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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at an Informal Meeting of the European Union Justice and Home Affairs Council, Veria, Greece, 28 March 2003

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at an Informal Meeting of the European Union Justice and Home Affairs Council, Veria, Greece, 28 March 2003

28 March 2003

(Check against delivery)

Mr Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish to thank the Greek Presidency for offering me this opportunity to address you once again. My last address to an informal meeting of this Council was in Copenhagen six months ago. At that time, the focus was on Afghanistan - a country that had produced the largest refugee caseload in decades, and which by 2001 was producing the largest number of asylum-seekers in the industrialised world.

Afghanistan is certainly on the mend, even though the security situation remains fragile in some places. More than two million Afghans, including some 1.8 million refugees, have now gone home, and many more are expected to return this year - provided the necessary resources are made available. Successful refugee return and reintegration are exactly the kind of positive steps we need. The web of tripartite agreements for voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan now covers both countries in the region and countries in Europe - France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. This illustrates the growing commitment amongst countries in the industrialized world to work on durable solutions for refugees. I am also pleased that we could be of some help in solving the problem of Sangatte.

Today Iraq is the country on everyone's mind - another country whose abysmal human rights record has forced large segments of the population to flee their homes. Even before the war in Iraq began, there were already some 400,000 recognized Iraqi refugees in more than 90 countries. In the last three years alone, some 150,000 Iraqis have applied for asylum in other countries. Indeed, Iraqis today represent the largest group of asylum seekers in the industrialized world - a sad testimony to the state their country is in.

Afghanistan and Iraq have both demonstrated that asylum remains an essential part of the international community's response to the problem of large-scale forced displacement. They have also shown how the resolution of refugee problems is inextricably linked to the achievement of political solutions in countries and regions of origin.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The past six months have also witnessed positive developments on other fronts. The Commission's communication in December on integrating migration issues in the EU's relations with third countries has helped to emphasize the inevitable linkages between forced migration and development. I hope that Europe will follow up on this by directing more development assistance specifically towards refugees in their regions of origin. This may include return and reintegration programmes, local integration, as well as assistance to refugee-hosting communities.

Your governments have also made progress in implementing the Tampere agenda for harmonisation of asylum laws and policies, following the call that was made by the European Council at the Seville summit. UNHCR offices in EU capitals are in regular touch with your governments on this issue. I hope your governments will soon adopt, with full respect for international standards, the directives now on the table on asylum procedures and on qualification for refugee status and subsidiary protection.

Yet in spite of these positive developments, some of you have expressed frustration in your public statements on asylum over the last few months. Indeed, the asylum issue is high on the political agendas of several EU countries than it was six months ago. I see four main reasons for this. First, the overall number of asylum-seekers in Europe has not dropped by as much as some of you may have expected - 3% from 2001 to 2002; second, the distribution of asylum seekers among EU countries remains uneven; third, there are still profound concerns about the abuse of asylum systems, with large sums of money being spent on processing the asylum applications of economic migrants and other non-refugees, and with the majority of those who are rejected still ending up staying in Europe; and fourth, countries seem to find it difficult to think and act collectively, and to overcome domestic pressures - including sensationalist media reporting.

In Copenhagen I mentioned that UNHCR is willing and able to assist your governments in addressing these issues. I stressed that UNHCR can play a positive role and can be part of the solution. I put forward concrete suggestions in that regard. In the meantime the "Convention Plus" initiative, which I introduced in Copenhagen, has been refined and our thinking has developed further. Allow me to expand on this, taking into consideration also the debate over the global proposals put forward by the United Kingdom, which include the establishment of processing centres outside the UK.

I am encouraged by the interest which EU countries have shown in these issues, and by the vote of confidence I have received from Commissioner Vitorino. I look forward to continuing our close collaboration with the Commission, especially since the European Council has now specifically asked it to explore, together with UNHCR, new approaches to international protection.

