UNHCR Press Conference – Melina Mercury Hall, Nicosia in the occasion of the World Refugee Day 2006 (by Cristina Planas)

"Thank you for joining us today in recognition of World Refugee Day – the result of a UN General Assembly Resolution designating every 20th June a day for all to focus on the indomitable spirit and courage of the world’s refugees while offering them the encouragement, support and the respect they deserve.

Though the concept of asylum has been around for at least 3,500 years, the refugee plight is still an acute stigma of our times. Today, though the world has evolved, scientific discoveries have been made, global communications have expanded – People are STILL being MISTREATED BY PEOPLE.

“Refugees”, who is a refugee and who is NOT a refugee? (PP1)

The 1951 Geneva Convention defined refugees as persons who are outside their country, and CANNOT return, owing to a WELL-FOUNDED FEAR of PERSECUTION because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.
This means clearly that we should not speak only about “political refugees”. As we see in the definition, there are other grounds on which individuals are persecuted across the world.

As you can see, in the “refugee” definition there is no reference to “economic refugees”. We may be sympathetic for individuals coming from countries where the minimum living standards are deficient, yet the universally recognized refugee definition does not include individuals who leave their country purely for economic reasons.
Nearly everybody has seen on TV, in the news papers, thousands of individuals running, at once, from their homeland, simply with what they can carry with them, what they can carry in their minds. Everything else is left BEHIND. These are clearly visible mass exoduses of people escaping war or ethnic cleansing, -targeting all uniformly-. YET there are also individualized forms of persecution that we don’t see in images. You don’t see individualized: (PP3)

-torture, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment
-slavery and servitude
-lack of freedom of thought, or religion
-arbitrary arrest and detention
-lack of recognition as person before the law

If this persecution can’t be seen, how do we know?

We find out through a process called “individual status determination”. Until this determination is done by the legally established bodies, the person who claims well founded fear of persecution is called asylum seeker.

In the case of persons escaping from persecution, a big confusion and misunderstanding can be created because they may move away from one very same country, together with economic migrants, all illegally.

*Refugees and economic migrants may use the same way of travelling,
*coincidentally even the same day,
*even pay the same smuggler.
*In the case of Cyprus, both nature of groups may come through the north illegally.

… and yet, for completely different reasons!

They don’t have any OTHER OPTION! Think that a person persecuted is not given, many times, the chance to have passport, may not be allowed to exit his/her country in the official ways. We should not compromise the institution of asylum with the wrong assumptions. Each time we forget we may be condemning somebody without knowing their circumstances.

Who is RESPONSIBLE to protect refugees and asylum seekers? (PP 5)

States such as Cyprus, which have ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, have at least 2 obligations:

-the responsibility to grant access to the territory,
-and access to the individual status determination procedure

(and we will speak later about a third one: the rights of the a/s and refugees)


Finally, what is this story about individual RSD?
In the case of Cyprus the Asylum Service (from the Ministry of Interior) and the Reviewing Authority (a second instance body, of independent nature, appointed by the Council of Ministers), are responsible for implementing this procedure. They alone, following UNHCR policies, and not any body else, have the responsibility to analyze and decide, who is to be RECOGNIZED as a refugee, and who can be REJECTED because doesn’t meet the requirements. UNTIL the person who has applied (we will speak later about how and where) has not been INDIVIDUALLY EXAMINED nobody is in a position, to make speculative conclusions on them. This individualized examination comprises a detailed interview (sometimes lasting 6 hours, sometimes is a series of interviews), and scrutiny and analysis of the specific circumstances of the country of origin in relation to that particular individual. When, after the interview, the case is rejected there is not longer a reason to call them a/s (UNHCR analyses at random some of the decisions to see if the cases are been well assessed).

(PP 6) #Ref, # a/s

Despite the above, we frequently hear: “Most apply without being victims of persecution; they are abusers of the asylum system”. Please imagine how unfair this is to those who have been tortured, abused or other wise persecuted. Yes, no doubt there is abuse, here and elsewhere. Life is full of difficulties and dilemmas and this is only one more of many of them. We have to deal with it. In the same way that the doctors cant refuse to see persons alleging a pain on the grounds that the majority of us are healthy, equally, we have to analyze each asylum claim, because we cant afford the luxury of being indifferent to persons who may be tortured or killed because of the religion they want to practice, the ethnic group in which they were born, or their ideology. The right to seek asylum (contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) is absolute, and thus no exceptions can be made. The claim MUST be heard because it can be a matter of life or death. Therefore, the response of asylum countries should not be to devise ever more ingenious ways to close their doors. Instead, States need to implement rapid, fair and effective procedures to distinguish those who need protection from those who move for other reasons.

(PP 7)

UNHCR also deals with other categories of people. For lack of time I will need to refer to the information contained in your folders.

