Protecting refugees & the role of UNHCR 2008 - 09
The practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution in foreign lands is one of the earliest hallmarks of civilization. References to it have been found in texts written 3,500 years ago, during the blossoming of the great early empires in the Middle East such as the Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians and ancient Egyptians.
Over three millennia later, protecting refugees was made the core mandate of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which was founded in 1950. This booklet addresses some of the most commonly asked questions about refugees themselves and how UNHCR and its humanitarian partners are engaged in a constant struggle to help them physically and legally.
Who, for instance, qualifies as a refugee -and why? What rights does a refugee enjoy and what obligations? What is the role of governments and of UNHCR itself? The booklet also introduces related issues such as the future of millions of internally displaced people (IDPs), the Kafkaesque world of statelessness, the development of "temporary protection," and the increasing confusion between refugees, IDPs and migrants.
These are the three main groups of people on the move. Refugees fleeing war or persecution are often in a very vulnerable situation. They have no protection from their own state -indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them. If other countries do not let them in, and do not help them once they are in, then they may be condemning them to death -or to an intolerable life without rights or security.
IDPs are often wrongly called refugees. Unlike refugees, IDPs have not crossed an international border to find sanctuary but have remained inside their home countries. Even if they have fled for similar reasons as refugees (armed conflict, generalized violence, human rights violations), IDPs legally remain under the protection of their own government - even though that government might be the cause of their flight. As citizens, they retain all of their rights and protection under both human rights and international humanitarian law.
UNHCR's original mandate does not specifically cover IDPs, but because of the agency's expertise on displacement, it has for many years been assisting millions of them, more recently through the "cluster approach." Under this approach, UNHCR has the lead role in overseeing the protection and shelter needs of IDPs as well as coordination and management of camps. UNHCR is currently active in 28 IDP operations, including Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Pakistan and Uganda.
Millions of other civilians who have been made homeless by natural disasters are also classified as IDPs. UNHCR is not normally involved with this group except in exceptional circumstances, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 or the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan in 2005.
Migrants and refugees increasingly make use of the same routes and means of transport. They, however, are fundamentally different and, thus, are treated very differently under international law. Migrants, especially economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve their lives. Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom.
Unable to enter a particular state legally, people composing these mixed flows often employ the services of human smugglers. For example, almost 30,000 people crossed the Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa to Yemen in 2007. Of that number, 1,400 people died or were reported missing, almost doubling the death toll of 2006. In 2008, more than 50,000 people made the perilous voyage in smugglers' boats. Of that number, at least 590 drowned or were killed by the smugglers. Another 359 were reported missing.
To address the growing issue of mixed migration, UNHCR continued to implement in 2007-08 the 10-Point Plan of Action on Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration launched a year earlier. The plan sets out key areas on international mixed movements in countries of origin, transit and destination. Mixed migration movements are of concern mainly in the Mediterranean basin, the Gulf of Aden, Central America and the Caribbean, South-east Asia and the Balkans.