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Refugee Protection an Obligation Under International Law

UN Secretary-General António Guterres on the occasion of the World Refugee Day

Refugee Protection an Obligation Under International Law

A young refugee girl pushing a wheelbarrow of rubbish through the refugee camp in Obock, Djibouti. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 21 2017 (IPS) - It is impossible to be ten years as High Commissioner for Refugees, doing my best to try to help the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, without changing your life. And, indeed, not only witnessing the suffering of people but also learning [about] the extraordinary courage, resilience and capacity to permanently generate hope of refugees is something that has changed my perspective of the world and, to a large extent, changed my life.

And this was the reason why I became candidate for Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Now we are witnessing the largest number of refugees ever. But it is important to say that refugee protection is not a matter of solidarity or generosity, refugee protection is an obligation under international law – the ‘51 Convention and many regional instruments of binding nature. And, as a matter of fact, during the ten years in which I was High Commissioner for Refugees, I have to say that, by large, international law was respected.

Borders were, in general, open, very few situations where refugees were rejected or sent back to their countries of origin, where they might face persecution – what is technically called refoulement. The number of resettlement opportunities offered by developed countries for refugees living in camps and other dramatic situations in the developing world has doubled during those ten years and there was, in general, a strong acceptance by Member States that refugee protection was something that was needed and had to be granted.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Credit: UN Photo

The situation has considerably changed now. It’s true that we are still witnessing a very large number of countries doing an enormous effort to provide protection to refugees in very dramatic circumstances. I’ll be flying tonight to Uganda. Uganda has been receiving, very generously, refugees from the neighbouring countries – it has now more than 1.3 million refugees, 950,000 from South Sudan alone – and providing them not only with protection, but even with plots of land and the capacity to live not in camps, but in the society, in a way that is much more humane but, of course,, that requires a much stronger solidarity from the country itself.

We are still witnessing many remarkable examples of solidarity in today’s world. But at the same time, we are seeing more and more borders being closed, we are seeing more and more refugees being rejected and, namely in countries of the developed world, we are seeing the opportunities for resettlement in richer countries of refugees coming from the global South being decreased in number at the present moment.

And this is particularly worrying, especially when associated to forms of political populism, xenophobia, racism, in which refugees become a target, many times being accused of being part of the terror threat when refugees are not terrorists – they are the first victims of terror, they are fleeing terror; that is why they are refugees. And this is the reason why I believe it is important to make today five very strong appeals to the international community. Five very strong appeals that I believe are absolutely necessary for the right of refugees to be again fully respected.

First: I call Member States that are not doing it, to re-establish the integrity of the international protection for refugees regime, which means to have the right, obviously, to manage their borders in a responsible way, but managing them also in a protection-sensitive way, and not refusing entry to those seeking asylum and deserving protection, which means asking countries not to send back people to where they might face persecution, which means asking countries to increase their resettlement quotas and to grant protection to a larger number of refugees that are living in very dramatic circumstances in crowded camps or in the slums of cities in abject poverty.

Second: recognizing that there is no humanitarian solution for the refugee plight, the solution is political and it is related to the solution of the conflict that generate refugees in larger numbers; to ask all parties to different conflicts in the world and all countries that have an influence on the parties to each conflict to come together and understand that all those conflicts are now conflicts that are causing tremendous suffering in which nobody is winning, everybody is losing, that are becoming a threat not only to the refugees themselves but a threat to the whole world, as those conflicts are becoming also more and more interlinked to problems of global terrorism.

Third: humanitarian support for refugees is still largely underfunded. I believe that, grosso modo, appeals made are funded at about 50%. That means that the majority of the refugees live below the poverty line — that many cannot bring their children to school, that many cannot guarantee adequate nutrition to their children, that many have not adequate health support, that most of them have no jobs and no hopes or perspective to have a dignified life. It is absolutely crucial that humanitarian appeals are fully funded and that international solidarity is expressed in relation to refugees, not forgetting that 80% of the world’s refugees live in the developing world.

Fourth: I appeal to countries in the developed world to be able to express a much stronger solidarity to countries of first asylum in the global South; those that host, as I mentioned, 80% of the world’s refugees, and sometimes with a dramatic impact on their economy, on their society, not to mention the impact on their security with the conflict next door.

