Refugees and asylum seekers: a guide to key electronic resources

17 August 2009

Harriet Spinks[1]
Social Policy Section

Contents

Introduction
The Refugee Convention
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
General information and statistics on refugees and the work of UNHCR
Internally Displaced People
The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI)
Developments in the international refugee and asylum system
Europe
The Council of Europe
The European Commission
Sources on Developments in the European Commission
Sources on asylum in Europe
International resources
Recent international commentary
Refugee advocate organisations
Country links
Australia
Parliamentary Inquiries
Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
Parliamentary Library publications
Refugee advocate groups
Canada
Denmark
Finland
France
Germany
Italy
Netherlands
New Zealand
Norway
Sweden
United Kingdom
Home Office
Other UK Sources
United States

Introduction

The global number of refugees reached an estimated 15.2 million persons at the end of 2008, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) publication 2008 Global Trends: Refugees, asylum-seekers, returnees, internally displaced and stateless persons. The total population under UNHCR’s responsibility stood at 34.4 million at the end of 2008. This figure includes refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people (IDPs), returned refugees and IDPs, stateless persons, and others of concern. This represented an increase of 8.5 per cent from the end of 2007, when the figure was 31.7 million.

Refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq account for almost half of the total number of refugees under UNHCR’s responsibility worldwide. Most of the world’s refugees (80 per cent) continue to be hosted by developing nations, with Pakistan hosting the largest number (1.8 million) followed by the Syrian Arab Republic (1.1 million) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (980 000). The ‘warehousing’ of refugees for many years in refugee camps or protracted refugee situations continues to be an issue of concern. During 2008, 604 000 refugees were repatriated voluntarily to their countries of origin, the lowest level since 2001 and the second lowest in the last 15 years. A total of 88 800 refugees were resettled in third countries in 2008, most of them in the United States, Australia and Canada. This represented an 18 per cent increase from 2007, and was the highest number of resettled refugees since 2001.

In 2008 at least 839 000 claims for asylum were lodged with governments or UNHCR offices worldwide. This represents a 28 per cent increase compared to 2007 (653 800 claims). South Africa received by far the highest number of asylum claims (207 000, compared to only 45 600 in 2007), followed by the United States (49 600) and France (35 400). Asylum seekers remain a politically salient issue in many countries. Despite efforts at the international level to shore up the international asylum system, increasingly restrictive measures have been adopted by many asylum receiving countries.

This background note provides web links to statistics and information about the world’s refugees, asylum seekers and others ‘of concern’. There are of course many electronic sites with information on refugee issues. This guide focuses on key agencies and materials that track recent developments and explore current issues. It aims to enable comparisons to be made between Australian and international refugee and asylum seeker responses and policies. Different countries vary widely in terms of standards of living, geography, political systems and migration traditions and cultures. The complexity of refugee situations and different ways of compiling statistics need to be taken into account when drawing comparisons.

The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is often described as a product of Europe: it grew out of the situation in Europe after the World War II; the majority of asylum claims worldwide are lodged in Europe; and much of the policy development in the international asylum system has happened in Europe. For this reason, there is a focus in this paper on developments in Europe.

The Refugee Convention

The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is the key legal document defining refugee status and rights and the legal obligations of signatory states. The 1967 Protocol removed geographical and temporal restrictions (the 1951 Convention applied to refugees in Europe following World War II). As at 1 October 2008, there were 144 States Parties to the 1951 convention and 144 to the 1967 Protocol. Australia ratified the Convention on 22 January 1954 and the Protocol on 13 December 1973. States that have not yet acceded to the 1951 Convention or its 1967 Protocol are mainly in Asia and the Middle East. The USA is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, although it has signed the 1967 Protocol.

The two most widely known and applied articles in the Convention are articles 1 and 33. Article 1 defines a refugee as a person who:

… owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

Article 33 spells out the key obligation, of non-refoulement, that is not to return someone to a country where they have a credible fear of persecution.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly, with a mandate to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Under certain circumstances it is also expected to assist groups of people such as internally displaced people, asylum seekers and returnees (refugees who have returned to their own countries). The current High Commissioner is the former Portuguese Prime Minister,  Antonio Guterres who was appointed on 25 May 2005. The UNHCR is guided in its activities by an Executive Committee (EXCOM), currently comprising delegates from 64 countries. EXCOM produces Conclusions on International Protection to provide guidance on refugee issues. The UNHCR is funded through annual donations—donor countries and donations are publicly listed. The USA is the largest donor country, followed by Japan and Sweden.

