As new concerns have emerged in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks against the United States, an official from the United Nations refugee agency today urged governments to balance security needs with refugee protection principles.
Erika Feller, Director of International Protection at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), noted that the 1951 Refugee Protection Convention already excludes persons who are a threat to national security or have been convicted of a serious crime.
"The Convention, if properly applied, should not offer a safe haven for criminals," she told the agency's 57-nation Executive Committee, which is meeting in Geneva. She said it was reasonable that a number of States were currently examining additional safeguards, and expressed hope that any security concerns strike "a proper balance with the refugee protection principles at stake."
While reaffirming UNHCR's support for multilateral efforts to combat international terrorism, Ms. Feller noted an increasing trend towards the "criminalization of asylum seekers and refugees" and warned that the majority should not be "damned by association with the few."
The UNHCR official said asylum seekers were facing mounting difficulties in a number of countries. "Because they have a certain ethnic or religious background which may be shared by those who have committed grave crimes does not mean that they, themselves, are also to be excluded," she stressed.
Ms. Feller said resolute leadership was required "at this difficult time" to depoliticize the essentially humanitarian challenge of protecting refugees and to promote a better understanding of their right to seek asylum.