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Increasingly hostile environment for refugees

Increasingly hostile environment hampers UN efforts to protect refugees

An increasingly hostile environment marked by violence, endemic human rights abuses and waning generosity among traditionally hospitable nations is hampering United Nations efforts to protect millions of uprooted people around the world, according to a senior UN refugee agency official.

Addressing an Executive Committee meeting of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva yesterday, the agency’s Director of International Protection Erika Feller recited a litany of abuses ranging from banditry and murder in a Tanzanian camp to the arrest of lawyers defending raped women in Sudan to the cold-blooded executions of teenage boys in Colombia.

“Abuse of children, violence against women, refoulement (return to the country of origin) of refugees and restriction of basic rights, such as freedom of movement, are endemic in many displacement situations,” she said, noting “numerous obstacles,” many beyond the agency's power to ameliorate, which impede effective delivery of protection.

Giving specific examples Ms. Feller cited banditry and murder in Lukole refugee camp in Western Tanzania, and a major deterioration in security in Sudan’s strife-torn West Darfur region, with the most recent large-scale destruction of a camp for internally displaced persons in Aru Sharow leaving over 30 dead and 10 persons seriously injured.

“The environment is also one of arbitrary arrest of lawyers UNHCR has been sponsoring to take up cases - such as those of women in Darfur, raped and made pregnant, then imprisoned by a system which does not want to acknowledge this for the crime that it is,” she said.

In Colombia, irregular armed groups have executed teenage boys to intimidate communities fleeing violence and insecurity, while in the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Aden decomposing bodies have washed ashore, some with hands bound as the guarantee of no escape, even from drowning, she added.

“Finally, let me not leave out of the context the very disturbing accounts of people being denied entry in a state where they had previously resided, and blocked from entering the state where they had been born, raised and lived, only because they were deemed stateless,” she said.

Ms. Feller reiterated that protection is not a choice, but an obligation, and said governments should not misconstrue the provision of asylum as a hostile act. “States have conferred on [UNHCR] quite a specific mandate, one that allows for no choice in whether to implement it; it is obligatory, not discretionary in its character,” she added.

While many of the external obstacles were beyond UNHCR's control, she said the agency was implementing various internal reforms, ranging from increased emphasis on training and strengthened staffing and resourcing to ensuring greater access to durable solutions, especially refugee resettlement.

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