General information and statistics on refugees and the work of UNHCR

Internally Displaced People

The definition of ‘refugee’ in the 1951 Refugee Convention does not cover internally displaced people (IDP), and the UNHCR’s original mandate did not extend to IDPs. IDPs have traditionally attracted less attention than international refugees, although their plight may often be worse. The UNHCR does now provide assistance to IDPs, but those under its protection account for only just over half of the total number of IDPs worldwide (14.4 million out of an estimated 26 million worldwide).

An alternative source of comprehensive and up to date information and statistics on internal displacement is provided by the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s (IDMC) interactive Global IDP Database, maintained by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). The IDMC publication Internal Displacement: Global Overview of Trends and Developments in 2008 estimates the global total of internally displaced people at the end of 2008 at 26 million, the highest level since the early 1990s.

The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI)

The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) also provides an alternative (from the UNHCR) source of information and estimates on refugee numbers worldwide. The USCRI was founded in 1958 to coordinate US participation in the UN International Refugee Year (1959). The USCRI World Refugee Survey 2009 put the total number of refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2008 at 13.6 million. USCRI counts not only people officially recognised as refugees (until a durable solution is available) but also asylum seekers awaiting initial determinations, beneficiaries of more general forms of protection granted for similar reasons, and others in refugee-like situations. USCRI Country Reports provide information on refugee situations and issues in individual countries. USCRI also publishes Refugee Reports.

Developments in the international refugee and asylum system

Following a decade of rapid increase in the number of asylum claims in Western countries, the continuing viability of the 1951 Refugee Convention has been questioned in recent years (a typical example is an address given by Dr Alexander Casella, a former UNHCR regional director, at a migration conference in Sydney, 2002).

The UNHCR organised a series of Global Consultations on International Protection, culminating in a conference in Geneva in December 2001 at which representatives of 156 governments, including Australia, unanimously reaffirmed the commitment of the international community to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The Global Consultations process involving governments, non-government organisations, other groups and experts continued into subsequent years with an Agenda for Protection - a series of activities designed to strengthen refugee protection and adherence to the Convention.

Europe

More asylum claims are lodged within European countries than in any other part of the world, and asylum law and policy in European nations and the EU influences the development of such laws and policies in many other countries. Western European countries have a long tradition of providing political asylum; the right to seek asylum is guaranteed by the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.  Over the last decade however commitment to the Refugee Convention has co-existed with increasing determination by governments to reduce the number of claims lodged within their territories. The comments on 28 February 2006 of the Secretary of the UK Home Office Tony McNulty illustrate this—Asylum Applications at Lowest Level for More Than a Decade.

A number of European countries (such as the UK, Norway and Denmark) have begun employing accelerated asylum processing, whereby people arriving at the border claiming asylum are held at the border and given a very short period of time (from 24 hours to several days) in which to prove their identity and their claim for asylum. If it is decided that their claims are manifestly unfounded, or their identity cannot be proved, their claim is denied and they are sent home. In many countries accelerated asylum processes are applied to nationals of particular states which are deemed to be ‘safe’. In these cases, asylum claims from nationals of those countries are assumed to be unfounded unless the claimant can prove otherwise in the short time permitted.

These kinds of accelerated procedures have been widely criticised by human rights and refugee advocacy groups. An analysis of accelerated asylum procedures in the EU can be found in the 2007 paper Accelerated Procedures for Asylum in the European Union: Fairness versus Efficiency by Sharon Oakley from the University of Sussex.

The Council of Europe

The Council of Europe’s interest in the situation of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people is reflected in the various treaties and recommendations of the Committee of Ministers and of the Parliamentary Assembly. Several of these texts are based on the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights.

