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"Challenges of Refugee Protection" - Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, 15 March 1999

Speeches and statements

"Challenges of Refugee Protection" - Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, 15 March 1999

15 March 1999

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to Stanford. I am particularly grateful to Professor Stedman for having organized this event. It is exciting to share my thoughts, ideas and concerns with you, who live in California - a state which so many continue to look to, and think of, as the "future". I am also very conscious of being in the heart of an area where migrants and refugees have played an important role, not only when settlers moved west, but also in recent years. California hosts one of the largest and most varied refugee populations in the world. Many refugees have made a substantial contribution to California's prosperity. When I observe their achievements, and I see how much they participate in, and contribute to, the spirit of tolerance and openness that permeates society here, I feel greatly encouraged. Please uphold this spirit.

I have been asked to speak about the ethical challenges of refugee protection. But because our work is about people, and concrete situations, and real problems, I have chosen to examine these challenges - including their ethical dimension - from the perspective of what is perhaps the most defining trend in today's world: I am speaking of globalization.

We, at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, are asking ourselves some crucial questions: is there a relationship between globalization and the problem of refugees? Does globalization have an impact on forced population movements? If yes, can it help resolve refugee problems or does it aggravate them?

The process of globalization is first and foremost rich in opportunities. Think of the unprecedented access to reliable news which technology has provided to millions of people previously depending on controlled media and very limited information. Think of the enormous power of global communications in giving visibility to situations of poverty, violence and persecution, of which the world would have otherwise remained unaware. My Office deals with refugees - a global problem indeed - and its mandate rests on international refugee law - a global "protection" regime: I believe, therefore, that the many positive aspects of globalization can be of great benefit to our work, and to the life and welfare of those whom we protect and assist.

However, I am not underestimating the less positive impact of recent globalizing trends, especially on the most vulnerable strata of society. As we all know, the free circulation of goods and capital has created wealth, opportunities for work, and a better life for many. However, the rapid movement of investment capital in and out of certain regions, depending on the possibilities for quick profit, have certainly contributed, together with other factors, to some of the worst financial crises of the last decade: namely Mexico, South East Asia, and recently Brazil. In such cases, liberalization and deregulation have also been the conduit for a particularly brutal, raw form of capitalism.

It is important not to overreact to the less positive aspects of globalization, which are perhaps inevitable in an expanding phase. We should take stock of the very serious weaknesses in the global system, and adopt measures to correct them - the global danger represented by AIDS and other viruses, for example; or the so-called "loose nukes", nuclear weapons in countries controlled by fragile governments; and so on. I will focus specifically on flaws and weaknesses of globalization with respect to humanitarian and refugee work.

Throughout history, globalizing trends have first and foremost affected the way people moved. These trends continue to do so. Recent financial crises, for example, have had a tremendous impact on society, particularly on the poor. Social destabilization frequently leads to political crises, and, especially in countries where democratic institutions are relatively new and fragile, to the further impoverishment of the poor strata of society, or to the exclusion of minorities or marginal groups. This in turn often causes population movements. In Indonesia, for example, a financial crisis, linked among other causes to globalizing factors, was followed by a dramatic drop in growth, the collapse of the Suharto regime, and - this is happening even as we speak - violent attacks on ethnic and religious minorities, and their forced displacement. In this and other cases, simmering tensions are brought to the bursting point by economic problems, and people are forced to flee.

Another effect of globalization which has an impact on population movements is the weakening of state control on the economy. Money moves much faster and more freely than ever before across borders, to where profit is available, and away from where it is not. This, of course, is almost always of great benefit to a large number of people: in spite of current problems, many countries in East and South-East Asia, Latin America, and to a much more limited extent in Africa, have made astonishing and fast economic progress. This has had an enormous impact on many people's welfare and lives.

On the other hand, the range and influence of economic interests that mobilize capital, and are mobilized by it, are so huge and widespread, that the ability of states to control them is seriously beginning to decline. The consequence is that states have less power not only to direct the flows of capital and goods - which many see as a positive effect - but also to protect those left even more deprived and marginalized than they were in less interdependent, and more regulated economies. Social safety nets break down when people are most exposed to job shortages or job losses. This causes real hardship as well as widespread anxiety and frustration. Deprived of state protection, people often leave, or flee. Countries in the ex-communist block - particularly in the former Soviet Union - provide examples of the impact of a deregulated economy on society, and, in some cases, of population movements as a result. In developing countries, the further weakening of already fragile state institutions has had dramatic consequences, most particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Unable to represent - let alone protect! - any collective concerns, states collapse; economic, ethnic, and religious interests prevail, and often collide dramatically, causing tension and conflict.

