UNNGO Briefing - Presented by: Department of Public Information of the United Nations
“May I Ask a Question, Mr. UN High Commissioner for Refugees?”- Mr. António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
October 27, 2011.
H.E. António GUTERRES: "There is 28 million people,
who have been internally displaced
due to natural disasters or internal conflicts such as Palestinians."
“We are unable predict what will be the next crisis”, which makes the planning of the humanitarian activities more difficult."
“In many circumstances the state itself can be part of the problem instead of being part of the solution.”
"The number of people without access to safe water is 1.5 billion."
"Humanatarian space has been shrinking."
"We have “a huge multiplication of new crises” resulting in great numbers of new refugees and “old crises never die out”.
Stateless: "It is the most forgotten aspect of human rights."
"According to our estimate 12 million some NGOs are estimating 15 million no one knows the exact number. 15 million people without nationalities!"
"2 million families were granted nationality"
" In 30 countries of the world, mother do not have the right to register their children as citizens. "
"We must force governments to accepts that this is a multinational phenomenon."
BACKGROUND: The briefing looked at the work of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), one of the world’s foremost humanitarian agencies. UNHCR was established on 14 December 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly as an agency to lead international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee issues worldwide. Its more than 6,800 staff members currently work in 117 countries providing protection and assistance to millions of refugees, returnees, internal displaced people and stateless persons. More than 85 percent of its staff works in the field, often in difficult and dangerous duty stations. The agency's budget for 2010 was over $3 billion. UNHCR has the distinction of having twice won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work on behalf of refugees.
The guest at the 27 October Briefing, Mr. António Guterres is the head of this UN agency having been appointed its 10th High Commissioner on 15 June 2005. A former Portuguese prime minister, Mr. Guterres was elected by the UN General Assembly to a five-year term. In April 2010, the General Assembly re-elected Mr. Guterres to a second five year term, which will conclude on 14 June 2015.
Before joining UNHCR, Mr. Guterres spent more than 20 years in government and public service. He served as Portuguese Prime Minister from 1995 to 2002, during which time he was heavily involved in the international effort to resolve the crisis in East Timor. As President of the European Council in early 2000, he led the adoption of the so-called Lisbon Agenda and co-chaired the first European Union-Africa summit. He also founded the Portuguese Refugee Council in 1991.
From 1981 to 1983, Mr. Guterres was a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, as well as Chairman of the Committee on Demography, Migration and Refugees. In addition, he has been active in Socialist International; and was the organization's vice-president from 1992 to 1999 and president from 1999 until June 2005.
Mr. Guterres was born in Lisbon and educated at the Instituto Superior Técnico, where he remains a visiting professor.
Source: Department of Public Information of the United Nations
Cem ZORLULAR, Lightmillennium.Org
Prospect Youth Representative to the UN DPI
Ms. Maria Luisa-Chavez, the Chief of NGO Relations in the Department of Public Information, moderated and opened the Briefing titled, “May I Ask a Question, Mr. UN High Commissioner for Refugees?” stating that with forty three million people currently displaced due to conflict, UNHCR has even more importance as the World’s one of the foremost humanitarian organizations. Reminding Mr. Guterrez’s message on the occasion of UNHCR’s 60th year celebration in June, 2011, she called everyone to raise to their collective responsibility towards refugees. Following opening remarks, a video entitled “UNHCR, 60th Year” documenting what the agency has achieved in its 60 years of existence was shown to the attendees of the NGO representatives.
Mr. Guterrez opened his remarks underlining the importance of the communication between the civil society and the political arena in democracies, stating that the interaction between the political arena and the civil society should not only be limited to election periods. The political arena must be in constant dialogue with the civil society. Outlining the UNHCR’s efforts to integrate NGOs to its decision making through consultation he added that the UN also should change its structures to become more transparent and inclusive to the NGOs.
In his remarks about the NGOs positions in the 21st century, he stated that NGOs are needed to make UNHCR as “slim as possible” and “as flexible as possible”. Given that the UNHCR activity has more than doubled in the recent years, NGOs have a strategic importance with their expertise in the local sense as well as “brining new sources to people we care for”. He then stated that he would like to share what are the biggest challenges UNHCR is currently facing.
The first concern, according to Mr. High Commissioner for refugees is the recent revolutions and humanitarian crises in 2011 due to the draught and famine in Somalia and revolutions in the Middle East. He stated that these crises led locals to be internally displaced or forced to cross borders. Another problem, Mr. Guterrez said is that while new crises are emerging while we still could not resolve the crises in countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. He concluded, while we have “a huge multiplication of new crises” resulting in great numbers of new refugees and “old crises never die out”.
He then stated that whereas the world used to be first bipolar and then unipolar, it is now becoming a multipolar world with “lack of governance mechanism in the world affairs”. Adding; “we are unable predict what will be the next crisis”, which makes the planning of the humanitarian activities more difficult.
