Too many refugees denied their rights, despite recent gains – UN official

9 October 2008
Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller.

Far too many refugees and asylum-seekers still face intolerance and are denied their rights, even though the past year has witnessed some improvements in their treatment, according to the top protection official serving with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller described the past year as “not the worst, but certainly not the best of times” in terms of the international community’s performance on refugee protection issues, in an address yesterday to the annual meeting of UNHCR’s 76-member Executive Committee in Geneva.

Among the positive findings of the agency’s annual Note on International Protection was that many States have honoured their responsibilities to provide asylum and protection.

“Last year, more than 700,000 refugees were able to return home, while some 70,000 are benefiting from resettlement opportunities made available by an ever growing and diversifying group of resettlement providers,” Ms. Feller stated.

“New laws in a number of countries have extended the rule of law in displacement situations, including through more enlightened provisions in key areas such as sexual and gender-based violence. The right to a nationality has been underpinned through serious efforts on the part of States to ensure the necessary documentation is available to formally record births, deaths or marriages,” she added.

At the same time, there are still a “disturbing” number of refugees today who do not enjoy the rights which refugee law formally guarantees them, she said.

“UNHCR’s ability to extend protection is challenged in many regions by the absence of political will to support it and the disinclination to recognize that asylum is a non-political and humanitarian act.

“Asylum is viewed through the security prism in many parts of the world. This has meant denial to specified groups of access to the existing asylum procedures, with forced return or refoulement a repeated occurrence.”

In addition, the Assistant High Commissioner noted increasing racism and exclusion in many parts of the world, as well as a resurgence in anti-foreigner sentiment, including in some countries that have provided support for refugees for many years.

“Intolerance has many faces,” she said. “Intolerance is obviously not solely linked to refugee arrivals, but it is part of the asylum equation, in subtle and not so subtle forms. It impacts border control measures, refugee status decisions, resettlement and integration programmes, and the sustainability of refugee and asylum policies in many countries.”

Almost 150 countries have signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and/or its 1967 Protocol, Ms. Feller pointed out. However, the failure by some States to perform up to Convention standards is detrimental to those other States which do comply and take implementation seriously.

“It can disturb burden-sharing, distort the operation of the system internationally, provoke secondary movements and complicate responsibility-sharing arrangements,” she said. “Non-implementation also impedes UNHCR’s own capacity to assist and be a protection partner of host States.”

Ms. Feller highlighted the importance of burden-sharing among States, noting that currently the majority of refugees are in countries that do not have the resources to meet their needs.

In fact, a new report released by UNHCR today revealed gaps in several areas, including shelter, health, education, food security, sanitation and the prevention of sexual violence.

“Refugee Realities” is based on the pilot Global Needs Assessment carried out by UNHCR in eight pilot countries in early 2008 – Cameroon, Ecuador, Georgia, Rwanda, Thailand, Tanzania, Yemen and Zambia.

“Anyone who visits a refugee camp or sees the needs of refugees and asylum-seekers living in urban areas can be in no doubt that more needs to be done,” said Deputy High Commissioner L. Craig Johnstone.

“The Global Needs Assessment is a clear mapping of the real state of the world’s refugees and others of concern – their total needs and, very importantly, the consequences of not meeting these needs,” Mr. Johnstone said. “It is a blueprint for action and allows donors to have a very accurate picture of what’s needed and what the impact of their backing will be.”


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