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Global Refugee Problem Of Forcible Returns Flagged

Top UN Refugee Agency Official Flags Global Problem Of Forcible Returns

Half of the United Nations refugee agency’s 116 country offices said they had to confront attempts to forcibly return refugees or asylum-seekers to situations where they could face danger, challenging the international system’s “most fundamental protection,” the agency's top protection official said today.

In an address in Geneva to the annual meeting of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ 70-nation Executive Committee, Assistant High Commissioner Erika Feller said forcible return of refugees to situations of danger, known as refoulement, is a breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention and UNHCR has “mounting concern” about such incidents around the world.

She raised other concerns, including that up to 30 per cent of refugee children are not regularly attending school and that less than 50 per cent of refugees in 82 different countries do not have full freedom of movement and the right to work.

At the end of 2005 there were 38 protracted refugee situations involving a total of more than 6.2 million refugees who have been in exile for five years or longer, Ms. Feller noted in her review of international refugee protection issues over the past year.

The Assistant High Commissioner suggested that the international community consider broadening its focus on the so-called “responsibility to protect” beyond extreme situations such as intervention in genocide, and apply the concept to more pro-active efforts to help governments and humanitarian agencies build capacity to protect refugees, stateless people and the internally displaced.

While acknowledging that the growth in people smuggling, human trafficking and terrorist violence called for extra vigilance, Ms. Feller observed that when a recent opinion column in a leading United States newspaper referred to the cross-border flow of “dangerous people” – including refugees – “there is real cause for concern.”

In 2005, UNHCR offices directly received 90,000 asylum applications – roughly 14 per cent of the total global applications. Worldwide the number of asylum seekers has declined to its lowest level in a decade by the end of 2005, but Ms. Feller said these figures may “mask the changing face of irregular migratory movements.”

Ms. Feller also responded to an earlier statement by an Uzbek Government representative questioning the agency’s effort to block forcible repatriation of Uzbek refugees and asylum-seekers.

While noting that it was “rare indeed” for a state – party or not to relevant conventions – “to contest the authoritative character of the voice of the High Commissioner” relating to refugee matters, Ms. Feller reminded committee members that UNHCR has not only a right but an obligation to protect displaced persons.

“UNHCR does not have to be invited to become involved in protecting refugees. This is an obligation, regularly recognized in this committee, and it is what makes UNHCR's mandate distinct, even unique, within the international system,” she said.


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