Role of United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in South Africa on refugees: by UNHCR Regional Representative
Committee: Home Affairs
Chairperson: Ms M Maunye (ANC)
Date of Meeting: 14 Nov 2011
SummaryMr Sanda Kimbimbi, Regional Representative for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees briefed the Committee on the UNHCR mandate. There were six core issues 1) the UNHCR and international protection 2) persons of concern to UNHCR 3) 2010 global trends 4) the legal framework 5) statistics and 6) UNHCR activities in South Africa. The UNHCR was created in 1950 under its own statute and the charter adopted by General Assembly to work under the policy directives of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). UNHCR had over 6 000 people working in 120 countries. The UNHCR mandate was of an apolitical nature.
The issue of internally displaced persons was a complex one because national sovereignty came into the fore. The sovereign character of the state remained, but there was room for intervention from others. To date, seven countries had ratified the Convention for Internally Displaced Persons. Seven other countries had agreed to the convention, but not yet signed. To be ratified the convention, needed 15 members to sign the document;
The 2010 global trends revealed that there were 9.9 million refugees worldwide and 2.3 million in
2008 had taught
Committee members raised questions about the composition and monitoring of UNHCR’s executive committee. What contingency plan did UNHCR have in terms of a mass influx of refugees? Was UNHCR concerned about social cohesion at the municipal level, or was UNHCR only working at a national level? What was UNHCR doing to increase public awareness of xenophobia? Did UNHCR keep records? Would the 1951 legal framework be revisited?
Role of United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in
Mr Sanda Kimbimbi, Regional Representative for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was invited to brief the Committee to obtain an international perspective on the UNHCR mandate. There were six core issues 1) the UNHCR and international protection 2) persons of concern to UNHCR 3) 2010 global trends 4) the legal framework 5) statistics and 6) UNHCR activities in South Africa.
The UNHCR was created in 1950 under its own statute and the charter adopted by General Assembly to work under the policy directives of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). UNHCR has over 6 000 people working in 120 countries. The UNHCR mandate was of an apolitical nature, but the issues had roots in political issues. UNHCR guarded from adopting a political line, as the work was social and humanitarian nature. UNHCR did not adopt politics or take a political stand. The organisation was headed by the High Commissioner, who was elected by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The high commissioner was the only head of an UN organisation that was elected. The executive committee comprised of 85 countries that met once a year and supervised the work of UNHCR. There was a standing committee that met multiple times during the year to tackle the issues of large-scale movement of people.
The UNHCR charter document was very helpful, clear and up to date. The protection mandate was the most important mandate to protect uprooted peoples and find solutions. The UNHCR mandate extended to a broad range of people including refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, internally displaced persons and returnees. UNHCR worked together with other UN agencies and governments to coordinate these activities. States were primarily charged with the responsibility to protect, which was a provision of the international convention protecting refugees. States had the means to exercise this responsibility. UNHCR worked with governments, but UNHCR was not a substitute for government. At the end of the day it was the state that had the instruments for the protection of individuals. Mr Kimbimbi raised the example of the xenophobic attacks of 2008, in
The issue of internally displaced persons was a complex one because national sovereignty came to the fore. The sovereign character of the state remained, but there was room for intervention from others. To date, seven countries had ratified the Convention for Internally Displaced Persons. Seven other countries had agreed to the convention, but not yet signed. To be ratified, the convention needed 15 members to sign the document;
The 2010 global trends revealed that there were:
▪ 9.9 million refugees worldwide and 2.3 million in Africa,
▪ 837, 478 asylum seekers worldwide and 329, 608 in Africa,
▪ 3.4 million stateless people worldwide and 21 119 in Africa,
▪ 14.6 million internally displaced person worldwide and 6.2 million in Africa
▪ 197 626 returnees worldwide and 43 466 in Africa.
The figures for stateless people were low because of ignorance on the issue, difficulty to collect reliable data and states were uncooperative. The internally displaced persons issue revealed that there was a crisis, where more people were displaced within their own territories, than across international borders. The numbers for returnees were also low. The region with the highest number of refugees worldwide was Asia, partly due to the
The main legal framework instruments concerning refugees were the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. The main legal framework instruments concerning stateless people were the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. The main legal framework instrument concerning IDPs was the 2009 AU Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons. The main legal framework instruments concerning returnees were the 1969 OAU Convention (Article V), domestic legislation and tri-partite agreements. In
UNHCR viewed that
The estimated numbers of refugees in
The durable solutions to challenges with refugees included voluntary repatriation.
Mr Kimbimbi closed the presentation by addressing xenophobia, which was a serious problem. Xenophobia in
Ms P Petersen-Maduna (ANC) asked how the executive committee monitored? What contingency plan did UNHCR have for a mass influx of refugees?
