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Holy See Addresses U.N. on Defense of Refugees

"Gray Areas Call for Creativity and Commitment of International Community"

GENEVA, OCT. 12, 2005 (Zenit) - Here is the statement that Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See's permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva, delivered Oct. 5 before the Executive Committee of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

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Mr. Chairman, allow me to congratulate you on your election as chairman and to take this opportunity to welcome and to wish well to High Commissioner Antonio Guterres whose opening statement has been very much appreciated by the delegation of the Holy See.

Mr. Chairman,

1. The increase in the number of persons of concern to the UNHCR, while the number of refugees has been decreasing, raises some challenging questions about protection that remains the heart of the UNHCR's mandate. While protection extends with appropriate modalities to convention refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons (IDP), its definition should reasonably evolve and become more inclusive in direct relation to a more adequate understanding of security. In recent debates dealing with the various elements that in combination afford a more comprehensive security to people, other requirements have been added to the absence of physical persecution, of threats to life, of violent conflicts. These include sufficient and safe food and minimal conditions of personal freedom and well-being that are necessary to safeguard the human dignity of every person.

In this concerted and important development, however, gray areas exist that call for the creativity and the commitment of the international community to find better solutions. The delegation of the Holy See would like to highlight a couple of these areas that directly affect people who are refugees and in refugeelike situations, namely the provision of food in camps and the policy of increasing detention of asylum-seekers as a routine measure of deterrence.

2. The precarious condition of uprooted people living in camps often confines them away from agricultural pursuits to produce their own food and from income generating activities through which they can support themselves. In such circumstances, they must depend on the international community. But budgetary resources have been inadequate for some years forcing food rationing that provoke dangerous coping mechanisms for survival. The solidarity of the international community provides food to the refugees and it recognizes access to food as a fundamental right. When, however, there is a breakdown in the food pipeline, the ensuing crisis leads to well-documented unfortunate consequences: children stunted in their growth; the risk of trading sex for food; forced repatriation to a still unsafe environment.

This delegation joins in support for the option of local integration when possible, for the continued excellent collaboration between the World Food Program and the UNHCR, for an integrated development strategy inclusive of both local population and refugees settled in the same region. Such a comprehensive approach becomes a common responsibility of the international community and of non-governmental organizations. In this way, food security turns out to be the first step toward a return to a normal existence for people already traumatized by their forced exile and who should not be made more vulnerable by the uncertainty of their daily sustenance.

3. The widening sense of protection cannot overlook or underestimate the mushrooming of detention centers for asylum-seekers. Hundreds of these centers dot the map of Europe and of other continents as well. The danger of stigmatizing asylum seekers and refugees as "irregular migrants" and "queue jumpers" and even "criminals," and there certainly are such members in these categories, can lead to a dehumanizing, emotional and not disinterested simplification of the asylum and migration nexus.

This policy of detention raises questions of a humanitarian, of human rights and also of juridical and legal nature. There are real concerns about its becoming a systematic policy to which many countries resort to, more as a rule than as an exception that is prompted by national order and security. In this complex question, weighing the consequences of deprivation of liberty and of inadequate standards and quality of treatment on the persons involved, especially on vulnerable groups like children and women, should be a must.

Of course, states have a right to manage the movement of people across their borders. But confronted with the current pressure of people forced to move, as the UNHCR did in the past, taking into account the different conclusions on detention of this committee and also the UNHCR guidelines on detention, a renewed open and participatory reflection on the ethics of detention may be in order with greater focus on possible alternatives.

The consequences of a generalized policy of detention indicate the timeliness of a coordinated effort. In fact, the average conditions of detention show, in different degrees and places, staff inadequately trained, a mixing up of children and adults, elderly persons and women, and at times asylum seekers and common criminals. Lack of access to basic services and to education has equally a negative impact on the physical and mental health of the persons detained. There is as well a question of perception.

In the public eye, the distinction is not easily made between detention, arbitrary detention, and administrative detention so that asylum seekers and irregular migrants are associated with criminals, an image that feeds racist and xenophobic behavior and is a deterrent to integration. Long detention in particular leaves scars on individuals who have already suffered hardship and abuse prior to arriving in countries where they are detained; scars that complicate their reintegration in society and in not a few cases lead them to take their own lives.

If national security demands that in exceptional cases asylum seekers should be detained, it should be under well-defined criteria and for the shortest possible time, with the possibility of having access to legal aid, doctors, members of their family, pastoral care, and the outside world. While regional collaboration actively involving countries where asylum seekers come from and countries of transit and intended destination aims at preventing tragedies at sea and in desert crossing, care needs to be taken that protection is really provided and in conformity with international standards. Stated objectives and implementation are too often widely apart.

4. The search for alternatives and for constructive solutions cannot weaken the right to seek asylum. History shows that a policy of only control heightens the vulnerability of asylum seekers and their risk of exploitation. The present challenge consists in reducing the gap in the quality of life between developed and developing countries. A more comprehensive understanding of security can provide the will to address the root causes, both political and economic, that push large numbers of people crisscrossing the globe looking for protection, survival and a decent life.

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