If one looks at countries like Lebanon, where one third of the population is refugees, if one looks at countries like Uganda or Kenya or Ethiopia – they have now more than one million refugees- in societies that are poor, that lack resources, that have huge development gaps and huge development problems; it is absolutely crucial not only to support refugees but to support those communities. And that requires effective development cooperation with these countries.

I must praise the World Bank that was able to create new financial instruments, namely for middle-income countries that are hosting a large number of refugees, in the cases of Lebanon and Jordan innovating financially, to allow these countries to have a little bit more support than the one that they were receiving from the international community.

But the truth is that at the same time, countries are asking those in the developing world that host the largest number of refugees to keep them but are not providing the necessary support for that to be possible. Stronger solidarity with refugee-hosting countries in the global South is absolutely a must.

And finally: I ask countries in the developed world to increase their resettlement quotas at least to the levels that we had two or three years ago, to be able to offer an effective responsibility-sharing with those that are hosting millions of refugees in the deep South.

Just to give you an idea about the differences between the global North and the global South, I’m going to Uganda, as I mentioned. Uganda, last year, received three times more refugees from South Sudan than those crossing the central Mediterranean, and you all know the enormous impact in public opinion and in political debates that the movement through the central Mediterranean caused last year. Well, Uganda received three times more, and Uganda is a tiny country with a relatively small economy and with an enormous generosity in the hearts of the people and the decisions of the Government.

I’d also like to remind you that beyond those that are able to cross the border to seek protection outside their country, we have an even larger number, probably about double, of people that are displaced within the borders of their own country, internally displaced people. And those are under the authority either of their Governments or of different non-State actors that occupy parts of the territory.

And they have been systematically, in many parts of the world, victims of dramatic violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. And so I also would like to make a very strong appeal to all actors in all the conflicts to respect international humanitarian law and to respect human rights law and for the international community to be able to implement those methods of accountability to make sure that those that are responsible for the worst atrocities to be effectively accountable and to be punished for what they are doing, because that’s probably the only way to stop the kind of tragic impact we are having in the life and dignity of now more than 65 million people around the world.

I also think it’s important to underline that the difficulties faced by refugees are also linked to the fact that the migration debate has become quite irrational in today’s world. We are talking about two different situations: refugees crossing borders, fleeing conflict or prosecution, [and] economic migrants who aspire legitimately to have a better life and move from one country to another, aiming at a better future for them and their children.

They do not have the same rights as refugees, countries are not forced to grant them protection, but they also have human rights that also need to be respected and their dignity needs to be respected. Now, the truth is that the debate about the migration became largely an irrational debate. Migration has been present in the world since [forever], and as a matter of fact, if one looks at demographic and economic projections of different parts of the world, migration is a necessary element of establishing different forms of equilibrium in the global society and the global economy.

In my country, my mother is assisted by some people, she is 93 years old, and those that are assisting her – they are not Portuguese. They are from different countries, they are migrants in my country, and Portugal is a relatively poor country in the context of the European Union. And so migration is necessary. If something is necessary, it’s better to control it and to do it regularly than to let smugglers and traffickers be in charge of these movements.

And so my strong appeal in relation to migration is that a rational debate become possible about migration, that of course countries have the right to apply their own migration policies, but that they do that in full respect of human rights, that at the same time, development cooperation policies are able to address the problems of human mobility, to create opportunities in countries of origin for migration to be out of choice, not out of necessity, and much stronger cooperation of States among themselves to crack down on smugglers and traffickers, but also a much big offer of opportunities of legal, regular migration.

I think if migration can be discussed in a rational way, that will create a much better environment in our societies that are all multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious, and at the same time that will also help refugees benefit more easily from the protection rights they are entitled to receive.

We will have two very important debates in the General Assembly next year for two compacts: on migration and refugees. And my appeal to all Member States is to engage positively in those debates and to allow for the international community to be able to define, both in [terms of] refugees and in migration, adequate policies that are assumed by the whole of the international community, respecting human rights, taking into account the legitimate interests of States, but also the opportunities that are generated by human mobility in our world.

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