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The way ahead: Analysis by UN High Commissioner
Refugees returning to East Timor in 1999/UNHCR
In search of solutions

By Ruud Lubbers
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Refugees are people who no longer enjoy the protection of their government. The UNHCR's main role is to ensure that the basic human rights of refugees are respected.

This includes ensuring that no person is returned to a country where he or she has reason to fear war, violence and persecution.

These principles are spelled out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, the cornerstone of international protection, and subsequent instruments.

Protection of refugees involves both legal and material assistance. Physical protection, for example, can consist of the provision of basic, life-saving aid such as food, clean water, shelter and medical care.

Protection is also about finding durable solutions for refugees. This usually involves one of three main approaches: repatriation to their original homes; integration in first-asylum states; or resettlement to a third country.

Repatriation is the preferred solution. Over the past two decades, UNHCR has helped at least 25 million people go home successfully, to places like Guatemala, Namibia, Mozambique, Cambodia, Kosovo and many other countries.

Millions more have rebuilt their lives in first-asylum states or in the nearby region.

Many others have resettled to third countries, making valuable contributions to their new communities.

UN convention under threat

As the 1951 Convention reaches its 50th year, some critics contend that globalisation, mass migration and the changing nature of conflict have left the instrument outdated and irrelevant.

Others, myself included, insist the convention's values are timeless and that it has proved remarkably resilient.

We agree, however, that now is a good time to stand back and consider the convention's actual application in today's world.

Somali refugee in Ethiopia
That is why UNHCR has launched a programme of "global consultations," aimed at reaffirming the commitment of governments to the convention while at the same time examining the key protection concerns of today.

One such broad concern is how to protect refugees in mass influx situations, where large numbers of people flee to neighbouring countries and sometimes remain for years or even decades.

These protracted refugee situations often stem from unresolved conflicts that also drag on for years. Such situations sorely test the hospitality of the host country, particularly when international support dwindles.

They can even lead to hostility and violence against refugees. In many cases, racist and xenophobic attacks against refugees are politically instigated. They are made the scapegoat for all sorts of national ills.

'Bogus' asylum-seekers

Another common protection challenge centres on individuals rather than mass influxes. Nearly all countries today receive individual asylum-seekers.

We must find ways of disentangling refugees from this spreading net of migration controls

Increasingly, however, governments complain about the burdens placed on their asylum systems by individual claims, about the rising costs of running such systems, and about the significant misuse of the asylum process.

As a result, governments have resorted to an increasing number of measures whose compatibility with basic protection principles has become ever more tenuous.

Asylum applications 2000
Germany 117,650
United States 91,600
United Kingdom 75,680
Netherlands 43,900
Belgium 42,690
France 38,590
Canada 34,250
Australia 19,400
These include restrictions on access to territory or asylum procedures, detention of asylum seekers, reducing their welfare benefits, and restricting their rights to family reunion.

It is crucial that we find ways to responsibly identify who is a refugee, who is otherwise vulnerable, and who is not deserving of protection and can be safely returned home.

Another concern, both for UNHCR and for a growing number of governments, arises from the confusion between would-be migrants and asylum-seekers.

Technically, irregular migratory movements - of people in search of economic opportunities, for example - are not a refugee problem per se.

But these movements become a protection concern when, for example, would-be migrants pose as refugees to gain entry, where asylum-seekers resort to migrant smugglers to arrange departure from their countries, or where laws aimed at controlling migration also impede a refugee's access to protection.

Managing migration

We must find ways of disentangling refugees from this spreading net of migration controls in a way that ensures access to protection without compromising a state's right to regulate migration.

Refugees return to Kosovo, but still have to rebuild their homes
UNHCR is here to help foster good governance in refugee matters. We assist governments in developing and strengthening asylum laws and institutions, as well as in assisting and finding lasting solutions for refugees.

Effective governance is crucial to broader efforts aimed at combating transnational organized crime, including trafficking and smuggling.

In regions of origin, comprehensive approaches aimed at addressing the root causes of economic migration and refugee flows can help create conditions in which refugees and migrants do not feel compelled to move on in search of better solutions.

With real partnership and the necessary resources, the international community can and must find better ways for the effective management of migration, while at the same time upholding and fulfilling our obligations to protect the world's refugees.

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