Top UNHCR official warns about ineffective and unresponsive asylum systems

News Stories, 30 September 2009

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
UN Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller, speaks at the 60th meeting of the Executive Committee, Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland.

GENEVA, September 30 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency's top protection official warned Wednesday that asylum systems in some countries remain ineffective and unresponsive. Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller said this was "in spite of substantial investment in capacity building, with many lacking sufficient procedural or protection safeguards, perhaps to serve a deterrent function."

Feller referred to a report received last week from one of UNHCR's European offices that highlighted the "remote and isolated location of reception centres for asylum-seekers, limited access to and low quality of state legal aid and interpretation services, absence of time limits for detention and insufficient number of procedural guarantees for vulnerable groups."

Addressing the 60th session of UNHCR's governing Executive Committee (ExCom), Feller said that while there had been improvements in the past year, insecurity and narrowing protection space are prevalent in too many countries.

In her annual speech to ExCom's 78 member states, Feller noted that among the positive developments, 600,000 refugees returned home around the world last year and more than 12,000 long-term refugees had been naturalized in Tanzania, which she describe as a "most praise-worthy development."

Feller said that heightened sensitivity to at-risk populations has resulted in "a better-calibrated response to the challenge of preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence."

In her fourth annual speech to ExCom since becoming Assistant High Commissioner in 2006, Feller noted that she sees a "worrying consistency" when it comes to the problems identified each year. She expressed concerns at the practice of detention for asylum-seekers, citing the example of a detention centre housing 150 women and 50 babies in one room.

During this week's gathering of ExCom, a number of the side events include discussions on the issue of narrowing humanitarian space. Feller said that "whether the sea is still an area of protection space is an open question at the moment," insisting that "rescue at sea is a time-honoured tradition, a fundamental matter of conscience and an international legal responsibility."

Recognizing that many asylum-seekers use the services of smugglers and are often travelling with migrants on board unseaworthy boats, she noted that this does not strip them of their own refugee character.

"Distinctions between refugee or migrant do not matter at the point of rescue. Saving life does. These are all factors which must be carefully weighed should it be contemplated to push boats off, or back somewhere else," she told delegates.

One of the more disturbing trends, said Feller, is the increasing number of unaccompanied and separated children seeking asylum. "Systems are often created with adult beneficiaries in mind, thereby exposing children to totally inappropriate or damaging situations," she said. "No matter what their status, children must be treated as children first and their best interests professionally identified and respected."

Highlighting UNHCR's new policy on urban refugees, Feller expressed the hope that the High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection in December will improve awareness that "urban areas are indeed a legitimate place for refugees to enjoy their rights and receive protection."

Acknowledging that implementation of the policy will be a challenging task, she noted that "state authorities have the primary role," while UNHCR's role will be "to support and to partner."

The Assistant High Commissioner concluded that for many refugees, "asylum conditions can prove as devastating an experience in some situations as the circumstances which forced them into exile."

She highlighted the conditions in north-east Kenya's Dadaab, the site of the biggest refugee camp complex in the world. These included massive congestion, inadequate reception or registration systems, poor health and sanitation conditions and a worrying level of malnutrition.

"One can but wonder how, in these conditions, it can be said that asylum is providing real or meaningful human security," she said, adding: "Asylum in the context of large-scale arrivals, responding to displacement generated or exacerbated by new drivers, such as climate change, and burden sharing in the context of both, are in need of some new thinking."

By Sybella Wilkes in Geneva





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2009 Executive Committee Meeting

UNHCR's 60th Executive Committee met in Geneva from 28 September to 2 October 2009.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

The Faces of Asylum

Everyone has a right to be treated humanely and with dignity. But asylum-seekers can sometimes be detained for years, forced to exist on the edge of society and struggle for their right to protection, while in some cases suffering human rights abuses. Their temporary new homes - a long way from the ones they left behind - can be sports halls, churches, closed centres, makeshift shelters or simply the street. Lives are put on hold while people wait in the hope of receiving refugee status.

Although it is the legitimate right of any government to secure its borders and prevent irregular immigration, it is important that anyone seeking asylum in a country have access to it. According to international law, states are obliged to provide protection to those in need, and must not return a person to a place where their life or freedom is threatened.

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Beyond the Border

In 2010, the Turkish border with Greece became the main entry point for people attempting by irregular methods to reach member states of the European Union, with over 132,000 arrivals. While some entered as migrants with the simple wish of finding a better life, a significant number fled violence or persecution in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia. The journey is perilous, with many reports of drowning when people board flimsy vessels and try to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the River Evros on the border between Greece and Turkey. The many deficiencies in the Greek asylum system are exacerbated by the pressure of tens of thousands of people awaiting asylum hearings. Reception facilities for new arrivals, including asylum-seekers, are woefully inadequate. Last year, UNHCR visited a number of overcrowded facilities where children, men and women were detained in cramped rooms with insufficient facilities. UNHCR is working with the Greek government to improve its asylum system and has called upon other European states to offer support.

Beyond the Border

Christmas tree a gift of love for refugees in GreecePlay video

Christmas tree a gift of love for refugees in Greece

For children spending Christmas at the Idomeni refugee reception centre in northern Greece, Congolese asylum seeker Michel Kamusha has "a gift of love." Drawing on his skills as an artist he decorates a Christmas with tree with socks, toys, shoes and clothes to give the youngsters "hope for Christmas."
Greece: Ramping up refugee receptionPlay video

Greece: Ramping up refugee reception

UNHCR staff are working with Government authorities, NGOs and volunteers on the beaches of the Greek island of Lesvos to receive cold, wet and fearful asylum seekers making landfall around the clock. They wrap them in thermal blankets and take them to warm, safe emergency accommodation at transit sites, with power and Wi-Fi connectivity.
The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: Refugees Onward JourneyPlay video

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: Refugees Onward Journey

A transit centre at Vinojug, on FYR Macedonia's border with Greece is where the refugees and migrants pass through on their journey further into Europe. Here UNHCR and partner organisations provide food, water, medical care, psycho-social support and information for refugees who take the train towards the border with Serbia. UNHCR also provides information on how to access the asylum system in the country. In recent weeks, an average of 6,300 refugees pass through the camp every day, yesterday that number grew to 10,000, a record.