“We want refugees not only to survive, but also to thrive”

UNHCR representative Vanno Noupech visits Macau to advocate for refugees’ rights and well-being

Marco Carvalho

The representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the People’s Republic of China, Vanno Noupech, visited Macau in late March to restore dialogue with the local authorities. Mr Noupech’s visit was the first by an official of the United Nations Refugee Agency in more than three years. Although the Covid-19 pandemic hindered the efforts made by the organization, people in China, Macau and in Hong Kong are aware of the refugee problem.

Mr Noupech, who is a Cambodian national, met with the Secretary for Security, Wong Sio Chak, and with representatives of the Social Welfare Bureau. On March 28, the UNHCR representative in China also had a meeting with Paul Pun Chi Meng, the Secretary-General of Caritas Macau.

The visit of the Cambodian diplomat – himself a former refugee – also intended to raise the local population’s awareness to an increasingly-evident challenge on a global scale.

By May 2022, more than 100 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide by persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations. Millions of people were forced to flee their lands and, in many cases, their very own countries, helping to set a record that should never have been set. Hundreds of thousands of those that decided to flee, ended up applying for asylum or refugee status in host countries, mostly in Europe or war-torn regions.

China, Macau and Hong Kong have been largely spared from the mass influx of refugees that affect many countries worldwide. Mr Noupech acknowledges that the number of refugees and asylum seekers requesting the Chinese authorities’ lenience and help are not numerically significant, a fact that the Cambodian diplomat assigns to the realization that China is geographically removed from the main hotbeds of political conflict currently occurring all over the world.

“The refugees – the asylum seekers – that we have in this part of the world are mostly what we call refugees surplus. They might arrive here for completely different reasons: to do business or on a student visa. Meanwhile, something happens in their home country and they cannot return, so they will ask the authorities for protection – temporary protection,” the UNCHR representative in the People’s Republic of China explained.

“We work with the Chinese authorities to identify what were the real reasons to apply for asylum and we try to help the applicants find durable solutions. But we don´t have many people applying for refugee status. We won’t see refugees flying en masse to China. It is not that easy,” Mr Noupech says.

Senado Square (Largo do Senado) in Macau. UNHCR’s representative in China Vanno Noupech explains that refugees and asylum seekers in this region are often referred to as ‘refugees surplus’ as they may have arrived for different reasons such as business or student visas. However, due to unforeseen circumstances in their home country, they seek temporary protection from the authorities. (Image: Ben Traveling@pexels.com)

Despite not being a part of the ever-increasing list of host countries that opened their borders to large contingents of displaced populations, China is an increasingly significant partner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Chinese authorities support, through China’s Global Development Initiative, several of the projects that the United Nations Refugees Agency is currently in charge of.

The support also comes, Mr Noupech adds, from the Chinese people itself: “With regards to the private sector, the volume of donations from Hong Kong and Mainland China have doubled, almost tripled during the last year. In Macau, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, despite all of these problems in communicating, we have a quite stable, ever-growing number of supporters, or donors. There’s a growing interest. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is not only working in providing basic assistance, in terms of food. We are also working on durable, long-lasting solutions. We want refugees not only to survive, but also to thrive. We have more and more discussions about refugees, but we will also have more and more high-profile supporters in China, Hong Kong and, hopefully, also in Macau,” the Cambodian diplomat told local journalists.

If the financial support and encouragement of the Chinese population has proved to be increasingly important, the Government also did its part, Mr Noupech asserts. The Chinese authorities have been supporting UNCHR projects in countries such as Afghanistan and Bangladesh with financial grants.

“My job in China, like I said, is also to assist the Government to play an active role in solving the global refugees’ situation. We are not only encouraged by the effort made by the Chinese people, but also by the Government in the sense of having a core contribution coming to UNHCR regularly,” Mr Noupech said.

“We are beneficiaries of the China Global Development Initiative and we also have projects funded by China in Afghanistan, in Bangladesh and in other regions, like West Africa, for instance. China does participate and we hope that these projects might increase. But it is not only about financial support. It is also about political support. China has been calling at different forums, at the Security Council, for the world to provide more attention and more assistance to UNHCR. This kind of support is also extremely important,” the UNCHR representative in Beijing says.

Born in Cambodia, Mr Noupech has been the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in China since 2021 and he was also tasked with finding solutions to answer some of the new challenges associated with the forced displacement of populations. One of the most significant is the ecological impact of the massive waves of refugees seeking to escape conflict situations: “We are also trying to talk with the private sector, so we might look at greener operations. We are trying to reduce the impact of forced displacement on the environment, by eliminating plastic as much as possible. Everything that we procure from around the world and, obviously from China, we try to make sure that those products are as environmentally-friendly as possible. We are trying to find new materials and technologies to deal with this issue,” Nr. Noupech asserted.

The United Nations Human Rights Council questioned the Macau Government in July last year about the reason why refugee status was never granted by the local authorities to asylum seekers. Back then, the Government was evaluating two requests by foreign citizens that have been waiting for an answer for well over a decade. In his first visit to Macau, Mr Noupech did not elaborate on the matter, but he told the local press that the most important thing is always to ensure that asylum seekers are not forcibly returned to their countries of origin, where they are probably under life-threatening danger: “Many cases have been closed. Some of the applicants were actually quite satisfied with the possibility to maintain the status that allowed them to stay for so many years. The most important thing is that they are not sent to their countries, where their lives could be at risk,” the Cambodian diplomat concludes.