“The needs of refugees don't respect our bureaucratic divisions, so we have to coordinate across governments…we have to do a better job of breaking down barriers, both within our governments and between our governments and with multilateral organizations.” -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, December 7, 2011
On December 7-8, 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), held a two-day, high-level event marking these anniversaries in Geneva to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Statelessness Convention. Some 500 guests attended, including Secretary Clinton, approximately 80 ministers and other senior government officials and senior NGO representatives. Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey introduced the keynote speaker, Finnish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari.
In her opening remarks at the Ministerial, Secretary Clinton said: "Protecting and assisting refugees is among my government's highest humanitarian priorities.” UNHCR is the United States' largest humanitarian partner on refugees and stateless populations, and our government contributed over $698 million to UNHCR in fiscal year 2011.
Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration David Robinson attended as the head the U.S. delegation and delivered a comprehensive set of pledges to take specific actions to improve protection and assistance for refugees and stateless persons. Formulation of the U.S. pledges was an inter-agency effort, with input from the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department Health and Human Services. Pledges covered a number of areas: asylum and detention, vulnerable populations (children, women, Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT), urban refugees), refugee resettlement, and statelessness.
For example, we pledged to provide ongoing, comprehensive training to all immigration judges and members of the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals and their legal staff on refugee law -- for example to improve the adjudication of asylum claims -- and to undertake a new multi-year "twinning” program with Uruguay and Bulgaria to strengthen global refugee resettlement worldwide. A twinning program is partnership activity that aims to encourage a country that has not traditionally resettled large numbers of refugees to develop or strengthen its resettlement program. We also pledged to assist UNHCR with the deployment of eight trained staff to assist in efforts to conduct more systematized Best Interest Determinations. These are assessments that UNHCR makes for children under UNHCR's concern -- unaccompanied minor refugee children, for example -- to ensure that the child's best interest and needs are always the primary consideration, for example, ensuring the child's physical safety, providing temporary care, or facilitating the return of the child to family.
We are party to the Refugee Convention's 1967 Protocol, which recognizes refugees' rights and sets out the obligations of signatory states. Although we are not a signatory to the Statelessness Convention (primarily due to the fact that the Statelessness Convention does not allow an individual to voluntarily renounce his or her citizenship of a country unless he or she is also a citizen of another country, while our national citizenship laws do allow such voluntary renunciation), we have been very proactive both diplomatically and financially in helping to prevent and resolve statelessness around the world. For instance, the United States has launched an initiative to combat discrimination against women in nationality laws. At least 30 countries prevent women from acquiring, retaining, or transmitting citizenship to their children or their foreign spouses. According to the UNHCR, as many as 12 million people around the world are not recognized as citizens by any state.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres noted that despite the enormous increase in the number of people displaced around the world, the difficult financial situation facing many countries, and increasing xenophobic sentiments around the world, the Ministerial had a very positive story to tell: continued strong commitment to the plight of stateless persons, refugees and other displaced persons. There was a renewed commitment to international solidarity and burden-sharing, including real acknowledgment by the international community of the important contributions made by host countries, as well as acknowledgment that we must collectively begin discussing the new challenges of forced displacement. The "quantum leap" made during these two days was on the protection of stateless persons. Seven countries ratified one or both the Statelessness and Refugee conventions in the lead up to the Ministerial. There were 20 more commitments made by states to take steps toward ratifying at least one of the two conventions, and 25 states pledged to improve the protection of stateless persons in their territories.
At Secretary Clinton said at the opening of the event, "If we do what is necessary today, we can alleviate a lot of suffering."Learn more about refugees and statelessness by joining the conversation on the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration's Facebook page.