The head of the United Nations refugee agency has urged European Union (EU) members to serve as examples of the proper treatment of refugees and to forge a cohesive regional response to new forms of forced displacement, including population movement caused by the effects of climate change.
Speaking at the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday, António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said that in the 27-member EU, where internal borders have largely disappeared, people seeking protection should be able to find it.
He said that the number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide has remained relatively stable in recent years, as has the number of asylum applicants reaching industrialized countries. He attributed the trend to little change in the number of conflicts and the difficulty of ending them.
“Crises are either not solved or – once solved – quickly slip back into instability or even open war,” he said.
Mr. Guterres said that the number of refugees UNHCR was able to help to return to their homes last year fell to below 400,000, less than half the number of people helped to go back home in 2008.
He voiced concern over the increasing difficulty faced by humanitarian agencies trying to deliver assistance to refugees and IDPs. “In many parts of the world, we see growing threats to the security of humanitarian workers, including our own,” he said.
He also drew attention to the numerous interlinked causes of forced displacement.
“Climate change is an accelerating factor for displacement and instability, but water scarcity, food security, population growth and urbanization can all trigger conflict,” he said.
The High Commissioner said UNHCR had no plans to seek a revision of the 1951 Refugee Convention, but expressed the agency’s interest in becoming a catalyst for a debate about how to deal with the human rights impacts of forced displacement this century.
“We need to find integrated approaches and we hope that the EU will help in this,” he told the parliamentarians.
Commenting on asylum in the European context, Mr. Guterres stressed that while States had the right and duty to manage their borders and to define their migration policies, they must do so in a way which respects international law. There must be safeguards, he said, to ensure that asylum-seekers have access to territories and procedures where their claims can be examined.
He lamented the fact that, at present, many of those in need of international protection have little choice but to enter the EU by irregular means and, in so doing, may fall victim to smugglers and human traffickers. The rejection rate of asylum claims of people of one nationality can vary from 95 per cent in one country to near zero in another, he said, depending where the claim is made.
“This is a dysfunctional situation, leading people to move irregularly within the Union,” he added.
Mr. Guterres also took the opportunity of the visit to Brussels to thank the European Commission (EC) and the EU member States for their consistent support of UNHCR’s work, noting that together they provided more than 40 per cent of the refugee agency’s annual budget.