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U.S. Statement on Protection in UNHCR Executive Committee
October 4, 2012

U.S. Delegation Statement to UNHCR’s Executive Committee
Delivered by Margaret Pollack, Director, Multilateral Coordination and External Relations, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration

October 2012

Thank you, Madame Chairman.

Protection is hard work. As the Assistant High Commissioner noted, it is not becoming easier. Populations of concern to UNHCR are near all-time highs. There is – and must be – a constant effort on the part of us all to better fulfill our collective responsibility to protect the world’s refugees, internally displaced persons, recent returnees, and stateless persons and to assist those who are vulnerable.

UNHCR staff deserves our gratitude for the efforts they make, from the High Commissioner to the field staff, to keep pace with the ever-growing demands placed upon their organization by world events and by our international system of humanitarian response. UNHCR performance is sometimes imperfect. But the United States does not doubt the commitment and the conviction that UNHCR staff bring to their important work. In return, UNHCR personnel worldwide can be confident of the United States’ commitment to do our share, in collaboration with other states, to support UNHCR’s protection mandate.

We appreciate the arduous steps UNHCR is taking to strengthen its approach to an imposing range of protection challenges. It is striking to note the ambitious number of new or updated policies, strategies, initiatives, and guidelines that UNHCR has launched in the past few years in an effort to equip its staff and partners with better skills and tools to make their protection work more effective. This lengthy list of protection-related initiatives is worth citing. There is a new child protection framework; an updated strategy on sexual and gender-based violence; a new field manual to help address threats to the physical security of UNHCR’s persons of concern; a new education strategy with protection implications; improved guidance on how to conduct protection interviews; enhanced tools for stronger leadership of protection clusters; clearer guidelines for profiling displaced persons; updated guidance and staff training on statelessness issues; new analysis of the protection problems facing displaced persons living in host communities; an updated ten-point plan on protection in mixed migrations; and a new initiative to combat racism and xenophobia.

UNHCR is pursuing an ambitious campaign of institutional self-improvement that the United States welcomes. We are watching closely to be sure that these many good intentions at the policy level are absorbed and effectively implemented at the operational level in the field, where the genuinely hard work of protection must be done. We must remind ourselves that ultimately protection is not achieved merely by our good intentions or words of policy on paper – it is achieved by what we do. In that same spirit of working to improve existing practices, the U.S. Government welcomes UNHCR’s recent release of new guidelines that promote alternatives to the detention of asylum seekers. We will review these guidelines with a view toward how they may positively impact our own asylum system.

Madame Chairman, even while UNHCR works to develop and implement innovative new protection tools, we should also remain committed to utilizing the tools and basic protection principles that have stood the test of time. Preserving the civilian nature of humanitarian sites and resisting militarization of refugee camps is a fundamental rule of protection. We all know this. Yet we currently are witnessing in several refugee situations around the globe a direct and often brazen violation of this core protection tenet, at times with the consent of host governments. We collectively must push back against these violations that pose a grave protection threat to refugees and place UNHCR and other organizations that seek to assist refuguees in an untenable position. UNHCR and all of us who are serious about refugee protection must think very hard about the wisdom – and the questionable ethics – of expanding humanitarian operations at refugee sites that are demonstrably dangerous or repressive, if safer alternative sites exist nearby within the same asylum country.

Lastly, Madame Chairman, protection efforts are not immune to budget realities. My Government recognizes that UNHCR frequently faces difficult and even painful decisions about the allocation of its resources in increasingly tight budgetary times. UNHCR’s commitment to all of its protection and assistance responsibilities, including those for internally displaced persons under the cluster system, must be resolute and steadfast.

Thank you.