Ms A Lovemore (DA) thanked Mr Kimbimbi for his presentation and asked whether the National action plan was good in terms of the politics? Ms Lovemore stated that there was a report that found South Africans to be the most xenophobic people in the world and stated that municipalities needed to have social cohesion. However municipalities did not keep all the records of refugees in their respective municipalities; was this something that concerned UNHCR or were they only working at a national level. The influx of 1 000 Somalis a week in the
Mr M Mnqasela (DA) stated that more needed to be done as far as interaction with the Convention. There was very little understanding of what
Mr G McIntosh (COPE) stated that it seemed that the UNHCR in
Mr Kimbimbi responded that the Executive Committee worked under the aegis of ECOSOC, which was made up of 85 member states. The Executive Committee was an independent body made up of states that adhered to the basic principles of international law. It was important that the functions were carried out.
In response to a mass influx contingency plan, UNHCR made a decision to establish a contingency plan on Zimbabwean refugees.
UNHCR was not a migration institution and not on the front lines of migration. UNHCR’s mandate dealt with forced displacement rather than voluntary migration. Nevertheless, UNHCR wanted more rights for migrants because increased migrant rights decreased the likelihood of those migrants entering the asylum system.
On the question of xenophobia, Mr Kimbimbi answered that he was not aware of the inter-ministerial plan. But the Minister had been very cooperative. UNHCR do not endorse the report that ‘South Africans were the most xenophobic in the world’, thus had no comment on that question.
In response to the question on social cohesion at the municipality level, there were huge campaigns in the late 1990s spearheaded by the South African Human Rights Commission, which used its limited means. There were standards, but not enough as strong action needed to be led by governments.
Regarding the 1 000 Somalis a week who enter the
The question of mixed migration was one to be dealt with. The issues at hand were the rights of the refugees and migrants as well as the interests of the state and interests of the individual. It was often difficult to classify them. The African Union’s Kampala Convention did not make a distinction between natural disasters and man-made disasters. It was necessary to dig deeper.
On the question of training, the reality was simply that there was less training. UNHCR could not impose itself on the State. Training was important and often a difficult and complex exercise. UNHCR was prepared to support.
Mr Kimbimbi agreed that there was a need for more awareness surrounding xenophobia, and he appealed to the Committee to help with this. UNHCR had initiatives, but these were not substantive because ideally action needed to come from a higher level and have more involvement at the national and provincial levels.
The reason why UNHCR would move a refugee to a third country, would be if UNHCR concluded that it was untenable to keep the refugee in a given country. There had been examples of Somalis who were attacked multiple times. Relocation to a third country would primarily be for humanitarian and security reasons. UNHCR would not be passing a judgement, but rather focusing on the individual. Sometimes people were resettled for medical reasons. Few people benefit from this targeted measure. The question arose during the 2008 xenophobic attacks of whether peoples who were attacked should be resettled. How would UNHCR and
UNHCR had been very active in
Mr Mnqasela responded that the issue was one of preparedness.
Mr Kimbimbi responded that there were many economic migrants in
Mr Kimbimbi disagreed with the assertion that UNHCR was a ‘little government within the government.’ Government played the driving role and UNHCR’s role was to support the Government. UNHCR did not have the means of the Government, especially for a country the size of
UNHCR did not keep records and refugees did not come directly to UNHCR, but rather directly to the Department of Home Affairs. UNHCR did not maintain a database of refugees in
UNHCR funded advocacy groups because they advocated the rights of refugees and displaced peoples.
The Chairperson stated that the broad definition of a refugee was troubling. People who committed crimes were disguising themselves as refugees and asking for asylum. On the issue of
Ms Lovemore stated that political parties were not voted in by refugees, but it was important for governments to speak on the rights of the refugee. What was the UNHCR message to government in terms of outreach? What was it that made
Mr Kimbimbi responded that criminals fleeing prosecution, not persecution, was a concern. Criminals were excluded from refugee status because the point was to protect victims.
A stateless person was an individual who was unable to provide proof of citizenship, for example when the
UNHCR’s message was not for the government, but rather a message of tolerance for the people. It was not unheard of for government to support refugees, but this was not always a popular issue. This should not deter us from advocating for the human approach. People were misinformed and it was the role of government to highlight positive contributions of refugees. This took courage and integrity.
UNHCR resisted revisiting the 1951 convention because if it was revisited, it would lead to a lowering of the standards. UNHCR would not support that, as it would make the regime more restrictive.
The Chairperson thanked Mr Kimbimbi for his presentation.
The meeting was adjourned.
- UNHCR Mandate presentation
- UNHCR Refugee Protection & Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action
- Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa
- Nationality and Statelessness: A Handbook for Parliamentarians
- Refugee Protection: A Guide to International Refugee Law
- UNHCR Global Trends 2010