Palais des Nations, Room XIX
Geneva, 8-9 March 2001
NGOs recall the words of the 1995 Note on International Protection that “the lack of tangible international solidarity has remained an obstacle to the positive development of international refugee protection”. We do not need to say anything more about the importance of responsibility-sharing other than to point to the effects which a lack of an international system to help first asylum states had in Tanzania, had in Macedonia, and is having as we speak in West Africa.
NGOs hope that the discussions on responsibility-sharing here will be more than a sterile debate on the North-South divide, and that today will provide the impetus and a platform for further discussion. We urge delegations to focus on the tangible aspects of solidarity.
A striking feature of the discussion on the overall protection framework was the stress on prevention of displacement. This is also relevant to the question of responsibility-sharing. Much of the focus was on development, eradication of poverty, mediation and conflict resolution, and these are discussions which will have to be followed up outside of a UNHCR-led consultation process. NGOs would add that observance of human rights is the key element in preventing displacement. The export of weapons, conflict and persecution contribute massively to displacement. This is an issue which states can usefully carry on debating in the forthcoming Human Rights Commission.
The burden of refugee protection which poor countries are labouring under is one which requires, first of all, money. The phrase “responsibility-sharing” emphasises that states have freely undertaken responsibilities under the Refugee Convention and to underline that a rights-based approach to responsibility-sharing is required. This rights-based approach stresses that refugee protection is an international concern and responsibility which, as the Preamble to the Refugee Convention and the OAU Convention recognizes, requires states to act together.
It is undeniable that the rich need to help the poor, who are protecting the majority of refugees. However, at a time of increasing wealth for the rich, development aid has decreased, rather than increased and some countries offset within their aid budgets their own costs of receiving asylum-seekers. NGOs believe that off-setting the costs of receiving asylum-seekers is deplorable, particularly where this includes the cost of often illegal and arbitrary detention. But responsibility-sharing is not just about the transfer of resources from rich to poor. Within regions there is little responsibility-sharing, with some countries deeply affected by displacement, while others do little to help their neighbours. This underlines the complexity of the responsibility-sharing debate and the need for a deeper discussion than is possible in the Global Consultations.
With an appeal to devote more time to this question then, NGOs will devote our remaining limited time here to underlining some points which need to be considered and throwing out some questions we believe should be answered. They are in no particular order.
· Responsibility-sharing must also include clear differentiation of roles between UNHCR and other UN agencies and NGOs in the protection of and assistance to refugees. It must be made clear that UNHCR should not be left alone in protection and assistance activities and other agencies have a responsibility to come in. A clear division of responsibilities should protect UNHCR’s core mandate.
· While we welcome the UNHCR background paper EC/GC/01/7, paragraph 7 refers to the need for stand-by arrangements to provide greater flexibility to states. Our view is that greater predictability of response to situations of mass influx is needed. There is an inevitable tension between flexibility and predictability, but certainty that people will find protection when they flee has to be of paramount concern.
· Several other parts of the paper risk the surely unintended effect of supporting the restrictive asylum policies of the rich. It is quite conceivable, for example, that the hoped for linkage of broader development concerns (at para.13 of the paper) with support to countries of first asylum could be used to “buy out” protection responsibilities, becoming the refugee protection equivalent of carbon emissions trading. The corollary is that hosting large refugee populations could become a perverse form of human rights conditionality in development aid. It is also hard to see how those states who see no strategic interest in supporting, for example, Iran or Pakistan, will be encouraged to devote greater support to them for refugee protection.
· As the UNHCR paper notes, resettlement can be a useful protection tool, especially in long-standing refugee situations. We agree. But, as paragraph 16 of the UNHCR paper notes, there is a need for caution. The current interest in expanding the pool of resettlement countries may not aid responsibility-sharing. The United Kingdom interest in becoming a resettlement country is closely linked with its desire to reduce the number of refugees seeking asylum there. The Home Secretary has openly stated that he desires a quid pro quo: the greater the number of asylum-seekers, the fewer refugees will be taken under a resettlement quota. The paragraph 17 recommendation should include a reference to the need for resettlement programmes not to prejudice the rights of refugees seeking asylum.
· The UK proposals highlight another problem for responsibility-sharing agreement, upon which the UNHCR paper is tactfully silent. The layer upon layer of immigration control, in particular visa regimes, carriers sanctions, safe third country policies, interception and detention, which has been built up over the past decade or so is expressly anti-responsibility sharing. Will the rich be encouraged to dismantle these layers of control? There is little on the horizon to encourage us. The European Union’s much-vaunted High Level Working Group Action Plans (which include Afghanistan), self-consciously supposed to provide a comprehensive response to displacement, contain concrete proposals on the “easy” areas of immigration control aimed at restricting the movement of refugees, only with rather vaguer, longer-term, suggestions about aid to regions affected by displacement.
· People fleeing in a mass influx will, by definition, have experienced a series of deeply traumatic events leading to flight. Flight itself is a traumatic experience. A responsibility-sharing mechanism will have to include medical aid to countries of first asylum, providing for both physical and mental health needs. The latter is especially important if refugees are to receive information- a key protection issue not covered in these consultations- and to process it effectively, as trauma and continuing anxiety blocks retention of information.
· Thailand asserted yesterday that voluntary repatriation is the lack of an objection by the refugee to repatriation. We disagree. Under this agenda item, if physical transfer of refugees is envisaged, under an evacuation programme or other form of responsibility-sharing, then the informed consent of the person concerned must be obtained in order to create a “double voluntary action” between receiving state and refugee. Informed consent means that information should be given to refugees about their possible legal status in the receiving state.
· In no circumstances should families be separated by transfer. If they are, then reunification should be facilitated as soon as possible.
· Finally, states can share responsibility for refugees by honouring the right of people to return to their countries of origin. In the context of mass displacement, this right finds concrete expression in the 1995 Dayton Accords. The right to return places an onus on the country of origin to facilitate return of its citizens and on the international community to find solutions to crises causing displacement.