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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Nationale Postcode Loterij, The Hague, 4 December 2003

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Nationale Postcode Loterij, The Hague, 4 December 2003

4 December 2003

(Check against delivery)

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here with you today. In addition to the financial support from the Dutch government for UNHCR programmes, the continued support provided by the Nationale Postcode Loterij is greatly appreciated. Our programmes this year have once again been under-funded and we continue to struggle to meet the needs of refugees and other persons of concern.

I would like to use this opportunity to reflect on some of the challenges being faced by refugees and asylum seekers in Europe today. The key issue is that over the last few years, we have witnessed an escalation in the vilification of refugees and asylum seekers, and in their unfair treatment. They have become double victims: first, victims of violence and persecution in their own countries; and second, victims of unfair treatment in our countries.

How has this come about? And what can we do about it?

A major challenge today, not only in the Netherlands, but throughout much of the industrialized world, is that refugees and asylum seekers are often mixed up with economic migrants and other people on the move. Distinguishing between them is no easy task. To address this, governments have adopted a range of new measures.

The enforcement approach to migration and asylum, however, has not solved the problem of large numbers of migrants entering these countries in an irregular manner. Instead, it has tended to drive both economic migrants and asylum seekers into the hands of human smugglers and traffickers. This has compounded the problems for governments, while at the same time putting the individuals concerned at great risk. These smugglers and traffickers are specialists at misusing asylum systems, and they are part of the reason that both asylum systems and asylum seekers themselves have been given such a bad name.

To be effective, we need strict and workable policies to help sort the economic migrants from those people who are in need of international protection. One measure sought by EU countries is better policing, especially on their periphery. I see no objection to strengthening Europe's outer borders, provided that arriving refugees still have access to a fair and fast asylum procedure. The last thing any of us want to see is a refugee sent back to persecution, imprisonment, torture or death under a dictatorial regime.

Asylum procedures should be made faster and fairer, and better mechanisms should be put in place to return those asylum seekers who are found not to be in need of international protection.

The process of harmonizing asylum systems throughout the European Union, if well carried out, may solve a lot of our problems. With harmonized standards across Europe, many of the reasons for people to keep shifting from one country to the next in search of better treatment would be removed.

I am concerned, however, about recent developments in Europe. New EU asylum legislation currently under negotiation risks leading to a substantial deterioration in standards, to the point of being at variance with established international law. The new draft directive on asylum procedures, for example, offers only minimal harmonization, despite this being its main aim. It includes a catalogue of optional provisions, including significant departures from accepted international refugee and human rights law and principles established over more than 50 years.

In the case of border procedures, under the terms set out in the current text, asylum seekers arriving from supposedly "safe countries" may be denied access to an asylum procedure and the territory altogether, without verification that they would indeed be safe and that their claim would be heard. This is contrary to the principles of international refugee law.

The current text also allows asylum seekers to be sent to countries with insufficient guarantees for their effective protection, and even to countries where they have never actually set foot. It specifies no fewer than 15 categories of cases in which EU states may derogate from the right of applicants to remain in the country while an initial rejection of their case is being reviewed.

Such a serious lowering of standards would inevitably have negative repercussions outside the EU, including undermining efforts to improve protection standards in the regions in which refugees originate. This will do little to convince states in regions of origin and transit that Europe is serious about establishing global burden sharing arrangements.

Around three-quarters of the 20 million people of concern to UNHCR are living in developing nations. Even though many of those countries hosting large refugee populations are amongst the poorest in the world, their governments receive only minimal support in providing for these people. It would make a great difference if development assistance were targeted at both refugees and local communities in these countries. At present, refugees are excluded from most development programmes. This must change if governments in the industrialized world are to be credible when talking about the need to focus more on protection in regions of origin.

More also needs to be done to provide solutions for refugees in their regions of origin. All of this requires resources: resources that - thus far - countries in the industrialized world, including Europe, have not been prepared to make available at the necessary levels.

UNHCR has recently come up with a number of new initiatives aimed at helping refugees to become self reliant and to achieve durable solutions. But for our projects to be effective, we need adequate funding. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case. Even the Netherlands, which is one of UNHCR's largest donors, decreased its contribution to UNHCR in 2003. Its total contribution this year is roughly 53.4 million Euros, which is significantly lower than last year's contribution of 68.1 million Euros. It is also almost 10 million Euros less than the 2001 Dutch contribution of 63.2 million Euros. This is particularly painful at a time when the focus has been on ensuring better protection in the region and when expenditure on processing asylum claims in the Netherlands has been decreasing.

The bottom line is that refugee problems in countries in the industrialized world cannot be addressed solely by a readjustment of their own asylum systems. It is in refugees' regions of origin that real solutions and the proper governance of refugees begins. Without this, desperate people will continue to take desperate measures, including resorting to human smugglers to get where they want to go.

Finally, we currently have two projects on the table which are likely to be funded out of the valuable contribution from the Postcode Loterij. One is a UNHCR project and the other one, which has my full support, relates to the Earth Charter.

The Earth Charter is a declaration of fundamental principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century. It seeks to inspire in all peoples a new sense of global interdependence and shared responsibility for the well being of others. It promotes a culture of tolerance and non-violence, and recognizes that environmental protection, human rights, equitable human development and peace are interdependent and indivisible. I have been involved with the Earth Charter since my time as Prime Minister of the Netherlands and I continue to be member of the global Earth Charter Commission.

The Earth Charter recognizes that there can be no peace without social and economic justice and the eradication of poverty. It also recognizes that any efforts to achieve these goals are doomed to fail if there is no common ethical framework which is shared by governments, business, civil society, and all walks of life. The proposed project, to be funded out of the Postcode Loterij contribution, uses the Earth Charter as an educational tool and involves cooperation between civil society organizations, educational institutions, and governments from different parts of the world.

Thank you.