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Talking Points for Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Informal Justice and Home Affairs Council, Luxembourg, 29 January 2005

Statements by High Commissioner, 29 January 2005

Introduction

Thank you for inviting me to this first discussion on asylum and migration following adoption of the Hague Programme.

I welcome the Hague Programme's goals in the field of refugee protection:

  • to ensure that a Common European Asylum System is based on "the full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention on Refugees and other relevant Treaties";
  • and to strengthen the refugee protection capacity of third countries.

I understand that this meeting is to discuss the external dimension of European asylum policy. I propose to offer UNHCR's perspective on the questions posed in the background paper for this meeting; these concern strengthening protection capacities in regions of origin and transit, as well as refugee resettlement.

Regions of origin

I agree that we need to provide refugees with protection and durable solutions as early as possible. This will help to reduce spontaneous movements. We can never eliminate such movements entirely, and therefore must maintain credible asylum systems in the EU. But we can do better in providing protection in regions of origin and transit.

Doing better in the external dimension requires not just your support, but also that of your colleagues responsible for Foreign Affairs, Development and Humanitarian Assistance.

We are not starting from scratch. Helping governments to protect refugees and solving refugee problems is at the heart of UNHCR's mandate. It is what we are doing every day. It is work that we have reinforced through Convention Plus and other initiatives.

During the past decade the number of persons of concern to UNHCR has decreased by around 10 million. This is largely because we have been able to help millions of refugees to return home in Afghanistan, Africa and the former Yugoslavia.

But, although refugee numbers worldwide are going down, there are still too many long-lasting refugee situations. We count 38 protracted refugee situations worldwide involving more than 6 million people and I am not including the Palestinian refugees. By protracted refugee situations, I mean refugee populations of over 25,000 people, who have been in exile in a developing country for more than five years.

In a protracted situation, refugees are in limbo. Their lives may not always be at risk, but their basic rights and essential needs remain unfulfilled. They depend on external aid and have no prospect of a durable solution, whether voluntary repatriation, integration in their first country of asylum, or resettlement.

For this reason, I welcome the Hague Programme's focus on building protection capacities and promoting solutions, especially in regions of origin. Refugee protection is only genuine protection when there is the prospect of a long-term solution.

By reinforcing protection in regions of origin, and ensuring that refugees can find solutions there, we can reduce the pressure for onward movement. For example, there is certainly a link between the sharp decline in the number of Afghan asylum seekers in Europe, and the massive returns to Afghanistan.

I would like to focus to the greatest extent possible on solving refugee problems through repatriation wherever feasible, but also through integration (or at least self-reliance) in host countries, and through resettlement to third countries.

This is the approach of your proposed Regional Protection Programmes. We should agree as soon as possible on a first pilot Programme. This need not be an entirely new initiative, but should strengthen efforts already underway. Indeed, the Council has asked the Commission to develop the Regional Protection Programmes in close consultation with UNHCR, and in partnership with the third countries concerned.

On the Commission's side, this cannot be done by JLS alone. Coordination with other parts of the European Commission is also essential especially with External Relations and Development and Humanitarian Aid. And, in my view, a Regional Protection Programme will also need significant additional funding.

Regions of transit

While we attend to the needs of refugees in distant countries, we remain aware of challenges in the European neighbourhood. Many of Europe's Eastern and Southern neighbours are countries through which migrants and asylum seekers pass, en route to the EU-25.

If we can transform countries of transit into countries of asylum, this will help to reduce onward movements. But this will take time. Therefore, I strongly counsel against any precipitous initiative to declare such countries "safe", in the absence of acceptable protection standards.

The European Union's cooperation and support will be vital in developing protection capacities in transit countries. For this reason it is important that the Action Plans issued in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy include substantial components on both asylum and migration.

Again, we are not starting from scratch. A great deal has been done by my Office, often in partnership with the European Union, to build asylum capacity in the EU's eastern neighbourhood. But asylum systems there are still rudimentary, and much remains to be achieved.

North Africa is also facing mixed flows of refugees and economic migrants. It needs EU assistance to start the process of transformation into a functioning asylum space, as well in dealing with migratory flows.

UNHCR's approach to this region involves two inter-related efforts:

  • First, we are working to develop asylum capacity in North Africa. Libya and Morocco are especially important. With EU assistance, UNHCR hopes to gain a more effective presence in this region. The capacity-building project we are implementing in the five North African countries, with Commission and Netherlands government funding, is a good beginning.
  • Secondly, we need to develop a set of responsibility-sharing arrangements to deal equitably with persons intercepted or rescued at sea. We plan to convene a consultation on this with concerned states. Among the people intercepted, there will be asylum seekers and refugees. It is important to have a workable arrangement for determining their status, and for finding durable solutions including through resettlement.