What should our starting point be? As I said in Copenhagen, there is a continuum between the internal and external dimensions of Europe's asylum policies. Europe is not only an important "asylum space" for people fleeing persecution and violence, but is also a key political player in world affairs. As such, it has a stake in the international protection of refugees, and in the attainment of durable solutions to refugee problems everywhere in the world.

The global refugee protection regime is firmly rooted in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. The application of the Convention involves much more than properly functioning asylum systems in Europe. It means effective international protection and solutions for refugees everywhere.

But while the Refugee Convention clearly spells out the rights and obligations of refugees, as well as the obligations of states towards refugees, the question of sharing burdens and responsibilities amongst states is not adequately addressed. It was with this in mind that I launched the "Convention Plus" initiative. This initiative is fundamentally about two key issues: burden-sharing and responsibility-sharing. It involves building on the Convention framework by drawing up new special agreements with and between States, to address some of the specific challenges that we face today.

I am convinced that this sharing of burdens and responsibilities must take place both among EU countries, and globally between mature economies and the developing world. It cannot simply be one or the other. Europe is a unique model of an emerging "common asylum space". If burden sharing and responsibility sharing cannot be successfully applied within this space, then how can we possibly expect it to be applied globally? Indeed, I would say that Europe has no choice but to work on both fronts if it is to effectively address both the phenomenon of irregular movements of asylum seekers to Europe and the phenomenon of economic migrants abusing and clogging up its asylum systems.

Since the time that you collectively declared ten EU candidate countries to be "safe countries of origin", it is interesting to note that the number of applications from these countries has dropped. My Office is ready to consider more such situations, wherever there is a clear indication that flows are composed, overwhelmingly, of persons without a valid claim for international protection. For these groups, why not pool your processing and reception resources, with the aim of reaching decisions more quickly and disencumbering domestic systems?

In the three-pronged approach which we envisage, we call this the "EU prong". For caseloads comprised primarily of economic migrants, we foresee a model involving closed reception centres, the processing of claims by EU teams (in some cases possibly on the basis of an EC instrument), and simplified appeals with UNHCR participation. Such an approach could have a dynamic impact on your harmonization process. Is it not time to move ahead with this?

With the accession in 2004 of ten new EU member States, there is an opportunity to be seized. All but one of these countries lie on the external border of the EU. If we want to move ahead, we will have to engage these new countries without delay in exploring the issue, since much of the joint processing may take place on their territories.

Joint processing for specific caseloads is about responsibility sharing. But there is also a critical burden sharing dimension. Those found to be in need of international protection should be granted asylum in one of the EU countries, depending on their needs, skills, family connections and other links such as language. Collective EU action would also be required to make sure that those found not to be in need of international protection are returned promptly to their countries of origin. Without this, any scheme will be doomed.

Allow me to also revert to another of the proposals that I made in Copenhagen, namely that of establishing a European advisory board, in which UNHCR would participate. Since your national systems will continue to process claims made by citizens of refugee-producing countries, there is still a need to ensure that current divergences in national practices are gradually eliminated. This would be the chief responsibility of such an advisory board. The board could also help to trigger the collective processing of specific caseloads. I leave this idea with you for further reflection.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

New approaches are also needed to address secondary movements of refugees and asylum-seekers from their regions of origin to Europe. The key issue here is to strengthen protection capacities in first countries of asylum and to ensure greater access to durable solutions in regions of origin. This is what we call the "regional prong" in our proposed three-prong approach. The idea is that by enhancing protection and increasing the prospects for durable solutions in regions of origin, we open up new possibilities for the return of refugees to countries of first asylum. To make this credible, such an approach requires effective burden sharing, with the provision of development assistance for refugees in host countries, as well as reintegration and self-reliance activities - extending also to host communities. Return and processing there makes sense when there are real prospects for durable solutions - repatriation, integration in the first country of asylum, and resettlement. In some specific cases, this may need to be worked out on the basis of a comprehensive durable solutions strategy in the region.

