In a world where more people are on the move than ever, governments jittery about cross-border criminals, terrorists and illegal migrants must not shirk their duty to protect refugees, a UN official said on Tuesday.Legitimate refugees caught up in these broader flows may be threatened by populist policies driven by xenophobia, said Erika Feller, assistant commissioner for protection at the UN refugee agency.
“This is a very explosive mix,” she added. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which marks World Refugee Day on Wednesday, says refugee numbers rose 14 per cent last year to nearly 10 million, mainly due to an exodus from Iraq, after declining for several years.
“There are countries which are rather keen to define away the refugee element of problems. They play up excessively the threat of international terrorism and other things to try and downplay their responsibilities under the 1951 refugee convention,” Feller told Reuters in a telephone interview. She did not name the countries which are under-performing, but singled out Yemen and Syria as among a creditable band of developing nations striving to cope with floods of refugees despite formidable social and economic problems of their own.
“Yemen has maintained a consistently open door to Somali asylum-seekers,” she said of the impoverished Arab country.
Some Somalis end up in a designated camp, but are free to come and go. Many settle on the outskirts of Yemeni cities. “The authorities have done their best to deal with all the problems that urban refugee conglomerations entail, but they need much more international assistance,” Feller said.
However, with crises in Iraq and Darfur grabbing most of the headlines, Yemen can slip beneath the radar of foreign donors. Syria, unlike Yemen, has not signed the 1951 convention, but it now hosts an estimated 1.4 million Iraqi refugees and is the only neighbouring country whose borders remain open to them.
“Syria has been tremendously responsive to the Iraqi arrivals although its system is very strained,” Feller said.
“There are other countries neighbouring Iraq where we have had discussions about border closures, about making it possible for people to stay on a slightly longer term basis without the threat of deportation within weeks of arrival,” she said.
Feller called the United States a “very generous host country” with one of the world’s biggest refugee populations. But its broad legislation barring asylum or refugee status to anyone deemed to have provided “material support” to a terrorist or armed opposition group â€” which Feller said could be as little as “giving a glass of water to a passing rebel” â€” was problematic for UNHCR resettlement programmes.
Washington had instituted waivers for certain groups, such as Burmese refugees, who would otherwise fall foul of the law, but Feller said UNHCR hoped it would be scrapped or amended.
She said the 1951 refugee convention, drawn up after the horrors of World War II, remained “as effective as states will allow it to be” and she argued against the idea of revising it to include people internally displaced by conflict â€” who now number 24.5 million, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The convention defines a refugee as someone who is outside their country due to “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” or due to having no nationality. It prohibits the forcible return of refugees to countries where their lives may be in danger.
“Personally I wouldn’t touch the convention, not because it couldn’t be improved, but because I fear the result would take us backwards and we might lose some of the basics we already have,” she said, noting that nonbinding principles on the protection of internally displaced people already exist.
“The challenge would be to pick up the guiding principles and see if we can develop them into a more binding instrument.” The world also needs to think fast about how to help people displaced by global warming and environmental change, she said.
“The movement of people is one of the biggest global problems, and it’ll only get worse with climate change.
“So the question of who’s going to respond to this and how, in what framework of rights and responsibilities, needs to be looked at quite urgently,” Feller declared.