Opening Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the High Commissioner's Dialogue on Protection Challenges; Theme: "Refugee Protection, Durable Solutions and International Migration," Geneva, 11 December 2007

Statements by High Commissioner, 11 December 2007

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me begin by offering a warm welcome to all of you. It gives me great satisfaction to see so many states, international organizations, NGOs and experts gathered here today for our first Dialogue on Protection Challenges.

To open the Dialogue, I would briefly like to address three questions. What is the purpose of the Dialogue? Why have we chosen to focus our discussion on the issue of refugee protection and international migration? And what perspectives does UNHCR bring to this theme?

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The first of those questions can be answered very briefly. We have initiated this Dialogue because of the need to forge an international consensus on the principles and practice of protection for refugees in the current context of human displacement.

As you know, global refugee numbers have not increased dramatically in recent years. They had even decreased for a number of years prior to 2006. But the challenge of providing these and other displaced people with protection and solutions has not become any easier. This is particularly the case in situations where refugees are moving alongside people who are not in need of international protection.

In convening this Dialogue, it is my hope that we will be able to discuss and build consensus on ways of improving our response to the contemporary challenges of refugee protection. I also hope that our discussion will be as informal, interactive and open as possible.

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Question two. Why have we chosen to focus this first Dialogue on the issue of refugee protection, durable solutions and international migration?

The answer to that question is to be found in the fact that human mobility is growing in scale, scope and complexity. New patterns of movement are emerging, including forms of displacement and forced migration that are not addressed by international refugee law. States throughout the globe are expressing concern about the impact of these developments on their economy, their security and their social cohesion.

Unfortunately, the debate about mobility and migration is not always a rational one. Electoral opportunism, political populism and the sensationalist media have combined to poison the debate on this issue, promoting a sense of fear, intolerance and rejection.

But at the same time, the discourse on international migration has recently taken a new and more positive turn. As demonstrated by the establishment of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, there is growing recognition of the need to maximize the contribution that migration can make to poverty reduction and economic growth, both in the North and the South of the globe.

"there is growing recognition of the need to maximize the contribution that migration can make to poverty reduction and economic growth"

The agenda that has been established for the second meeting of the Global Forum in the Philippines also indicates that we are witnessing a new awareness of the need to safeguard the human rights of those people who are on the move. I make no secret of my ambition to ensure that the current debate on migration, development and human rights includes a focus on the protection needs of refugees and the contribution they can make to their countries of asylum.

I am firmly convinced that the efforts of my Office to promote refugee protection and solutions are fully compatible with (and can actually reinforce) the efforts of states to ensure their own security and to define their migration policies. I hope that this Dialogue will enable us to determine how these complementary objectives can be more effectively attained.

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Let me continue my opening remarks with a few words about UNHCR's perspective on the issues that we will be addressing in the Dialogue, and which are examined at greater length in the Discussion Paper which has been made available to you.

As you will see from that paper, our starting point in this Dialogue is to be found in the 1951 Refugee Convention, in the distinctive status and rights that have been given to refugees in international law, and in UNHCR's unique mandate to provide that group of people with protection and durable solutions in cooperation with States.

At the same time, we recognize that the refugee concept has changed over the 50 years, and has been broadened as a result of additional legal instruments, new jurisprudence, changing state practice and the evolution of UNHCR's mandate. All of these developments testify to a phenomenon that I referred to a moment ago, namely the growing complexity of human mobility.

The world's 10 million refugees constitute only a small proportion of the roughly 200 million or more people who are now living outside their own country. But increasingly those refugees are to be found in mixed movements, travelling in the same directions, using the same routes and means of transport as migrants.

"The world's 10 million refugees constitute only a small proportion of the roughly 200 million or more people who are now living outside their own country."

In many cases they are also exposed to similar risks and dangers, especially when travelling in flimsy and overcrowded boats of the type we have recently witnessed in places as far apart as the Gulf of Aden, the southern Mediterranean, the west coast of Africa and the Caribbean.

UNHCR has a number of fundamental objectives in relation to mixed movements, all of which are addressed in our 10 Point Action Plan on Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration.

We want to ensure that people who are in need of protection have access to the territory of other states, and are able to have their case assessed in fair and effective asylum procedures.

We want to make sure that border controls are implemented in a manner that is sensitive to protection concerns and to the rights of refugees.

