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"From Crisis to Crisis: Are Refugees Victims of our Time?" - Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the American International Club of Geneva, 22 November 1996

Speeches and statements

"From Crisis to Crisis: Are Refugees Victims of our Time?" - Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the American International Club of Geneva, 22 November 1996

22 November 1996

I am very pleased to address the American International Club of Geneva again today. I first spoke to the Club in November 1991. As Geneva is called the "humanitarian capital" of the world I believe it is important for UNHCR to reach out to the community among which we live and work to exchange views on the humanitarian challenges we face.

In recent years, the refugee issue has been placed high on the international political agenda. Humanitarian crises have rapidly succeeded one after another since the beginning of the nineties, from northern Iraq, to Somalia, to former Yugoslavia, to Rwanda and Burundi, to Haiti, and to Chechnya in the Russian Federation. This list is far from exhaustive, and several long-standing crises have defied any progress toward a solution, such as in Afghanistan, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. During these past weeks, our attention has focused nearly exclusively on the rapidly evolving situation in eastern Zaire. That is why I choose as today's title: "From Crisis to Crisis: Are refugees Victims of our Times?" Can we make sense out of the apparent chaos in which we live today resulting in forced human displacement on a scale not seen since the end of the Second World War?

Let me briefly outline the role and mandate of my Office. UNHCR was established by the General Assembly in 1950 and has been mandated to provide international protection and to seek to solve refugee crises, through either local integration or voluntary repatriation. The 1951 Convention and the 1967 protocol Relating to Refugees bind the 131 States party to them to internationally agreed standards. Protection of refugees means not only making sure that people fleeing persecution, human rights violations or war are allowed to enter other countries to seek asylum or are not forcibly returned to a country where their lives may be threatened. It also requires looking after their physical and material well-being, by coordinating emergency relief in the form of shelter, water, food, health care, education and community services. As a result of the large-scale crises of the nineties, UNHCR's work has expanded enormously, resulting in an annual budget amounting to more than US $ 1 billion for a fourth consecutive year and employing more than 5,400 people worldwide.

I am often asked three types of questions. First, why is the number of refugees increasing and will they continue to do so? Second, can refugee problems be solved? And third, are there any ways to prevent them from occurring? I will try to answer these questions by outlining the major challenges facing UNHCR, and how my Office seeks to respond to them.

To return to the first question about increasing numbers, it is important to review some basic facts. The total number of persons falling within UNHCR's responsibility has risen from 17 million in 1991, when I assumed office as High Commissioner, to 23 million in 1993 and to more than 27 million in 1995. Currently, some 26.1 million persons are of concern to my Office.

While noting the dramatic increase in numbers, it is interesting to examine the categories of people under our care. Although UNHCR is a refugee protection organization, it is increasingly having to deal with a wider range of civilian victims in refugee-like situations. Of the 26.1 million persons, 13.2 million are refugees, i.e. those who have crossed an international border fleeing persecution and conflict. In countries of origin, we care for some 4.7 million displaced persons, who have fled for similar reasons as refugees but who have not crossed an international border, and for 3.3 million refugees who have returned home but still require our assistance for a limited period of time. Finally, we care for some 4.9 million persons who are in a refugee-like situation, such as war victims in former Yugoslavia and others.

The number and breakdown of the persons of concern to my Office show that today's forced human displacements, whether taking place within countries or spilling across borders, are in most instances products of conflict among communities within national boundaries. In the past, internal conflicts were often fuelled by ideological and political rivalry among the superpowers, as in Afghanistan, Central America and Ethiopia. Today as ideological rivalry has receded, group identity along ethnic, religious or communal lines has become a more divisive factor. Still the roots of the problem are often political, or massive violations of human rights, or socio-economic inequities. In the worst instances, this has led to state fragmentation, as in the former Yugoslavia, or collapse, as in Afghanistan and Somalia.

The four-year conflict in the former Yugoslavia brought home dramatically the consequences of fragmentation. Forced displacement of minorities has been not only a by-product but also an objective of the conflict. De-population or re-population tactics, in support of territorial claims and self-determination, have been an abominable characteristic of the conflict in the Balkans and the Caucasus. In eastern Europe, ethnic conflicts, religious intolerance and political rivalries have followed the break-up of the former Soviet Union. An estimated 9 million people have been uprooted since 1989.

However, the end of the Cold War has also paved the way for resolving many long-standing conflicts. There is a greater readiness on the part of the international community to save human lives during conflicts resorting to humanitarian intervention or by investing in peace-making and peace building. Although the successes have been mixed, I believe that this has been an important development.

This leads me to answer the second question, namely: "Can refugee problems be solved?" The answer is positive, but qualified. More than ten million people have returned home through the assistance of UNHCR over the last six years, to Afghanistan, Cambodia, Central America, Horn of Africa, South Africa, and Mozambique, to name just a few. In recent years, our work has become more pro-active, solutions oriented and diverse. Our presence in countries of asylum and of origin enables us to engage in assistance and protection activities on both sides of the border. It allows us to ease the circumstances leading to flight and to help refugees and displaced persons to return home as soon as possible. We do not necessarily wait for conditions in the country of origin to become ripe for repatriation, but try to help create them.

However, in the pursuit of solutions to refugee crises, my Office faces many dilemmas. How does one achieve the peaceful re-integration of refugees and displaced persons whose expulsion was the goal of the fighting? How can just and humane solutions be obtained for the uprooted victims in the absence of a genuine compromise for coexistence among the groups, or when essential parts of this understanding - as contained in the Dayton Agreement for instance - remain blocked by both political obstruction and distrust?

