This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva. Further information can be found on the UNHCR website, www.unhcr.ch, which should also be checked for regular media updates on non-briefing days.
1) - UNHCR Asylum Policy
There is at the back of the room a signed editorial by the High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, on asylum. This op-ed has been published over the past couple of days in a number of newspapers around Europe, but we would like you to see the full original version. It lays down UNHCR's current suggestions for ways to improve protection of refugees in their regions of origin, and also for possible actions in the context of the EU and in individual domestic asylum systems.
In the run-up to the Thessalonika Summit, UNHCR's position has been widely misinterpreted, and we would like to set the record straight. UNHCR has NOT been talking about "zones of protection." We're not sure what this concept means exactly.
We are primarily concerned with making more concerted and imaginative efforts to grapple with specific situations in refugees' regions of origin, not with creating some sort of new geographical or physical entities. We are very interested indeed in working with states to build more effective protection in asylum countries neighbouring the refugees' own countries. One result of this would be that fewer refugees feel the need to move further afield, to Europe and elsewhere. We're interested in removing the pressures on them to move, not in somehow containing them. There was a lot of positive discussion of this type of initiative in the run-up to Thessalonika. Unfortunately, it has - hopefully only temporarily -- been completely overshadowed by the heated debate about so-called "zones of protection."
That said, UNHCR recognizes that there are legitimate concerns about the current management of asylum systems globally. We fully agree that there are many things that can be improved. In particular, there needs to be a much greater effort to find solutions for refugees while they are still in their regions of origin, so that they don't lose hope and feel the need to keep on moving in search of security and reasonable living conditions. Too many refugee situations have been allowed to fester, and too many developing countries are left hosting huge numbers of refugees with inadequate resources.
All these issues were examined in depth during the exhaustive two-year Global Consultations process that came to an end in early 2002, involving more than 150 states as well as many other actors all across the world. The key issues are laid out in the so-called Agenda for Protection - an extremely important map for future developments in asylum that resulted from that process. These in turn have already led to a number of new initiatives such as the High Commissioner's Convention Plus plan and the various proposals made recently to governments that are laid out in the editorial he presented this week.
2) - Afghanistan
The number of Afghan refugees returning to their homeland from neighbouring countries is poised to pass the quarter million mark this weekend, bringing the number of Afghans who have gone back since the fall of the Taliban regime to well over two million. We estimate that four million Afghans still remain in Pakistan and Iran.
Despite concerns regarding fragile security in parts of Afghanistan voiced by many organisations, including the UN refugee agency, the steady stream of refugees going home has demonstrated that many Afghans have concluded that their prospects are better in their own country than in the neighbouring states that have provided them with shelter since 1980.
So far this year, our staff in Pakistan saw more than 154,000 Afghans pass through registration centres, while more than 93,000 Afghans have left Iran since the start of January - 53,000 assisted by UNHCR and another 40,000 without assistance. With UNHCR recording at least 3,000-5,000 returns per day, the total will move past the 250,000 mark by Sunday.
Afghans leaving Pakistan have told UNHCR staff in Islamabad that they are leaving because there is work in Afghanistan, the day wages are higher there and the north of the country is comparatively peaceful. Refugees at other centres in Pakistan and Iran cite a variety of reasons to go home. Some see business opportunities. Better rains over the winter have improved prospects for agriculture, local agreements have halted power struggles between some warlords, and there is more - if still inadequate - rebuilding of the war-devastated country underway.
UNHCR teams in Afghanistan are running several programmes to help reintegrate those asking to go home, including providing shelter kits, tools, and food aid under the World Food Programme. UNHCR plans to construct or rehabilitate up to 60,000 shelters and 40,000 wells this year in co-operation with the Afghan government.
Although the total returnees are well below the overwhelming numbers of a year ago, when UNHCR assisted more than 1.8 million Afghans to leave Pakistan and Iran, the total is still very high by standards of most refugee movements.
3) - Angola
UNHCR launches this morning a major repatriation of an estimated 150,000 Angolan refugees living mainly in camps in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The return will take place in several phases over the next two years eventually bringing home one-third of Angolans driven from their country by nearly three decades of civil war.
Two convoys carrying an estimated 500 refugees are expected to depart from three camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first convoy will be flagged off from the Bas Congo Province, south of the D.R. Congo capital, Kinshasa carrying some 250 - 300 refugees from Kilueka and Nkondo camps. This convoy will take returnees to the northern Angola town of Mbanza Congo, a three to four hour drive.
The second convoy will leave from Tshimbumbulu camp near Kisenge in the southern D.R. Congo province of Katanga and will proceed to Luau in the eastern Angola province of Moxico.
