UNHCR seeks common sense European approach towards those fleeing violence

Setting the Agenda, 19 January 2011

© UNHCR/M.Sheikh Nor
Many people have fled the indiscriminate effect of generalized violence in Somalia. Here a group of Somalis flee from Mogadishu.

BRUSSELS, Belgium, January 19 (UNHCR) A top UNHCR official has questioned the approach that some European countries take towards people fleeing the indiscriminate effect of generalized violence in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, saying it "often defies common sense."

UNHCR Director of International Protection Volker Türk, at a forum organized in Brussels on Tuesday to launch UNHCR's Commemorations Year in Europe, said that some asylum states maintain that people fleeing conflict or large-scale violence cannot qualify as refugees. Türk said he believed this went against the spirit of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, adding that "protecting refugees is what the Convention is made for."

Türk, whose speech addressed protection gaps in Europe, noted that there had been debate in the European Union (EU) in the 1980s and 1990s about the "non-state agent of persecution" issue, with some countries arguing that persecution coming from non-state agents was not sufficient to merit granting refugee status. That debate was resolved by the adoption of the so-called EU Qualification Directive, which favoured a broader interpretation of persecution.

Article 15c of the document extends subsidiary protection to civilians who would face a risk of serious harm in a situation of indiscriminate violence if sent home. But this provision is couched in what Türk called the "convoluted language of political compromise" and, as a result, it remains little utilized.

Türk pointed out that despite the EU Qualification Directive some European countries still send people back to areas marked by generalized violence such as Afghanistan, where the fluid and volatile nature of conflict and the worsening situation had led to an increased number of civilian casualties, more frequent security incidents and significant population displacement.

While Europe was getting lost in sophisticated discussions about legal concepts, Turk said, Asian and African countries were taking in victims of generalized violence in large numbers. He cited the example of Syria taking in Iraqis, Pakistan accepting Afghans and Kenya providing a safe haven for Somalis. Legal debates should not eclipse the "protection imperative," he said.

Türk revealed that UNHCR researchers examining adherence to the Directive had so far found "an exceedingly narrow interpretation, one which would defy common sense in many cases." He added that Article 15c was used in such a small number of cases that it risked being "an empty shell in protection terms."

This seemed to be due to narrow approaches adopted for the interpretation of words such as "serious harm," "civilian" and "indiscriminate" and the degree of individual targeting, among others. In many cases, although people are not recognized as refugees nor granted subsidiary protection, they are protected from return by a variety of disparate national statuses, but without a consistent set of rights.

Last year, around 20 per cent of asylum-seekers in Europe came from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Yet responses to their protection needs varied from one European country to another and many EU member states do not agree with UNHCR's contention that the 1951 Convention can and should be interpreted to protect people within large groups whose fear of persecution is generalized.

Knut Doermann, head of the legal division at the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the gathering that even in the face of new forms of conflict, the need for protecting civilian victims remained unchanged.

Sir Stephen Sedley, an appeals court judge for England and Wales, called the Qualification Directive a "bad piece of drafting," while Katelijne Declerck of the International Association of Refugee Law Judges said she hoped that a more consistent interpretation of Article 15c would help to ensure a more consistent response to civilians fleeing situations of violence.

Judith Kumin, director of UNHCR's Europe Bureau and moderator of the debate, noted that the refugee agency has a formal consultative role with respect to the Common European Asylum System and that it also works closely with EU states and institutions in support of the effort to build a system which is in accordance with the 1951 Convention and fills protection gaps.

Tuesday's forum was organized by UNHCR to discuss the extent to which people fleeing the indiscriminate effects of generalized violence find protection in Europe 60 years after adoption of the Refugee Convention. Those attending the forum included members of the judiciary, government and EU officials, academics and NGO representatives.




Protection Gaps in Europe? Persons fleeing the indiscriminate effects of generalized violence

Speech by Volker Türk, UNHCR Director of International Protection, Brussels, 18 January 2011

EU Asylum Law and Policy

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


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.

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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.

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Drifting Towards Italy

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The Italian island of Lampedusa is just 290 kilometres off the coast of Libya. In 2006, some 18,000 people crossed this perilous stretch of sea - mostly on inflatable dinghies fitted with an outboard engine. Some were seeking employment, others wanted to reunite with family members and still others were fleeing persecution, conflict or indiscriminate violence and had no choice but to leave through irregular routes in their search for safety.

Of those who made it to Lampedusa, some 6,000 claimed asylum. And nearly half of these were recognized as refugees or granted some form of protection by the Italian authorities.

In August 2007, the authorities in Lampedusa opened a new reception centre to ensure that people arriving by boat or rescued at sea are received in a dignified way and are provided with adequate accommodation and medical facilities.

Drifting Towards Italy

Life in Calais' Jungle

An estimated 3,000 refugees and migrants live in Calais on the northern coast of France. Most fled conflict, violence or persecution in Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Syria and need international protection.

The situation in Calais has highlighted the need for greater responsibility and coordination between European countries and a robust implementation of the Common European Asylum System.

UNHCR has called upon EU member states to address the current gaps in asylum and reception. A collective and far-reaching European response is required, based on the principles of humanity, access to protection, solidarity and responsibility-sharing, both within the EU but also with countries outside the EU.

*Names changed for protection reasons.

Life in Calais' Jungle

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