High Commissioner's Closing Remarks at the Dialogue on Protection Challenges for Persons of Concern in Urban Settings, Palais des Nations, Geneva, 10 December 2009
Statements by High Commissioner, 10 December 2009
Informal transcript of remarks incorporating remarks made in the debate reopened following conclusions of High Commissioner's remarks (footnoted)
Ladies and gentlemen, I have an impossible task – trying to capture the richness of our debate over the last two days in a few words. We have no pre-prepared text of conclusions but I will try to sum up the main elements of our discussions as I believe they can help inform and guide our work going forward.
I will ask UNHCR colleagues who co-chaired the breakout groups to prepare a consolidated version of their summaries and share this with and seek the views of their co-chairs. We can then share the consolidated summary with all participants and put it up on our website as an inspiration for us all. Nothing in the summary, of course, is binding: that would be inconsistent with the informal and free-ranging spirit of the Dialogue, but it may be useful for our future work.
I would like to make a few general comments and a number of suggestions for follow-up.
It is clear that urbanization is an irreversible trend. More and more of the people we care for – refugees, returnees, the internally displaced and the stateless – will live in cities and towns. This is a challenge but also an opportunity and we need to adjust our policies accordingly.
It is likewise clear that urbanization presents different problems: in developed countries versus developing countries and even between countries in terms of laws, traditions and culture. The protection needs of the people we are dealing with have their own specific natures and our policies have to take that into account. But it is equally important to recognize that there are common principles and key among them is a "rights-based" approach to the strategies, policies and measures we devise.
If we want our efforts to succeed and to increase the protection and solutions available to those we care for, we cannot see these populations in isolation from local communities. We cannot neglect the surrounding communities. We will only succeed if we adopt a comprehensive approach that takes into account the rights of both the displaced and their hosts.
Our deliberations have also underlined the need for stronger partnerships. Central governments will, of course, remain key partners – States are the signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the recently concluded AU Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons and other relevant international instruments and they are the authors of the national legal, strategic and policy frameworks in which we all work. Local authorities are absolutely essential and need to be much more integrated into the articulation of strategies and policies. Our traditional partners have important roles to play as well – NGOs, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement – as does civil society, particularly local community leaders, faith-based organizations and other groups key to promoting social cohesion.
The central element in all our discussions at the Dialogue was how to create, deepen and expand protection space for those we care for. This includes emphasis on legal frameworks and the recognition of rights, where there remains an enormous amount of advocacy to be done, for instance, in encouraging the ratification of international instruments, the withdrawal of reservations and the establishment of national protection legislation. This requires an informed and differentiated approach since there are many countries that have not ratified the 1951 Convention but which have nevertheless adopted policies perhaps more progressive than some States that have done so.
We need also to emphasize the behaviour of institutional actors: local authorities certainly but also police forces, local administrations and even UNHCR and its partners'. The way we behave towards those we serve is important: we need to ensure it is always humane and professional. We need to work together to avoid harassment or unjustified detention.
Our deliberations underscored the importance of the attitudes of local populations in combating xenophobia, the growth of which seems particularly pronounced in the developed world. To be able to integrate displaced populations we need to reach out to local communities and meet the needs of those communities. Supporting them is the best way to avoid creating feelings of resentment and xenophobia.
We must always remain aware that there are different needs and vulnerabilities in displaced populations: women and children must be central, and families have an important role to play. Through a comprehensive approach we need to analyze in detail the different types of situations arising and ensure adequate responses to dramatic and utterly unacceptable things such as human trafficking, rape and other violations of human rights. We need to be tough on criminal activities and more effective in protecting the victims of crime. In the global debate on transnational crimes, there has been insufficient attention to the needs of victims.
Many participants commented on registration, documentation and the determination of refugee status. We need to understand that refugees and other displaced persons will not act contrary to their interests. If they perceive a risk and no benefit, for example, in registering, they will not register. We must ensure therefore that registration is seen as a useful tool by those it is intended to benefit.