Conflicts are also very often fought in developing countries on the basis of rather narrow group interests. Take for example the wars being fought in the Congo and Angola, and in Sierra Leone - where I was just a few days ago. They have as main objective the control of economic resources by some factions, more or less supported by groups and corporations in other countries, in what are becoming regional, if not global, economic wars. Needless to say, it is the poorest who suffer the most. As if being impoverished by war was not enough, they are often targeted by the fighting parties. Respect for their most basic human rights, already limited under normal circumstances, ceases to exist. Their only way of escape is to seek refuge in safer areas, or abroad. The number of refugees and internally displaced people in Africa continues to be the highest of any other continent.

Although globalization may not be the only cause, it nevertheless certainly contributes to a generalized decline in the protection of people by states, and may give rise to a very strong sense of insecurity. I should add that this is not so evident here in the United States, where government has had relatively less of a supporting role in people's lives; but it is palpable in Europe, for example; and it is dramatically felt in poor countries, where declining state protection is coupled with cuts in development aid. This insecurity - undefined and vague as it may be - can have very negative consequences, in particular with the increase in the number of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Again, this may not be so obvious to Americans - the United States, after all, was built by immigrants and refugees. Elsewhere, however, scholars speak of societies undergoing "identity crises". In this situation, people's fears of being threatened can easily be manipulated by unscrupulous politicians, and turned into hostile feelings towards "intruders": not foreign capitals, which are perceived as an abstract, invisible entity, but more immediate targets - foreign workers, immigrants and refugees.

I believe that xenophobia, the "fear of foreigners", is one of the most dangerous trends in modern society, and one that has to be countered by governments and civil society most vigorously. It is a worldwide phenomenon, flourishing in the North, but also spreading in the developing South, where the bulk of migratory and refugee movements continue to take place. While xenophobia is by definition anti-democratic, it often uses, paradoxically, the conduit of democratic institutions. Politicized xenophobia is particularly dangerous. The former President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, once told me that when he was in office in the Seventies and had near absolute powers, he could easily decide to give asylum to thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries; the current, democratically elected President, he said, has to deal with party politics and xenophobic fears, and must therefore be much more cautious in publicly upholding respect for refugee asylum.

In the situation which I have described, people compelled to move by poverty or by conflict and persecution - in short, migrants and refugees - are therefore particularly vulnerable. On the one hand, powerful transnational forces are contributing to reshaping the world; and they are eroding the authority of the state, which previously offered some protection to the weaker and more vulnerable members of society. On the other hand, the sense of insecurity produced by globalization fuels xenophobic, nationalistic sentiments.

Refugees (and migrants) are thus trapped, so to speak, between opposite trends. A good example of their situation is provided by how international borders are used with respect to refugees. The very concept of refugee hinges on the notion of a recognized international border, which marks the limit of state sovereignty - states keep out those threatening their security, but allow into the country, to be protected, refugees - whose own state cannot or does not want to protect any more. This fundamental concept, however, also gets caught between two extremes: on the one hand, globalizing forces are making borders somehow less relevant; on the other, reactive, localized forces tend to identify all those seeking entry as potential threats, and thus demand that border controls be reinforced, excluding them. People compelled to move, people in flight, although mobile by definition, are thus among those actually excluded from the freedom and benefits of borderless globalization.

The extreme vulnerability to which refugees and migrants are exposed by being trapped between these two trends makes them an easy prey of the so-called "migration networks", organized criminal rings which have made of human trafficking a most lucrative transnational activity. Traffickers charge exorbitant sums to help people cross borders and enter states in clandestinity. This activity has taken on enormous proportions. Recently, state security forces in Albania confiscated some boats used by criminal gangs to smuggle people across the Adriatic Sea into Italy, but were obliged to return the boats after being attacked by the traffickers themselves.

In this context, there is growing confusion between refugees, who flee persecution and violence, and migrants, who leave their country seeking better economic opportunities. In many situations, both poverty, and persecution or conflict, are pushing people to leave, making it difficult to determine the status of individual asylum seekers. This is the case for example in Algeria, Sri Lanka, areas of Iraq and Turkey inhabited by Kurds, Afghanistan, and, increasingly, large swathes of Africa.

Confronted with an upsurge of people knocking at their doors, whom they have less capacity to absorb than in the past, and intimidated by xenophobic calls, governments build barriers to keep people out. The focus has shifted from the protection of refugees to the control of all those seeking entry, refugees and migrants. To overcome these obstacles, many migrants declare themselves refugees. (And, in less known situations, in countries where migrants are relatively well accepted as menial labour, but refugee instruments are not recognized, refugees declare themselves economic migrants.) So, are these people refugees or migrants? Does this distinction mean anything any more?

