UNHCR annual meeting closes with call for enhanced protection of displaced

News Stories, 2 October 2009

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
High Commissioner Guterres talks to the press after closing the annual ExCom meeting.

GENEVA, October 2 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres closed the annual session of his agency's governing Executive Committee (ExCom) on Friday by informing delegates of plans to increase UNHCR's refugee protection role even as he pushes for greater efficiencies elsewhere.

Committing the UN refugee agency to a zero growth policy at headquarters, Guterres said the challenges of the future would be met through improved productivity and prioritization.

In its field operations, he said, UNHCR will "strengthen its protection capacity, particularly as it relates to urban refugees." Refugee protection, he said, "is an area that cannot be outsourced."

UNHCR's demonstrated ability in dealing with people forced from home as a result of conflict makes the agency well placed to take on an enhanced protection role in the field for people displaced by natural disasters, Guterres told delegates from ExCom's 78 member states.

While some 600,000 refugees returned home in 2008, said Guterres, the figure was among the lowest recorded in the past 15 years. As large-scale repatriation decreases, the need for additional opportunities for local integration and resettlement will increase, he said. "Voluntary repatriation remains UNHCR's preferred refugee solution," said the High Commissioner. "Additional options for local integration and resettlement do not undermine" that preference, he said.

In closing the 60th session of ExCom, Guterres praised the life-long commitment to refugee causes by this year's Nansen Award recipient, the late Senator Edward Kennedy. Senator Kennedy will be honoured for his powerful advocacy on behalf of refugees at a ceremony to be held in Washington, DC on October 28.

Refugee protection ... is an area that cannot be outsourced.

High Commissioner António Guterres

In a press conference that followed, Guterres praised the generosity of countries who continue to host millions of refugees despite having limited resources themselves. Humanitarian work is becoming more difficult and dangerous, he said, as the nature of conflict becomes more complex.

"In some situations humanitarians have become targets," the High Commissioner said. "Not because of who they work for, but simply because they are doing humanitarian work." In Pakistan alone, he said, three UNHCR staff have been killed this year and one kidnapped and subsequently released.

In Europe, he called for a harmonization of refugee asylum schemes to end what he called "huge difference in refugee recognition rates." By limiting access to meaningful asylum procedures the "asylum space" in the developed world was being eroded, just as challenges in the developing world were limiting the humanitarian space.

The five-day annual ExCom meeting reviews and approves UNHCR's programmes and budget, advises on protection issues and discusses a wide range of other topics.

By Tim Irwin in Geneva

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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.

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