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Countries Pledge to Improve Plight of Refugees and Stateless People

  • Lisa Schlein

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres (file photo)

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres (file photo)

The United Nations refugee agency reports 60 states attending a two-day ministerial conference have pledged to improve protection and assistance for millions of forcibly displaced and stateless people. Representatives of almost 150 countries were present at the conference in Geneva, making it the largest ever held on refugee and stateless people in UNHCR’s 60-year history.

The conference was called to bolster international support for the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, which has literally saved the lives of millions of people fleeing war and persecution and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres says the conference was absolutely necessary because of the enormous increase in the number of refugees this year. Since the beginning of the year, he says 750,000 people have crossed international borders in search of protection. Much of this exodus was due to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

As more refugees are being generated, Guterres says more than 7 million people are living in protracted refugee situations. He says they continue to live in exile with little hope for a normal life because few durable solutions are available for them.

“At the same time, we are facing a serious economic and financial crisis in many parts of the world, and we are witnessing in many public opinions signals of anxiety, of insecurity - sometimes of fear in relation to the future, and that generates also feelings of xenophobia that here and there threaten the protection of refugees and stateless people," said Guterres.

The U.N. refugee agency reports there are 43.7 million refugees, asylum-seekers and people displaced internally by conflict around the world. In addition, another 12 million stateless people are all but forgotten and are denied access to basic services, such as health and education.

High Commissioner Guterres says he is encouraged by the outcome of the conference. In fact, he says he never expected this meeting to go as far as it did. He says he is surprised by what has been achieved.

“Not only there was a large consensus on reaffirming and strengthening the protection of refugees and stateless people," he said. "But there were concrete pledges made by states and other international organizations in relation to the improvement of the protection regime of both refugees and stateless people.”

Guterres cites several examples. He notes 20 countries have announced plans to improve their legislation for the protection of refugees, 19 have presented proposals to integrate refugees into their societies, and 18 have promised to improve access to resettlement.

In addition, he says seven new countries have ratified the 1961 Statelessness Convention, and 20 others have said they will follow suit in the near future. He says these pledges will significantly strengthen the convention, which until now has been ratified by only 37 countries.