UNHCR chief urges European Union to set a positive example on refugee protection

News Stories, 29 April 2010

© European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari
High Commissioner António Guterres addresses the European Parliament.

BRUSSELS, Belgium, April 29 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has called on the 27 countries of the European Union (EU) to set a positive example in the area of refugee protection.

In a lively debate on Wednesday with members of the European Parliament, Guterres said that in the EU, where internal borders have largely disappeared, people who seek protection should be able to find it wherever they apply for it. EU countries must do more to align their asylum systems, he stressed.

The High Commissioner also invited the EU to promote a stronger and more cohesive international response to new forms of forced displacement, including population movements caused by climate change and natural disasters.

Guterres' comments, days after he was elected by the UN General Assembly to a second five-year term as head of UNHCR, came during a joint session of the European Parliament's committees of justice and home affairs; development; and human rights. It was his first address to the parliament that took office last September and whose members represent some 490 million people.

The High Commissioner pointed out that the number of refugees and internally displaced people worldwide has remained relatively stable in recent years, as has the number of asylum applicants in the industrialized world. This shows both the resilience of conflicts and the difficulty of finding solutions.

"Crises are either not solved or once solved quickly slip back into instability or even open war," he said. As a consequence, the number of refugees UNHCR was able to help to return home in 2009 fell to under 400,000 less than half the previous year's figure.

Guterres identified the shrinking of humanitarian space as a key concern, pointing to the increasing difficulty of delivering help to refugees and forcibly displaced people in countries in crisis. "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," he said, "but water scarcity, food security, population growth and urbanization can all trigger conflict."

While UNHCR has no plans to seek a revision of the 1951 Refugee Convention, Guterres expressed the agency's interest in being a catalyst for a debate about how to deal with the human rights impacts of forced displacement in the 21st Century. "We need to find integrated approaches and we hope that the EU will help in this," he told parliamentarians.

Looking at asylum in the European context, the High Commissioner stressed that while states have 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."

During his debate with Euro MPs, Guterres described the situation in the European Union as contradictory. Although it is widely recognized that asylum challenges cannot be resolved exclusively at national level and that member states have committed to developing a Common European Asylum System, national sovereignty still often takes the upper hand. He supported changes proposed by the European Commission to five key EU laws on asylum, calling the proposals "an important step towards a true Common European Asylum System."

The High Commissioner also took advantage of this visit to Brussels to thank the European Commission and the EU member states for their consistent support of UNHCR's work, noting that together they provide more than 40 per cent of the refugee agency's annual budget.

By Gilles Van Moortel in Brussels, Belgium




UNHCR country pages

The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

EU Asylum Law and Policy

EU law and practice affects creation of refugee protection mechanisms in other countries.


Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

UNHCR's Recommendations to Poland for its EU Presidency

July-December 2011. Also available in Spanish on Refworld.


Trends on asylum and protection in EU Member States.

EU Instruments

UNHCR's regularly comments on key EU Regulations and Directives relating to asylum.

UNHCR Projects

UNHCR has numerous projects with EU Member States to improve the quality of asylum.

Judicial Engagement

UNHCR expertise helps courts interpret legislation in accordance with international asylum law.


The significance of resettlement as a durable solution is increasing in the EU.

Integration (refugee rights) and Family Reunification

Integration is a two-way process requiring efforts by the host societies as well as the refugees.

Border Cooperation

UNHCR is lobbying for protection-sensitive border management.

Asylum Practice

UNHCR is monitoring asylum practice and whether it is consistent with the 1951 Convention.

Practical cooperation

UNHCR is promoting and supporting cooperation with EU Member States and EASO.

Working with the European Union

EU law and practice affects creation of refugee protection mechanisms in other countries.

Groups of Concern

UNHCR expects Member States to pay particular attention to asylum seekers and refugees with specific needs.

Statelessness in Europe

UNHCR engages with EU Member States to identify and resolve the problems of stateless persons.

UNHCR Central Mediterranean Sea Initiative (CMSI)

EU solidarity for rescue-at-sea and protection of Asylum Seekers and Migrants.

UNHCR chief meets Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

On 1 August, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres travelled to northern Burkina Faso with the United States' Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BRPM), Anne Richard. In Damba camp, they met with Malian refugees who had fled northern Mali in the past six months to escape the ongoing conflict and political instability. To date, more than 250,000 Malian refugees have fled their homes and found refuge in neighbouring countries, including 107,000 in Burkina Faso alone. The UN refugee agency has only received one-third of the US$153 million it needs to provide life-saving assistance such as shelter, water, sanitation, health services, nutrition and protection to the refugees. UNHCR fears that the volatile political and humanitarian situation in Mali could lead to further outflows to neighbouring countries.

UNHCR chief meets Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie joined UNHCR chief António Guterres on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they met with boat people who have fled unrest in North Africa.

More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have crossed the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and descended on the small island since the beginning of the year.

The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador flew to Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

2014 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented the Colombian women's rights group, Butterflies with New Wings Building a Future, with the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday night.

The volunteer members of Butterflies risk their lives each day to help survivors of forced displacement and sexual abuse in the Pacific Coast city of Buenaventura. This city has some of the highest rates of violence and displacement due to escalating rivalries between illegal armed groups.

Drawing on only the most modest of resources, volunteers cautiously move through the most dangerous neighbourhoods to help women access medical care and report crimes. This work, deep inside the communities, helps them reach the most vulnerable women, but also brings with it danger and threats from the illegal armed groups.

The Award ceremony, in its 60th year, was held in Geneva's Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, and featured musical performances by UNHCR supporters, Swedish-Lebanese singer-songwriter Maher Zain and Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. The Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela also performed at the ceremony.

2014 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award