Mr. Manuel JORDÃO

Deputy Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, France


Lecture in the Cicero Foundation Great Debate seminar "European Migration and Refugee Policy: New Developments", PARIS, 16 February 2001


Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me start by thanking the CICERO Foundation for giving us the opportunity to address you a few words about the ever growing complexity of asylum and migration issues in Europe, in the context of global refugee movements.

The Changing Pattern of Refugee Flows: An Overview

Refugee movements are indicative of a world in turmoil - rife with humanitarian crises. The first High Commissioner for Refugees was appointed more than seventy years ago by the League of Nations at a time when Europe was still reeling from the destruction of the First World War, the disintegration of empires and the effects of the bolshevic revolution. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations was confronted with a similar tragedy of uprootedness and exile in an Europe divided by the iron curtain. This led to the creation of UNHCR in December1951. During those years, most refugees were fleeing Eastern European regimes. They were viewed as victims of persecution and, thus, readily accepted and integrated in the Western democracies. This convergence between humanitarian commitments and States' political objectives allowed the humanitarian agencies of the United Nations, the Red Cross movement and the NGOs to work effectively on behalf of people. It helped us to carry out the work of protecting the lives and rights of the disadvantaged in times of peace and war, and it also eased UNHCR's task of developing adequate legal structures for the protection and integration of refugees in countries of asylum. Indeed, the body of international law developed half a century ago to protect what one could call today "human security", was a wise combination of universal values and operational tools.

By the early 1960s, refugee movements had changed in nature. The prevailing pattern started to be the large-scale exodus, as the process of decolonisation took its human toll, mainly on the African continent. There was strong solidarity for those fleeing the effects of national liberation wars and the large numbers of refugees who poured out of Algeria, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Zaire, Zambia and Zimbabwe, for instance, were well received in neighbouring countries. International assistance was provided through UNHCR, and eventually UNHCR helped refugees return home when their countries gained independence. The situation worsened dramatically in the following two decades. Wars in Mozambique, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Indochina and Afghanistan, produced displacement on an unprecedented scale. In Latin America, thousands of refugees fled the persecution of military regimes. In Central America, conflict and the violent repression of some social and ethnic groups led thousands of Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, Salvadoreans and Haitians (among others...) to flee for safety to neighbouring countries, or further afield. The refugee population which was around 8 million at the end of the 1970s had reached 17 million by 1991. Most refugees were not only fleeing political persecution but also violence, conflict and insecurity, fuelled by repression, poverty, recurrent famine and environmental degradation. The paralysis of inter-state relations that marked the Cold War period impeded any resolution of these conflicts. Consequently, millions of refugees continued to stagnate in over-crowded camps in countries that had no capacity to absorb these growing numbers.

The Post-Cold War Period

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, opening up new opportunities for peace in many areas of the world. In Namibia, Cambodia and Mozambique, as well as in Central America, UNHCR helped millions of refugees to return home. Also, many refugees started new lives through resettlement to other countries. There were then hopes that the international tensions would ease, thus reducing the catastrophic consequences of conflicts on so many people's lives. The reality was different. As if a lid had been taken off simmering tensions of the previous decades, countless internal conflicts, confused and violent, erupted in many parts of the world, causing huge forced population movements - from the Kurdish exodus in Northern Iraq to the displacement of millions of civilians in the former Yugoslavia to many still on-going refugee crises in Africa. Apparently, these are the types of conflicts and of refugee crisis that prevail today. And the situations which I have just referred to - exceptional as they may have been - indicate in a dramatic manner that both traditional conflict resolution mechanisms and humanitarian action alone are inadequate to resolve fundamental social, economic and political problems, i.e. their root causes.

I do regret to say that we must be realistic, and prepare ourselves for several years of continuous instability. According to a Study by the Washington-based Institute for International Mediation and Conflict Resolution, there were in 1998 a total of 200 armed conflicts world-wide, categorised as follows: 16 "high intensity conflicts (between 100-1,000 deaths/year); and 114 violent "political" conflicts (less than 100 deaths/year). Of the 200 conflicts, 72 were in sub-Saharan Africa; 42 in Central and East Asia; 30 in the Americas; 19 in North Africa and the Middle East; 18 in Europe and 17 in the Far East. Concerning human rights, the Study concluded that no fewer than 250 million people live in a dozen of countries where the whole population is subject to the most severe repression by the regime, the armed opposition or both. Against this background, it may be surprising that there are in fact not more refugees than the current state of affairs. There are today some 23 million people of concern to UNHCR world-wide, which include refugees, returnees and other persons displaced within their own countries. This represents one out of every 264 people on earth. And to this figure one should still add an estimated 25-30 million internally displaced persons, thus bringing the total number of people who have been forced to flee their homes to nearly 50 million. Recent disturbing events in Central Africa (Sierra Leone, Guinea, former Zaire, etc.) and in South East Asia (Indonesia) are causing further displacement, although more internally than across international borders.

