By Volker Türk, UNHCR Representative.
Dr Volker Türk is the Representative for the United Nations Refugee Agency in Malaysia. This article is written in conjunction with the United Nations Malaysia Conference on the Challenges of Global Migration and Forced Displacement, held in Kuala Lumpur from 1-2 August 2006, and attended by over 100 participants from Governmental agencies, Non-Governmental Agencies, members of the academia and UN agencies. The Conference engaged in collective brainstorming on how to take the migration/refugee debate further forward nationally, regionally and globally.
The conference is part of the preparatory process for the United Nations High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development in New York in mid-September 2006, of which Malaysia will be involved.
International migration today is infinitely more complex than it was perceived in the past, and so is refugee protection. While it is important to maintain a clear distinction between forced displacement on the one hand and labour migration on the other, there is an increasing realization that the two intersect. It is important to understand the broader migration context and to analyse how forced displacement comes into play, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Migration in this region has traditionally been a vehicle of economic and social development, of cultural exchange and of progress, and yet it needs to be stripped off its negative connotations. Whole economies depend on labour migration, both in sending and receiving countries, and migration therefore has a powerful positive force.
Forced population movements are not necessarily separate from migratory trends but indeed part and parcel of a broader migration picture. This is particularly apparent in this region.
The main overall challenge for States, UNHCR and other stakeholders is to develop a coherent regional protection and solutions response to address the migration/refugee protection interface against the backdrop of a complex web of various migratory flows of a composite nature, as well as to find practical solutions to the various displacement situations in the region.
It is important to broaden the humanitarian space for refugees and other persons of concern through pragmatic arrangements, especially in countries that are not party to the international refugee instruments. Particular efforts will need to be made to address the interface between migration and international refugee protection in today's changed and complex migratory and security environment.
In this connection, two issues could be considered by countries in the region: first, to ensure that adequate international protection safeguards are properly included in whatever measures States take or envisage in the broad area of freedom of movement; and second, to situate the issue of forced displacement in the wider context of migration and derive from this a more realistic examination of those issues where forced displacement and voluntary migration intersect. As for the latter, a particular focus of attention will need to be on how positive and forward-looking migration policies can contribute to managing the forced displacement component in the context of mixed flows.
Moreover, it makes sense for countries in the region to revisit their migration policies and laws and to bring them up to date with current realities. A small step in this direction would be the institution of a screening mechanism in deportation proceedings that filters out specially protected categories of foreigners, such as asylum-seekers and refugees, trafficked persons and vulnerable migrants on the basis of commonly agreed criteria. At the same time, efforts will need to be reinvigorated to improve the standard of treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees, particularly in terms of access to health care, education and employment. This will be an important factor not least in terms of dealing responsibly with population movements, also from a broader development perspective, and addressing irregular secondary movements.
A number of opportunities present themselves in this connection both at the national level in Malaysia and regionally. Grasping these opportunities would be in the economic, security and humanitarian interest of many countries in the region. For instance, UNHCR welcomes the efforts by the Malaysian Government to consider the regularization of existing refugee groups in Malaysia by allowing them to stay and work here on a temporary basis. At the regional level, UNHCR understands that the Philippines are planning to table an ASEAN instrument on migrant workers at the next ASEAN Summit in December. UNHCR would welcome the inclusion in this instrument of special protection measures for asylum-seekers and refugees. At the global level, the Secretary-General of the United Nations has recently launched a special focus on migration for the annual United Nations Treaty Event which will coincide this year with the High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development. In this connection he stated: “The high-level dialogue is an opportunity for Member States to explore the multidimensional aspects of international migration and development and to forge closer cooperation on a range of migration-related issues, many of which are addressed in treaties deposited with me.” The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, as well as the Migrant Workers Convention feature prominently among the some 30 treaties identified and promoted at this year's treaty event. Only the Philippines and Cambodia have so far acceded to the international refugee instruments in ASEAN so there is some way to go for ASEAN Member States to consolidate and advance the international rule of law in this area within the region.
Effective multilateral cooperation is also crucial to respond to population movements, including by strengthening protection capacities in host countries. It will be important to learn from deliberations during the Conference as to how existing regional fora, such as ASEAN and SAARC, could be used better to address the complex migration/forced displacement nexus and how you see the way ahead in this connection.
As for the broader durable solutions dimension, the resolution of protracted refugee situations is another key challenge. Obviously, comprehensive durable solutions arrangements will play an important role. While resettlement and voluntary repatriation programmes must continue, increased emphasis will need to be placed on realising local solutions in host countries. Particular attention will also be paid to using resettlement in third countries as a strategic tool. Another option that should be explored further is identifying or even creating legal migration channels for certain groups of concern to UNHCR both in Malaysia and in the region. This is an area where a link to development could and should be made.
It is important to regard migration and forced displacement issues, not as a threat, but as an opportunity and a challenge. More work is needed to shift away from the negativity surrounding migration and refugee protection today and to ensure that the valuable aspects of migration come to the fore and influence positively international refugee protection in line with fundamental humanitarian values.