Helped by NATO, the OSCE and numerous other partners, my Office is spearheading the international effort to bring about the return of 2.2 million refugees and displaced persons to their homes in Bosnia. Unfortunately, only some 250,000 people have been able to return since Dayton, and nearly exclusively to areas controlled by their ethnic group. Bosnia demonstrates that the return of refugees and the displaced requires national reconciliation in the broad sense. This may be a greater challenge than separating warring armies or physically reconstructing societies following fierce communal conflicts.

Again we are facing tough dilemmas: if there is so much obstruction against the return of refugees, should we give up and try to settle all of them in their ethnically controlled areas? My answer is a qualified no, as that would be tantamount to "ratifying ethnic cleansing." UNHCR will continue to try to build bridges among the people of Bosnia, while helping those who choose to return to where they feel safe.

It is important to realize that the road toward solving humanitarian crises is a long and arduous one. There are simply no quick fixes.

I would like now to address the third question, "Can refugee crises be prevented?" This is the most difficult question and one to which I have no clear answer. UNHCR as a humanitarian agency should by definition be non-political, impartial and neutral. As the causes of refugee crises are mostly political, steps toward preventing them go beyond the mandate and capacity of my Office. Nevertheless, I believe that UNHCR has a role to play. First, it can raise awareness about impending crises and call upon the responsible political bodies to take early action through preventive diplomacy or intervention. Second, active steps toward institution and capacity-building in potential refugee producing countries can be undertaken so that governments themselves can take necessary action. The promotion of human rights law, the protection of minorities in particular, are essential components. In Tajikistan and elsewhere, UNHCR has provided human rights oriented training to judicial personnel. We have also negotiated amnesties and have monitored the returning refugees. Our most ambitious project has been the organization of a regional conference to address the problems of refugees and displaced persons in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. A Plan of Action has been agreed upon to enable these countries to cope with and prevent population displacements, as well as to manage and regulate other migratory flows.

Throughout my statement today, I have made many implicit references to the political nature of the causes of and solutions to humanitarian crises. Humanitarian agencies like UNHCR can make a difference through their presence. We can help to stabilize a situation and mitigate human rights abuses. We can make sure that people in need of protection and asylum receive it. However, we must also recognize the limits of humanitarian action. In many instances, the issues involved are political rather than humanitarian. The recent in-country humanitarian relief operations - Somalia, northern Iraq, Rwanda and Haiti - were only in part inspired by genuine feelings of compassion. Realities of political and security interests, attempts to prevent a spill-over of the conflict, and increasing weariness to receive refugees have weighed heavily in all these cases.

Some humanitarian interventions have been belated or insufficient. In other places there has been no attempt to halt massive human suffering. They are cases of forgotten crises, festering outside the international spotlight. If states have little strategic interest in a crisis, there is a tendency to opt for humanitarian action. Relief serves often as the lowest common denominator and as a substitute for more robust political or military action.

Let me illustrate my observation by referring to the current situation in the Great Lakes region. Following the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, we have provided protection and assistance to 1.7 million Hutu refugees in Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi. However, while these international relief activities serve an innocent, silent majority of needy and anxious people - most of whom women and children - they have also aided the militants and perpetrators of genocide present in the camp who have maintained their control over the refugee population. The inability to separate the militants from the refugee population has been agonizing. We tried everything possible to encourage the refugees to repatriate, but most of them were prevented from returning by the militants or their leaders. They also lacked confidence in the developments in Rwanda. Meanwhile, armed incursions from Zaire into Rwanda took place and ethnic conflict between Hutus and Tutsis spread to eastern Zaire, forcing nearly a million Rwandan and Burundi refugees to flee their camps last month. As a consequence of the heavy fighting, UNHCR staff had to be evacuated from eastern Zaire, leaving the refugees and displaced Zairians to fend for themselves. This was a very difficult decision, but necessary to ensure their safety. I had repeatedly warned, including at the Security Council, that the situation was untenable and that humanitarian responses cannot solve political problems. We have had to live through agonizing dilemmas.

Last Friday, events took a dramatic but positive turn. Some 500,000 Rwandan refugees returned suddenly to Rwanda. I was elated when I saw the first pictures of the long winding column of people moving slowly and orderly toward the border. It was an impressive and touching sight. Voluntary repatriation, for which my Office has been working hard to achieve for more than 2 years, became a reality. The problems, however, are not solved. First, a substantial number of Rwandan refugees still remain in eastern Zaire and we have no access to them. Second, thousands of Zairians are displaced inside their own country without receiving assistance. Third, some 120,000 Burundi refugees remain stranded inside Zaire. Fourth, the neighbouring countries of Uganda and Tanzania are facing a large influx of refugees. And finally, but most importantly, all the returnees to Rwanda must be helped to reintegrate peacefully, and their human rights respected. The tasks ahead are difficult and daunting. Following the large-scale repatriation, the role of the Temporary Multinational Force has become unclear and its deployment is being questioned. I believe we can benefit from this Force to obtain access to the refugees and displaced persons; to secure the safety of humanitarian workers; to assist in the provision of food and water; and to facilitate the safe repatriation of refugees from eastern Zaire.

I am afraid that the rapidly evolving situation on the ground and the lack of international consensus on how to deal with the complex dimensions have prevented the much needed concerted action. Humanitarian relief cannot continue to be used as a band-aid to stop the bleeding. Lest action is taken now, there will be even more refugees to feed for many years to come, as peace and reconciliation will have become remote dreams.

The responsibility which my Office is facing is heavy at times, as experienced dramatically during the last several weeks. We know the objectives we want to achieve - namely, to protect and assist refugees, to solve their plight and to prevent new crises from occurring. Frequently, we are less clear about each step to follow to achieve these objectives. Raising awareness about the issues involved and winning sympathizers and supporters will make a big difference on the difficult road ahead. I hope my discourse with you today will have contributed to this goal.

Thank you.