Another key aspect of protection space is access: access to information, access to safety nets and basic services allowing refugees and displaced people to meet their essential needs, and access to self-reliance – training, job opportunities, understanding of the labour market, micro-credit. The three key words are access, participation and empowerment.
Two observations were highlighted repeatedly by participants at the Dialogue. First, is the need to avoid building parallel structures for the provisions of services and assistance, particularly in shelter, education and health. And second is the need for effective burden- sharing. Humanitarian and development actors must come together in a more meaningful way. UNHCR is not a development actor but does have a catalytic and advocacy role to play with donor countries to promote a more community development-oriented perspective.
Again, here, it is necessary to underline the importance of enhancing our partnership with local authorities, who are on the front line on these issues and need support. We have not worked enough with local authorities in the past.
Turning now to follow-up, I would propose a number of things. First, we will revisit the new urban refugee policy to take into account the richness of the debate at this Dialogue and to make without delay any needed adjustments.
Second, I would suggest that Walter Kaelin and I undertake advocacy together in the broader humanitarian community for a similar definition of policy for urban-based internally displaced persons. This needs to be a cooperative UN effort – UNHCR has no mandate to elaborate a policy on its own.
Third, in terms of implementation of the new policy, we have already done an evaluation of UNHCR's activities on behalf of Iraqis in the Middle East, with particular emphasis on Amman, Aleppo, Beirut and Damascus. It is impossible to say too often how generous Syria and Jordan have been. For 2010, several of our offices have already budgeted enhancements of efforts on behalf of refugees in urban settings. We will select a number of these cities as pilot sites and through the Policy Development and Evaluation Service conduct real-time evaluations of these programmes.
Fourth, we will together with our partners compile an inventory of good practices. I would emphasize that this is not something we can do alone and which depends on the networks and support of our partners.
Fifth, based on the consolidated report of the Dialogue and the pilots and the good practice inventory just mentioned, we will mainstream the new urban refugee policy into our 2011 programme. This will take some time, I appreciate. We will begin implementing the policy fully in 2011, aiming to improve our performance in 2012. We will continue the real time evaluations as appropriate to promote ongoing refinement and consolidation. Our approach will be incremental, with detailed Operational Guidance issued on aspects of the new policy as experience and resources permit.1 At the same time we will work with other actors to see how similar efforts can be undertaken for projects relating to internally displaced people.
For all of these things, there is a question of capacity and resources. In terms of capacity, I have asked the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Ms. Erika Feller, to work together with the Division of International Protection Services, to prepare an action plan to strengthen UNHCR's protection capacity. This initiative will address gaps other than refugees in urban settings but this population is probably the one most central to the exercise. In parallel, we will work with partners to see how to develop common activities to strengthen protection capacity with them. And we will do similarly with local actors, with an emphasis on capacity-building.
In terms of resources, there is an internal dimension, essentially a question of our own prioritization, and an external dimension, primarily in respect of donors' willingness to give this initiative special attention. Many of the projects will be community development ones targeted and managed not by humanitarian support but development mechanisms to provide support at local level. I would strongly urge donor countries to examine the challenge of displaced populations in urban settings with this comprehensive approach, not just a protection and assistance approach.
With respect to partnership with local authorities, as discussed at the Roundtable of Mayors (on 8 December 2009), I do not believe any new body is needed. The processes and networks already exist – the Hague Process on Refugees and Migration, Cities Alliance and others – and we need to more strongly associate ourselves with them to network with local authorities, exchanging information on good practice and seeking their support for our activities and policy development. By way of continuing the momentum achieved in the Dialogue and UNHCR's collaboration with these fora, thought could be given to a series of regional seminars focused on specific thematic and regional issues2, as was done following the Dialogue on asylum and migration in 2007.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming and participating in the Dialogue.
1 This clarification was provided by the Director of the Division of International Protection Services in response to a question from the floor following the conclusion of the High Commissioner's remarks.
2 This recommendation was made in response to an intervention from the floor following the conclusion of the High Commissioner's remarks.