need for further progress.

27. In seeking to accomplish his appointed tasks in regard to international protection, the High Commissioner has been encouraged by action taken on the regional level and by the positive response to his efforts in the dissemination of refugee law.

28. Finally, the High Commissioner would like to stress that the accomplishment of his tasks in the field of international protection has been greatly facilitated by the various conclusions adopted by the Executive Committee since the establishment of the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection. It is believed that these Conclusions will make an important contribution to the development of refugee law. Pursuant to a wish expressed by several participants at the Committee's thirtieth session, arrangements have been made for the printing of those Conclusions in the form of a loose-leaf compendium.

1 Manila Declaration on Pirate Attacks on Refugees and Displaced Persons, (A/AC.96/INF.162).

2 A/AC.96/INF.158

3 A/AC.96/567, para.10.