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Graduation Ceremony Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the University of Sussex, Brighton, United Kingdom, 13 July 1993

Speeches and statements

Graduation Ceremony Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the University of Sussex, Brighton, United Kingdom, 13 July 1993

13 July 1993

Your Grace and Chancellor, I am deeply honoured to receive the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa. It is a great pleasure for me to join you here today at the Graduation Ceremony of the University of Sussex. I congratulate the graduates - and, of course your families. It is proud day for you, and justly deserved. I know that what you have learnt at Sussex has prepared you well for the challenges that lie ahead - and there are many.

No other generation since the end of the Second World War has faced greater challenges - nor, let me hasten to add - better opportunities. Rarely before has the world presented such a juxtaposition of promise and peril, of integration and disintegration, of cooperation and conflict.

Nowhere are the contradictions more starkly presented than in Europe. Europe is at a cross-roads. On the positive side, adversarial attitudes of the Cold War have been replaced by a new willingness to cooperate on economic, political and security issues. Authoritarian structures have given way to more democratic forms of government throughout central and eastern Europe.

Trade and commerce, modern transport and communications are blurring national boundaries. Concerns on drugs, aids, environmental degradation and international migration are drawing Governments together into new forms of cooperation. The Maastricht Treaty is a proclamation of this greater Europe.

At the same time the optimism is overshadowed by unemployment and social discontent. I know many of you are deeply conscious of the economic recession as you join the labour market. The euphoria which marked the end of the cold War has been overtaken by a more realistic assessment of the painful process of political and economic restructuring in eastern Europe. In some parts, ancient hatreds and nationalistic, ethnic, cultural and religious rivalries are leading to violence, sometimes culminating in the fragmentation of states. Within these "new" states, more seeds of strife are being sown among insecure minorities. Former Yugoslavia provides a particularly graphic and painful example - but unfortunately not the only one - of the atrocious policy of torture, rape and murder to force one group of people to leave territory shared with another.

These dangerous and destabilizing trends are producing population movements on an unprecedented scale. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I see the problem of migration and refugees as among the most difficult challenges confronting European countries today.

It is no longer a problem of the distant Third World. Thanks to air travel, Sri Lankan or Somali refugees can reach Heathrow airport as rapidly as they can a neighbouring country in their own region.

In addition to the growing numbers of Third World refugees, there is now a major refugee problem in the very heart of Europe. UNHCR's largest operation today is in former Yugoslavia. We are providing life-sustaining assistance to close to 4 million people in former Yugoslavia, including people in the besieged enclaves of Bosnia. UNHCR's airlift to Sarajevo has turned out to be longer than to Berlin during the Soviet blockade in 1948.

The projection of what is to come is yet more dismal. From central and eastern Europe through to Central Asia, new tensions and divisions are opening up along ethnic and national lines, rousing fears of large-scale population displacement.

To these political conflicts are added severe socio-economic problems. Less than two years ago we saw boat-loads of destitute and desperate Albanians arriving on the shores of Italy. There are fears that the painful move from centralised to market economies in eastern Europe could produce more economic migration from those countries to western Europe. In addition to this, there is the pressure from the developing world, not only of refugees fleeing violence and persecution but also economic migrants escaping the debilitating effects of poverty. The global economic recession is hitting hardest on the poorest, and environmental and population pressures are exacerbating their plight.

In parallel with the pressures to encourage movement are growing the possibilities to move. Modern transport has narrowed distances while international media and communications has increased the aspirations of the less well off to seek a better future for themselves and their children in distant lands.

In short, we are living in an era where more people are moving than ever before. Twenty years ago, UNHCR cared for about 3 million refugees across the globe. Today that number has grown to almost 19 million. An additional 25 million people are displaced within their own frontiers. The UN population Fund has just released its report which says that 100 million people are on the move, twice the number since 1989.

In Europe alone the number of asylum seekers have increased from 30,000 in the 1970s to 400,000 in the late 1980s. In 1992 they reached close to 750,000.

The refugee and migratory movements from the developing world and form eastern Europe have aroused public concern in the West. The political and strategic value of granting asylum has diminished in a world which is no longer drawn along ideological lines. The cost of processing asylum applications has skyrocketed. Unemployment and economic recession are fuelling resentment against foreigners. Public hostility has exploded from time to time in violent, xenophobic attacks. Freedom of movement which speeded the demise of communism and served to unite Europe is now threatening to divide it. Deeply troubled governments are resorting to legal and administrative measures to discourage illegal immigrants, some of which regrettably also impact on the admission of asylum seekers.

The answer, however, lies not in building walls, but in seizing the opportunities which the post-Cold War era has presented us. Earlier, I mentioned the positive developments in European cooperation. They reflect a global trend towards international cooperation, a greater willingness to collectively address the threats to international peace and security, to recognise that poverty, drought and disease are more fatal than many weapons of war, that environmental damage is as great a threat to our common welfare as the proliferation of arms. This is not to say that we are on the way to resolving global concerns, but only that there are prospects which we must be ready to seize.

It is worth noting that the UN has launched more peace-keeping operations in the last 36 months than in its previous 43 years. Even more noteworthy is that these operations are not simply there to guard peace between States, but to build peace within States. Thanks to the UN's efforts, Cambodia has just completed its first democratic elections towards a constitutional government. As part of this peace process, UNHCR helped more than 370,000 refugees to return home in time to participate in the election and to rebuild a democratic society. UNHCR is now embarking on a similar ambitious plan to bring back more than 1.5 million refugees to Mozambique, following the political settlement between the government and RENAMO.

The return and successful reintegration of refugees has an important effect in helping to heal the wounds of a politically divided society and promoting stability. The promotion of democratic forms of governments helps to strengthen respect for human rights. A comprehensive, long-term strategy embracing trade measures, increased development assistance and debt relief needs to be adopted to address the socio-economic factors which underlie population movements. Such a strategy should recognise that people are leaving and returning to countries devastated by war, littered with mines, infested with malaria, burdened with demobilised soldiers and the internally displaced, almost totally bereft of any infrastructure, expertise or resources. Just as development strategies must be formulated so as to promote democratic forms of governance, so too failure in development must be recognised as a dangerous threat to democracy and freedom.

It is only by addressing the root causes of population movements that we can hope to reduce refugee problems, stabilise turbulent societies and enhance global security. Europe has a major role to play in addressing these root causes. Europe faces a unique challenge of leadership - leadership in developing an outward-looking strategy to deal with its own refugee problems, but also in reaffirming its leadership role and solidarity with the global refugee problem.

These larger challenges hide within them individual challenges for each one of you as you embark on your careers. The risks are evident. But also the opportunities are abundant. The danger is of introspection, of moving away from the global village to our own little village. In a world in which ideology no longer dictates allegiance nor States dictate behaviour, the moral strength of an individual will more and more prove to be the driving force in domestic as well as international relations. That is why I challenge the community of educated men and women to come to the fore in shaping future events. I wish you good luck.