UNHCR:  Global Consultations on International Protection


The first substantive meeting of UNHCR’s Global Consultations on International Protection was held in Geneva from 8-9 March with the participation of the 57 member states of UNHCR’s Executive Committee, 50+ observer states, around 40 NGOs, and some 20 other international organizations.  Participation in the consultations was high, due in part to UNHCR’s provision of funds to some Southern host countries to enable them to be represented at a senior level. The theme of this meeting was the protection of refugees in mass influx situations and African and Asian governments participated actively in the discussions; it was good to see them raise some critical questions about the costs they have assumed in hosting refugees and the lack of adequate international support.  This added a touch of the “real world” to discussions which otherwise were somewhat technical and removed from the reality of most refugee situations.


These consultations focused on the “third track” of the consultative process which is looking at the gaps in refugee protection – those areas largely not covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention.  The first track of the consultations focuses on reaffirming commitment to the 1951 Convention while the second track will analyze questions related to the interpretation of the Convention.  Discussion at the March meeting focused on four issues, each of which was introduced by a UNHCR background paper (available at www.unhcr.ch/prexcomm or on ICVA’s website at www.icva.ch/parinac):

·       The overall protection framework

·       The civilian character of asylum, including separation of armed elements and screening in mass influx situations, as well as the status and treatment of ex-combatants

·       Registration

·       Mechanisms of international cooperation to share responsibilities/burdens in mass influx situations


NGOs and the Consultations


Preceding the formal governmental consultations, the NGOs met with UNHCR on 7 March to discuss the substance of the four documents.  Although the discussion was lively (and certainly livelier than the ensuing governmental discussions!) the NGOs expressed some frustration that this meeting came too late for NGO input to be reflected in the papers.


As part of their commitment to ensuring NGO input into the consultations, UNHCR has hired an NGO secondment from ICVA to liaise with the NGOs and to ensure that NGO views are incorporated into UNHCR’s planning process.  Eve Lester (lester@unhcr.ch)  arrived two weeks ago and is working hard to synthesize NGO input.  (Eve formerly worked with Jesuit Refugee Service and the Lawyers’ Committee on Human Rights.)  On the NGO side, Simon Russell at ICVA (simon@icva.ch) is trying to coordinate NGO input – both for the statements in the formal process and more informally.  WCC is working closely with both of these individuals.


The consultations themselves consisted of a series of UNHCR introductions and a round of governmental statements, quite reminiscent of UNHCR’s annual Executive Committee meeting.  Or as one NGO said “this was like ExCom lite.” The chair of the Consultations valiantly tried to create an “interactive dialogue” but few governments responded to his entreaty to raise provocative issues or to address questions to each other. The NGOs were permitted to make one statement per agenda item and the statements were generally of high quality and appreciated by governments.


In the NGO meetings which took place on the side of the formal consultations, NGOs raised questions about the ultimate outcome of the consultations and whether their involvement in the process was worth the investment of time and energy.  Is this just an opportunity to share frustrations and ideas about refugee protection or is the process going to lead to substantive change at the international level?  NGO input to the process has been limited so far although there are some hopes that NGOs will have more substantive input in the future.  Thus NGOs present at the meeting have agreed to divide up responsibilities for working on some of the issues coming up at the next meeting (28-29 June) and to solicit broad NGO input.  There is also some hope that the question of a supervisory mechanism could lead to a new international instrument for overseeing implementation by states of the Convention.


The following sections summarize some of the issues raised with respect to the four agenda items for the consultations:


Overall Protection Framework


In reviewing existing responses to mass influx, the paper focused on two issues, the first of which was group determination of refugee status on a prima facie basis.  Here the main issues needing clarification are:

·       The exclusion of people not deserving of international protection, particularly the need for clear procedures for dealing with combatants and former combatants

·       Implementing appropriate durable solutions where the situation becomes a protracted one

·       Adjusting resettlement criteria.  UNHCR asked for more flexibility from resettlement countries who often apply stricter criteria for deciding on cases to be resettled than the governments of host countries.  While the NGOs welcomed this suggestion, some governments (particularly Denmark) indicated that they would continue to apply criteria based on the 1951 convention and would not move to a broader standard.  The US government suggested that UNHCR play a more proactive role as an intermediary in these cases.


The second issue which engendered considerable discussion was temporary protection, particularly the need to define the trigger for temporary protection, agreeing on standards of treatment, and how long temporary protection should last. Unfortunately (as the theme of mass influx is of particular importance to the South), the discussion of temporary protection was dominated by European concerns.


The NGOs were concerned about the term “mass influx” noting that some governments invoked measures appropriate for a mass influx in situations where there haven’t been large numbers of new and sudden arrivals.  In the discussion among governments, there was a surprising (and welcome) common reference to the need to devote more resources to preventing conflicts which lead to refugee flows.


The Civilian Character of Asylum


The issues raised in this paper included the need for identification, separation and internment of armed elements who arrive on a border together with civilian refugees. The issue of asylum claims made by individuals who have participated in the armed conflict but who claim to have been demobilized, demilitarized or to have deserted prior to or after entering the host country was another thorny issue.  The related issue of family members of armed elements was also raised.  As the paper said, these family members should generally be treated prima facie as refugees, but family members of armed or former armed elements shouldn’t be placed in internment camps in the interests of their own safety.  Ever since the Rwanda emergency in 1994, the issue of how to treat armed elements has been a particularly difficult and sensitive one.