I would like to make one point absolutely clear. The end of the Cold War has not eliminated situations of conflict and violence, of group and individual persecution, which compel people to flee and become refugees as their only safe choice. In the last two decades, the number of refugees and internally displaced people has increased dramatically. My Office considered around five million people to be of its "concern" in 1980. There are 23 million today. Although this is more difficult to estimate, the number of migrants also appears to be increasing. Conflicts, ethnic tensions, violations of human rights by states and armed groups, poverty and lack of opportunities, and more often a combination of some of these factors, contribute to the increase in the number of people compelled, rather than choosing, to be on the move, taking advantage of faster and cheaper travel opportunities (incidentally, another aspect of globalization).

To eliminate refugees as a category deserving specific protection based on internationally agreed norms would therefore expose many men, women and children to life-threatening situations. As such, the distinction must be maintained. The perhaps inevitable confusion between refugees and migrants may result in some of the latter being admitted as refugees in the country. This confusion is not useful to refugees, and has undoubtedly contributed to the growing perception that they are no longer a humanitarian cause to be defended, but a problem to be controlled. On the other hand, it is preferrable to err on the side of generosity than to return people to situations of extreme gravity and danger - think of Kosovo today.

But we must also be realistic. Much as refugees will continue to exist, they will also continue to be mingled with migrants - maybe increasingly so - and this will prompt states to restrict access to asylum, an easier measure than trying to define better respective modalities and approaches. This is true even in a country like the United States. True, America has traditionally been generous in giving asylum; its resettlement programme for refugees is the largest in the world; and its recent decision to grant temporary stay to people coming from areas affected by natural disasters, such as those countries ravaged by Hurricane Mitch, was a positive one. In spite of this, however, its reactions have usually been much more defensive, and control-oriented, when large influxes of refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean threatened to multiply, and complicate already substantial migratory flows from the same areas. And I will not even elaborate on other, more complex situations, the most extreme of which was the Rwandan exodus in 1994, in which armed elements and criminals mingled with bona fide refugees in order to continue their illicit activities. Clearly, defining and identifying a refugee will continue to be necessary, but will become more difficult.

You may therefore ask what is to be done: how can refugees be protected, in the narrow opening between powerful transnational forces, and equally strong localized trends? What is the response of the refugee agency to this seemingly intractable situation? There are not ready answers to these difficult questions, but I can perhaps indicate directions in which to move.

The priority is to address the root causes of large population movements, the most difficult to manage. The issue is of course very complex. Let me just highlight that in addressing the problems of countries producing refugee (and migratory) flows, the international community must adopt a much more comprehensive approach, combining political (and, if necessary, military) efforts to solve conflicts, with broad reconstruction programmes encompassing urgent humanitarian needs, as well as social and economic reconstruction.

I wish to insist on the comprehensiveness of the approach. This is key. If you analyze many refugee-producing situations, such as Afghanistan, the Kurdish area, and several countries in Africa, you will notice how dispersed and fragmented, if any, are the efforts of the international community to address the problems of conflict and poverty. But even in a situation which has ceased producing refugees, such as Bosnia, the size and complexity of the conflict resolution effort, expressed in the Dayton Peace Accords, and the large resources poured into material reconstruction, have not been matched yet in the field of social reconstruction: this missing element is perhaps the crucial factor behind the failure of so-called "minority returns" so far.

I hope that as the world moves into the next millennium, and the awareness of the importance of global security spreads, there will be more efforts to address the fundamental causes of forced population flows. People, however, will continue to move, and also continue to be compelled to move. As we strive to address the causes of flight, we must therefore also continue to improve the management of refugee flows, adapting it to new situations, but safeguarding basic principles upon which it has been designed - chiefly the rights to asylum and not to be returned. Much has been achieved to improve the speed, volume and techniques of material assistance in case of mass influxes - this is also, of course, an important aspect of protecting refugees, because it helps host states uphold the principles of refugee law. Much less progress, however, has been made in determining who deserves international protection, and who does not, among those crossing borders in very large numbers.

Refugee status determination procedures were designed for individual cases. Obviously, it is important - and in many cases possible - to improve screening procedures. However, this may not be sufficient. New approaches must be sought. For example, UNHCR was successful in promoting the concept of "temporary protection" for people fleeing Bosnia during the war. Basically, we asked states to open their borders to those seeking asylum, without undue delays and procedures, but we also committed ourselves to advise them when such temporary protection was not needed any longer. (The United States has adopted a very similar model, beginning with Salvadorian asylum seekers in the Eighties.) Asylum is of course temporary by nature. Explicitly declaring a group as deserving "temporary protection", however, and ceasing to request international protection when it is not required, can help states manage larger numbers of asylum seekers in a humane manner without resorting to cumbersome and ineffectual individual determination.