We want to promote measures that will save the lives of people who are in distress on the high seas and ensure their safe and timely disembarkation.

We want action to be taken to crack down on human traffickers and smugglers, and to ensure that the victims of these crimes are properly protected.

We want to ensure that durable solutions are found for refugees, and at the same time to ensure that people who are not in need of international protection can either return to their homeland in a dignified manner or regularize their status in accordance with the migration policies of the states concerned. In seeking solutions for refugees, moreover, we would like to ask whether persons of concern to UNHCR could benefit more systematically from regular migration opportunities.

Above all, we want to ensure that our efforts to meet these objectives are firmly based on the principles of international solidarity, cooperation and responsibility sharing. Indeed, one of my principal ambitions for this Dialogue is to gain broader recognition of the need to build protection capacity in every part of the world, so that refugees can find safety where and when they need it and are not obliged to engage in onward movements.

In this context, let us remember that the issue of refugee protection and international migration is not simply one of movements from the South to the North of the globe. The majority of the world's refugees are to be found in developing countries, and some of the largest migratory movements today take place within the South.

We must ensure that efforts to improve the situation of refugees in developing regions are not used as a pretext by the world's most prosperous countries to dump protection problems onto states with far fewer resources and much weaker capacity. Refugee protection in the South is necessary but it can never be an alternative to asylum in the North.

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Ladies and gentlemen,

Before opening the floor to other participants in this Dialogue, allow me to conclude by raising some issues which may fall outside the mandate of my Office, but which have enormous consequences for my ability to exercise that mandate.

First, we must recognize that in the current and very dynamic phase of the globalization process, migration is inevitable. It is probably an illusion to believe that goods, capital, services and information can move increasingly freely across state borders without a simultaneous expansion in the scale and scope of human mobility.

"It is probably an illusion to believe that goods, capital, services and information can move increasingly freely across state borders without a simultaneous expansion in the scale and scope of human mobility."

Second, international migration cannot be effectively managed by border controls or by migration policies alone. A more coherent, comprehensive and integrated approach is required, incorporating appropriate initiatives in a wide range of other policy areas.

Particular attention must be given to the establishment of better coordinated and more targeted development cooperation programmes, focused on poverty reduction, job creation and the strengthening of public and community services. Greater efforts are needed to address the challenges of conflict prevention, conflict resolution and peacebuilding. International trade must become a true instrument of development. And new initiatives are needed to mitigate the effects of climate change, which are inevitable, and to enable communities to adapt to changes in their environment.

Third, I encourage states to acknowledge the need to balance effective border controls with the provision of additional legal migration opportunities. In an environment where irregular migration prevails, human traffickers and smugglers are bound to prosper. Irregular migration can only be curtailed if people who want to move can aspire to do so in a safe and legal manner.

"Irregular migration can only be curtailed if people who want to move can aspire to do so in a safe and legal manner."

We should recognize that while international migration is driven by some powerful economic and social forces, it is ultimately a human phenomenon. People who move from one country and continent to another usually do so to make the best of their lives. We must ensure that such movements are undertaken as a matter of choice, and not because it is the only way for people to survive.

Fourth, I believe that if we are to address the issue of human mobility in a more effective and equitable manner, then we must strive for better cooperation, particularly between states, but also involving other stakeholders. Such cooperation must take place at the regional and global levels and promote an active dialogue between countries of origin, transit and destination.

In exactly a week from now, we will be celebrating International Migrants Day. Let us use that day, and let us use this Dialogue, to reaffirm the need to respect the rights of all those people who have left their own country, irrespective of their legal status or their motivation for moving.

In making that remark, I am not seeking an expansion of my Office's mandate. I do not want UNHCR to assume responsibility for activities that are more properly done by other organizations, particularly the International Organization for Migration. I am not in favour of diluting the fundamental distinction between refugees and migrants, and certainly do not wish to suggest that everyone who is on the move should be considered a refugee.

"I am not in favour of diluting the fundamental distinction between refugees and migrants, and certainly do not wish to suggest that everyone who is on the move should be considered a refugee."

I do believe, however, in the universality and indivisibility of human rights. By creating a global environment in which migrant rights are respected, we will also be creating an environment in which UNHCR can more effectively exercise its mandate for refugee protection and solutions.

Thank you very much.