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Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Georgetown Law School Conference on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Refugee Act of 1980, Washington DC, 16 March 2010

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Georgetown Law School Conference on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Refugee Act of 1980, Washington DC, 16 March 2010

16 March 2010

Check against delivery

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am deeply honoured to be here at the law school which so generously relinquished its dean, Mr. Alex Aleinikoff, to become the Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees. We are marking the 30th anniversary of the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980. Through the Act, the United States established its asylum, refugee admissions and resettlement systems, consolidating in a single regime its commitment to discharge the obligations it undertook by acceding to the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

The Departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, and Health and Human Services, have all worked diligently to convert the promise of the Refugee Act into protection and assistance for the displaced and persecuted. The same is true of officials at state and local levels, ensuring that refugees are welcomed into and supported in their new communities.

Adopting the Refugee Act required foresight and courage. The Senators and Representatives who championed it were visionaries. I would like to pay especial tribute to two of them: Senator Edward Kennedy, who was selected in 2009 for UNHCR's highest honour, the Nansen Award, and Vice President Joe Biden, whose leadership the United States continues to enjoy

It is appropriate to celebrate the individuals who made the Refugee Act possible but it is equally important to honour the people of the United States whose longstanding support and concern for the displaced and persecuted has sustained this landmark legislation. As I said last year in Chicago, we rely on the people of the United States for their daily example of commitment and compassion. Indeed, it is the robust civil society in the United States - the non-governmental organizations, faith-based and civic institutions, academia and individuals - that best protect people's fundamental human rights.

Ladies and gentlemen,

While there has been much discussion of the global financial and economic crisis in developed countries, there has been comparatively little attention to the impact of the crisis on the developing world. Yet that is where the impact is likely to be most severe, with millions of jobs lost, reduced remittances, lower investment levels and less development assistance. Inevitably, there will be more poverty and more extreme poverty.

Both years of poverty reduction efforts and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals are at risk. But the risk is even greater than that. The full import of the crisis can only be fully appreciated when it is viewed in conjunction with the adverse impact of the world's mega-trends, which are themselves increasingly interconnected.

Population growth, urbanization, migration and food, water and energy insecurity, all accelerated and exacerbated by climate change, have caused crises to multiply and deepen. As a result, both conflict and displacement have become more complex, and humanitarian and asylum space more difficult to find for the estimated 42 million people uprooted by violence worldwide.

These are challenging times for refugees, asylum-seekers and the internally displaced. The most fundamental principle of refugee protection - non-refoulement - is under threat. A rash of involuntary returns in the Mediterranean, the Horn of Africa and southeast Asia, confirmed the increasing hostility of the environment for refugees and asylum-seekers.

In light of proliferating bad practice, the example of good practice and of unwavering commitment to principles takes on greater meaning. Since the promulgation of the Refugee Act, the United States has granted asylum to more than half a million people and resettled nearly three million refugees from overseas. Each of these people brings with her an enduring gratitude for the hope to which she has been restored and the capacity to contribute to the community in which she lives. We see the evidence of these contributions in business, academia, sports, the arts and public service - including even the United States Congress.

The asylum process in the United States is highly complex – having a lawyer roughly doubles the chance of an asylum-seeker obtaining protection.

High Commissioner António Guterres

Things are never so good, however, that they cannot get better. There are important areas where the improvement of protection for refugees and asylum-seekers in the United States can be made. More use could be made of alternatives to the detention of asylum-seekers. Places used for detention could be made less remote and prison-like. More support could be provided to ensure asylum-seekers have legal representation. Something that the Refugee Act is not, is simple. The asylum process in the United States is highly complex - having a lawyer roughly doubles the chance of an asylum-seeker obtaining protection. I am extremely pleased by the Department of Justice's indication that it will revisit the issue of legal representation for asylum-seekers.

Through legislative changes introduced into the Refugee Act over time and particularly since the terrorist atrocities of September 11th, U.S. refugee law has in some aspects diverged from international standards. This has made it more difficult for many asylum-seekers to establish their need for protection.

I refer, for example, to legal concepts such as "the one central motive" requirement, the hundreds of asylum applications denied each year because the applicant failed to file her application within one year of arrival and recent jurisprudence requiring social visibility for a particular social group. With respect to this last point, I hasten to add that I am encouraged by the announcement by the Department of Justice that it intends to release new regulations concerning the definition of particular social group

Ladies and gentlemen,

UNHCR does not question the United States' right - indeed its obligation - to defend its borders. The difficulty is in achieving this objective without undermining the United States' historic role as a leader in the protection of vulnerable groups, of which refugees form a conspicuous part. UNHCR will continue to advocate forcefully for the revision of laws which, frequently unintentionally, impair access to protection for those who need and deserve it.