Transit centres with a capacity for up to 800 refugees have been established in Mbanza Congo and Luau. Returnees will spend the first few days at these centres before proceeding to their areas of origin. Re-integration packages consisting of basic domestic supplies such as blankets, jerry-cans, mats and kitchen sets and a three-month food supply will be distributed to returnees at the centres.
In early July, repatriation is also scheduled to begin from Namibia to the towns of Caindo and Menongue in the southern province of Cuando Cubango, and from Zambia to Cazombo in Moxico province.
Since May 2002, an estimated 100,000 Angolan refugees have already returned home on their own, mainly to the provinces of Uige, Zaire, Moxico and Cuando Cubango.
4) - 2002 Statistics
At the beginning of 2003, the global number of refugees was estimated at some 10.3 million persons, a decrease of 1.7 million persons, or 14 per cent, compared to one year earlier. The main reason for the fall in the annual refugee population was the repatriation of almost 2 million Afghan refugees from Pakistan (1.6 million) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (380,000). Moreover, some 88,000 Angolan refugees returned home during the year as well as 76,000 refugees from Sierra Leone, 53,000 Burundi refugees, 37,000 refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina, 32,000 Somali refugees as well as 32,000 refugees from Timor-Leste. In all, an estimated 2.4 million refugees returned home during 2002, one million more, or 70 per cent, than the average annual number of refugees who repatriated during the past ten years (1.4 million).
In 2002, some 19,600 refugees found a solution to their plight through resettlement under UNHCR auspices, a fall of 44 per cent compared to 2001, when 34,700 refugees were resettled. The main reason for this fall in annual departures is the decline in resettlement to the United States, which fell from 18,300 in 2001 to 8,100 in 2002 (-56%), as a result of enhanced immigration screening requirements.
Whereas many refugees were able to return home, almost 300,000 refugees became newly displaced in 2002. The main new mass outflows concerned refugees fleeing Liberia (105,000), DR Congo (39,000), Burundi (29,000), Somalia (24,000) , Côte d'Ivoire (22,000) and Central African Republic (20,000). Nevertheless, the annual number of mass refugee outflows in 2002 (293,000) was 41 per cent lower than in 2001 (496,000).
Despite the return of almost 2 million Afghan refugees, Asia continues to host the largest refugee population (4.2 million), although its share in the global number of refugees fell from 48 to 40 per cent. Africa hosts the second largest refugee population (3.3 million), followed by Europe (2.2. million), North America (610,000), Oceania (65,000) and Latin America and the Caribbean (41,000).
In 37, mostly industrialized, countries, located in Europe, North America, Asia and Oceania, some 587,400 asylum applications were submitted in 2002, 5 per cent fewer than in 2001 when 621,100 claims were lodged . In Europe, the annual number of asylum applications fell by 2.5 per cent to 465,600, whereas in the 15 countries of the European Union some 381,600 new asylum claims were registered (-1.7%).
As in 2001, the United Kingdom received the largest number of asylum claims (110,700), followed by the United States (81,100) and Germany (71,100). However, compared with the size of the total national population, Austria received the highest number of asylum applications in 2002 (4.6 per 1,000 inhabitants), followed by Norway (3.9) and Sweden (3.7).
Iraqi nationals formed the largest group of asylum-seekers in 2002, lodging some 51,000 new asylum applications in the 37 countries. The second largest group of asylum claimants consisted of citizens from Serbia and Montenegro (33,100), followed by Turkish asylum-seekers (29,600). The annual number of Afghan asylum-seekers fell by 51 per cent, from 52,800 in 2001 to 25,700 in 2002. As a result, Afghanistan, which had been the leading country of origin of asylum-seekers in 2001, ranked only fifth in 200
During 2002, more than one million internally displaced persons out of the 5.0 million considered of concern to UNHCR at the beginning of 2002 returned home during the year. A significant number of IDPs returned to their homes in Afghanistan (750,000), Sri Lanka (236,000), Bosnia and Herzegovina (71,000) and Russian Federation (59,000). At the same time, however, a sharp increase in internal displacement was reported for Colombia (230,000), Afghanistan (84,000) and Liberia (43,000). Moreover, some 100,000 citizens from Côte d'Ivoire became displaced during the year.
The total population of concern to UNHCR, including refugees, asylum-seekers, IDPs as well as those who returned during the year, increased slightly, from 19.8 million in early 2002 to some 20. 5 million in early 2003 (see Figure 3). This slight rise in the population of concern is the result of a combination of demographic, legal and administrative factors in more than 150 countries, including natural increase, new arrivals of refugees and IDPs, returns as well as adjustments to the refugee population on the basis of new registration and estimates. The significant returns of refugees and internally displaced during 2002, which continued to be counted as returnees in 2002, will have a significant impact on the population of concern as of early 2004.