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International Protection

Samuel Witten, Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration
U.S. Delegation Statement to the 59th Session of the UNHCR Executive Committee
Washington, DC
October 8, 2008

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to the Executive Committee about international protection because it is a subject of great importance to the United States. As we approach the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is fitting that we should review international protection in light of the Articles of the Declaration and the progress we have made in assuring these human rights and fundamental freedoms for refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

In 60 years, there is little doubt that we as members of the international community have generally improved respect for the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries from persecution and the right to a nationality as set forth in Articles 14 and 15 of the Declaration. This improvement is due in no small measure to the work of UNHCR here in Geneva, in capitals, and in the myriad deep-field locations where refugees and others need protection. Reflecting on the past year, I wish to highlight a few areas of progress as well as areas of concern.

The United States enthusiastically acknowledges UNHCR’s publication of the Handbook for the Protection of IDPs, a new Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls, and Guidelines on Determining the Best Interests of the Child. The rollout and implementation of these guidelines remains important. We are also encouraged by increasing efforts by Member States, with UNHCR’s support, to fulfill their responsibilities to register refugees, conduct refugee status determinations, and improve asylum procedures. In this regard, the recent decision by Ecuador to introduce a program of amplified registration for Colombian refugees and the passage of Serbia’s asylum law are welcomed. We particularly commend Member States who have offered formal local integration to long-staying refugee populations, such as Tanzania, Ecuador, and Nigeria and hope that these efforts will lead as examples for others to provide this much-needed durable solution. We welcome the continued close cooperation among Core Group members and the progress made in offering durable solutions for Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. We urge the new governments of Bhutan and Nepal to resume bilateral discussions to facilitate the voluntary return of refugees to Bhutan.

We are also pleased with UNHCR’s follow-on activities to last year’s first High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection in the area of mixed migratory flows. We encourage UNHCR to closely collaborate with the International Organization for Migration, Member States and other concerned international organizations and NGOs to advance the protection agenda in the context of international migration management.

The United States supports the High Commissioner’s priority focus on protracted refugee situations and welcomes his upcoming Dialogue on the issue. Similarly, we are aware of the increasing protracted nature of many refugee situations and the need to find durable solutions for these people. We are committed to our resettlement program, the world’s largest, as a form of refugee protection and as an act of international responsibility sharing. Likewise, we are equally committed to providing international humanitarian aid and assistance to those unable to return home. We note that refugees often bring with them skills that when applied are beneficial to the host communities and countries. Refugee self-reliance requires the support of the entire international community. It is not a means to an end but rather a path to dignity while in exile.

Regarding the right to seek and enjoy asylum, the United States is gravely concerned with the recent failure of some States to respect the protection principle of non-refoulement. We deplore actions by governments who have denied UNHCR access to asylum-seekers and we call on all States not to deport migrants and asylum-seekers without the benefit of a process to evaluate their protection claims.

Mr. Chairman, also of grave concern are the deaths of some asylum seekers who have been shot while attempting to cross international borders. These shootings call into serious question the respect of the countries involved for the right to life and security of person as set forth in Article 3 of the Declaration. The United States urges Member States to redouble our efforts to ensure respect for the principle of non-refoulement and the physical security of asylum seekers and refugees.

The United States also remains concerned about attacks on refugees and IDPs where they have sought refuge, as well as increasing attacks on humanitarian workers and peacekeepers. Refugees and IDPs are too often victims of conflict and sometimes lack protection from physical attack, gender-based violence, abduction and forcible recruitment, among other serious abuses. While we are relieved that kidnappers released UNHCR Somalia Representative Hassan Mohammed Ali, we are outraged by the deaths and continuing attacks on WFP staff seeking to deliver relief. Likewise, we deplore the deaths of UNHCR staff members in the bombing of UN offices in Algiers, the death of two UN doctors, colleagues from the International Rescue Committee and other relief organizations in Afghanistan, and attacks in Darfur and elsewhere that inhibit the humanitarian community’s access to the refugees and IDPs who are most at risk. We note with concern that attacks on humanitarian workers most often affect locally employed staff who have dedicated their lives to assisting their own communities and neighbors.

Briefly, turning to Article 15 of the Declaration, the United States appreciates UNHCR’s growing efforts to ensure respect for the right to nationality. We are pleased with UNHCR’s progress in integrating objectives related to statelessness throughout its country operations, training, and results-based management, and remain interested in learning details of the new budget pillar that will be devoted to statelessness. We urge other Member States to support this important aspect of UNHCR’s mandate and to increase efforts to prevent and reduce statelessness worldwide.

Finally, Mr. Chairman,as UNHCR continues the process of institutional and budgetary reform -- an initiative that we fully support -- we urge the organization to ensure that the changes it adopts will result in the further enhancement of the protection of UNHCR’s persons of concern. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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