Governments, international agencies including my Office, and NGOs managing refugee flows, must also cooperate much more closely with those dealing with migration matters. Here I am not only referring to states: I am also thinking of the private sector, which employs most migrants and is therefore responsible for granting them adequate working conditions. Compared to the rights of refugees, who - at least theoretically - are protected by an international regime, the safeguard of the rights of migrants is much less structured. I believe that there is a need to establish solid, internationally agreed instruments providing a normative foundation to migratory movements, and to ensure that they are observed. There is also an urgent need to deal with transnational, criminal human trafficking - not to block safe routes for those fleeing persecution and violence, but to control and prevent serious abuses committed by criminal traffickers against innocent men and women. Helping people migrate in more humane and dignified conditions will also be of great benefit to the protection of refugees.

It is inevitable that the weaknesses of the global system will continue to exist, and perhaps even worsen, as globalization expands further, eroding the ability of states to provide social and economic protection to people. Whatever the progress of the global economy in the next few decades, there will be a growing number of people who will not benefit and will fall between the cracks of the system. People that I have defined "on the move", refugees and migrants, will be among the losers.

Unless we believe that the system, left to itself, will eventually correct these flaws and bring back into its fold those currently excluded - and history teaches us that it is unlikely to be the case - it is clear that pro-active, I would say "affirmative", gestures need to be made. Solidarity must be as ambitious and widespread as the scope and range of the global economy. To fill the cracks of globalization, we must promote what I like to call global solidarity.

It may sound abstract, and you may also ask why it is necessary. I have two answers. First, because it responds to the compelling moral imperative of sharing with those who are less fortunate - in this sense, global solidarity should be our primary response to the ethical challenges posed by refugee problems in the global era. Second, because the larger the number of people living a relatively secure life, the more secure everybody will be: global solidarity contributes to overall human security.

And in this context, it is of foremost importance that we convince our political leaders to integrate global solidarity into the system of values on which their action is based. People in democratic countries should make support to political leaders conditional on their commitment to address and resolve global problems. This is urgently needed. Despite declarations to the contrary, I am worried by the receding commitment of states to provide real leadership and "social stewardship" - including, in particular, the United States. Look at its elected representatives, its administration, its media, its civil society associations: with many notable exceptions, which must be recognized, their focus and attitudes are generally becoming inward-looking. They are often based on domestic issues, and even more often on an electoral agenda, rather than on a broader commitment to international leadership. In this context, the unpaid American assessed contributions to the United Nations are a very serious problem, casting a heavy shadow on the organizational viability of the United Nations. More important, they are perceived as reflecting a diminished interest in the international organization.

I do not wish to underestimate the deep causes that are at the root of this problem, and in particular the very fundamental frustration, in certain sectors of American leadership and society, over the impossibility to exercise fully a controlling influence in the United Nations. But America, today, must choose, once more, to be internationalist. Let us not forget that at other critical junctures of its history, the United States opted for internationalism. In doing so, it provided global leadership in the true sense of the word - leadership that allowed millions of people in the entire world to live in peace, freedom, democracy and relative prosperity. If America's choice today is once more in favour of internationalism - and I hope it will be - it will be difficult to seek public support for it, without, at the same time, providing a significant proof of commitment to the United Nations.

But this is not enough. It is the private sector that is benefitting most from globalization. Business indeed has key responsibilities in the evolution of the global economy, and in its aberrations. Social stewardship is also the responsibility of corporations. I believe it is important to adopt a "positive conditionality" approach, and give public recognition to socially responsible business.

And finally, the role of civil society in promoting global solidarity is obviously crucial. I am thinking of course of non-governmental organizations, whose extraordinary growth is not only a sign of the increasing importance of non-state actors in the globalizing world, but also an essential instrument in addressing its flaws. But I am also thinking of a stronger civil society in a more general sense - women and men shaping their own destiny, as well as helping to enable others to make their own choices.

I would like to conclude with a message for the students of this University. You are among those responsible for shaping tomorrow's values. I would like to think of you as women and men whose criteria for choosing your leaders, and for using your time, energies and resources, will not be limited to your own security and personal advantage. I would like you to take up the challenge to build peace and prosperity for the much broader and yet increasingly interdependent community into which globalization is irreversibly turning the world.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.