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Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Second United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries, Paris, 1 September 1990

Statements by High Commissioner, 1 September 1990

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity of addressing you at this, the Second Conference on the Least Developed Countries. Just as the least developed countries have urgent needs to be met, so too do those millions of refugees which these very countries generously receive in a spirit of international solidarity and burden-sharing. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you some thoughts on the theme of least developed countries which have hosted large refugee populations or which are the refugees' countries of origin. In so doing, one might better examine the ways by which the international community could better assist these countries in the same spirit of human solidarity and international burden-sharing amply demonstrated by the least developed countries themselves.

I feel that during the relatively short period that I have been serving as High Commissioner for Refugees, I have already been confronted with what may well be among the main challenges facing UNHCR in the nineties. One of these challenges, which not just UNHCR, but the international community will have to face will be migratory movements, of which refugee flows stricto sensu are but one aspect. I use the phrase migratory movements deliberately, as I want to highlight the difference between immigration and migratory movements. Unlike immigration, migratory flows are not of an orderly and planned nature, or necessarily controlled by states. The migratory phenomenon has far reaching consequences for the international community. Even a most cursory glance at recent history will reveal the possible destabilizing effects such migratory movements can have on national societies in terms of economic, social and political costs. Migratory movements, and their attendant refugee components, therefore, also have an obvious impact on the development prospects of receiving countries as well as of countries of origin and pose a formidable challenge to all of us. We have attempted to outline this phenomenon in a document prepared for this conference.

At the time of the founding of my Office four decades ago, the refugee problem was restricted, both in terms of numbers and location. At the then post-world war juncture, there were only about 6 million refugees and these were predominantly in Europe. Today, there are well over 15 million refugees scattered throughout the world, with the vast majority to be found in some of the world's poorest region poor in resources but rich in generosity, I might add.

As a consequence, what needs to be borne in mind in our deliberations and what hopefully will be reflected in the Conference's plan of action, is that the impact of refugees on national socio-economic infrastructures and the development process itself, can no longer be treated in isolation of one another; nor can the socio-economic situation prevailing in the refugee's country of origin be disregarded in any comprehensive analysis of the root causes of refugee outflows, particularly when contemplating the voluntary repatriation of these populations. Any overall strategy for the least developed countries in the 1990s will, therefore, need to give due attention to refugee populations, for experience shows that missed development opportunities plague the refugee cycle. It is essential therefore that any economic "incentive" for people to leave their countries of origin and to claim refugee status on primarily these grounds be dealt with at the source. In relation to actual or potential refugee situations then, development aid can, in fact, work both as a cure and as a preventive measure. Such assistance must help anchor and assure the durable nature of such. Ideal solutions as the return and reintegration of the uprooted in their countries of origin.

Development assistance is thus rapidly becoming one of the central factors in our ability to resolve refugee problems. The international community began to be acutely aware of this fact as early as 1979, when at the Pan African Conference on the Situation of Refugees in Africa, the concept of refugee aid linked to development assistance began to be explored. It was recognized that the traditional approach of earlier years towards solving refugee situation could no longer achieve their desired long-term objectives.

Since the early 1980's, when UNHCR was confronted, for the first time in many years, with prolonged assistance programmes to large scale refugee situations in Africa, Asia and Central America, the Office has been seeking the co-operation of development agencies in finding solutions thereto. The strategy has, inter alia, been aimed at compensating for the ecological and infrastructural damage caused by the presence of refugees in host countries. It has also sought to facilitate, wherever possible, the integration of refugees into host communities. This goal was thought to be better assured if the basic assistance destined for refugees could "overflow" to embrace the surrounding local populations. In this way, social tensions created by the presence of refugees in areas where the living conditions of the nations were often as precarious, if not more so, than those of the assisted refugees, could be avoided. Another major element in this new thinking was to underpin and assure the durability of solutions such as voluntary repatriation, by linking these solutions with development initiatives. Accordingly, in 1988 members of UNHCR's Executive Committee and subsequently the General Assembly endorsed the need to link refugee aid and development and the so called catalytic role of the High Commissioner in this area was recognized.

My presence here today is an expression of this role. UNHCR is not a development agency, but seeks to draw the attention of governments, of competent agencies and fora concerned with development issues, to the inhibiting nature of a mass migration and the presence of refugees on a host country's development programme, while at the same time highlighting how development assistance can itself contribute to the prevention and to the eventual solution of a refugee problem.

To this end, what is called for in addressing the challenge of the presence of refugees in least developed countries is an integrated approach in which refugee assistance is consistent with national development plans, and logically, that these same development plans include and take into account the refugees. To enable host governments to take this step, they need to know that they have the tangible support of the international community. It is a sad reflection of the paradox of our times that I make this plea to you here today, while my Office is facing its worst financial crisis since its creation forty years ago.

Finally, it is becoming increasingly evident that the issue of migrations at large is bound to be one of the threats to the broad concept of international, regional and national security in the decade ahead of us all. I wish to state here my firm belief that unless this issue is dealt with forcefully (I mean, in ways that go well beyond the traditional patterns of humanitarian assistance to people in need), governments of both developed and developing countries may find it even more difficult in the years ahead to rationally and successfully cope with mass exoduses. At the same time, my Office may find it impossible to continue to effectively identify, protect and assist persons falling within its competence. This plea follows hand-in-hand my earlier call that the migration and refugee issue be dealt within a different context and from a different angle altogether. Our humanitarian efforts, I am afraid, will be futile in the years to come in the absence of resolute political and economic will and timely support for our work. This is true, more than anywhere else, in the least developed areas of our ever-shrinking planet.

I thank you, Mr. Chairman.