14 December 2007
During the discussion that took place on Tuesday 11 December, within the CyBC program “To sizitame”, coordinated by Ms Irene Charalambidou, a number of important issues regarding the irregular movement of people had been discussed among the participants. The main conclusion that was reached by most (not all) participants was that the definition of refugee should be revisited at an EU level to the direction that people who arrive illegally in Cyprus should not be allowed access to the asylum procedure.
UNHCR Representation in Cyprus would like to take the opportunity and provide some comments on this very important issue.
As you may already know the1951 Refugee Convention, to which the Republic of Cyprus is a Contracting State, is the main international instrument that provides for the protection of refugees. It contains, among others, the refugee definition (Article 1A), as well as provisions that prohibit the return of refugees to countries where their life or freedom would be threatened (Article 33- principle of non-refoulement), regardless of the fact that refugees enter unlawfully in the country of refuge (Article 31).
Both Article 31 and 33 of the 1951 Convention have been interpreted to include asylum seekers, because every asylum seeker is a potential refugee whose life or fundamental rights are in danger. Therefore, every asylum seeker should be allowed access to an asylum procedure; otherwise his/her return to his/her country of origin/country of transit would endanger his/her life or freedom and would constitute a flagrant violation of the principle of non-refoulement. As regards the rational that lies behind the impunity of asylum seekers and refugees who enter unlawfully in a country seeking protection (Article 31), is the established and undisputable fact that the greatest majority of refugees have no other legal option (i.e. valid passports and or visas) to travel to a safe country and indeed they always find themselves in between two evils: either to stay in their country of origin and face persecution or to resort to smugglers, whose last interest is the safety of their clients, and risk their lives by seeking safety, without passports or visas, in another country.
Although drafted in 1951, both the international community and the EU have reaffirmed the relevance and enduring importance of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Already 5 years ago, in December 2002, a ministerial-level conference attended by 156 countries, non-governmental organizations and other groups in Geneva adopted a declaration which committed signatory nations to "implement our obligations under the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol fully and effectively" and hailed the treaty as one of “relevance and resilience” and of “enduring importance”. It was acknowledged that the Convention was not the problem but the solution and the starting point was to try to improve the policies.
Similarly, the EU organs reaffirmed the centrality of the 1951 Convention by stating clearly that their work towards establishing a Common European Asylum System would be “based on the full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention”. It is worth noting that Article 31 of the Convention has never been challenged by any Member State in the EU when discussing the relevant legislation on asylum, which has already been adopted by the EU and almost fully transposed into the national laws of most of the EU Member States, including Cyprus.
Thank you for your attention.
UNHCR Representation in Cyprus