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Ministerial Meeting of States Parties to the Convention Related to the Status of Refugees: UNHCR Ministerial Council in Geneva: Australian Statement.

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Ministerial Meeting of States Parties to the Convention Related to the Status of Refugees

UNHCR Ministerial Council in Geneva Australian Statement

12 December

Mr Chairman, I am honoured to be part of this Ministerial meeting to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Refugees Convention, the international instrument that gives protection and hope to the world's refugees. On behalf of the Government of Australia, I pay tribute to the 50 years of dedication by the staff of the UNHCR who work - and at times most unfortunately give up their lives - to assist states in implementing the Convention.

Australia was there at the beginning. We were the 6th state to accede to the Convention. We strongly believed in its principles when we signed -we still believe in them - and we are committed to honouring them.

There are some that question the relevance of the instrument itself in this new century. I am not one of them.

The Convention, firmly grounded in fundamental human rights, is the cornerstone of the international protection system - such an instrument would probably be impossible to achieve today.

But is today's international protection system failing refugees? Are the mechanisms set up by states being subverted in ways never intended, putting at risk our best intentions? Are we paying such attention to the legal rights of asylum-seekers that we are neglecting the basic needs of


Let us ask ourselves some challenging questions.

First, not all refugees have equitable access to status determination and to durable solutions in a reasonable time. How can we make the system fairer?

Secondly and a related point, some countries of first asylum have borne a disproportionate load in hosting large populations of refugees for many years. How can responsibility-sharing be made to work?

Thirdly, people are forsaking opportunities for protection in neighbouring countries and are using people smugglers and the asylum system to seek access to western countries - and some are tragically dying in the attempt.

Fourthly, failure to return rejected asylum-seekers, whether through lack of will or lack of cooperation by countries of origin and transit, perpetuates incentives for abuse of the asylum system. How can we remove those incentives?

Fifthly, just to find the relatively few refugees among those who seek asylum, western countries are spending over ten times UNHCR's budget. When are we going to address an overly legalistic system that uses up our capacity to help prevent refugee situations at source? Are we going to wait until the already too few resettlement countries no longer have any capacity or willingness to resettle the most vulnerable refugees?

Sixthly, asylum systems are beset with identity, nationality and claims fraud of such dimensions that the community's willingness to support refugees is being eroded. That community support is essential if states are to be able to continue humanitarian action and resettlement. How can we safeguard that support?

Mr Chairman

These matters are not the fault of the Refugees Convention, but of the evolved international protection system.

We look to the High Commissioner for Refugees, with strong guidance from his Executive Committee, to provide the personal leadership necessary to meet the fundamental challenge to the system.

This challenge is the nexus between regular migration, irregular migration and people smuggling, return and readmission, asylum and integration. UNHCR's Global Consultations this year have made a valuable beginning in developing understanding of the nexus. That understanding must now lead to practical and cooperative action that acknowledges that refugee flows are but one part of global people movement.

Mr Chairman

In the Asia-Pacific region, we have forged a practical partnership between neighbouring governments and Australia, working in cooperation with UNHCR and IOM. These arrangements provide access to effective asylum procedures, arrange for the provision of protection for those who need it and for the return home of those who do not , while vigorously combating the crime of people smuggling.

The second example concerns displaced Afghans.

The September 11 terrorist attacks placed even greater pressure on the international protection system, not only in terms of increased outflows, but also on the willingness of states to provide asylum and resettlement.

But at a time of promise in discussions on the political future of Afghanistan, we are presented with an opportunity for which Afghans have waited 20 years. We can show how the international community can weld together peace-keeping; humanitarian and development aid; and return of Afghans to participate in the rebuilding of their nation, whether they be skilled nationals, refugees, economic migrants or failed asylum-seekers. The returns can be planned and organised in ways that ensure that Afghans return in safety and dignity but that do not provide further incentives for illegal movement.

Mr Chairman

The Refugees Convention proffers a deceptively simple response to persecution. When a refugee flees directly across a border to secure their safety from persecution, provision of international protection is moral and straightforward.

But the world's political and legal systems and uneven generosity, overlaid with the actions of those who seek to misuse and exploit the institution of asylum, create more complex problems that require more sophisticated responses.

We must be open to innovative and possibly radical approaches; we need to build new coalitions; and we must create comprehensive and integrated solutions.

We urge states and the High Commissioner to work together to create a viable international protection system, robust and effective enough to last the next 50 years.

Mr Chairman

Australia has benefited greatly from the 600,000 refugees we have resettled and we celebrate their contribution to our community. We pay tribute to the courage of the world's refugees - we must not fail them in these endeavours.

Thank you.

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