Stronger protections needed for refugees, stateless and displaces – urges UN agency

Volker Türk, UNHCR's Director of International Protection, addresses the agency's Executive Committee (ExCom) meeting in Geneva. Photo: UNHCR/Jean-Marc Ferré

3 October 2013 – The United Nations refugee agency today called for stronger protection of refugees, stateless and internally displaced people (IDPs) to ensure they enjoy their full human rights.

In a major speech to the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) Executive Committee, the agency’s Director of International Protection, Volker Türk said first and foremost, those individuals must be “able to enjoy the widest possible array of human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination.”

While noting that such a focus is “challenging,” Mr. Türk said that it must “permeate all our interactions with persons of concern.”

UNHCR’s focus on protection of individuals must be incorporated in every aspect of its work, he said, from providing education to ensuring refugee camps are located away from threatening borders and designed so women do not face dangerous routes to collect water.

“To be effective, we need to understand their particular needs, not as homogenous groups, but as individuals with specific backgrounds, aspirations and hopes,” he said.

Part of that means providing prompt, quality services, such as care to victims of sexual violence, legal assistance and support for the voluntary return home of refugees or their resettlement to third countries, he said.

“It also means advocating for and intervening on behalf of refugees and other persons of concern when they are at risk, for example when in detention or in danger of refoulement,” Mr. Türk said referring to a term for forced returns.

The Executive Committee, which Mr. Türk was addressing, began meeting Monday as part of its annual review of policy for the refugee agency.

In his overview of the UN agency’s goals, Mr. Türk said the 1951 UN Refugee Convention remained the cornerstone of international refugee law, but new challenges – such as broader migration flows, treacherous crossings of seas and human trafficking – also needed to be addressed through additional channels, including human rights law.

“UNHCR is committed to exercising our supervisory role in relation to relevant international treaties,” he said, calling on delegates from some 80 countries in attendance to act in support of the UN agency policy.

“Let’s strive to reduce the number of refugees and IDPs in protracted situations further over the next three years through a wide range of creative solutions options,” Mr. Türk urged.

Nearly 6.5 million persons, more than half of the refugee population under UNHCR’s mandate, remained trapped in exile for five years or more. Protracted refugee situations are found in 25 countries, according to UN figures.

The UNHCR official also called for more efforts to end the problem of stateless people which affects an estimated 10 million people.

“Would it not be a major achievement if in a decade from now statelessness was but a faint memory of a bygone era and our mandate rendered redundant?” Mr. Türk asked.

The Executive Committee is due to wrap up its annual session tomorrow.

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