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Address by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on receiving the Max Schmidheiny Foundation Freedom Prize, St. Gallen, Switzerland, 25 May 2002

Speeches and statements

Address by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on receiving the Max Schmidheiny Foundation Freedom Prize, St. Gallen, Switzerland, 25 May 2002

25 May 2002

(Check against delivery)

Mr. President,
Colleagues, Students,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for the warm welcome that you have given me. As High Commissioner for Refugees, it is a great honour to accept the Freedom Prize of the Max Schmidheiny Foundation.

Let me start by recalling the speech that President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave to the US Congress in 1941. In this speech, he spoke of four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom of all people to worship God in their own way; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. As High Commissioner for Refugees, my work relates most closely to the last of these: freedom from fear.

UNHCR was established in December 1950. Its creation should be understood in the context of the setting up of the United Nations in 1945, and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly in 1948. Underlying both of these was the aspiration that all peoples should have their own democracies, and that all governments should respect human rights.

The United Nations, which is based on the principle of state sovereignty, understood early on that nations also have a responsibility for those who are the victims of violence, persecution and fear. Those who are not protected by their own governments must have international protection. It was this conviction that led to the founding of UNHCR and the drafting of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

UNHCR's origins, however, go back to the League of Nations period between the First and the Second World War. Although no universal system of refugee protection was set up during this period, measures were put in place at the international level to address the problem of specific groups of refugees. Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian polar explorer, was appointed by the League in 1921 as the first high commissioner for refugees. His mandate was initially limited to the problem of Russian refugees in Europe, though it was later extended to include other specific groups of refugees.

During the inter-war years, a body of refugee law began to develop. But progress was limited, and the first international convention on refugees, drawn up in 1933, was only ever ratified by eight countries. A new low point was reached in 1938, when 32 nations gathered at Evian, France, to discuss ways of resettling Jews fleeing Nazism. The Evian Conference was an abysmal failure, merely confirming the general lack of willingness of countries around the world to offer a lifeline to the Jews.

We have come a long way since then. Over the course of the last fifty years, refugee protection has been globalized. A network of institutions, norms and laws have been developed to deal with refugee problems wherever they manifest themselves. The 1951 Refugee Convention, together with its 1967 Protocol, has in effect become a universal charter of refugee law.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today there are more than 21 million people of concern to my Office. These include refugees, asylum seekers, returnees, internally displaced people and stateless people. All of these are people who are not able to benefit from the protection of their own governments. All of them are products of political failure.

During the Cold War years, a number of countries proved their generosity in providing asylum to refugees such as the Vietnamese boat people. But while many countries lived up to their international obligations towards refugees, no systematic system of burden sharing was developed.

In recent years new problems have arisen. We now see governments refusing to accept refugees because they are so many; refusing to accept them because they are mixed up with economic migrants; refusing to accept them because of a lack of burden sharing amongst states.

Since September 11, we have had to face an additional problem. Refugees and asylum seekers have for years been the objects of considerable mistrust and hostility in many countries, and they are now particularly vulnerable. In the current climate, they can easily become convenient scapegoats.

It is, of course, essential to ensure that perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of terrorist crimes, who might seek to abuse the asylum channel, are promptly identified and dealt with. But at the same time, we must ensure that governments avoid making unwarranted linkages between refugees and terrorism. Genuine refugees are themselves the victims of persecution and terrorism, not its perpetrators. They should not be victimized twice.

A major challenge today is the management of mixed flows of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants. Managing these mixed flows is a complex problem to which there are no easy answers. States have legitimate interests in controlling access to their territory, but they also have international legal obligations to provide protection to those fleeing persecution.

In Europe, as in other countries in the industrialized world, we have witnessed growing concerns about uncontrolled immigration. Indeed, as we have seen in a number of European countries, this has become a dominant theme during election campaigns. To address this, governments have over the last few years adopted a range of new measures to control and restrict access to their territory.

These measures, however, have not always had the desired effect. On the contrary, despite the enormous resources devoted to border control measures, the enforcement approach to migration and asylum has not solved the problem of large numbers of migrants entering these countries in an irregular manner. Instead, it has tended to drive both economic migrants and asylum seekers into the hands of smugglers and traffickers. This has compounded the problems for governments, while at the same time putting the individuals concerned at great risk.

