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Refugee Protection at Risk

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres gestures during an address to the UNHCR Executive Committee in Geneva October 3, 2011.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres gestures during an address to the UNHCR Executive Committee in Geneva October 3, 2011.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, is asking nations to keep their borders open to people fleeing war, persecution and destitution. Guterres says he is concerned about growing anti-foreigner sentiment at a time of increasing refugee emergencies.

The high commissioner spoke at the opening of the UNHCR’s annual refugee conference in Geneva.

Challenging year

This year, the U.N. refugee agency is commemorating the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. These anniversaries are taking place against the backdrop of what the High Commissioner for Refugees calls an extremely challenging year.

Ethnic Gueres carry a dead relative inside a temporary refugee camp set up at a Catholic church in Duekoue, Ivory Coast, May 2011.
Ethnic Gueres carry a dead relative inside a temporary refugee camp set up at a Catholic church in Duekoue, Ivory Coast, May 2011.

Antonio Guterres says the quick succession of three major emergencies in the past year have tested the ability of the UNHCR and other agencies to respond to the overwhelming needs of millions of people.  

He notes more than 200,000 refugees fled Ivory Coast in the wake of disputed elections at the end of 2010 and hundreds of thousands of others have become internally displaced.

This was followed by the dramatic events in North Africa. He notes hundreds of thousands of people have become uprooted, and subjected to violence and human rights abuses in the upheaval stemming from the so-called Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Worst expected

But, he says, the worst was yet to come.

“As drought continued to worsen amid the decades-old conflict in Somalia, more than 270,000 people fled the country, bringing the total number of Somali refugees in the region to a staggering 900,000," said Guterres. "Another 1.5 million are internally displaced. This means nearly a third of the entire population of Somalia has been forced from their homes.”

Guterres calls the drought in the Horn of Africa, which is affecting more than 12 million people, a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable proportions.

Generosity

He praises the generosity of countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, Italy and Malta, Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen for keeping their borders open to asylum seekers desperately seeking refuge.

Newly arrived refugees wait to be registered at a refugee camp in Dadaab, near Kenya's border with Somalia, August 29, 2011.
Newly arrived refugees wait to be registered at a refugee camp in Dadaab, near Kenya's border with Somalia, August 29, 2011.

At the same time, he notes global protection for refugees is slipping away with the rise of racism, xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance.

“In anxious times such as the ones we are living in, messages of otherness and exclusion play on common fears of the new and unfamiliar," added Guterres. "High levels of anti-foreigner feelings in many states where they arrive pose a real threat to the lives and well-being of refugees, and undermine the universal values of tolerance and respect for human dignity.”

Guterres agrees governments must address the legitimate security, social and economic concerns of their citizens.  But, he says refugees, people who are forced to flee their homes because of conflict, drought and food insecurity, must not become collateral damage of anti-immigrant attitudes and policies.

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