……..KNOW MORE ABOUT how UNHCR contributes. To illustrate it, I will refer to our work in Cyprus formulating 7 ENCOURAGEMENTS
(PP 8)

UNHCR has a “watching brief”, intervening, if necessary, to ensure that asylum seekers are not forcibly returned to countries where their lives may be in danger. UNHCR is to ensure that states are AWARE OF, AND ACT ON THEIR OBLIGATIONS to protect refugees and persons seeking asylum. UNHCR does not substitute governments in their responsibilities.

1. Information to asylum seekers. They should be informed in a language that they understand on their rights and obligations, highlighting how to access those rights. The Government is obliged to do it by the EU directives, and national regulations. At present the information they get is sketchy, to say the least. UNHCR has not only advocated for the early implementation of this obligation but has substantively helped in the preparation of such brochure. Bear in mind that access to information could also discourage non-genuine refugees.

2. Expedite RSD. In Cyprus, there are at present 12,000 refugee applications pending RSD. This situation is neither advantageous for the State not for the a/s. They have accumulated because insufficient resources are allocated to undertake the individual status determination. Some have waited even for 3 years. It would be more cost effective for the State to devote additional resources to expedite decisions WHILE AT THE SAME TIME MAINTAINING THE QUALITY AND FAIRNESS OF THE DECISIONS. The present circle of administrative requirements for an extended period of time is much more costly for the administration. --I am referring to periodic renewals of residence permits and unemployment cards, immense processing of requests to social welfare and medical cards, detentions, maintenance and police supervision of those in detention--. UNHCR has brought to the attention of the competent authorities at the highest level that WHILE UNDERSTANDING THAT THE PRESSURE IS HIGH, and THE SYSTEM NEW, THERE IS A NEED TO DEAL WITH THIS REALITY. Be sure that more immediate decision would also discourage individuals who do not suffer from well founded fear of persecution from applying.

3. Improve access to the social and economic rights. If a/s are not allowed to work (or are allowed to work in sectors where there are no vacancies), the state not only loses the opportunity to control the employment conditions, but losses the contributions from the persons employed. In addition has the OBLIGATION to make the life of a/s possible in dignifying conditions paying welfare. In this respect UNHCR receives information from the a/s, and searches feedback from the pertinent institutions. It is possible to reconcile the obligations of the States (and all its accountability requirements), with the rights of the applicants. This task must be streamlined, rationalized and modernized. -----It is not about doing favours, it is not about pity, it is about OBLIGATIONS, it is about the RULE OF LAW, it is about transparency, and about an attitude of service in the civil administration.----.

4. Unrestricted access to the asylum procedure in a consistent manner. The immigration police are responsible of receiving the applications and forwarding them to the Asylum Service. While indeed, there are many individuals who succeed in filing their application -(albeit sometimes after the mediation of a paid lawyer, or national NGO)-, obstacles are being placed to some. The practice is not uniform. UNHCR frequently monitors all related interlocutors, as well as discusses with the top supervisors. For these obstacles to be removed, strong supervision is necessary, to ensure that ALL immigration police officers adhere to their obligations.

5. Deprivation of liberty should be kept to the absolute minimum. Deprivation of liberty can’t be a tool to discourage refugees from arriving in Cyprus. Though detention of asylum seekers is forbidden by the law unless a very specific set of circumstances concur, at present it happens. UNHCR, with its meagre resources, monitors detention facilities with a view to ensure that the RSD of persons in detention is completed without any delay. During the detention process, there have been complaints of abuses by the police. When we have got them, we have brought to their attention, and we count on exhaustive inspections and such allegations not to be repeated.

6. A policy for their real integration. Cyprus hosts around 600 recognized refugees. Effective integration is part and parcel of the protection concept. A policy needs to be designed and be put in practice.

7. Public awareness is fundamental in this effort to protect refugees. We need each other, UNHCR needs you all to carry out our mandate, and you need us to carry out yours. The activities undertaken on the WRD aim at sensitizing public opinion on refugee issues. Through the release of two refugee-related movies, through tonight’s gathering we want to let people know who the refugees are, what their problems are and how they can be assisted. Through the WRD preparations we were touched by the compassion shown by many individuals and companies who offered their in-kind and cash contribution to make these activities possible.

Thank you very much.

****The t-shirt we are launching today aims at being a walking message to spread awareness on the circumstances of the refugees, their rights and the overall right to a dignifying LIFE. It aims at having much more impact than a banner that UNHCR could hang in Eleftheria square every day, by virtue of being transmitted by the people themselves, reminding each other of being sensitive to others that are less lucky and happy than us. We urge you to buy the t-shirt and let as many people as possible know where to buy it (list of places is to be found in your folders). Let us create a sea of these t-shirts in Cyprus. Thousands of us wearing it speaking in support of those who were not allowed to speak. The proceeds from the sale of the t-shirts will benefit asylum seekers and refugees in Cyprus through enhancing our support, advocacy and supervision capacity. "

No comments: