20 June 2002

Ruud Lubbers, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, on how 9/11 made his job tougher

20 June 2002
The Times of India

No Place for the Displaced
Interview with Ruud Rubbers, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees

As United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers has a mandate to ensure that the world’s refugees are treated fairly and steps taken for their speedy and secure rehabilitation. In an interview with Siddharth Varadarajan, he says he is concerned about the growing intolerance towards refugees in the West:

Though this doesn’t fall under your mandate, are you aware of the terrible condition in which internally displaced persons (IDPs) — victims of communal violence — are living in camps in Gujarat?

I am aware of the situation, and of course we have to ponder over our role as the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Our policy is to protect and assist refugees. As far as IDPs are concerned, we come in only at the request of a government. It is the responsibility of the government itself to assist people when they are in trouble.

But judging from media reports and your own information, do you feel the situation in which they are living is adequate?

I prefer not to comment on that, not because I have a particular criticism or a particular positive observation but because I have no mandate. This is a difficult internal problem, but is in no way related to refugees. We have not, as far as I know, seen these people wanting to flee India. If that were to happen, then they become refugees, and we might get interested.

When internal conflicts cause as much humanitarian disaster as external conflicts, do you feel it is time the UNHCR began to take a more active interest in the situation of IDPs?

Our mandate is for refugees. Where we are available for IDPs is when the causes of internal displacement are the same as for refugees, or the resettlement needs are the same. However, to respect the sovereignty of nations — and to make it absolutely clear that they have their own responsibility — we always insist on a green light from the government concerned.

For example, today, in Afghanistan you have many IDPs and chairman Karzai has asked us to take care of them as well as those refugees who are coming back. In Columbia, we are taking care of IDPs but that’s the other way around — because they are IDPs but if we do not mobilise support for them, they will start to become refugees.

How do you feel India stands in terms of its own domestic protection for refugees?

India has a good record with refugees but the time has come to go for a refugee law. In a democracy, you need act-based law, non-discriminatory rules. And there is an additional reason. Sometimes, there is the risk that one starts to think that amongst refugees there are people leaning towards crime, terrorism. It is good to have a law which clarifies that if there is reasonable suspicion that some people are connected to crime, they are excluded from protection given to refugees. Even if they come from a country where there is persecution or violence, you cannot say everybody is a refugee. The 1951 Convention on Refugees has such an exclusion and the Indian law could include this provision.

Another reason is that if India feels in the future that there is a population imbalance in one region and goes in for a more restrictive policy on economic migrants, it must not exclude genuine refugees. But how do you distinguish refugees from economic migrants? You need a refugee law. Then you have a definition written into law.

After 9/11, is there growing intolerance in the West towards refugees?

Yes, it’s been a lot of work for us to explain country by country that a good refugee law based on the 1951 Convention excludes criminals and terrorists. The UNHCR is not there to tell governments to accept as many people as possible; we say, organise it well, screen people. This is one element. But the problem didn’t start with 9/11. Globalisation has had a sort of rebound effect. Countries started to say, ‘We have our own identity, we need to exclude foreigners, people of other religions’. Now, 9/11 gives a rationalisation, as it were, as if what happened is a consequence of all the terrorists who had managed to come in. But none of those terrorists came to the US as a refugee.

Are you worried that US military plans such as their desire to attack Iraq will produce more refugees?

Iraqi refugees are primarily a product of the internal situation there, the nature of the regime. But the refugee problem will increase in relation to American military action. We have an interest in the regime changing to the extent it does not produce refugees — and in the international community finding solutions to master the Iraqi problem without military intervention, which would produce new flows of refugees.

Do you think it is time to look more openly at the concept of economic refugees?

Has the time come to broaden the concept of asylum? No. Should we be more realistic about immigration, more open? Yes. But it is still useful to distinguish between the two. Managed immigration is good. I will say that there are good reasons to accept migrants, especially in greying countries. But refugees are victims of violence and persecution. They have to be treated as a different category.

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