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Assessing the state of refugee protection

26 October 20230 comments

Millions of displaced people face a dire plight, within their own countries and across national boundaries, as the humanitarian funding gulf grows, according to UNHCR Assistant Commissioner for Protection and former head of Australia’s Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs.

Speaking in her recent statement to the ‘74th Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme’, Prof Triggs said the funding shortfall and the trend for nations to close borders to people seeking asylum was ”impeding effective international protection”.

“There has been some encouraging progress in protection; many countries have kept their borders open to asylum seekers and have generously offered livelihood opportunities, including refugees in national education and health services, despite the burdens this invariably poses on society,” Prof Trigg said.

“But some states deny territorial access to asylum seekers, pushing them back at land and sea borders and risking refoulement, and shifting the responsibility to other, usually poor, or lower income countries.”

She said UNHCR was focused on finding practical solutions to the protection problem through: international finance and development partners and the private sector to promote self-sufficiency; developing a ‘whole of journey’ approach; and on the long-term strategies of the Global Compact on Refugees.

“Many of the root causes of forced displacement are to be found in breaches of the human rights law that the Universal Declaration was designed to protect: the rights to equality, to life, liberty, and security, to protection from discrimination and arbitrary arrest and detention, access to education, decent work, freedom of movement, and to nationality.”

Prof Triggs said that with 110 million people displaced, there was a need to take stock of displacement trends

“Displacement today is characterised by the sheer scale of people displaced by protracted wars and conflicts, by political instability prompting coups d’états, by competition for scarce water and food resources, and by the deadly impact of climate change, all exacerbated by inflation, inequality, environmental disasters, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, cyclones, leading to yet more displacements,” she said.

“Traditional long-term solutions are hard to find… We have seen the resurgence of resettlement places since COVID-19 and will be submitting 117,000 places for the most vulnerable for resettlement this year, a remarkable resurgence of the programme.

“Regular pathways to solutions, such as education opportunities, labour mobility, community sponsorship, and access to family reunification are increasing. Sadly, these opportunities, while vital, are available to so very few. Millions remain without hope.

“The reality for most displaced people lies in non-discriminatory inclusion within their host communities whether in their own country or across borders.

“The consequence is… that at least 75 per cent of the burden of hosting refugees lies with low to middle income countries, especially to countries neighbouring areas of conflict.

“It is possibly no accident of geography that many of these countries are also among the most vulnerable to climate impacts; most Afghans are hosted by Pakistan and Iran, Somalis by Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda and Yemen, Syrians hosted by Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt and Rohingya hosted by Bangladesh. Addressing this unequal burden is the primary challenge for the international community,” Ms Triggs said.

She said that with the international protection regime under serious threat, there was a need for new solutions to protection.

“We need to be bold in stimulating multi-stakeholder initiatives, and creative in attracting the funding to address root causes and to build self-sufficiency.

“We also need to listen to the concerns of host governments and their communities as they welcome refugees and address internal displacement.

“We need to recognise that, as forced displacement rises, so too have perceptions that the asylum system is “broken”; that it is no longer capable of providing adequate protection; that legal reform is needed.

“There are, nonetheless, justifiable, understandable concerns about the asylum system; legal processes for refugee status determination are often slow and burdensome, with lengthy appeal processes, leading to significant backlogs; refugees wait for years without the right to work, relying on humanitarian aid and social assistance, unable to use their skills to contribute to their host communities; many movements are mixed groups of refugees and migrants raising the need for speedy determination of whether they have international protection needs; returning home to their countries of origin those not in need of international protection is often close to impossible in the absence of agreements with those states of origin and resources so badly needed for successful reintegration.

“Some governments have responded to these challenges by adopting extreme deterrent measures, denying entry at their borders, pushing back at frontiers, refusing to rescue those in distress at sea – even denying disembarkation to those who have been rescued.

“Some have passed laws imposing mandatory detention on irregular entry, even for children, externalizing or shifting responsibilities to other countries in clear breach of international law, and conducting forced returns to third countries without safeguards, risking refoulement.”

Prof Triggs said the main challenge was not the Refugee Convention itself, but in the failure by some States to implement it and to adapt their asylum systems to these new realities.

“A few governments have legislated to halt access to their asylum systems, eliminating one of the most effective solutions, a fair and fast determination process of refugee status and a safe return of those not in need of international protection,” she said.

“Recognising that business as usual is no longer an option, UNHCR stands ready to support States to modernize their systems and we call on states to share their expertise by pledging to support other states to reinforce their capacities through the Asylum Capacity Support Group at the upcoming Global Refugee Forum.”

Prof Triggs said new challenge stemmed from people fleeing across national boundaries from the impacts of climate change.

“International refugee law in response to the climate crises is evolving. Where climate change leads to conflict and flight, refugee law will frequently apply. In Northern Cameroon and Somalia, for example, droughts and diminishing water resources have led to intercommunal violence and flight to neighbouring countries, including Chad and Ethiopia,” she said.

Prof Triggs said development and investment partnerships were key to shoring up the protection system.

“One of the most effective partnerships over the last few years has been UNHCR’s catalytic, non-transactional partnership with development banks and international financial institutions,” she said.

“Development assistance of over $US11 billion has been made available in 2020-2021 by bilateral donors and multilateral banks, directly enabling the inclusion of refugees in national social systems.”

In closing, Prof Triggs spoke of the UNHCR’s global Hope Away from Home campaign which calls for greater solidarity and strengthening commitments for the right to seek asylum.

“The Global Compact on Refugees provides a powerful antidote to politicisation of refugee movements and means to address their need for international protection,” she said.

“Together, with member states, refugees, international financial institutions, development actors, academia, the private sector, and civil society, we must stand up for those forcibly displaced and speak up against anti-refugee rhetoric.”

Read the full statement: 74th Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme – Statement by Ms Gillian Triggs, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection | UNHCR