Washington D.C. -- This week the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) convened the largest conference on refugees and stateless people in its 60-year history. The UNHCR was joined by 145 countries and 60 non-for-profit organizations from around the world in renewing their commitment to the nearly 50 million displaced people. U.S. Secretary of State Clinton and Acting Assistant Secretary Robinson, from the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, made statements on the United States' commitments.
High Commissioner Antonio Guterres opened the event with an appeal for urgent reinforcement of the international system that protects the world's millions of stateless people and forcibly displaced.
"Populist politicians and irresponsible elements of the media exploit feelings of fear and insecurity to scapegoat foreigners, to try to force the adoption of restrictive policies, and to actively spread racist and xenophobic sentiments," he said, adding, "governments and social and political movements need to be more courageous in confronting intolerance. "Refugees are not a security threat, but the first victims of insecurity."
Secretary Clinton's address was one of the highlights of the conference. The United States remains the world leader in refugee resettlement and is the largest donor to UNHCR. Secretary Clinton's attendance at the conference is testament to the United States' leadership and commitment to protection of and humanitarian assistance to refugees, stateless, and other vulnerable people worldwide. Secretary Clinton's passionate address regarding the plight of women, in 30 countries, who are prevented from passing on citizenship, signaled an important commitment by the U.S. to address issues of statelessness, despite not being a signatory to the 1967 Convention on Statelessness.
Secretary Clinton outlined the plight some women face when they attempt to pass on citizenship to their children. "In this compromised state -- or no state, better put -- women and children are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including gender-based violence, trafficking in persons, and arbitrary arrests and detention." She went on to outline a U.S. initiative to build global awareness about statelessness issues and support efforts to end or amend discriminatory laws towards women. The UNHCR commends the U.S. government's progressive stance on this problematic issue. Secretary Clinton also honored refugee delegate, Fatuma Elmi, a Somali woman who was resettled in Minnesota 15 years ago who works to help other refugees adjust and re-build their lives. Fatuma will share, with delegates and other stakeholders at the Ministerial Conference, the document containing the resolutions that stemmed from Refugee Congress held in Washington D.C., on 3-4 August 2011.
UNHCR greatly appreciates the important role that the U.S. government plays in the protection and assistance of innumerable individuals and families both in the U.S. and around the world. Acting Assistant Secretary Robinson said the U.S. Government's "pledges address five themes ranging from asylum and detention, to vulnerable populations, to refugee resettlement and statelessness" and further stated that the full set of the government's pledges has been shared with UNHCR.
We would like to commend the United States' commitment to reviewing its bars to asylum. The U.S. took a commendable stand by undertaking to examine the material support clause to better ensure that those who need protection retain the eligibility to apply for asylum and "to reduce significantly the number of cases on hold through the issuance of additional exemptions between now and the end of 2012." Additionally, the U.S. government's pledge to work with Congress to eliminate the one-year filing deadline for the submission of an asylum application illustrates its commitment to the protection of those who need it most. "This is a laudable move as it will ensure that persons deserving of protection from persecution are not excluded on time-based technicality," said Buti Kale, Deputy Regional Representative.
The UNHCR also commends the United States' pledge to ensure that persons of concern are released from detention safely. We hope that the U.S. will consider the measure to ensure the detention of asylum seekers is a rare exception rather than a common situation. UNHCR will also continue to work with the United States government and other stakeholders to achieve humane treatment of individuals who have fled their homes -- some of whom were detained and tortured -- and come to the United States in search of safety.
UNHCR was pleased to see that the U.S. government did make a pledge in the area of interdiction at sea, with a commitment to train U.S. Coast Guard personnel. "The training will have to be coupled with adequate protection safeguards for asylum seekers and refugees intercepted at sea," said Mr. Kale.
UNHCR applauds the U.S. government's pioneering pledges in the area of women and individuals who identify as LGBT. Secretary of State Clinton dedicated her December 6th human rights address to urging participating governments to eliminate discrimination against women and to respect the rights of LGBT individuals.
"It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave," Secretary Clinton said. She went on to pledge $3 million to start a Global Equality Fund to support the work of civil society organizations around the world.
UNHCR is highly encouraged by the 28 pledges that the U.S. government made. We look forward to continuing to work closely with the U.S. government and other stakeholders to translate the pledges into actions that close protection gaps for asylum seekers, refugees, stateless persons and other vulnerable persons.