UNHCR's Erika Feller calls for better balance between security and refugee protection

Refugees did not have a choice. They fled their homelands in search for protection from violence, war and persecution. Currently, there are 43 million uprooted people in the world, more than 11 million of whom are asylum seekers or refugees in need of humanitarian aid. Yet their plight is at times misunderstood.

Erika Feller (second from left) addresses the CTC. Credit: Norha Restrepo

Erika Feller (second from left) addresses the CTC. Credit: Norha Restrepo

“It is an increasing fight to prevent refugees being mischaracterized as illegal immigrants, common criminals or, worse, potential terrorists in the minds of people and Governments,” said Erika Feller, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Speaking at a meeting of the Counter-Terrorism Committee on 19 May, Ms. Feller referred to the impact heightened concerns over terrorism have had on public perceptions of refugees. She said that although the public believes that asylum systems may be used to channel terrorists, there does not seem to be a link between the two. Although the threat of terrorism is “real and present”, Ms. Feller underlined that the “vast majority of persons of concern to us are not involved in terrorist acts.” Numbering millions of people, most uprooted people require protection.

Migration policies are nevertheless more restrictive. “The positive dimensions of migration and refugee contributions to host societies are in danger of being lost in the debate over security and border control,” said Ms. Feller. “We see rejections at the border, denial of admission into asylum procedures, harsh detention policies as a deterrent, and extradition or expulsion without minimum procedural guarantees or judicial review, often in breach of the principle of non-refoulement.”

Contained in the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, non-refoulement is one of its fundamental principles, providing that refugees should not be expelled or returned to a territory where their lives or freedom are at risk. Moreover, the United Nations has repeatedly stated that counter-terrorism measures should be in line with international law, refugee law and human rights law.

The 1951 Convention includes elements that take into account national security. Refugees have the duty to conform to national laws and can be expelled on grounds of national security or public order. Also, individuals who have committed a crime cannot be considered for refugee status.

Ms. Feller called for a better balance between national security and international refugee protection principles. She said asylum systems should be managed in such a way that allows States to identify early on people who might present a security risk.

Ms. Feller also expressed her satisfaction that UNHCR has been working as a close partner with the CTC and CTED within the framework of the relevant Security Council resolutions and the CTITF.

This page was last updated on: 23-May-2011 3:48 PM EST