Resettlement

Refugee resettlement is the third subject of the paper prepared by the Presidency for this meeting.

Resettlement offers a solution for refugees who can neither return home nor settle permanently in their first country of refuge.

Resettlement is a long-standing practice in the countries of immigration Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Together these countries offered 100,000 places for refugee resettlement last year. In these countries, more refugees usually arrive through resettlement than spontaneously.

In Europe, the situation is very different. Last year only around 4,700 places were made available by the half-dozen European countries that offer resettlement. Many more refugees arrived spontaneously.

Step by step, we need to move towards more refugee resettlement and less irregular movement. I am therefore pleased to see that resettlement will be an important part of an EU Regional Protection Programme.

In this connection, I refer you to the Multilateral Framework of Understandings on Resettlement developed by a core group, including several states represented here, as well as the European Commission. It has been welcomed by UNHCR's Executive Committee as part of an effort to improve access to durable solutions for a greater number of refugees. We are working on putting it into practice.

A European resettlement programme would be a significant contribution and I hope that such a scheme will be established quickly, in cooperation with UNHCR.

From our point of view, a resettlement programme should be predictable in terms of numbers, budgets and criteria. It should be diverse, in terms of the beneficiaries. It should be responsive to needs, and, ideally, part of a broader strategy to find durable solutions.

UNHCR identifies refugees in need of resettlement, and coordinates submissions to various countries. This avoids duplication and delay. Our resettlement criteria are outlined in UNHCR's Resettlement Handbook. Top priority goes to refugees with urgent legal and physical protection needs. Other priorities are survivors of violence and torture, women, children and elderly persons at risk, family reunification, and more generally, refugees without prospect of another solution.

Over time, the availability of such a channel of access to Europe for refugees could help to reduce the pressure of spontaneous arrivals. Of course, this will be even more likely, if channels for economic immigration are opened as well. I realize that today's discussion will focus on the external dimension of the EU's refugee policy, and I hope my remarks on that have been helpful. However, the internal and external dimensions are inextricably linked, and therefore, before I conclude, I would like to say a few words about the internal dimension as well.

The Internal Dimension

The Hague Programme promises a significant step toward a common European asylum policy. It contains many elements for which UNHCR has advocated.

The asylum context of the Hague Programme is different from that of Tampere. Since 1999, the number of people seeking asylum in the EU has dropped on average by 35% in the 15 "old" member states and by 30% in the EU-25.

This development takes away much of the pressure governments have experienced in recent years, and which has resulted in policies and practices sometimes hard to reconcile with proper refugee protection standards. Today, more than ever, Member States should be able to implement the new EU Asylum Directives, while guarding against a decline in the quality of refugee protection. The Common European Asylum System must be premised on respect of international standards, and not on the lowest common denominator.

The Hague Programme sets 2007 as the target date for evaluating the Asylum Directives adopted in the first phase. UNHCR offices in the 25 Member States are monitoring the transposition and implementation process. We are ready and willing to contribute to the Commission's evaluation.

The Hague Programme also sets 2010 as the date by which a common European Asylum System should be in place. I welcome this. Only a genuine European asylum space can solve the problems faced both by Member States and the people who seek Europe's protection. I also welcome the focus on strengthening practical cooperation and the structures to be put in place to support it.

Three key areas need attention as we move toward a common system:

  • We need to improve the quality and consistency in asylum decision-making in Europe. It seems unacceptable to me that the same asylum seeker a Chechen for example has virtually zero chance of finding protection in one Member State, a 50% chance in another and close to 100% in a third.
  • Second, there is a need for responsibility and burden-sharing within the EU; in other words, to move beyond harmonization. We need a mechanism to manage not merely react to challenges posed by mixed flows of refugees and migrants. The Dublin II Agreement does not include any burden-sharing mechanism. I fear that high protection standards will be difficult to maintain in a system which shifts responsibility to states located on the external border of the EU, many of which have limited asylum capacity.
  • Thirdly, integration deserves much more attention. I welcome the integration principles adopted under the Netherlands Presidency, which apply not only to refugees but to all immigrants. Although refugees often integrate very successfully, they also suffer from the negative climate created by poor integration of other migrants.

Conclusion

The path to better governance of today's refugee problems involves improving the quality of protection in regions from which refugees originate. It involves enhanced access to and support for durable solutions including resettlement. And it requires more attention to the quality of asylum here in Europe. All of these are goals of the Hague Programme. UNHCR is ready and willing to work with you to achieve these goals.

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