The UNHCR paper included a long list of suggested recommendations but the discussion by governments – and a view held by NGOs as well – stressed that many of these recommendations fall outside the purview of UNHCR.  It is host states – not UNHCR – who are responsible for separating, disarming and interning armed elements.  Many host states asked for international assistance in carrying out these difficult tasks.  The NGOs and several governments raised the issue of child soldiers, urging that they be treated differently than governments.


Mechanisms of international cooperation to share responsibilities and burdens in mass influx situations


The title of this paper reflects a compromise.  NGOs, UNHCR and some governments prefer to use the term “responsibility-sharing” but according to UNHCR, some governments insisted on the term “burden-sharing.”  The recommendations in this paper focus on the international community providing financial assistance to UNHCR and to states hosting large numbers of refugees,  resettlement, and taking other supportive actions (such as prevention and resolution of conflicts.)  Considerable discussion was generated by the suggestion of relying more on humanitarian evacuation and humanitarian transfer mechanisms (as was used to move Kosovo Albanians from Macedonia to other countries.) In particular the paper calls for establishing a pre-agreed, quota-based system to be able to use these mechanisms at times of emergencies.  This generated quite a bit of discussion, with some questioning the assumption that these programmes had been positive in the case of Kosovo and some worried that, however conceptualized, these programmes would be seen as a substitute for first asylum.


The paper also suggests using procedural mechanisms for burden and responsibility-sharing such as the CPA (used in Southeast Asia) or CIREFCA (used in Central America) to provide a multilateral approach to ease the pressure on host states.




The paper on registration – which called for more systematic measures to register refugees – was relatively non-controversial.  Almost every government that spoke referred to the need for better systems of registering refugees to help in assessing need, protecting refugees, and supporting repatriation when it is feasible. The NGO statement was probably the most substantive of all the interventions, focusing particularly on the urgent need to collect reliable and timely demographic information, particularly on women and children.  UNHCR has commissioned a feasibility study, known as Project PROFILE, to develop a more comprehensive registration, documentation and operations management system.   Most governments expressed support for this initiative.


UNHCR Standing Committee


The UNHCR Standing Committee meeting from 12-14 March focused on three regional situations: Africa (dominated by discussion of the current situation of refugees in Guinea and Sierra Leone); Asia and the Pacific; and Central Asia, Southwest Asia, North Africa and the Middle East (dominated by discussions about Afghan refugees.)  The meeting also devoted time to the annual theme for this year’s ExComm, refugee reintegration, HIV/AIDS, safety and security and the Brahimi report which assessed UN peacekeeping operations.


Financial Situation and Programme Planning


Perhaps the most interesting and troubling part of the meeting was the report and discussion on UNHCR’s financial situation.  In 2000, UNHCR spent $721 million and received only $640 million in contributions, thus leaving a shortfall of $81 million which was covered in various ways.  In October 2000, UNHCR’s Executive Committee approved a budget of about $900 million, but it looks unlikely that UNHCR will receive more funds in 2001 than were received in 2000.  In response to this critical financial situation, UNHCR has instructed all of its offices to plan -- and spend -- on the basis of 80% of their budgets.


This provoked considerable discussion with most governments objecting to across-the-board budget cuts of 20% and insisting that UNHCR take on the difficult task of prioritizing its work and making budget cuts on that basis. 


In the formal presentation on the subject, Mr. Ruud Lubbers, new UN High Commissioner for Refugees (who did not attend either the Global Consultations or the Standing Committee meeting) was reported to be deeply concerned by the chronic shortfall in financial resources available to UNHCR.  In particular, he asked how is it possible that the UNHCR governing body approve a programme and a budget without making a commitment to cover that budget – or indeed without knowing where the funds would come from?  In response to these questions, Mr. Lubbers has set up three working groups to address the questions: what are UNHCR’s core activities?  what measures can UNHCR take in the short term to address the serious financial shortfalls? and how can UNHCR improve its partnership with the donors and become a truly multilateral institution which enjoys sufficient financial support?  Many governments expressed appreciation for these questions and asked to be kept informed of the three groups’ work.


While these presentations and comments were made in the public sessions of UNHCR’s Standing Committee, in the background many UNHCR staff were obviously nervous at the prospect of coming budget cuts.  The first report from the staff groups is to be discussed by senior UNHCR management on 19 March and the expectation is that substantial staff reductions – as many as 1/5 of headquarters’ positions – will be announced in the next few weeks.  Many are assuming that UNHCR will concentrate on its “core activities” and that many other programmes – including those initiated and supported by governments – will be eliminated.  On the NGO side, there is concern that programmes such as those on refugee women, refugee children, human rights, HIV/AIDS, education environment, etc. will be considered as non-core activities and thus eliminated in the obvious need to cut UNHCR’s budget.  There is also continuing concern among NGOs about the effects of UNHCR’s budget shortfall on operations in the field.  In late 2000, UNHCR implemented budget reductions after agreements had been signed and programmes initiated which left many NGOs holding the bag – and many refugees in worse conditions.


The discussion of finances in the Standing Committee thus injected a note of “realism” into the Global Consultations’ consideration of protection issues.  Protection and assistance are, of course, closely linked.  If refugees do not receive sufficient assistance, many will turn to prostitution, be recruited into armed forces, or turn to illegal activities – all of which are protection issues.  While Mr. Lubbers seems to be very committed to UNHCR’s protection mandate, the broader financial shortfalls raise questions about how protection can in fact, be strengthened in the field.



Elizabeth Ferris

World Council of Churches


16 March 2001