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Press conference on anniversaries of convention relating to status of refugees, convention on reduction of statelessness

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With more than 47 million people around the globe falling under the mandate of the United Nations refugee agency, the upcoming anniversaries of two landmark conventions would be an opportunity to get States to recommit to their responsibilities and to adapt the treaties to new circumstances, an agency official said at Headquarters today.

Erika Feller, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said at a press briefing that the sixtieth anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and the fiftieth anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness would be commemorated on 28 July and 30 August, respectively.

She said the anniversary of the Refugees Convention, which defines who is a refugee, the rights of refugees, and the legal obligations of States to protect them, was an urgently needed occasion to “really ask States to recommit to the basics of refugee protection, but also to think beyond the basics”. The anniversary of the Convention on Statelessness — covering some 12 million people, many of whom had no right to education, basic documentation, travel, or even to a decent burial — was “an occasion to bring these people out of the shadows”, she added.

The 47 million vulnerable people falling broadly within the UNHCR mandate consisted of stateless persons and refugees, as well as internally displaced persons, she said. The UNHCR had some 37 million people registered in assistance programmes, including a growing proportion of internally displaced persons. An indication of the current urgency of the problem could be seen in the aftermath of the election crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, where some 100,000 people had fled into an under-resourced area of neighbouring Liberia, in addition to internally displaced persons and stateless people who remained in the country under conditions of hardship.

She said the crisis in Libya had caused enormous internal and external displacement, with many third-country nationals unable to return home and desperately seeking refuge. Many had boarded boats, some of which had capsized with great loss of life, she added, noting that there were many such situations in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. “We’re talking about a prevalent problem of deep concern,” she stressed. The international response was inadequate, given that both the classic drivers of displacement — war and persecution — were being augmented by new ones, such as climate change and the lack of burden sharing when refugees wound up in poor countries.

With the rising trend of detaining asylum-seekers, there was a decline in “protection space” and “humanitarian space”, due to fears of terrorism, transnational crime and irregular migration, she said, adding that alternatives to detention and solutions to the dangers of maritime flight and other issues needed to be addressed in an egalitarian, rights-based manner.

She said the upcoming commemorations would culminate in December with a ministerial meeting in which States would be asked to pledge their commitment to operating in a manner that would change the course of refugee protection and statelessness in a positive way, and to develop an action plan for the period to come. She asked civil society and journalists to engage in advocacy to ensure that the meeting would be as action-oriented and positive as possible. “Refugee protection is not a thing of the past,” she stressed. “Refugee protection is very pressing at present and a huge challenge for the future.”

Asked how UNHCR wanted States to improve their handling of statelessness, she said they should draft citizenship legislation and end discriminatory rules, such as those prohibiting a mother from passing her citizenship on to her children. Where States had broken up, or new ones had been formed, as might be happening in Sudan, it was crucial to plan ahead, so that people would not be left without nationality, she emphasized. In Sudan’s case, nomadic populations, long-standing Southern residents in the North and Northerners in the South were vulnerable. Their inclusion could be decided according to habitual residence as opposed to ethnicity, she said, adding that the launch of the Secretary-General’s guidance on statelessness was planned for tomorrow.

On Palestinian refugees, she said the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) dealt with those living in the region. Since they had a right to return, they were not traditionally stateless, but those outside the UNRWA area fell under the Refugees Convention. However, their situation was a complex one, as much political as legal.

She said that Myanmar’s Rohingya fit the classic definition of statelessness, lacking recognition of their rights and passports. The UNHCR had operations in the areas in which they lived, she said, adding that the agency helped them tackle numerous problems, including compulsory taxes, labour, domestic abuse and lack of documentation. There had been a return programme for those who had left in cooperation with authorities, but they returned not as citizens, but as “habitual residents”. As for Sri Lanka, voluntary repatriation was a feasible option for the large majority of the population.

Asked whether the 1951 Refugees Convention was considered outdated, she said the basic rights that it affirmed still needed to be stressed. However, the emergence of new problems gave rise to a need to build on it. States had to be helped and encouraged to live up to their responsibilities, she said, emphasizing, however, that she would never suggest re-drafting the treaty. “The generosity of 1951 is not there in 2011,” she pointed out.

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