The overly broad restrictions of the material support bars, or as they are now called, the terrorism-related grounds of inadmissibility, are a case in point. For every refugee in need of resettlement wrongly caught by this bar, each day becomes more precarious. There are thousands of refugees abroad and asylees in the United States whose family reunion or adjustment to permanent residence remains on hold. Limbo is not a solution. This solution to this problem, in my view, lies ultimately in the careful redrafting of relevant legislation. This will require the same vision and courage shown by the authors of the Refugee Act. I urge members of Congress and the Administration to ensure that the people often rendered into asylum-seekers and refugees by terrorism not be doubly victimized through the denial of protection.

This is my seventh visit to the United States since President Obama took office. I have been impressed with the determination of the new Administration to ensure consonance between domestic practice and international norms. A recent illustration is the Department of Homeland Security's new parole guidelines for asylum-seekers, which better balance security interests with the needs of people fleeing persecution and who should not be detained. DHS has also announced a courageous and visionary reform of the immigration system, moving it away from a criminal law model to one more appropriately of a civil law orientation. In addition to enhancing access to legal representation, the importance of which I have already mentioned, these changes will make access easier for asylum-seekers to family, social, and medical services.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Challenges also exist for the overseas portion of the United States' asylum regime - refugee admissions and resettlement. The Refugee Act of 1980 established a comprehensive system to admit refugees from overseas and assist them with their reception and integration in the United States. While millions of refugees have benefited from this system and have become fully contributing members to U.S. society, the levels of assistance for integration in recent years have not kept pace with the cost of the challenge.

Moreover, over the last 30 years, the refugee populations being resettled have become much more diverse. Many arrive from highly traumatic situations, such as Iraq. And just as with individuals, distinct groups may pose distinct challenges. Darfurians resettled from Chad, for example, will have different needs from Bhutanese or Iraqis. Many groups and individuals will require additional assistance to adapt successfully to life in their new home.

Refugees continue to receive generous welcomes in the United States, even in communities hard hit by the financial and economic crisis.

High Commissioner António Guterres

Refugees continue to receive generous welcomes in the United States, even in communities hard hit by the financial and economic crisis. To ensure the continuing viability of this model, we need to work together to ensure that receiving communities get the support they need. I was very pleased to learn that the State Department has provided substantial additional funds to help recently arrived refugees during these difficult economic times.

Not all problems, however, can be solved with money alone. The refugee program requires new strategies and greater flexibility than it did 30 years ago. All actors need to work together in a planned and coordinated manner if we are to ensure the needs of refugees are met now and in the years to come. The National Security Council's inter-agency effort to review the refugee program and identify strategies for reform, which in addition to officials from federal, state and local government includes NGOs and UNHCR, is an important initiative in this regard.

A hallmark of the 1980 Act was its respect for family unity. Family unity is an important right for refugees and is critical to achieving integration in a new country. In recent years, however, the approach to families has been significantly narrowed in both the refugee and asylum contexts. While the United States permits some family reunification, the approach is now one that defines family quite narrowly, based on immediate family members only. This necessarily results in the exclusion of relatives who may be wholly economically, physically or emotionally dependent on the family member and to a splitting of families which may not only work a hardship on the excluded relative but retard the integration of the accepted family members.

Ladies and gentlemen,

While I have highlight a number of areas which UNHCR believes would benefit from reform, many of which are picked up by the bill recently proposed by Senator Leahy, let me return to where I began my remarks and underscore the importance of the Refugee Act of 1980. It was a transformative document which has proven its value millions of times over. Its core concept, refuge for the persecuted, is in the noblest of American traditions. It is at once an affirmation of our shared responsibility and an example to the world of how to discharge it.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to have been with you for the 30th anniversary of this landmark Act. Anniversaries are important opportunities to reflect upon achievements but also to provide impetus for further action. In 2011, UNHCR will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Under the guidance of the Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, whom I have asked to head the organization of the commemorations, we foresee a range of activities worldwide for the reinforcement of international protection for refugees, returnees, the internally displaced and, in particular, for the reduction and prevention of statelessness.

And just as you have invited me to do here tonight, I invite all of you to reflect upon and share your ideas for appropriate commemorative activities.

Thank you very much.