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

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.

The High Commissioner

Filippo Grandi, who took office on January 1 2016, is the UN refugee agency's 11th High Commissioner.


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.

2015 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presents the Nansen medal to Afghan refugee, Aqeela Asifi in Geneva, Switzerland.

Asifi, 49, has dedicated her life to bringing education to refugee girls in Pakistan. Despite minimal resources and significant cultural challenges, Asifi - a former teacher who fled from Kabul with her family in 1992 - has guided over a thousand refugee girls through primary education in the Kot Chandana refugee village in Mianwali, Pakistan.

Before she arrived, strict cultural traditions kept most girls at home. But she was determined to give these girls a chance and began teaching just a handful of pupils in a makeshift school tent.

UNHCR's Nansen Refugee Award honours extraordinary service to the forcibly displaced, and names Eleanor Roosevelt, Graça Machel and Luciano Pavarotti among its laureates. Speakers and performers at today's award ceremony include UNHCR Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Ger Duany, Unicef Goodwill Ambassador and singer Angelique Kidjo and visual artist Cedric Cassimo.

Afghanistan is the largest, most protracted refugee crisis in the world. Over 2.6 million Afghans currently live in exile and over half of them are children.

2015 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

Victims of Conflict in Nigeria Find Safety in Cameroon Camp

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visited Cameroon in late March to put a spotlight on the situation there of tens of thousands of refugees from Nigeria. These people have escaped mounting violence by insurgents in the north-east of their country. Among the places that Guterres visited during his March 24-25 visit is the Minawao Refugee Camp, where many of the uprooted have been relocated.

Situated some 120 kilometres from the dangerous border area with Nigeria in Cameroon's Far North region, Minawao camp is currently home to 33,000 Nigerian refugees, mainly from Borno state. Many of the arrivals are traumatized and in need of material and psycho-social help. They told the High Commissioner of losing their homes and belongings as well as members of their families. Some were injured. In total, an estimated 74,000 Nigerians have found refuge in Cameroon while cross-border incursions from Nigeria have displaced 96,000 Cameroonians. UNHCR photographer Hélène Caux also visited Minawao to hear the individual stories.

Victims of Conflict in Nigeria Find Safety in Cameroon Camp

Life in the Shadows: People Smuggling at the European Union's Edge

So far this year, nearly 200,000 people have entered the European Union (EU) through irregular routes - many undertaking life-threatening journeys across the Mediterranean. At the fringes of the EU recently, on either side of the border between Hungary and Serbia, several Afghans and Syrians explained to UNHCR why they turned to smugglers to flee war and persecution to try to find safety in Europe. Some were staying in an abandoned brick factory in Serbia, waiting for smugglers to get them into Hungary and on to other points inside the EU. Others had been caught making just such a journey and were temporarily being held in police cells in south-eastern Hungary. The following images were taken by UNHCR's Kitty McKinsey.

Life in the Shadows: People Smuggling at the European Union's Edge