The second problem was the internally displaced refugees. Mr. Guterrez stated that when a person crosses a border due to an internal conflict, then that person is under the protection of the UN mandate, which has been established sixty years ago. However Mr. Guterrez has stated that there is 28 million people who have been internally displaced due to natural disasters or internal conflicts such as Palestinians. These people, according to Mr. Guterrez are not protected by the international law and UN mandates and it is impossible to guarantee humanitarian rights for those refugees given that they are under the authority of their own state.
“Sometimes”, Mr. High Commissioner said that “in many circumstances the state itself can be part of the problem instead of being part of the solution”. In such instances the idea of national sovereignty prevents peoples access to UN agencies and humanitarian aid especially in cases when a state explicitly denies such interaction. Mr. Guterrez pointed out that this was one of the biggest problems that we are facing right now.
The third point Mr High Commissioner raised was the blur between the concepts of economical migrant and refugees. In past this distinction was very clear; economical refugees were seeking to increase life standards for themselves and their families through better employment opportunities whereas the refugees were fleeing oppression and persecution.
Currently, however we are witnessing that people are being forced to move because of extreme poverty or hunger. In the statistics he outlined, Mr. Guterrez stated that the number of people without access to safe water is 1.5 billion. Due to global warming many areas in the world are becoming less and less able to sustain human life due to famines and draughts. So, Mr. High Commissioner says that whereas they are not the economical migrants of the past, people are not being forced out of the countries due to persecution. Currently the legal framework and UN mandates have many gaps which create many problems for people in such situations and “there is no clear way for the international community to deal with these gaps”, calling the international community to discuss how we can close these gaps for the benefit of these people.
The final challenge Mr. Guterrez talked about was the decreasing space the humanitarian efforts due to lack of security. As well as reminding the audience of the latest examples, he pointed out to the fact that about fifty UN staff and thirty NGO staff were unfortunately killed in humanitarian action. He stated that “this is a dramatic situation” forcing humanitarian agents to make a choice between their own safety and the wellbeing of those in need. Calling these choices “extremely difficult”, he stated that one of the main reasons for this phenomenon is the fact that the political and humanitarian mandates are intervened in the areas requiring action thus creating a contradiction and attracting hostility via breaking UN’s impartiality. Thus Mr. Guterrez has pointed out to the importance that the autonomy of the humanitarian space should have.
In her concluding remarks, Ms. Chavez stated that this is the first time she has seen such an influential leader being so candid in front of an audience. After thanking the High Commissioner the floor was opened for questions and comments.
Following questions and answers are paraphrased:
Q: What is the progress UN and your department has had in terms for bringing justice for the Congolese People?
A: The mandate of my department is to be strictly humanitarian. While I love politics myself, the UN mandates I am working under restrict me from participating in any political decision. My department must be impartial and only focused on delivering humanitarian aid. Most of the issues about justice is political problem and their solutions are thus political. In our limited mandate, we are creating an environment where the courts can freely provide justice.
Q: How in the shrinking humanitarian space, crisis mapping can help the humanitarian community? How technological means can help to allay the dangers humanitarians face?
A: [What] Information technology can give is very important. In many cases we do not have direct access to some parts of the world. We don’t know how our operations are being impacted and what impact we have. In case of Somalia, using such technology can help us to plan how we can better reach people and use our resources in the best way. Only technologies like yours can give us access to our field operations so I am very enthusiastic about them.
Q: How can we better form a dialogue with UN and for those in need?
A: For US NGOs the method for dialogue is through umbrella organizations. We are planning to have open and transparent interaction with the NGOs through these organizations. My suggestion is to contact US organizations.
Q: We recently dedicated an issue to promote rights of the stateless, the most vulnerable of the world but it depends on who we reach and who reaches us in terms of presenting those ideas. Given that wide context [referred the poster that placed in front of the table and attendees and read it]: "One refugee returned to danger is too many." How do you interpret that for the 12 million stateless and also in that context how do you place within the shrinking humanitarian efforts for the 12 million stateless?
A: As first, I didn’t say shrinking efforts, I said shrinking humanitarian space. Our humanitarian efforts are doubled but human space is shrinking. There all sorts of efforts like these about the stateless. I cannot remember what is the slogan but it is “one child without nationality” or something like this. Statelessness is a, I’d say, in the past has been most neglected part of our efforts. I think it is fair to say that. But more than that it is the most forgotten aspect of human rights. And if you go to the streets and ask what is a refugee, they would know, not exactly the definition but the idea is clear. What’s a stateless person, many of the people won’t even have an idea what that means. But it is right to say that according to our estimate 12 million some NGOs are estimating 15 million no one knows the exact number. 15 million people without nationalities. Being without nationality in some circumstances is not dramatic because some countries have ratified the convention for the rights of the stateless people grant them almost all right except for the right to vote. But in circumstances many communities that are discriminated by states, by majorities of the population like Rohingyas in Myanmar, like the Bedoun in the Gulf, Bedoun means in Arabic without, Mr. Nasser could correct me if I am wrong, it means without... These people can, will live in a limbo as if they didn’t exist. I recently heard a testimony of a Dominican Nationality that was telling that whenever he went to France registration department he was told by the office that he doesn't exist. Because on the papers and on the documents he did not exist for a state that he did not exist. And that means that you don’t have an access to education, you don’t have access to health, you cannot drive. I mean it is indeed a dramatic situation. Huge psychosocial impacts.
