NGO statement: Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's programme
28 September - 2 October 2009
Agenda Item 4
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This statement has been drafted in consultation with, and is delivered on behalf of, a wide range of NGOs and aims to reflect the diversity of views within the NGO community.
At the 60th session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, NGOs would like to express our concern over ongoing emergencies, highlight the shrinking of the protection space available to refugees, and emphasise the changing nature of humanitarian response. NGOs call upon States to increase their commitments and responsibilities toward refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and other persons of concern and, together with UNHCR and NGOs, to more seriously rethink their roles, responsibilities, and contributions in a changing humanitarian landscape.
There are 260,000 IDPs living in camps in northern Sri Lanka, deprived of their freedom of movement, in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and under the control of the military. We have serious and ongoing concerns for their safety, protection, and survival. In a number of camps, unimpeded humanitarian access, freedom of movement for IDPs, and the lack of information on future relocation plans remain very serious concerns.
Restrictions on freedom of movement for IDPs remaining in the camps must be removed without delay to enable free access to services and livelihoods outside the camps and full engagement of humanitarian agencies inside the camps.
In addition to being host to approximately two million Afghan refugees, more than 2.5 million Pakistanis are displaced within their own borders due to fighting in the Swat Valley in the North-West Frontier Province.
Relief efforts have so far been focused on people who have fled to camps, but the vast majority of the displaced, over 80 percent, are staying with host families who are quickly running out of resources. The international community has struggled to provide assistance in these non-camp settings.
In fact, much of the assistance that is being provided is done so by local organisations. Local organisations are a critical part of the overall relief effort because they have in-depth knowledge of the environment and sustain programs over an extended period of time. Despite these merits, no Pakistani organisation participated in the consolidated appeal. We call on all actors involved to work to ensure the full participation of local NGOs in the response effort. As a matter of priority, donors should contribute to the UN consolidated appeal.
NGOs are concerned that any returns must be fully voluntary and based on a free and informed choice. At the same time, the Pakistani government must engage in contingency planning and begin preparing for additional large scale displacement as the military effort continues to unfold.
NGOs are concerned about the complex humanitarian emergency unfolding in Yemen where an estimated 150,000 civilians have been displaced, at least 55,000 to 75,000 of who are children. We share UNHCR's concern over the situation in Sa'ada city, where civilians, including 35,000 IDPs, remain trapped by intermittent clashes, lack water and electricity, and have faced shortages of fuel and food for over a month.
The number of IDPs in Somalia has increased significantly since May 2009 due to the fighting between the Transitional Federal Government and insurgent groups. The cumulative number of conflict and climate IDPs now stands at 1.55 million. A recent assessment by the Food Security and Nutrition Assessment Unit of the FAO put the number of IDPs facing food insecurity at an estimated 1.4 million people. Insecurity, high food prices, and inflation have affected food and livelihood access for IDPs.
Humanitarian funding should be committed in order to build the capacities of national staff and Somali agencies to respond to disasters. Even though access by aid agencies remains limited because of insecurity, emergency and livelihood assistance is still being delivered through national staff and national NGOs. These efforts need to be strengthened and supported.
The Occupied Palestinian Territory
The Palestinians remain the largest refugee population in the most protracted situation worldwide. The rights of Palestinian refugees have been long neglected by the international community and more needs to be done to address their needs. Increasingly, due to the construction of the separation wall in the occupied Palestinian territory, Palestinians who cannot flee the territory are also becoming internally displaced. We remain also deeply concerned about the ongoing blockade facing the Palestinian civilian population. The blockade has locked in 1.5 million people, two-thirds of whom are refugees and most of whom are stateless, in what is one of the most densely populated areas on earth, triggering a protracted human dignity crisis with negative humanitarian consequences.
Access to Asylum
NGOs note with deep regret States' failures to provide protection to asylum seekers. An example stems from Turkey and Greece. Police in northeastern Greece systematically arrest migrants on Greek territory and detain them for a period of days without registering them. After rounding up a sufficient number of migrants, at nightfall the police forcibly and secretly expel them to the Turkish side. In addition to summary expulsions of migrants from inside Greek territory, Greek police and Coast Guard officials also push migrants back from the border or from Greek territorial waters, in some cases puncturing inflatable boats or otherwise disabling them before setting them adrift as they push them toward the Turkish coast. When rounding up and expelling migrants, border-enforcement officials usually make no effort to communicate with them or to do any screening whatsoever to determine their possible needs for protection. Turkish border authorities often detain these migrants as well. Once detained, such migrants have no meaningful opportunity to seek asylum or other forms of protection in Turkey and are often held indefinitely. Many Iraqis have been forcibly returned.
Those who land and lodge claims in Greece are almost never provided asylum. In 2007 Greece's asylum approval rate was only 1.2% and only 0.05% for Iraqis, the largest nationality currently seeking asylum in the EU.
While not alone in mistreating migrants and asylum seekers, Greece and Turkey serve as examples across Europe, North America, Australia, Southeast Asia, and the rest of the world where persons in need of protection are routinely denied opportunities to lodge claims and are instead mistreated and even refouled.