The Ad Hoc Committee of Experts on the Legal Aspects of Territorial Asylum, Refugees and Stateless Persons (CAHAR)  works on the legal aspects of territorial asylum, refugees and stateless persons to ensure that European laws and practices related to refugees and asylum seekers are co-ordinated. It drafts conventions and recommendations which may be adopted by the Committee of Ministers. CAHAR also aims to harmonise asylum policy in the Council of Europe.

The European Commission

With freedom of movement within the EU, all EU countries are affected by the asylum policies and practices of any other country, hence there are efforts to coordinate or ‘harmonise’ policies and practices. The European Commission has been specifically tasked to develop a Policy towards a Common European Asylum System. The EU Council of Ministers agreed in Tampere, Finland (October 1999) to harmonise European asylum policy and practice ‘based on the full application of the 1951 United Nations Geneva Convention on the status of refugees’.

The work of the European Commission for Justice and Home Affairs, Reception of Asylum Seekers to date has focused on the development of minimum ‘reception’ standards for asylum seekers. In April 2001, the European Commission tabled a proposal for a Council directive laying down minimum standards on the reception of asylum applicants in Member States. The Council adopted Directive 2003/9/EC on 27 January 2003.

On 18 February 2003, the EU Council of Ministers adopted Directive 343/2003/EC establishing a series of criteria which, in general, allocate responsibility for examining an asylum application to the member state that permitted the applicant to enter or to reside in the territories of the member states of the EU. That member state is responsible for examining the application according to its national law and is obliged to take back applicants who are irregularly in another member state. This is known as the Dublin Regulation.

The second stage of EU policy development towards a common European asylum system, formally adopted in November 2004 as the Hague Programme, is focused on the issues of common minimum standards and procedures for the granting of refugee status and subsidiary protection (such as temporary humanitarian resident status). In April 2004, the Council adopted Directive 2004/83/EC on minimum standards for the qualification and status of third-country nationals or stateless persons as refugees or as persons who otherwise need international protection and the content of the protection granted. This Directive sets out the two separate but complementary statuses of international protection, namely refugee status and subsidiary protection status. In December 2005, the Council adopted Directive 2005/85/EC on minimum standards on procedures in member states for granting and withdrawing refugee status.

EU countries, in cooperation with the UNHCR, are presenting the Hague Programme as a significant reform of the international asylum system because of its ‘external dimensions’ and goal of reducing ‘spontaneous movements’ to European countries. The Hague Programme focuses on strengthening capacity to protect and process asylum seekers in their regions of origin, or in transit countries (such as Libya or Morocco in North Africa). The target date for adoption is 2010. Latest updates on work under the Hague Programme can be found on the European Commission’s web site for the Policy towards a Common European Asylum System.

Sources on Developments in the European Commission

Sources on asylum in Europe

International resources

  • EurAsylum Ltd, provides research, evaluation and consulting services dedicated solely to issues of immigration control and asylum policy in Europe and internationally
  • the Migration Policy Institute, an independent think tank based in Washington, tracks developments in ‘thinking, law and practice in the realm of refugee protection’ through its website pages on Refugee Protection and International Humanitarian Response
  • Forced Migration Online provides access to a wide variety of online resources dealing with the situation of forced migrants and displaced people worldwide. It is coordinated by the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development
  • the Centre for Immigration Studies, also based in Washington, provides a comprehensive international news service and produces reports and articles on refugee and asylum seeker issues as well as immigration
  • The International Journal of Refugee Law contains analytical articles on refugee and asylum seeker legal issues and case law
  • AsylumSupport.info is a UK based non-government organisation that provides a directory of online resources relating to asylum and refugees.

Recent international commentary

Refugee advocate organisations

Country links

Australia

Parliamentary Inquiries
Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
Parliamentary Library publications
Refugee advocate groups

Canada

Denmark

Finland

France

Germany

Italy

Netherlands

New Zealand

Norway

Sweden

United Kingdom

Home Office
Other UK Sources

United States



[1].       This Background Note updates A Millbank and C Bohm, Refugees and asylum seekers: a guide to key resources and recent developments, E-brief, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2007.

For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to members of Parliament.


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