A refugee lies face down on the stony ground with his hands over his face after reaching shore, near the village of Skala Eressos, on the island of Lesbos, in the North Aegean region of Greece. | Credit: UNICEF/Ashley Gilbertson VII - Photo: 2015

UN Takes Up Cudgels for Refugees, Condemns Xenophobia

By J C Suresh | IDN-InDepthNews Analysis

TORONTO (IDN) – A high-ranking UN official has warned against ‘toxic public debates’ in the face of 60 million forcibly displaced people living in a troubled global landscape of increased conflict and called for a global compact on refugee and asylum matters.

Speaking in Geneva at the UNHCR annual Executive Commitment meeting on October 8, Volker Türk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, stressed the need for “an all-out effort to ensure that protection, and in particular the institution of asylum, remains life-saving, non-political, and fundamentally humanitarian.”

Referring to the fact that some countries are building fences or walls to keep refugees out, or using deterrence to shift people onto the territories of their neighbours as well as denying school for children and legal work for adults, Türk said: “Push-backs, building walls, increasing detention, and further restricting access, combined with few legal avenues to safety, will never be the answer.”

“The impact is simply the diversion of refugee movements along other routes and the aggravation of already precarious situations in regions embroiled in conflict,” he continued. “Worse still, these measures compel more people who have nothing left to lose to risk dangerous journeys onward in the hope of finding eventual safety and stability.”

Türk also cautioned against an apparent lack of responsibility for the safety of refugees. “It is also becoming increasingly evident that the single most important challenge to the safety and protection of refugees arises from populist politics and toxic public debates, as well as the climate of fear they engender,” he said.

Xenophobia and racism

“This is often fuelled and abetted by irresponsible media reporting, lack of political and moral leadership, and xenophobia and racism,” he continued. “In some countries around the world, there has been a proliferation of xenophobic narratives, hate speech, fear-mongering, and inflammatory statements – both at the political and civil society levels.”

Türk noted the need to build closer ties between displaced people and the communities that host them, which, if left unsupported, could easily become overwhelmed.

“Community-based protection includes investment in national and community capacity to reinforce social cohesion between the displaced – be they refugees or IDPs (internally displaced persons) – and their host communities. This helps to preserve pluralism and diversity as well as promote peaceful co-existence,” he said.

Türk pleaded for an all-out effort “to ensure that protection, and in particular the institution of asylum remains life-saving, non-political, and fundamentally humanitarian.”

“We must call upon our shared humanity, histories and sacred traditions of providing refuge to persons fleeing conflict and persecution, and remember that it was exactly for times like these that the international refugee protection regime was created,” he said.

He pointed out that the 1951 Refugee Convention recognized that the problems of forced displacement cannot be achieved by countries working in isolation. “This speaks to the most critical protection gap we are facing today – the need for a global compact on predictable and equitable burden and responsibility-sharing,” he said. “In a world in turmoil, we need a sense of equanimity, purpose, and trust to make such a compact a reality.”

Earlier, on October 5, former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, recalled that when he joined in 2005, there were 38 million refugees, asylum-seekers and IDPs, and the number was falling.

Ten years later, Less than three months before he steps down, the world confronts the biggest refugee and migration crisis since the Second World War, with thousands of people fleeing armed conflict and persecution and risking their lives to find safe places to live in Europe and elsewhere.

The world has become more fragile

Explaining the rise in numbers to 60 million, Guterres told members of the agency’s Executive Committee gathered in Geneva: “Fifteen new conflicts have broken out or reignited in the past five years, while none of the old ones got resolved. The number of people globally displaced by conflict every single day has nearly quadrupled in that time.”

He added that the world has become more fragile, conflicts have spread in unpredictable ways, and the nature of conflict has grown highly complex.

“One of the consequences has been a shrinking of humanitarian space, which has made the work of organizations like UNHCR much more difficult and hazardous. The interlinked mega-crises in Syria and Iraq, which have uprooted over 15 million people, are a powerful example of this evolution – but not the only one.”

Displacement and refugee exoduses have marked many continents, with the UN estimating that in just the last 12 months, Yemen has witnessed 1.1 million displaced people and refugees; an additional half a million people fled from their homes in South Sudan; and in Libya, a further 300,000 are now displaced within the country. Elsewhere, tens of thousands flee gang violence in Central America, while 94,000 have crossed the Bay of Bengal in search of protection.

The High Commissioner underlined that much of this new and old displacement had been hardly visible to the world. “But after the dramatic events on the beaches and borders of Europe this summer, nobody is now able to ignore a refugee crisis that had been simmering for so long while others weren’t watching,” Guterres stated.

According to UNHCR, the numbers arriving are large – over half a million already this year in Europe – but Guterres insisted that this flow is not unmanageable on a continent of more than 500 million people, and said the decision of the European Union to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers is a key step in the right direction.

“But much more is needed for this system to work well, especially the creation of adequate reception centres near the entry points, with sufficient capacity to receive, assist, register and screen tens of thousands of people, together with more legal avenues for those in search of protection, and also for economic migrants to be able to access the European territory.”

Sufficient funds lacking

He stated that, faced with the sharp increase in global needs, humanitarian agencies can no longer fully cope, and declared that the humanitarian system is not broken – it is in financial crisis.

“The current funding level for the 33 UN appeals to provide humanitarian assistance to 82 million people around the world is only 42 per cent,” he told the Executive Committee.

“UNHCR expects to receive just 47 per cent of the funding we need this year. We have managed to avoid meaningful reductions of our direct support to refugee families, but at a high cost to our other activities.”

The High Commissioner said that, in response to the crisis in the past year, UNHCR has reinforced its capacity to deal with emergencies, fielding over 600 emergency response deployment missions in 2014 and 2015. Protection, especially for children, has also been a priority, as the number of asylum applications lodged by unaccompanied children reportedly rose to levels never seen before.

As the numbers of refugees rise, putting enormous pressure on the receiving countries, Guterres also stressed that the world must rethink how it finances the response to humanitarian crises, calling for a much closer link between emergency assistance and development aid.

Speaking of the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, scheduled for May 2016, Guterres said one of its goals must be the building of a more universal humanitarian partnership moving beyond the essentially “Western creation that is the present multilateral system.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 09 October 2015]

Photo: A refugee lies face down on the stony ground with his hands over his face after reaching shore, near the village of Skala Eressos, on the island of Lesbos, in the North Aegean region of Greece. | Credit: UNICEF/Ashley Gilbertson VII

2015 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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