... We are now making big efforts to make countries ratify the convention but to only forty countries have ratified the convention on the reduction of the statelessness. We hope that 10 more will do by the end of this year. At the same time, we are making a strong campaign for states to solve the problem and some success have happened and 2 million families were granted nationality. The other aspect of the statelessness is that it is not due a community being discriminated or sidelined but due to other reasons. For example family laws. In 30 countries of the world, mother do not have the right to register their children as citizens. So if the father is stateless or the father has disappeared or passed away, because of the nationality laws the child will become stateless. This is now happening in thirty countries around the world and we are making a huge effort to change this. This campaign, I believe should be a global campaign.
Q: What happens to people who are displaced by the climate change such as the sinking of islands by definitions of the UNHCR?
A: That is the exactly problem. The legal definition of the refugee only includes certain groups of people who have been displaced by persecution. This currently creates a problem for gender persecution, LGBT rights, cultural persecution and people moved away because of the gang violence in South America. This of course also creates a big problem for people displaced by the global warming. So that is why we need to do something to accommodate the changes. The current debate about this is very emotional, very populistic and very xenophobic. Due to this I am skeptical about the possibility of a future agreement.
Q: What do you think about the current situation the US immigrants face with the toughening immigration laws and lack of recognition?
A: I don’t agree with calling them “illegal” as it criminalizes their efforts. In my experience especially in my country it is better to legalize the migrants. It is much better for the state to legalize the migrants. There is a lot of hypocrisy in this situation. Without migration countries cannot survive without migration. **
Q: How do you the think the current legal framework supports the blurring the lines between definitions and what changes should be implemented to support the change?
A: There is an obvious need for a change. We must find new mechanism to guarantee the rights of the people who are displaced. In the current legal framework, we have there is no guarantee for people who have been displaced by any reason other than specified in the convention.
Q: When a child is born in a refugee camp what kind of nationality he/she has? During the war between Iran and Iraq parents of lots of children were killed, what is the nationality of those children and who is protecting them? What is the situation of the Gypsies and the Mujahaddeen?
A: We make sure that there is a birth registration in the refugee camps and the nationality will depend on the laws of the country. Normally, the children get the nationality of their parents. If not the host country grants them nationality depending on an agreement. Roma situation is a complex one because most of them have nationality, however sometimes, we witness things we do not want to see such as them being expelled from countries. We are committed to make their situation better.
Q: Despite the fact that Australia has signed the refugee convention, Australia has been trying methods to either refuse granting asylum or to send the asylum seekers to other countries. My question is in cases where countries make the process harder for the asylum seekers what recourse we have beyond the moral grounds?
A: There has been a lot of discussions. Australia is a hugely tolerant society as to the minorities, but there still a lot of debate in Australia that makes the matters difficult is the question of people coming to Australia by boat. Numbers are not big, but the problem came out of the proportion in the political debate. The problem is now decided because the Australian high court has prevented the state from acting outside the treaty.
Q: How do you determine the nationality of the people returning to the Congo?
A: We have all the people who have fled to Rwanda and Burundi from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the UNHCR, and we double check with the help of the individual governments. It is sometimes complicated to have all three states agree on some issues.
Q: What is the best way for the NGOs in the UN to involve themselves with the spectrum of issues you have outlined? What is the most useful way we can help?
A: The main contribution the NGOs can have is to help us force governments change their approach to the migration. Recognition of the movement is currently very limited as many countries see migration as a matter of national sovereignty. We must force governments to accepts that this is a multinational phenomenon. Therefore the NGOs should lobby the governments and the civil societies as much as possible to bolster the recognition of such issues.
Q: Are Cyriot and Palestian refugees forgotten?
A: They are not forgotten. Cyprus tends to be the most forgotten. Cyprus is kept in the international agenda due to its membership of the EU and its relationships with Turkey. UN has made a huge effort to bring them together. Kofi Annan’s proposal, which was rejected by the Greek side brought both sides very close to a solution. UN is still very committed to solve issue but it seems “frozen”. Palestinian issue is the most complex one. I believe that the solution is the most important development we could have in International Affairs for peace and security. I unfortunately note that things are not moving and it seems the most impossible to see the problem solved. It of course that is huge problem for those who directly suffer it but it also is an “irritant” that makes the solution of the other problems harder.
At the Briefing, DPI associated NGOs had one of the most unique opportunities to hear from and interact with the UN High Commissioner, who has greatly encouraged the NGOs for taking an active role for campaigning on these issues and make pressure toward to solution on the governments.
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This report is written by Cem Zorlular, Prospect Youth Represenative of The Light Millennium to the Department of Public Information.
Posted on November 1, 2011 - http://www.lightmillennium.org
- Commentary on the Briefing by UN High Commissioner for the Refugees