Refoulement and Push Backs
NGOs are deeply concerned about the interception and push back policies of many countries. Within weeks of the drowning on a single day of some 250 people trying to reach Italy, 238 people were interdicted in international waters and immediately returned to Libya without consideration of their protection needs or whether the group included vulnerable persons in need of assistance. More recently about 75 illegal immigrants from Africa died while traveling on a crowded rubber dingy between Libya and Italy. The five survivors reported that of the many vessels that passed them, none offered to provide assistance. We call on Libya to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and to develop domestic legislation to protect refugees and asylum-seekers.
NGOs are equally concerned with a similar policy in Israel and Egypt. An estimated 200-300 persons attempt to cross into Israel from Egypt monthly. The passage alone can be deadly. Last year, 28 migrants were killed by Egyptian police when attempting to cross the border. Of those who make it, the Israeli Defense Forces have engaged in a policy of "hot returns," i.e. immediate refoulement of asylum-seekers after they have crossed the border, without first allowing them to lodge a claim. While Israel, in consultation with UNHCR and NGOs, has taken steps to develop an Refugee Status Determination (RSD) procedure, few asylum seekers are allowed to access it. Of those asylum seekers who are returned, most end up in indefinite detention in Egypt and some have been refouled from Egypt to their countries of origin.
NGOs call upon Italy and Israel, both signatories to the Refugee Convention, to end their policies of push backs and forced return which constitute severe violations of their international commitments to protect refugees.
The Changing Nature of Protection
Over the last decade, displacement to urban areas has been a significant contributor to the growth of urban centres. Today, one of the largest refugee populations in the world, Iraqis, is almost all concentrated in urban centres. Many displaced persons reside in cities without legal documentation and lack the protection of the State. Urban refugees and IDPs often have little access to educational institutions or health care and are often denied access to formal work. Their capacity to become self-reliant is seriously curtailed, yet UNHCR assistance to date has been modest at best. Protection problems experienced by urban refugees are often dangerously exacerbated by high levels of intolerance, xenophobia, racism, and homophobia. Prolonged detention occurs regularly, especially in countries where there are encampment policies. Consequently, many urban refugees are forced to physically hide, mask their identities, and remove themselves from regular social interaction and public life. Some will intentionally isolate themselves from larger refugee communities so as to reduce undue attention by host communities and authorities.
Spread throughout dense and often impoverished neighborhoods, identification of the displaced in urban areas - often intent on concealing themselves - is extremely difficult and resource intensive. The provision of assistance and information is equally challenging. While refugees who are willing and able can self-identify and approach the UNHCR offices for assistance, there is need for proactive outreach campaign to assist the displaced that cannot stand in long queues outside of UNHCR waiting for appointments.
Outreach, identification, and provision of protection services and assistance, especially to the most vulnerable, is more labor and resource intensive in cities than in remote camp locations. The growing presence of urban displaced throughout the world and the associated increase in costs to meet their basic needs is a critical trend that must be more seriously considered and debated by Executive Committee members. NGOs welcome the upcoming High Commissioner's Dialogue on the subject and the recently published policy on urban refugees and asylum seekers, and are calling upon UNHCR to expand this policy to also cover IDPs in the near future. NGOs and UNHCR should collaborate on piloting implementation of the new policy in several locations, perhaps focusing on identification of, and services to, the most vulnerable.
Lack of Humanitarian Space
The lack of space for humanitarian organisations to provide protection and assistance to forcibly displaced populations and other people affected by disaster and armed conflict has been recognised as an urgent concern over the last several years. Too often, governments or other relevant actors have denied access for humanitarian organisations, while they are obliged to facilitate humanitarian response under international law. Incidents that have claimed the lives of humanitarian staff have also risen sharply.
In response to these realities, international humanitarian agencies have been forced to develop new approaches, which include, for example, increased operational roles for local NGOs in areas that are off-limits for international staff. Such an approach, however, is not without risk. As these local NGOs put their lives on the line to deliver life-saving assistance and protection, an unfortunate class system has developed in which risks are transferred to local counterparts. In areas such as Iraq, UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies have become entirely dependent upon the U.S. led multi-national forces for transportation, security, and, basically, access.
The increased insecurity for humanitarian aid is further fuelled by the blurring of lines between actors who have very different roles. NGOs note with concern that many EXCOM Member States have allowed or even promoted that their military forces develop new roles in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, development aid, and reconstruction. The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan are but one example of military forces taking on such new roles, while at the same time they are also a party to the conflict. These PRTs remain a largely military answer to a situation that needs a political and civilian-led, negotiated solution. The military should not consider NGOs as "force extenders" and should leave humanitarian response to civilian agen¬cies and NGOs.
Integrated Missions and Civil-Military Relations
NGOs remain also very concerned about efforts of governments, regional organisations, and the UN system that use humanitarian action as part of the toolkit for conflict management and resolution. These integrated approaches put humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR and NGOs, under the control of political and military actors, thereby contradicting the humanitarian and a-political character of their work. Conflict resolution and peace-building on the one hand and humanitarian action on the other hand are and must remain two clearly distinct forms of action.
