UNHCR released guidance aimed at helping States deal with security concerns, while maintaining vital standards of refugee protection. The recommendations are contained in a paper recently presented at an inter-governmental meeting by Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Türk.
The paper argues that national security and international protection for refugees are not mutually exclusive, and calls for an integrated approach that ensures both goals are being met. Currently, with growing polarization of political debate concerning refugees in some countries, the concern is that asylum-seekers and refugees could be victimized, and refugee protection – which has saved the lives of millions of people since World War Two – could be endangered.
Two important points to bear in mind here are that refugees are themselves fleeing persecution and violence, often including terrorist acts; and that the 1951 Refugee Convention explicitly excludes people who are combatants or who have committed serious crimes.
With border controls, UNHCR understands the need of States to identify security concerns at the point of entry, for example through increased checks, including the use of biometrics such as fingerprints and iris scans. Its recommendations include practical guidance on ensuring that these and other measures are carried out properly and proportionately and subject to judicial control, and avoiding discrimination, for example based on nationality, race, ethnicity, or religion. Applications for asylum must be looked at individually.
With cases involving the exclusion of people for serious criminal or terrorist acts, the paper recommends that a factual and legal assessment be done, if needed, by specialized exclusion units. Guidance is provided on this and related measures, including handling of extradition requests, and detention. It also notes that people providing funds to terrorist organizations could themselves be excluded from refugee status, depending on the individual circumstances.
Registration is a crucial part of the refugee protection process, and UNHCR believes that proper systems for this, plus identity and security screening are essential – including in situations of large-scale refugee influxes. As refugees are people at risk of their lives, information-sharing between States has to be done in line with established principles and standards on data protection.
Resettlement and other forms of admission remain a key tool for providing refugees with safety and a solution to their plight. In light of today’s record number of forcibly displaced people globally – some 60 million – the paper makes the point that it is more crucial than ever that resettlement and other forms of admission remain viable and effective options for the international community in dealing with refugees. Resettlement programmes are handled between UNHCR and receiving States, which in many cases invoke far tougher screening than for almost any other form of admission to a country. Nonetheless, and to assuage concerns, UNHCR’s recommendations include support for continuing security screening – not least as effective resettlement programmes provide a regular and safe alternative to dangerous sea and other journeys that not only put refugee lives at risk, but also profit smugglers and make the jobs of border security forces even more difficult.
Arguably the biggest risk for any environment of insecurity is that of increasing xenophobia and vilification directed towards people fleeing violent conflicts. The paper calls on States to exert continued resolute leadership in de-dramatizing and de-politicizing the challenges associated with managing refugee flows.
PHOTO: © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell (Greece, Lesbos, Skala Sykaminias)