Refugee Movements Caused by Globalisation

Moreover, the complexity of forced population movements today is being further aggravated by the phenomenon of globalisation, which is apparently having a negative impact on the situation of the most vulnerable strata of society, breaking down social safety nets and eroding the power of States not only to direct the flows of capital and goods, but to protect the weakest members of society. As a matter of fact, even if the free circulation of goods and capital has created wealth, opportunities for work, and a better life for many, the rapid movement of investment capital in an out of certain regions, depending on the possibilities for quick profit, have also certainly contributed to some of the worst financial crises of the last decade. As we all know, such financial events are often at the origin of social destabilisation and political crises, and, specially in developing countries, also lead to the further impoverishment of the disadvantaged, or to the exclusion of minorities or marginal groups. Among others, this is not only fuelling xenophobia (the "fear of foreigners") and nationalistic sentiments, as in turn may also cause population movements. Globalisation thus often gives rise to a strong sense of insecurity, which - undefined and vague as it may be - can have very negative consequences, in particular with the increase in the number of immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. On the one hand, globalising forces are making borders somehow less relevant at least for foreign capital, which is perceived as an abstract, invisible entity. On the other hand, reactive, localised forces tend to identify all those seeking entry as potential threats, and thus demand that border controls be reinforced, excluding them. Foreign workers, immigrants and people in flight, although mobile by definition, are thus among those actually excluded from the freedom and benefits of borderless globalisation.

Asylum in the Broader Context of Migration

As forced displacement and the risk of further displacement have increased in the wake of national and communal tensions and conflict, new challenges have arisen both for the protection of refugees and the solution to refugee problems. The complexity of population movements is placing the concept and practice of asylum in an ambiguous position. Non-refugee migratory movements have grown in scale and diversity and frequently, economic migrants resort to asylum because this is their only way to remain and obtain employment - both in industrialised countries and also, increasingly, in the developing world. This blurs the picture and has serious consequences for refugee protection as genuine refugees are often identified with illegal immigrants, intruders whose goal is to take away jobs and profit from an undeserved share of social welfare. UNHCR fully appreciates the difficulty and complexity of the challenges facing European States in dealing with growing migration pressures in a way which upholds human rights and the institution of asylum, while addressing the legitimate concerns of States and communities affected by these population flows. Migration is growing in volume in all major regions of the world. Recent tendencies and current predictions with respect to economic, demographic and political pressures in the developing world permit the inference that the "pull of the north" will continue no matter how strict and deterrent the border controls will be.

Europe as an Attractive Destination for Migrants and Refugees

A presentation note of the recent French Presidency of the EU to one of the informal Justice and Home Affairs Councils also recognised the importance of ongoing and future migratory flows. It acknowledges that the number of migrants had increased from 75 million in 1965 to an estimated 119 million in 1990, and that the new feature was that "Europe as a whole" was attractive as an emigrant destination. Apparently, there is now a new and large consensus among EU Member States about the dimension and importance of immigration as a generalised phenomenon which includes countries which had until recently been very little concerned. The Member States have also come to realise that many of today's problems affecting their asylum systems cannot be solved neither at the national level, nor by a piecemeal, fragmentary approach as many of these problems are related to the growing North-South divide, increased mobility and continued patterns of persecution and violence, among others.

It is, therefore, logical that the EU seeks to harmonise its policy and legislation in this respect. However, this process has proven to be a very difficult and slow one. In the meantime, confronted with an upsurge of people knocking at their doors, whom they have less capacity to absorb than in the past, and intimidated by xenophobic calls, governments have been mainly busy in building barriers to keep people out.

A Common European Migration and Refugee Policy?

In any case, with the Treaty of Amsterdam, the European Union has finally sought to place a common asylum and immigration policy high on its agenda. This objective was further reaffirmed in no uncertain terms by the Vienna Plan of Action and, later on, by the Conclusions of the Tampere EU Council in October 1999. As it is stated in the Tampere Conclusions, the future European common asylum system must be rooted in the "absolute right to asylum", and be based on the "full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention", the cornerstone of the international protection regime. The same Conclusions also recognise the need to "offer guarantees to those who seek protection in, or access to, the European Union". This language is unambiguous, coherent, and forward-looking. It means that the development of the common asylum system recognises asylum as a human right and should be guided by a set of high protection standards, in accordance with principles of international refugee law. It also means that instruments aimed at controlling illegal immigration and, more generally, managing migration flows must include guarantees to provide access to territory and safety for those who are in need of protection.