We understand that a December meeting of the UN Integration Steering Group will feature, for the first time, the theme of humanitarian space on its agenda. We call on UNHCR to work with other UN humanitarian agencies and NGOs through the IASC to develop practical and constructive recommendations on how to address these concerns in advance of that meeting to ensure that it contributes to progress in addressing these important issues.
Climate Change and Forced Displacement
Climate change will become a major driver of forced displacement because it will increase the severity of natural hazards, both sudden-onset and slow-onset. While estimates vary enormously, it is clear that the number of people forcibly displaced by hazards associated with climate change will rise exponentially in coming decades. Therefore, climate change makes it imperative to promote adaptation to ensure adequate protection in the future.
We welcome the engagement of UNHCR on this issue, including its updated paper outlining the Agency's position on climate change and forced displacement. Given the scope and magnitude of this issue and given UNHCR's role as lead agency for forced displacement, it is critical that UNHCR engages energetically and proactively on the issue.
Internally Displaced Persons
With regards to the protection of IDPs, NGOs welcome preparations to sign an African convention on the rights of IDPs next month.
NGOs also welcome the development of the profiling of IDPs, which is an essential instrument for monitoring and reporting and can be carried out at any stage of an emergency or protracted displacement situation. Gathering information on the location, size, and demographic characteristics of populations in need - their "profile" - is crucial for their effective protection. Unfortunately, commonly-agreed figures on the number of IDPs, with disaggregated information on their sex and age, their location, and the patterns and causes of their displacement, enabling targeted responses and persuasive advocacy are not forthcoming. For the most part, across countries and in all regions, only rough estimates were available. We encourage UNHCR and EXCOM Members States to step up their efforts with regards to the systematic collection of data on the plight of IDPs.
Detention, the Age, Gender, and Diversity Mainstreaming (AGDM) Initiative, and Disability as Discussed during the NGO Consultations with UNHCR
Amidst the tenth anniversary of UNHCR Guidelines on Detention, NGOs observed an increased use of detention to control migration flows. Arbitrary and indefinite detention policies that do not allow for independent judicial review of the need to detain remain a concern in most States. Of equal concern are the conditions of detention which are often deplorable and penal in nature, with shackles and prison bars, overcrowded cells mixing gender and age, lack of hygiene, and adequate medical and mental health care, and restricted access to legal resources to assert claims.
UNHCR's Guidelines on Detention clearly state that there should be a presumption against detention. Where a government intends to detain someone they should, in the first instance, explore or develop alternatives; however, often the alternatives used are either intrusive models or designed to fail to legitimise detention. Some governments fail to explore alternatives at all. One successful alternative model stems from Australia. The Community Care pilot is an early intervention model of community-based welfare support, legal advice, and counseling services. The pilot has been a success in terms of compliance, with an absconding rate at less than 6%. Of those whose applications were rejected, 67% have returned voluntarily. The cost is about one third of detention. This pilot has recently been rolled into a national program.
NGOs are in the process of developing a handbook on alternatives to detention and encourage all States to learn from these best practices and consider as a priority alternatives to detention of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants.
Age, Gender, and Diversity Mainstreaming (AGDM) Initiative
Humanitarian emergencies have a disproportionate impact on particularly vulnerable groups, including women, children, the elderly, LGBT individuals, and other minorities, who face specific protection risks such as gender-based violence, forced recruitment by armed forces, economic exploitation, and ethnic discrimination. AGDM is thus a critical tool for ensuring the protection and assistance of vulnerable groups during all phases of humanitarian emergencies.
NGOs are pleased with the progress that has been taken in some areas during roll out of the initiative but much more work must be done to ensure that AGDM is fully institutionalised and implemented at every phase of program planning - from initial assessments to program design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. The issues identified and recommendations made in the UNHCR 'Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls' and the Conference Room Paper 'Protection of Older Persons or Persons with Disabilities' need to be embraced and implemented at the UNHCR operations level both internally and with partners and promoted with host States. UNHCR's leaders at operational and higher levels must be held accountable for the AGDM policy's full implementation.
NGOs also urge UNHCR to take advantage of the momentum generated by the UN Security Council debate regarding the impact of armed conflict on women and girls, (Security Council Resolution 1820 of June 2008), to enhance its response to and prevention of sexual violence against women and girls at risk.
Disabilities in Displacement
Persons with disabilities continue to be largely ignored, misunderstood, and excluded from humanitarian aid. Global emergency actors do not take the necessary steps to make their assistance accessible and inclusive. At the same time, specific solutions proposed by organisations of persons with disabilities and/or by organisations specialised in disability are marginalised or postponed. NGOs urge UNHCR to engage in early and complete identification of disabled persons; to create a critical mass for outreach and lobbying, especially with donors; to engage the treaty body for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; to undertake a comprehensive gap analysis for existing national legal frameworks; and to ensure resettlement and repatriation take place to areas where services are available to persons with disabilities. It is urgent and essential to raise the awareness of humanitarian actors and to develop a common framework. In 2010, disability should be the theme for World Refugee Day and for an Executive Committee Conclusion.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.