On the second day of our study tour at the United Nations Headquarters, Mr. Yusuf Hassan, the spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) held a comprehensive briefing on the refugee situation and on the role the UNHCR plays with regard to their resettlement and reintegration.
Before talking about the involvement of the United Nations in the refugee situation, our speaker gave a historical briefing, showing that in the context of the large number of people fleeing to escape armed conflicts in different regions, no protection existed for asylum-seekers before the 20th century and no global protection was available for displaced persons. The biggest displacement rate occurred during World War II, when around 65 million people were displaced in Europe, and China itself displaced a large number of people, due to the Japanese conflict.
Mr. Hassan then talked about the role of the United Nations Refugee Convention, implemented in 1951. Our speaker underlined two aspects of the Convention: First, the Convention’s mission was limited only to refugees in Europe after World War II – it achieved its main goals in only three years, but has been extended afterwards. Second, the Convention stresses the principle of non-returning in the event of possible persecution. Mr. Hassan pointed out that the mandate of the Convention has not changed over the years and that originally, the convention was conceived as a compromise between the refugees and their placement States. However, the goals achieved through the Convention created challenges in such countries as Australia, which due to the immigration problems even called for a revision of the Convention.
Displacement represents one of the major problems that the world faces today. The UNHCR has managed to assist up to 25 million people around the world by 1996, while having focused mainly on resettlement issues at the beginning of its existence. When UNHCR began its work in 1951 it had 34 staff members and a yearly budget of $300,000. Now the Office operates globally in 114 countries with 268 offices, having 5200 employees and an annual budget of more than a billion US-Dollars.
UNHCR has lately been criticised for its mainly humanitarian support and for chiefly concentrating on the relief work. It has been urged to focus more on the refugee issues, those being its key competence. However, Mr. Hassan emphasised that the UNHCR has helped people finding resettlement in countries able to offer them a constant and stable placement, providing special programmes for old or disabled people or for those faced with gender-based violence.
Our speaker explained that the UNHCR currently focuses on internally displaced people. It provides basic assistance for those refugees that return to their completely destroyed countries, as soon as peace has been restored. The Office’s work also concentrates on the rights of asylum seekers, until they are accepted as refugees. Special help is also provided for stateless people, as for instance for the almost 10 million people who became stateless after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When asked if refugee problems are not primarily political problems and if they therefore do not require a political solution, our speaker pointed out that most people leave their countries because of security reasons and not to seek jobs. That means, that the refugee problems are closely related to issues of peace and security. While Europe complains about a relatively small number of refugees, poor countries like Pakistan are still able to host them. Besides, the number of refugees is facing a decrease and the belief that the world is swamped with refugees is not true. Mr. Hassan also drew our attention to the distinction that needs to be made between refugees and immigrants.
While asked about the reasons for the closure of the Guatemalan office in 2003, the speaker explained that most of the displacement problems had been solved. Due to the limited resources, offices are only opened in places urgently in need of support.