Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (UNHCR's World) - Chile : When we're no longer needed

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1996

The recent closure of our Santiago office after 22 sometimes turbulent years is one more step toward UNHCR's ultimate goal: going out of business.

Our worldwide review ends in Chile, a country where you'll have a hard time finding any sign whatsoever of UNHCR. There are no huge influxes or repatriations, no refugee camps or reception centres, no aid convoys or airlifts, no warehouses, no "safe havens," no major protection problems.

Instead, Chile is noteworthy because it represents another step toward the attainment of UNHCR's ultimate goal going out of business.

While refugee emergencies and major aid operations make big headlines, the real success stories in UNHCR's world are usually quiet events like the one that took place in Chile on 14 March. That's the day UNHCR's Santiago office was formally closed after 22 often turbulent years.

Our departure went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. But for tens of thousands of former refugees and for scores of UNHCR staff who had served in Chile, it was a day to remember.

UNHCR began work in Chile in 1973, a week after the overthrow of the government of Salvador Allende. Immediately after the coup, the then High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadruddin Aga Khan, sent a cable to the military junta reminding them of Chile's obligations to protect refugees. As soon as it had opened its office, UNHCR began helping thousands of refugees from other countries who had earlier fled to Chile, and who now were being detained or felt threatened under the new government. UNHCR staff established inviolable "safe havens" inside Chile where these refugees could be lodged, protected and assisted while new countries of asylum were arranged. Several appeals were issued asking third countries to open their doors to these refugees. In 1973-74, UNHCR Santiago managed to find resettlement for about 2,600 foreign refugees, helped those opting for repatriation to return to their countries of origin, and assisted the ones who chose to remain in Chile.

At the same time, UNHCR staff in neighbouring countries had to cope with an influx of tens of thousands of Chileans escaping military repression. In all, UNHCR provided protection and assistance to more than 200,000 Chileans in surrounding countries. In the years that followed, UNHCR focused on reunifying the families of fleeing Chilean refugees.

Democratic reforms that began in 1988 also saw the beginning of the return of some Chilean refugees. In 1990, the Chilean government officially requested UNHCR to promote voluntary repatriation. UNHCR staff in Chile monitored the reinegration of returnees and helped resolve issues regarding their legal status.

Finally, in 1994, UNHCR announced that it was applying the Cessation Clause for Chilean refugees, meaning that the need for asylum in other countries no longer existed. It was an act that recognized that fundamental, positive changes had taken place in Chile. It was also recognition that UNHCR's direct presence was no longer needed.

Assistant High Commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello represented UNHCR at a closure ceremony in the Presidential Palace in Santiago on 14 March. On 28 May, High Commissioner Sadako Ogata was presented Chile's Great Cross decoration, the country's highest award for non-heads of state. The award, presented at a ceremony in the Chilean Mission in Geneva, honoured Mrs. Ogata's "distinguished career" and recognized UNHCR's "outstanding role ... during a difficult period in our national existence."

Mrs. Ogata accepted the honour on behalf of UNHCR "as an expression of the pride we feel in having been of assistance to the courageous people of Chile during a sad and painful moment of its history."

Over 22 years, she said, UNHCR had "shared the suffering and hopes" of the Chilean people, and it was now time to leave. "We have turned a page in Latin America," she concluded, "and I sincerely hope that the services of UNHCR will never again be needed in this part of the world."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)