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Matthew Saltmarsh, Senior Communications Officer, UNHCR London

UNHCR was formed in 1950, following World War 2, in view of the huge displacement of whole populations.   The Refugee Convention was signed in 1951 with the United Kingdom being very much involved.   Any State which has signed the Convention should not force any refugees to return to the country from which they fled.   India has not signed, nor have Jordan, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries.   The 1967 Protocol has widened the scope of the Convention.   Case Law can challenge decisions when countries try to defy the Convention and there can be international challenges from the UN and such-like bodies, as well as public pressure, but there is no Convention Enforcement Body.   Any change to the Convention and Protocol might make matters worse.

At present there are an unprecedented 68.5 million people displaced within their own countries and 24.5 million refugees.   Wars in South Sudan, the Congo and Venezuela have led many to flee to neighbouring lands for safety.   Turkey hosts 3.6 million refugees, with other large numbers in Lebanon, Uganda, Pakistan, Iran and Bangladesh.   Internally displaced populations are chiefly found in Syria and Colombia.   There are many “stateless people”.   ISIS led people to destroy their documents and many Kurdish people are in the same position.   The Rohingya of Burma are the largest stateless population.   In the UK “Stateless” people are often pushed into “refugee” position by the Home Office.

Matthew said that the asylum issues that face UNHCR are huge.   When the Iraqi Government tried to re-take the city of Mosul from ISIS, it contained 1,500,000 refugees.   There is a huge displacement of people within Iraq.   Many are Christians and all are protected under International Law.   They cannot be returned if they face persecution in the country of origin.   They have the right to seek asylum.   They have the right to resettlement in a third country.   Some are returning and settling in the land they fled, relying on help from Agencies set up to help them.   

UNHCR works closely with other UN Agencies and also with International Agencies and Charities.   BRAC is the largest refugee agency in the world, working in Bangladesh and other countries where there is a refugee problem.   Some Agencies and Charities are very broad in humanitarian work while others concentrate on particular issues.

UNHCR is involved in “Advocacy”, “Asylum”, “Co-ordinating Assistance”, “Data Collection”, “Education”, “Ending Statelessness”, “Protection”, “Providing Livelihoods or Durable Solutions”, “Public Health”, “Shelter”.   It is funded by voluntary contributions from Governments, mainly the USA.   It is now looking for contributions from China in view of that country’s increasing wealth.

There are appalling stories from the Rohingya in Myanmar.   Bangladesh refuses to talk about them as refugees.   The refugees in Turkey remain poor and vulnerable.   There is one very large refugee camp in Lebanon.   Libya rescues refugees from the Mediterranean and takes them back to appalling camps in Libya where intermittent war flares up and makes it difficult for UNHCR to help.   There is some evacuation via Niger to countries willing to take them.   There are almost 100,000 in the UK.   The EU and Libya have an agreement to expand the operation of the Libya Coast Guard.   There are refugee operations for Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan but all are massively underfunded.

The UK has 121,000 refugees.   With regard to resettlement, the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme for 20,000 is to be extended beyond 2020.   UNHCR is encouraging integration by working with civil society partners on education, language, employment, family reunion, alternatives to detention.   UNHCR has 20-25 staff in London.   There has been an increase in successful appeals.