This is, of course, where the "Convention Plus" initiative comes in as a useful vehicle for the drawing up of special agreements. Indeed, the path to solutions in regions of origin must pass through a frank, open and structured dialogue between countries in both the North and South. We need a dialogue which is fair, and which is perceived to be fair. The dialogue must, therefore, be nurtured in a truly multilateral environment, with UNHCR as a motor and a facilitator. I am pleased to say that the statements made by your governments during the consultations on "Convention Plus" and the "Forum", which took place in Geneva at the beginning of this month, clearly went in this direction.

I hope that these consultations will have proceeded enough by June for us to be able to put on the table preliminary plans for some pilot cases. In particular, we will be considering caseloads of refugees who frequently move on to Europe and the rest of the industrialised world, and protracted refugee situations where there has been little progress in finding durable solutions.

As I mentioned earlier, another issue which could potentially be the subject of a special agreement concerns the targeting of development assistance to countries hosting large refugee populations over protracted periods. To support these countries, I have proposed a concept which I call "Development Assistance for Refugees" (DAR). This brings together the 4Rs initiative (for an integrated approach to repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction) and the DLI initiative ("Development Through Local Integration"). By the same token, resettlement - on a much bigger scale than today - must be part and parcel of any comprehensive approach. This is all about investing in solutions.

Finally, let us not forget the third prong of our suggested approach, which relates to the effective functioning of your national asylum systems. This itself is an important objective, which will be achieved more successfully if coupled with the other two prongs. If the other two prongs work, national asylum systems will be able to focus more on the functions for which they were initially created - in other words, the provision of international protection to those in need of it.

This all makes a tall order. Are we ready for it? One thing is clear: half-hearted responses will not suffice. Resolute action and clear commitments are necessary. The "Convention Plus" initiative offers a platform to set this in motion, for the sake of refugees, for the sake of your own asylum systems, and for the sake of those countries of first asylum which are left with unbearable burdens for years on end.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Before concluding, allow me to say a few words about the Iraq crisis and its implications for the protection of Iraqi asylum-seekers in Europe. As you know, the United Nations worked hard, under the leadership of the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to find a peaceful solution to the current crisis through diplomacy and the inspections process. Sadly, in spite of all the United Nations' efforts, today the country is at war. We can only hope that this time civilians will be protected and cared for, and that there will be no mass population movements as there was in 1991, when more than two million people fled their homes. So far, there have been only a handful of refugees; though within Iraq itself - particularly in the North - large numbers of people have moved from urban centres to the countryside. If there is a large-scale refugee crisis, we are ready to respond. Our current emergency preparedness level, together with our partners, is for up to 600,000 refugees. It is true that there are not yet many refugees, but experience has taught us that they may still come.

Earlier this month I called for a complete ban on forced returns of Iraqi asylum seekers to any part of Iraq, for an initial period of three months. In view of the current situation in Iraq, and the large number of Iraqi asylum-seekers whose claims are still pending, I have also advised that decisions on asylum claims by Iraqi nationals be suspended until further notice. This recommendation does not preclude the granting of refugee status by countries that wish to do so. Where decisions are frozen, the individual asylum seekers concerned should in our view be granted a temporary form of protection, for an initial period of three months.

As we all know, the risk of destabilisation of the region neighbouring Iraq is high, and I would therefore also urge you not to contemplate returning Iraqi asylum-seekers to countries in that region, even though they may have previously stayed in, or transited through, one of those countries. You should also know that, depending on the numbers present and arriving in EU countries, my Office will keep under active consideration a possible proposal to the Commission and Member States to activate the Directive on temporary protection of July 2001.

Once the situation in Iraq stabilizes, we should jointly seize the opportunity to enable the repatriation of all those wishing for this - be they refugees or asylum seekers whose applications are still pending. Let us hope that the time will come, in the not too distant future, when Iraqis are able to return to a stable and secure country, where they are able to live with dignity and with full respect for their human rights.

Thank you.