Governments normally guarantee the basic human rights and physical security of their citizens. But when people become refugees this safety net disappears. Refugees fleeing war or persecution are often in a very vulnerable situation. They have no protection from their own state - indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them. If other countries do not let them in, and do not protect and help them once they are in, then they may be condemning them to an intolerable situation where their basic rights, security and, in some cases their lives, are in danger.
The protection of 33.9 million uprooted or stateless people is the core mandate of UNHCR. The agency does this in several ways: it ensures the basic human rights of uprooted or stateless people in their countries of asylum or habitual residence end that refugees will not be returned involuntarily to a country where they could face persecution. Longer term, the organization helps refugees find appropriate durable solutions to their plight, by repatriating voluntarily to their homeland, integrating in countries of asylum or resettling in third countries.
In many countries, UNHCR staff work alongside other partners in a variety of locations ranging from capital cities to remote camps and border areas. They attempt to promote or provide legal and physical protection, and minimize the threat of violence - including sexual assault - which many refugees are subject to, even in countries of asylum. They also seek to provide at least a minimum of shelter, food, water and medical care in the immediate aftermath of any refugee exodus, while taking into account the specific needs of women, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities.
UNHCR's role in Malta
In Malta, UNHCR's legal protection activities are aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and spirit of the relevant bodies of law, namely human rights law, international humanitarian law and refugee law.
UNHCR works together with the Government of Malta, local agencies and civil society organisations in order to ensure that asylum seekers and refugees have access to their basic rights in terms of international, European and national law.
Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR's activities to protect refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons. It is a cornerstone of protection strategies, used in combination with activities such as information dissemination, monitoring and negotiation. These can help transform policies and services on national levels to better protect persons of concern to UNHCR.
Who are the persons of concern to UNHCR?
The 1951 Refugee Convention states that a refugee is a person who "owing to a well-founded 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 to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."
An asylum-seeker is a person who is looking for international protection. in some countries, such as Malta, national asylum systems have been set up to assess and decide which asylum-seekers actually qualify for international protection in terms of the law. Those assessed through adequate and proper procedures not to be refugees, nor to be in need of any other form of international protection, should return to their countries of origin.
Statelessness refers to the condition of an individual who is not considered to be a citizen of any state. Although stateless people may sometimes also be refugees, the two categories are distinct and both groups are of concern to UNHCR.
There are an estimated 12 million people worldwide who are stateless. UNHCR has been given a mandate to work with governments to prevent statelessness from occurring, to resolve those cases that do occur and to protect the rights of stateless persons. A first step is for states to ratify and implement the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. Another important convention is the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
Malta has, so far, not acceded to any of the statelessness conventions.
Over the years, UNHCR has globally managed numerous large-scale voluntary repatriation programmes that brought many millions of refugees home. In Afghanistan alone, some 5 million refugees have returned with UNHCR assistance since 2002. But UNHCR offices also assist with many small-scale - and even individual repatriations - of refugees and internally displaced people on a routine basis. Where necessary and possible, UNHCR offices in the receiving country or origin also assist and monitor their reintegration to ensure the repatriation was a sustainable solution.