Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Opinion

2018 - a crucial year for refugees

  • 'It is crucial that the policy choices that European leaders make at home reflect their commitments on the international stage,' says the UNHCR (Photo: Freedom House)

A growing number of conflicts in countries as diverse as Syria, South Sudan and Myanmar have driven record numbers of children, women and men from their homes worldwide in recent years, forcing millions of them to seek protection across international borders.

A failure to broker peace and bring security to these troubled places - as well as the contentious political responses to migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers - has tested, as never before, the international refugee framework.

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Today there are an estimated 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, of which more than 17 million fall under the mandate of our organisation, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The sheer scale and numbers have not only shown the imperfections of current responses, but have also presented the international community with a clear, global and common task: to address large movements of refugees and migrants.

In 2016 the international community responded, when governments of 193 member states came together and agreed upon a single strategy to deal with the challenge: the New York Declaration, a commitment to which the European Union has actively contributed and has always supported.

This commitment will be formalised through the adoption of the Global Compact on Refugees later this year.

In this landmark declaration countries explicitly agreed to "a more equitable sharing of the […] responsibility for hosting and supporting the world's refugees".

Poor countries shoulder biggest burden

We should not forget that the world's poorest countries still continue to shoulder this responsibility: 84 percent of the world's refugees reside in developing countries.

Today (25 January) I will be addressing the European home affairs ministers in Sofia, under the new Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the European Union.

My message will be clear: the world's eyes are once again on Europe. As the place where the Refugee Convention was born after the Second World War, and home to one of the world's most developed asylum systems, the European Union can continue to lead by example.

A strong expression of European support for the successful adoption of the Global Compact will send a clear signal to the rest of the world that global solidarity not only still exists, but that it is a prerequisite for an effective response to global forced displacement.

It is therefore crucial that the policy choices that European leaders make at home reflect their commitments on the international stage.

UNHCR worries

As UNHCR we are concerned by a number of the proposals in the ongoing negotiations on the reform of the Common European Asylum System.

These include proposals that would oblige asylum authorities in all EU member states to reject as inadmissible all applications from asylum applicants who, along their often perilous journey to Europe, have already passed through a so-called safe third country or a so-called 'first country of asylum' where they have already enjoyed protection.

Transfer of responsibility to these countries would take place without examining the individual reasons behind an applicant's request for asylum.

In Sofia I will reiterate that, under international law, the 'safe third country' concept can only be applied to countries where an asylum seeker can truly benefit from international protection and where authorities can show that there is a meaningful connection between the asylum seeker and the country considered 'safe'.

The fact that an asylum seeker merely transited through a non-EU country before arriving in Europe is simply not enough to meet this standard.

In the run-up to the adoption of the Global Compact on Refugees and at a time when the world faces unprecedented levels of forced displacement, this approach which shifts responsibility outside the EU sends a negative signal to developing countries, now hosting more than four-fifths of the world's refugees.

It would also have the undesired consequence that non-European countries may be more reluctant to invest in their asylum systems, if being deemed 'safer' will only result in a larger number of transfers to their territory.

Europe's message will need to be be that all continents have an obligation to step up and assume their fair share of responsibility both for hosting refugees and addressing the root causes of displacement: war, violence and persecution.

It is of course correct that national asylum procedures in the EU need to become smarter and more efficient to respond to future challenges.

This can and should be achieved in full compliance with the highest international standards.

UNHCR has set out a blueprint for the swift processing of asylum claims that fully respects international and EU law, an approach that would channel asylum-seekers who are manifestly in need of protection or manifestly not in need of protection into fair and more efficient procedures in the member state of first entry, in order to provide either swift access to protection or to facilitate returns in appropriate cases.

Respect for the right to asylum is part of Europe's heritage and emanates from its founding treaties.

With the international community gearing up for the adoption of a historic Global Compact on the equitable sharing of responsibility for hosting and supporting the world's refugees, the European Union should not forget the lessons of 2015-2016.

Situations where a small number of EU member states bear a disproportionate responsibility for the majority of the continent's asylum claims are unsustainable.

Those that fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, and we hope this year European leaders will seize the opportunity to come to their own historic agreement on the inclusion of a permanent relocation mechanism with the full participation of all EU member states.

This would not only be a breakthrough for the European Union, but would set an example for others to follow in what promises to be a crucial year for refugees.

Volker Turk is assistant high commissioner for protection at the UNHCR

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