x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

UAE's refugee generosity praised

António Guterres, the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, relaunches the UN's appeal for US$7 billion (Dh25.7bn) of humanitarian aid in Abu Dhabi.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterrres, spoke of concerns over Gaza.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterrres, spoke of concerns over Gaza.

ABU DHABI // The UAE may not have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention but it already fulfils many of the requirements, the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees said yesterday. António Guterres said Islamic law provides the same essential framework as the one which the UN refugee agency, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), operates to protect refugees. Mr Guterres was speaking in the capital, where he last night relaunched the UN's appeal for US$7 billion (Dh25.7bn) of humanitarian aid.

"If there is any historical root of modern refugee law it is to be found in Islamic law, in the holy Quran, in the surah and hadeeth of the Prophet," he said. "When I come to the UAE I don't need to invoke for the protection of refugees the 1951 convention, for me it's enough that the norms of Islamic law are applied." One of the key principles that guides the protection of refugees - non-refoulement, meaning that no one should be sent back against their will to a place where they may face persecution - is inherent in Islamic law, he said.

The idea that protection must be granted to "believers and non-believers" is enshrined in Islam. However, Mr Guterres stressed he would still encourage the UAE to ratify the convention and become party to the "modern refugee instruments". This would also allow the UAE to join UNHCR's governance body, which has 76 states among its members. "We want it to be truly global and we don't want it to be dependent on any part of the world. The voice and the influence of the UAE and the Arab world in general is something we would like to see strengthen our own organisation," he said.

Mr Guterres, 59, a former Portuguese prime minister, was elected by the UN General Assembly in 2005 to a five-year term as the head of an agency that works in 110 countries, providing assistance to 33 million refugees. He described the UAE as having a "tradition of generosity in humanitarian action". However, while aid from the UAE has been traditionally channelled on a bilateral level, the high commissioner said he would encourage more action through multinational institutions.

"[This] would allow, in my opinion, the UAE to have a stronger voice and a stronger influence in the international humanitarian community, and within the UN system," he said. Mr Guterres paid tribute to the legacy of the late Sheikh Zayed, who not only left the country with "national unity, political stability, and economic prosperity", but also a "great commitment to humanitarian aid". The relationship between UNHCR and the UAE was bolstered this year with the opening of an office in the capital.

In addition, 2008 saw the launch of the Sheikha Fatima Fund - a joint UNHCR and UAE Red Crescent Authority programme providing assistance to refugee and internally displaced women and children through income-generating projects and support to health and education. The fund is supporting programmes in Yemen and Afghanistan. With Iraq showing signs of improvement, Mr Guterres said the agency's current regional concerns lay in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan. The high commissioner also pointed to what he described as the oldest and most protracted refugee problem in the world - that of the Palestinians. A separate agency - the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) - provides services to more than 4.6 million registered Palestininian refugees in the Middle East, including one million in the Gaza Strip, into which humanitarian aid is currently being barred by an Israeli blockade.

"The key question for us is that humanitarian aid should be able to enter into Gaza and be distributed to those that badly need it," Mr Guterres said. "It is very important in today's world to be able to distinguish the political dimension of conflicts and the humanitarian requirements." Meanwhile, neglecting so-called forgotten crises, such as that in the Central African Republic, constitutes a "very serious sin of mankind, a sin of neglect," he said.

Given the global economic downturn, Mr Guterres said there was a definite concern about the impact on donations to the humanitarian system, which is asking for US$7bn through its new Consolidated Appeal Process. While the world spends billions of dollars on financial rescue packages, determination should also be paid to rescuing "victims of conflict, victims of natural disasters, victims of the modern trends of climate change and its impact, and the victims of extreme poverty".

"There is a quote from Bob Marley in one of his songs, 'A hungry man is an angry man'. Humanitarian support is not only a question of charity, it's also a question of enlightened self-interest," he said. "I would appeal to the intelligence of the rich and powerful in today's world to understand that to support those in need, is also a way to preserve peace, to preserve stability and to allow for the interest of everybody to be taken into consideration."