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UN Refugee Agency Pushes for Greater Acceptance of Asylum Seekers - 2001-12-12

The head of U.N. refugee agency is urging countries around the world to overcome their fears of asylum seekers. Ruud Lubbers made the call at a conference in Geneva marking the 50th anniversary on the U.N. refugee convention.

Ruud Lubbers, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, did not mince words. He opened the meeting of 72 top government officials by saying some countries base their refugee policies on mistrust rather than cooperation.

Mr. Lubbers said it is the responsibility of the international community to protect the world's 22 million refugees. He said countries use varying excuses to refuse to accept refugees, saying there are too many of them or that they are economic migrants, that is, not real refugees.

With no legal means of improving their lives, Mr. Lubbers has said many of the refugees fall prey to people who try to take advantage of them.

"Unless governments do more to find lasting solutions for refugees, more of them will fall into the hands of human smugglers, traffickers and criminal networks," Mr. Lubbers said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a taped message to the conference, said the principles that were established at the first Geneva convention for refugees in 1951 remain valid in the 21st century.

"Refugees are not criminals. They are victims of autocratic or abusive regimes, of conflict, and of criminal smuggling rings. The convention provides a perfectly good basis for separating those who genuinely need international protection from those who do not," Mr. Annan said.

But Australia is one country that wants to amend the convention. It clashed with the U.N. refugee agency earlier this year over its refusal to take in boat people from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Australia's immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, defended Australia's policy, saying it wants to aid those facing political persecution, but he says many people try to exploit the asylum process.

Latvia's president, Vaira Vike Freiberga, herself a refugee after the World War II, implored her colleagues at the conference not to lose sight of the fact that refugees are not all that different from them.

"Are they human beings like you and I and everybody who is a citizen of a country and who has rights. Or do they stand outside of space, time and rights?" she said.

Ms. Freiberga says the world's 22 million refugees would like nothing more than being able to live a normal life once again.