The recent Communications issued by the EU Commission on a common immigration policy and a common asylum procedure and uniform status throughout the European Union are a welcome contribution to the development of a comprehensive approach to migration management and the strengthening of the asylum institution in the Union. UNHCR supports efforts proposed to centralise the examination of all claims for protection into a single asylum procedure in each of the Member States in order to determine all needs for protection in a holistic manner. Processing claims should be based on the presumption that applicants qualify for refugee status under the Geneva Refugee Convention. Only where during the procedure it becomes obvious that the application cannot be determined in relation to the criteria of the Refugee Convention, the provision of an alternative form of protection should be considered. This should also be the case for the Commission's proposals to create a uniform status for refugees and others recognised to be in need of protection, provided that agreement is reached first on who qualifies for such status. In the view of UNHCR, a common asylum system must, therefore, be premised on a common understanding of the interpretation of the refugee definition. Without such agreement, it is difficult to see how other areas foreseen for the development of the common asylum system can be effectively tackled and given meaningful content.

Of course, this reasoning also applies to the harmonisation of a Temporary Protection mechanism, a practical tool to be resorted to in situations of mass influx which exclude the use of normal procedures for determining who needs protection. Moreover, and as we have tried to underline in the first part of this communication, a coherent, protection-based asylum strategy in Europe can not be developed in isolation, that is without addressing the contemporary challenges posed by illegal migration, the irregular movements of composite, mixed flows of people, and the very serious problems of trafficking of human beings. It is not sufficient to adopt common measures to reinforce controls at the Union's external borders, to impose visa requirements and carrier sanctions or to "externalise" border management by posting liaison officers in exit points in countries of origin and transit. These measures have already proven insufficient in combating illegal immigration.

Adressing the Root Causes of Large Population Movements

In our view, the priority is to address the root causes of large population movements and to develop a more holistic approach to the problem of forced displacement. Such an approach involves conflict prevention and management, pursuing political dialogue, consolidating democracy and stability, ensuring respect for human rights, combating poverty, and improving living conditions in countries of origin and transit. We have welcomed, and supported, in this respect, the establishment of the EU's High Level Working Group on Migration and Asylum and the Plans of Action the Group has subsequently developed in relation to a number of countries from which large numbers of asylum-seekers originate. UNHCR notes a number of difficulties in the implementation of these Plans and hopes that these can be addressed in the future as a matter of priority by the present and incoming EU Presidencies.

UNHCR also welcomes efforts by the European Union and its Member States to establish channels of legal immigration as a means to address the growing needs on the labour market during a period of decline in population growth in Europe. The creation of such channels can help to combat illegal immigration and relieve some of the pressures presently imposed on the asylum system. However, these effects will be noticeable only if Member States also ensure greater compliance with existing labour legislation by employers for migrants and refugees. Finally, in our view, the development of a common policy of resettling refugees can also help to improve the management of migratory and refugee flows to the European Union. Under such a programme refugees whose claims are to be processed in the region neighbouring their country of origin could be resettled to, and integrated in, EU countries. Such a common programme should be based on clear responsibility-sharing of taking in resettled cases among Member States. It should result in the admission of high-skilled refugees who can have easy access to the labour market as well as vulnerable cases with special needs for medical rehabilitation, education or socio-economic support. Yet such programme should be seen as a complement not a replacement of, Member States' obligations to grant access to those who arrive on their territory. In the longer term, one could also envisage the setting up of such a resettlement programme on the basis of a global burden sharing scheme.

Mr. Chairman,

If I have insisted on distinct approaches to asylum and migration, it is because the inadequacies of a proper response to the migration problem are impacting on the basic rights enshrined in refugee law that have been painfully constructed over the last 50 years.

Refugees have always been a dominant feature of Europe's landscape, especially in this century. And it was in Europe that the 1951 Refugee Convention was born and, along with it, UNHCR with the task of supervising, within its mandate, the implementation of this landmark instrument.

UNHCR relies heavily on the EU and its Member States to be in the forefront of upholding asylum in a positive way. We believe that the time has come for the EU Member States to take an imaginative strategic approach to the development of asylum policy, based on a firm political commitment to the principle of asylum for those in need of international protection. Two basic premises may provide the starting point: first, asylum must be disentangled from the broader and very politicised issue of immigration. Second, upholding the principle of asylum must go hand in hand with measures to address the root causes of involuntary population movements through concerted preventive action.

As we have moved into the twenty-first century, there is no doubt that Europe is at a cross-roads. Will Europe turn its back on those who are forced to move, or will it strengthen its long tradition of safeguarding the rights of the oppressed and the uprooted?

The answer has been mixed. I, myself, just hope that Europeans will not forget that asylum is not just about numbers. It is about societies we want to live in, our belief in human rights and humanitarian values.

Thank you for your attention.