UNHCR Briefing Notes: Australia/ship, Pakistan/Afghans, FYR of Macedonia, Venezuela
UNHCR is meeting this morning with representatives of Australia, Indonesia and Norway to propose a three-point plan aimed at resolving the impasse that has kept more than 450 people aboard a container ship off Christmas Island for some five days. New Zealand, which has also taken an active interest, is also attending.
The plan is the result of several informal contacts we've had with various parties over the past few days, and is aimed at breaking the deadlock and rapidly ending the increasingly desperate situation of the hundreds of men, women and children aboard the Norwegian vessel Tampa.
Assistant High Commissioner Soren Jessen-Petersen, who coordinated development of the plan, said the most immediate humanitarian need was to get the people off of the Tampa, which has no facilities for a large number of passengers. Thus, the plan would begin with:
- Temporary disembarkation for humanitarian
reasons on Christmas Island;
- Immediate screening of asylum applicants,
which, if requested, could be carried out by UNHCR screening teams using
the same international standards we apply elsewhere in the world;
- Transfer to third countries, some of whom have already come forward to offer continued processing and/or resettlement. We've made a formal request to various countries to consider people for resettlement, including New Zealand and Norway, who have indicated they are ready to help. We are awaiting responses from other countries as well.
We are, of course, also aware of the extremely generous offer made by an East Timorese official to take the ship and its passengers - a truly humanitarian response from a nation-in-the-making with few resources. However, the Tampa is now close to Christmas Island, the people have been aboard for far too long, and that island is the most logical place for them to go for the time being.
The High Commissioner, who is in Durban, South Africa, told us this morning that he is extremely grateful that some of the world's smaller and poorer nations have come forward with offers to help. He also noted that wealthier nations are responding as well, in a show of international burden-sharing reminiscent of the 1970s/80s Indochinese boat people rescues and resettlement programmes.
Mr. Lubbers also noted that in the longer term, there is a pressing need to address all of these issues at a broader political level, including the whole issue of long-distance trafficking of people through Southeast Asia, including Indonesia.
UNHCR finds the Pakistani authorities' decision to deport 132 people to Afghanistan on Tuesday unfortunate and regrettable, and has temporarily suspended the Afghan screening process. The deportations are a clear breach of UNHCR's agreement with the Pakistani government on the screening on Afghans in Pakistan, which specifies that there would be no deportations from Jalozai and Nasr Bagh camps during the screening process.
The 28 families, including many elderly people, women, children and infants, were in Jalozai camp in Pakistan where they would have been part of the screening exercise. Nine of the deported families had indeed already been pre-screened. Members of the minority Tajik ethnic group, the families are originally from Sar-i-pul in Sanjcharak in northern Afghanistan, an area currently in conflict. UNHCR was able to meet with the families in Jalalabad in Afghanistan yesterday. Some of the people are malnourished and a number are sick. There are several unaccompanied children among the group, who have family members still in Jalozai. According to the families, they had been told they were to be moved to another camp inside Pakistan, but were instead taken to the border and were handed over to the Taliban. Now in Jalalabad, the families do not have the resources to go back to their homes or move elsewhere.
UNHCR has suspended screening for today, pending assurances from the Pakistani authorities that no more such deportations will take place. We expect to meet with the government later today and hope that the screening can resume on Monday.
Over 100,000 Afghans have been pre-screened since the process started on August 6. The second phase of screening began on Wednesday. UNHCR and Pakistani joint screening teams had developed a very good working relationship and the process had been going smoothly. In light of this positive cooperation, the deportations are all the more regrettable and incomprehensible.
3. Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Ethnic Albanians using side roads continue to return to FYROM from Kosovo a rate of 2,000 a day, despite blockages of main roads by groups of ethnic Macedonians opposed to the ethnic Albanians' return. Since Wednesday night, ethnic Macedonian protesters have been blocking the road toward Tabanovce border with southern Serbia, in addition to the Blace road from Kosovo which has now been blocked for over 10 days. However, since the return movement started in July, more than 32,000 refugees have gone back from Kosovo, while about 48,000 refugees remain in the province.
UNHCR supports the right of all refugees and displaced people to return to their homes, but remains concerned that NATO's presence in FYROM may give a false sense of security to returnees. There has been a sharp increase in returns since NATO's deployment, despite the fact that NATO's role is clearly limited to weapons collection and does not involve general security. Sporadic security incidents occur daily in areas where there is a security vacuum, and UNHCR field teams report that there remains a credible fear and uneasiness among the people who stayed in the conflict-affected areas, as well as among the displaced people.
UNHCR field teams this week have made daily visits to conflict-affected villages around Tetovo and Kumanovo, assessing the needs of returnees and those who have stayed in their villages through the conflict. In a mixed village of Opaje, our field team found 7 ethnic Albanians who managed to survive fighting between security forces and the Albanian rebels. The village suffered much damage and the houses have been looted, but the villagers said they remained to protect their property, despite the fighting and harassment by the Macedonian police who allegedly tried to make them leave the village.
UNHCR today officially opens its field office in San Cristobal, Venezuela, near the border with Colombia. The field office will work in coordination with governmental and nongovernmental institutions to promote international protection for people fleeing the armed conflict in Colombia. The opening of the office will improve UNHCR's ability together with its partners to monitor border crossings, and ensure that people seeking safety in Venezuela have access to asylum procedures and emergency assistance if needed.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias will preside over the inauguration ceremony, accompanied by UNHCR Regional Representative Maria Virginia Trimarco.
Earlier this week, Venezuela's National Assembly passed new refugee and asylum legislation (la Ley Orgánico para Refugiados o Refugiadas y Asilados o Asiladas). The law establishes the right to seek asylum in Venezuela, and outlines asylum procedures and the rights and responsibilities of the state and of refugees in Venezuela. Venezuela is a signatory to the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
UNHCR's regional office for northern South America and Panama is located in Caracas. In Ecuador, UNHCR has an office in Quito, as well as a field office in Lago Agrio near Ecuador's border with Colombia. In Colombia itself, UNHCR has an office in Bogota and three field offices in Apartado, Barrancabermaja and Puerto Asis.
UNHCR has recently expressed concern over the growing numbers of Colombians seeking asylum in the region and further afield in light of the deterioration of the situation in Colombia.
This document is intended for public information purposes only. It is not an official UN document.