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UN Refugee Chief Calls for More Help in Aiding Refugees - 2001-12-14


United Nations refugee chief Ruud Lubbers says all countries need to play a more active role in aiding refugees.

United Nations refugee chief Ruud Lubbers said the plight of Afghanistan's nearly four million refugees has increased global attention to the problems faced by displaced people.

But he says awareness alone will not help care for some 22 million refugees around the world.

Speaking at a conference called to mark the 50 year anniversary of an international refugee convention, Mr. Lubbers called on the more than 140 nations to take a greater share in providing safety and funds to those escaping danger. "Now after September 11," he said, "the test is even more difficult because it is so easy to say we are living in a dangerous world and then start with even stricter policies, more restrictive policies (r)ejecting other people at our boundaries."

Mr. Lubbers said the countries have turned the convention on refugee protection it into something of a charter of international refugee law.

But critics calling for the convention to be amended say the definition between refugees and economic migrants is becoming blurred in this age of globalization.

Mr. Lubbers said a possible solution is for states to have better screening processes and judge cases as soon as possible after a person has fled their country. He says refugees should be valued as potential citizens able to make valuable contributions to society.

Australia and the United States came under fire from human rights organizations for their recent treatment of asylum seekers. Human Right Watch Refugee Policy Director Rachel Riley said these and other countries are violating key principles of the refugee convention. "Our concern is that states now seem to be driven more by the desire to protect themselves against refugees than to protect refugees themselves," she said. "We're concerned that states are not interpreting and applying the convention in the way that it was originally intended, which was to protect those most vulnerable and those fleeing persecution."

Ms. Reilly said Australia's policy of turning away Afghan boat people from its shores last August violates one the convention's key obligations. That is, never to force anyone to return to their country where their life may be threatened.

She also said recent national security and counter terrorism measures introduced in the United States hinder refugee rights. She said people are detained and held for long periods in prison because they lack sufficient documents. But she pointed out that those fleeing persecution often cannot get the proper papers needed for travel.