Executive Committee of UNHCR's Programme


21st Meeting of the Standing Committee


Geneva, 25-27 June 2001



The Strategic Presentation for Europe


Response on behalf of NGOs by Dorothee Starck, Policy Officer at the

European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)




This presentation on Europe is made on behalf of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) in its role as the PARinAC Regional Focal Point for Europe and on behalf of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) in Bosnia-Hercegovina as Focal Point for South Eastern Europe.


I shall focus on three areas of interest: Firstly, I will address developments in the European Union; secondly, I will touch upon the situation of IDPs in the Russian Federation; and, lastly, I will outline some of the main issues regarding refugees and displaced persons in South East Europe. It is very difficult to address all the issues on Europe and South East Europe in only one statement, so I will only be able to highlight a few essential points. A longer version of our statement will be made available in written form.


Let me draw your attention to the


I. European Union


first.  - Today, the EU finds itself at a crossroads. Almost two years have passed since EU leaders held their summit at Tampere, where they reaffirmed their commitment to the absolute right to seek asylum and the need to have guarantees in place for those who seek protection in the Union. These statements were widely welcomed both by UNHCR and the international community of NGOs.


The process of EU legislation on asylum following the Amsterdam treaty is now in full swing. Certain measures have already been agreed, while first drafts of some key instruments are on the table or expected shortly.


This begs the question if the high expectations of Tampere have been reflected in the current developments.


The answer is, at best, mixed. Much to our regret, EU Member States often seem to aim only for standard setting at the lowest common denominator, rather than adopting best national practice. There is a real danger that, in the year of the 50th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, international refugee law will be undermined and watered down by EU measures.


Examples, which I could dwell on, but will not - due to time constraints- , include asylum procedures, access to protection, and –we fear –even the common approach to the interpretation of the Geneva Refugee Convention.


It has already been stressed by Mr. Bijlefeldt that European Union asylum policies have a major export value. If poor standards are set here, the global system is weakened. NGOs remind EU States of their responsibility in showing global leadership on human rights issues, and to strengthen the global regime of refugee protection rather than eroding it.


II. Russian Federation


I come to the situation in the Russian Federation. NGOs are concerned that there is still no properly functioning, state-sanctioned mechanism for investigating abuses of human rights in Chechnya, with the power to bring those responsible to justice. As has been stressed by a number of institutions, the Russian President's Special Representative for Human Rights in Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov, at present lacks the resources and the mandate to carry out such a task effectively.


Furthermore, recent assessments of international NGOs have confirmed that the humanitarian situation in Chechnya is more desperate than ever and that the population is entirely dependent on international aid. It is clear that under these circumstances, repatriation is not currently an option. We call on the Russian authorities to allow unimpeded access and facilitate the work of humanitarian organisations, for example by allowing radio communications outside of Grozny.

We agree with UNHCR that any measures intended to force those displaced by the conflict into returning at this premature stage must come to a halt at once.


III. South East Europe


I now address our key concerns regarding refugee and displacement issues in South-East Europe.


Let us start by reminding ourselves that this is the most important refugee crisis in Europe – and the most intransigent. Despite the immense scale of international efforts over the past decade, one of the most central tenets of that engagement – refugee and IDP return – remains largely unachieved. By January 2001, some 1.4 million people have remained either refugees or IDPs in the states of the former Yugoslavia.


It is therefore sobering to once again underline that stability and durable solutions for all displaced populations remain the work of long-term, hands-on engagement. Increasing talk of donor ‘fatigue’ and withdrawal seems to our members, who work at the grassroots and across the region, to be both premature and mistaken, if we are not to lose the small but significant improvements achieved in the last few years.


We therefore urge UNHCR to continue its advocacy for long-term engagement to underpin durable solutions. In particular, we would endorse the work of the Stability Pact’s Regional Return Initiative and highlight the importance of meaningful NGO consultation in the Pact’s work across its different areas.


Secondly, let me share with you the issues raised in a conference we recently held in Belgrade, focused upon the key issues for refugees and IDPs in the FRY. This conference brought together over 130 key actors from the national and international NGO communities, governments, and inter-governmental organisations.


One of the core issues raised at this meeting was how to offer better integration solutions for refugees in the FRY without damaging the primacy of return rights, or being seen to make more permanent the effects of ethnic cleansing.


Most participants at this forum will be aware of the results of the recent registration process carried out in Serbia by UNHCR and the Serbian Commission for Refugees and IDPs: Some 70% of refugees expressed a desire to resettle in the FRY, while only some 7% expressed a clear desire and intention to return to Croatia or Bosnia-Hercegovina.


We cannot ignore that message with its implications for respecting individual decisions, resources and need. However, these preferences are not expressed as free choices, but are the result of a situation in which return simply does not seem a realistic option for many Serb refugees in the FRY.


We will not allow this to be seen as a lessening in international commitment to the primacy of the right of return. We would urge UNHCR and governments to redouble the pressure upon points of resistance to return, and to look to providing more resources for those schemes and programmes which underpin the sustainability of return.


In this respect, NGOs would wish to express their particular concern over the obstacles to realisable and durable return to Croatia. Despite progress in establishing a more open and democratic environment, return for Croatian Serb citizens is impeded at every level. This concerns - just to name a few headlines - the inadequate legal framework for return; the inaccessibility of the property and tenancy restitution procedures; reconstruction problems; and the often flawed process used to pursue war crimes indictments.


We therefore ask UNHCR to continue to work with its partners, and to advocate to the European Commission and the government of Croatia itself, to ensure that the government of Croatia translates improved rhetoric on return into real action.


A last point - I am sure that all participants in this forum have Macedonia on their minds. Our NGO members wish to express their support for UNHCR’s efforts to cope with the displacement caused by the ongoing violence and ask that the international community does its utmost to ensure that the right to leave one’s country and seek asylum is safeguarded. We are worried about the lack of interest by the Macedonian government in supporting the internally displaced. Of course, we offer our support for any peace and stabilisation process which respects human rights and promotes safe return. Many member agencies are currently undertaking detailed needs assessments; in this context, we feel that it would add value to the efforts of so many partners if an inter-agency meeting was held to discuss issues in the round and share information. We are working to organise such a meeting, and would like to extend an invitation to UNHCR and other international stakeholders to participate.


Thank you, Mr. Chairman.