Award Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the award of the Nansen Medal for 1977 to the Malaysian Red Crescent Society, Geneva, 10 October 1977

Statements by High Commissioner, 10 October 1977

1. It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to extend a warm welcome to Tunku Tan Sri Mohamed bin Tunku Besar Burhanuddin, National Chairman of the Malaysian Red Crescent, and Datin Ruby Lee, Secretary-General of the Society. The Committee is very pleased indeed that you were able to come to Geneva to receive the medal today, the tenth of October, birthdate of Fridtjof Nansen.

2. You have travelled a long way from a region which has recently been the scene of historic events. In their wake, turmoil and upheaval have brought about the uprooting of thousands of people, with all the misery that this entails, against this background, the international community was called upon to supplement the considerable national efforts that are being made to restore normal life.

3. UNHCR for its part was confronted with the two-fold problem of displaced persons in need of rehabilitation within their country and of those in search of resettlement opportunities in other countries. The visits and field trips which my colleagues and I undertook in South-East Asia have provided us with first-hand information on the plight of the displaced persons, we were impressed by the courage with which they seek to start a new life.

4. UNHCR assists in their rehabilitation in the Lao People's Democratic Republic and in the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. It also assists displaced persons from Indo-China outside the peninsula, in Malaysia, upon which our attention is focused today, in Thailand, which welcomed a large number of these persons, and in other countries in the area.

5. The great diversity of problems encountered by these unfortunate people calls for a wide variety of solutions. These encompass all types of UNHCR activities, including voluntary repatriation, day-to-day care, and search for immigration opportunities as well as other durable solutions. The vastness of the region, the number of people involved, and the demographic and economic problems facing most countries in the area add a further dimension to the problem. They constitute an exceptional challenge. In Malaysia, this challenge has met with an equally exceptional response on the part of the authorities and of the Malaysian Red Crescent Society.

6. In the statement we just heard, Mr. Eigil Nansen gave a vivid illustration of the situation of the boat people and of the outstanding help provided for them by the Red Crescent in various parts of the federation.

7. Their odyssey is a sad reminder of the dramatic problem of refugees in orbit which was evoked in the Executive Committee a few days ago, crammed in tiny craft, men and women, old people and children, having just enough food and water to last a few days, face the perils of the high seas and often drift from one port of call to another on a journey, the end of which may never be in sight: losing their last glimmer of hope when the master of a passing ship turns a deaf ear to their calls. (How many of then have lost their lives? nobody knows.)

8. Over 13,000 of these people have landed in the ports of some twenty countries, including 3,700 who have found a temporary abode in Malaysia.

9. To assist them, concerted action on the part of all concerned is vital: thus a joint appeal has been launched by UNHCR and the International Maritime Consultative Organization, a specialised agency of the United Nations, urging shipowners to ensure that ships' masters scrupulously observe legal provisions designed to honour the traditional seamen's code of rescue at sea. Appeals have been addressed to asylum countries to facilitate the admission of the people concerned: and to immigration countries, to provide solutions of a more permanent nature. Through its prompt, generous and efficient action on behalf of new arrivals, and through the dedicated service of its devoted staff, the Malaysian Red Crescent is not only fulfilling a noble humanitarian task but it enables my office, meanwhile, to seek permanent resettlement opportunities for those who have no alternative.

10. The continuing search, at short notice, for new openings, to keep pace with the influx of displaced persons, has indeed become a major concern. The problem is further complicated by the number and diversity of refugee groups to whom governments are urged to open their doors. Tribute is due to several countries that the made an outstanding effort in sharing the burden. Participation on a more universal basis is essential in order to take care of families in quest of permanent homes. In this particularly difficult field, the Malaysian Red Crescent Society has distinguished itself by setting a striking example. It has been instrumental in helping hundreds of displaced Khmer to resettle in the state of Kelantan in Malaysia. This was a major breakthrough, in that for the first time displaced Indo-Chinese could be resettled in the area.

11. In this resettlement operation, unique in South-East Asia so far, the Society played a determining role and greatly facilitated the task of UNHCR. The pioneering efforts of the Malaysian Red Crescent in conjunction with the Pertubuhan Kebajikan Islam Malaysia, (the Muslim Welfare Organization of Malaysia) known as Perkim, have clearly demonstrated that the humanitarian problems of displaced persons can, at least to some extent, be solved on a regional basis. The success of the operation and of the role played by the Society is evident from the admission of further number of Khmer to Malaysia for durable settlement. Through its sustained action, the Society has set a pattern which will, I trust, inspire many other agencies in the ASEAN region.

12. Beyond the impact of the Society's work for the uprooted, beyond the practical effect of its manifold assistance activities, and beyond its outstanding efficiency, there is even more important perhaps the profoundly humane attitude which the Society and its thousands of voluntary workers observe in their day-to-day contact with the uprooted. To wit: the moving letters of gratitude and praise, addressed to the Society by those whom it once helped. Last but not least, I would like to pay a personal tribute to you, Tunku, and to you, Datin, for your close co-operation with my colleagues and myself in implementing our programmes in Malaysia. I would like also to thank the Malaysian authorities and Pertubuhan Kebajikan Islam Malaysia for their wholehearted support.