Thank you Chair,
I have the honor today to deliver this statement on behalf of the European Union and its Member States.
We thank UNHCR for this year’s note on international protection and other background documents. We welcome this important opportunity to discuss challenges and opportunities in providing international protection and solutions to persons of concern for UNHCR, particularly in these challenging times marked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As UNHCR reported in the recently released Global Trends report, we have witnessed yet another record year of global forced displacement, with nearly 80 million people – or 1 percent of humanity – uprooted from their homes because of war, conflict and persecution.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented global challenge that has come on top of already existing emergencies, exacerbating inequalities and vulnerabilities. While the virus does not discriminate between people, its effects do. Refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons are among those that most acutely feel the effects of the health crisis and risk being left behind.
COVID-19 and its consequences can only be tackled by a well-coordinated global response that includes everyone and to which different actors contribute in line with their -capabilities. The EU and its Member States commend UNHCR for consistently advocating for the inclusion of persons of concern in national health responses and other services to respond to the pandemic, and for adapting its own response to be able to stay and deliver under very challenging circumstances. We also commend host countries, including those hosting large numbers of refugees, for their continuous generosity. We are committed to do our part to contribute to international burden- and responsibility sharing, in line with the EU approach to forced displacement.
The EU and its Member States have been at the forefront of the global response to this pandemic. Under the ‘Team Europe’ approach, we have mobilized a package of over 36 billion EUR, combining contributions from the EU, its Member States and financial institutions, for the global COVID-19 response and recovery. This package supports and will continue to support partner countries to address the immediate humanitarian consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the health and socio-economic impact, including for the benefit of populations already affected by conflict and forced displacement. Recovery support will align with the need to ’rebuild back better’ and ensure we also tackle the global, long-term climate and environmental challenges we are facing today. Throughout these efforts, we are committed to ensure the inclusion of refugees and their host communities in and around, for example, Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, Kakuma in Kenya, Zaatari in Jordan and Barranquilla in Colombia. Our efforts must also include refugee populations in urban settings whose protection needs and ability for self-reliance may be endangered by the impact of the pandemic.
The EU and its Member States are closely following the side-effects that border closures and other movement restrictions have had, among other factors, on the functioning of asylum systems. We reiterate our commitment to respect the 1951 Refugee Convention and its protocol – the cornerstones for international protection – and to preserve the right to apply for asylum and the principle of non-refoulement as enshrined therein and in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. It is essential that during the pandemic, fundamental principles continue to apply globally so that those in need can continue accessing procedures for international protection and finding shelter from war, conflict or persecution. While border restrictions have been required to prevent the spread of the virus, we emphasise that any restrictions should be necessary, non-discriminatory, proportionate and time-limited. In this context, we underline how, even in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, EU Member States, and in particular frontline States, have managed to ensure the respect of the right to seek and enjoy asylum, including through innovative and urgent solutions aimed at providing due level of protection required by international and national laws. We support the increased use of innovative tools, such as remote interviewing and online registration/processing of asylum claims and welcome UNHCR’s guidance and practical recommendations issued in this regard.
Border closures and other restrictive measures to combat the spread of the pandemic have also impacted global resettlement activities. We welcome the recent announcement by UNHCR on the resumption of resettlement departures. Resettlement and other complementary pathways to protection remain an important protection tool and durable solutions for some of the most vulnerable refugees. In this framework we share UNHCR’s concerns over the insufficient global resettlement places. Between 2015 and 2019, over 70,000 vulnerable persons in need of international protection were resettled in EU Member States. In 2020, EU Member States pledged to resettle in addition almost 30,000 refugees. We hope that the “Three-year strategy (2019-2021) on resettlement and complementary pathways” will contribute to increase resettlement places available and engage new resettlement countries.
It should not be forgotten that limiting internal and cross-border movements may also affect humanitarian operations, in particular by restricting the movement of humanitarian aid workers, medical personnel and supplies vital to stemming COVID-19 and saving lives. This should be properly addressed.
The EU and its Member States continue to work to ensure that our common asylum system and procedures are fair, effective and able to respond to current and future challenges. As stated in the working program of the European Commission, it will soon propose a new Pact on Migration and Asylum, which should provide an opportunity for a fresh start in this regard, while also reinvigorating cooperation with third countries of origin and transit, including to support protection and opportunities for local integration and voluntary repatriation and to continue the fight against smugglers and human traffickers. The revised Multiannual Financial Framework proposal for the years 2021-2027 has been designed to address many challenges including those deriving from the impact of the pandemic in different policy areas, including forced displacement.
We congratulate UNHCR for hosting a fruitful first Global Refugee Forum in December. We were pleased with the level and breath of participation from a wide range of stakeholders, as well as the many concrete pledges and commitments made. We agree with the High Commissioner that the Forum “has the making of success” and that the real test will be in translating the commitments to concrete action on the ground. Although the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis has delayed some action to implement commitments made at the GRF, the crisis had also demonstrated the need for international cooperation, more equitable burden- and responsibility sharing and greater inclusion of refugees. You can count on the continued engagement and support of the EU in these shared efforts.
Statelessness remains a global challenge that needs to be addressed. The EU and its Member States continue to support UNHCR's global campaign to eradicate statelessness and welcomed the international High-Level Segment on Statelessness, which marked the mid-point of the #IBelong campaign launched by UNHCR in 2014.
It is important that we learn from the new challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought and also capture new opportunities to adapt and guide the way we work. The EU and its Member States therefore welcome the proposal by the Rapporteur for possible ExCom conclusions on the topic “international protection in the context of a health emergency”, to be added to the new multi-annual programme to be adopted at the ExCom plenary session in October this year. We believe that such a conclusion – if focused, technical and without duplicating or opening up existing international frameworks – could provide important guidance to UNHCR and States in safeguarding international protection in future pandemics. We also look forward to the discussions during this year’s High Commissioner’s Dialogue on international protection on this topic, which will contribute to our collective lessons learnt on protection risks and opportunities in the context of a global health emergency and provide important input for coming negotiations on ExCom conclusions on this important topic.
Thank you, Chair.