Until recently, immigration in Europe was a taboo subject. This is strange, because migration and displacement have been a fact of life in Europe throughout history. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that as a result of its low birth rates and ageing populations, Europe will need significant numbers of immigrants in the coming years.

A new approach is needed in Europe to deal with the problem of irregular migration and to relieve pressure on asylum systems. A window should be opened for economic migrants to enter legally, so that they do not need to resort to abuse of the asylum channel. In some countries, we are beginning to see some positive developments in this direction, but there is still a long way to go.

There is also a need for increased efforts to assist both immigrants and refugees to integrate into their new societies, and to become citizens who are proud of their new countries. Asylum procedures should also be made faster and fairer, and better mechanisms should be put in place to return those asylum seekers who are found not to be in need of international protection.

Finally, more needs to be done to provide solutions for refugees in their regions of origin, and to build up the reception, protection and integration capacities of countries of first asylum. These countries often face serious financial, political and security problems associated with the presence of large refugee populations. More support to these countries will help to avoid the need for further irregular movements, and the phenomenon known as "asylum shopping". All of this requires resources: resources that - thus far - countries in Europe have not been prepared to make available at the necessary levels.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A major challenge for UNHCR today is funding. Traditionally, UNHCR has relied on voluntary government contributions for about 97% of its funding. Only around 3% is paid out of the regular budget of the United Nations. In recent years the level of government contributions to UNHCR has declined, even though large numbers of refugees continue to languish in camps, and even though increasing numbers of desperate refugees are turning to human smugglers and criminal networks in their search for a better future outside these camps.

Millions of refugees live in the most degrading conditions of abject poverty. They are often accommodated in remote, economically marginalized and insecure areas, where they are given few opportunities for self-sufficiency. Many of the children do not have access to education, and many of the adults have no employment opportunities. The result is that a large number of these people are entirely dependent on humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, levels of humanitarian assistance is going down and down.

The abominably low levels of assistance being provided by the richest countries to the most marginalized and vulnerable people in the world cannot be allowed to continue. A few weeks ago, when I addressed the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, I said: we, in the international community, should ask whether we ourselves are not violating the human rights of refugees by not providing them with enough assistance for them to live with a minimum of dignity.

This is a human rights issue; but it is also a security issue. For how can we live in a world without crime, and how can we live in a world without terrorism, if we do not address the critical need to ensure freedom from want?

Injustice, poverty, conflict, ignorance and disease - all these contribute to instability. We live in a globalized world, and we cannot afford to turn our backs on peoples and places severely affected by any of these. On the contrary, we must make every effort to address the conditions that lead to despair and breed hatred and violence in the first place. Let us not underestimate the price of indifference.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Refugee programmes are a worthwhile investment. For to invest in finding solutions for refugees is to invest in international peace and stability. This year, for example, we are helping one and a quarter million Afghan refugees and internally displaced people to return to their homes, mainly from Iran and Pakistan. The total number may prove to be even higher than this. The operation is currently costing UNHCR 25 million dollars per month, which may sound like a lot of money, but it is nothing compared with the amounts spent on a daily basis on the international military presence in Afghanistan. For each dollar we spend on the repatriation operation, Afghanistan stands to gain twice as much, for the returning refugees will play a vital role in the reconstruction of their country. Given the opportunities, refugees can once again become productive.

Increasingly, international burden sharing has become the key to finding solutions for refugees. UNHCR has an important role to play in ensuring that there is a fair system of burden sharing in place. But at the same time, refugees should not be seen solely as a burden. Without underestimating the humanitarian and security issues related to the presence of large refugee populations, it must be recognized that refugees are not merely the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid. They can make positive contributions. They can enrich our societies, as many have done in the past.

A number of today's world leaders were themselves refugees at one point in their lives. In the case of Afghanistan, Chairman Karzai was himself a refugee. Rather than marginalizing refugees, therefore, our challenge is to find ways of empowering them, so that each of them can contribute positively to the societies in which they live - whether this be in countries of asylum, countries that they return to, or countries of resettlement.

Perhaps this is the most important point: to understand that refugees have the capacity to become valuable citizens. Not a burden; not a risk; but valuable citizens. Recognition of this is where good governance for refugees begins.

Thank you.