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Inter-governmental Consultations on Asylum, Refugee and Migration Policies in Europe, North America and Australia | Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on 'A Comprehensive Refugee Policy'

Speeches and statements

Inter-governmental Consultations on Asylum, Refugee and Migration Policies in Europe, North America and Australia | Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on 'A Comprehensive Refugee Policy'

9 December 1993

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Purcell, Ladies and Gentlemen

I am very pleased to be able to participate personally, for the first time, at a Full Round of the "Informal Consultations". I commend you, Mr. Chairman, and the Coordinator, Mr. Olesen, for a well-prepared meeting.

I greatly value this opportunity to meet representatives of States from both sides of the Atlantic and further afield. The traditional informal nature of these consultations allows us to engage in an open exchange of views on issues which are of common interest to us. Some of them demand common analysis in this forum; others may call for common action elsewhere. While reaching consensus on some issues, we may, for the time being, agree to disagree on others.

I would like to share with you some thoughts on the global refugee problem with which my Office must grapple, and the need to develop an effective and comprehensive response to it.

Let me begin by saying how grateful I am for the strong support, which my Office has received from your delegations participating in the UNHCR Executive Committee (ExCom) and the United Nations General Assembly. Such political and moral support is of crucial importance for my Office as we strive to meet the challenges which lie ahead, and a great encouragement to me personally, as I embark on my second term as High Commissioner for the next five years.

You are all aware, indeed deeply conscious in your own work, of the challenges which population movements are posing as we come to the end of the twentieth century. When I became High Commissioner in early 1991, there were some 15 million refugees. Since then, we have witnessed the crisis in the Persian Gulf area, anarchy in Somalia, conflict in former Yugoslavia, unrest and fragmentation of the former Soviet Union, outflow from Myanmar, and, in recent weeks, ethnic killings in Burundi. In every instance, UNHCR has had to deal with massive displacement of people across, and sometimes within, borders. Not surprisingly, and despite the repatriation of over 3 million refugees to Cambodia, Afghanistan, Mozambique and elsewhere, the world population of refugees and including other persons assisted by UNHCR has reached some 19 million.

Europe has had its own role to play in these statistics, not only in receiving refugees but also as a source of refugee outflows. War and "ethnic cleansing", which has become the new euphemism for persecution, has forced over a million people to flee Bosnia and Herzegovina and almost 3 million to be internally displaced or to live under siege. Further east, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Tajikistan are scenes of major displacement resulting from ethnic and political conflict. I am afraid that the prognosis for the future is ominous, with gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law as much a cause of refugee flows today as ever before.

We all agree that population movements are as complex in their causes as they are distressing in their consequences and dramatic in their manifestation. The ease of international travel and mass communication means that even distant States can no longer be isolated from the impact of these movements, whether in large numbers or on a smaller scale. Not only have distant problems rapidly become domestic ones, the refugee issue has gone beyond the humanitarian domain to become a major political and security issue, affecting regional and global stability. That is an important lesson to be learned from the conflict in Indochina in the 1970s and more recently, in the Persian Gulf as well as in former Yugoslavia.

These dimensions of the refugee problem have placed before us new dilemmas: how do we balance humanitarian considerations and human rights principles with the legitimate interests of States? How do we reconcile national concerns regarding refugees and migrants with a global policy on population movements and international stability? How do we make sure that long-term humanitarian achievements are not sacrificed for short-term political considerations?

I believe that the objective must be two-fold: on the one hand, to address the responsibility of States participating in the "Informal Consultations" for the refugee problems which they face, just as other States have done for theirs;and on the other, to affirm their leadership role and solidarity also towards the global refugee problem. This requires a comprehensive and concerted strategy.

Through such a strategy we should find concrete answers to the many problems which we face daily. How can we better cope with large-scale influxes? How do we differentiate between those who are in need of international protection and those who are seeking economic prosperity? What standards of protection and assistance should the refugees and other displaced persons receive? Is there a need to alleviate the disproportionate burden of some States? How do we promote solutions to refugee problems, including return and rehabilitation? Most importantly, what can be done to prevent coerced population movements? Finally, what principles should guide our response?

These are questions which confront States as much as they do the international organizations. The questions are clearly interrelated, as are the responses. This is why I advocate a comprehensive strategy, which focuses on meeting the needs of the victims as well as the concerns of States, while seeking to find solutions to their problems and promoting measures to prevent further outflows.

Recognizing the importance of such an approach, the UNHCR Executive Committee has requested my Office to further elaborate the concept of comprehensive regional responses to situations of coerced population movements and to consult with States and international organizations to that end. I have already initiated an internal process towards this goal. I know that the Informal Consultations is also contributing to increasing awareness on the need for a multi-dimensional approach to the refugee problem. Let me therefore take the opportunity of this particular forum to elaborate on what I see as the main components of a comprehensive approach: the concepts of prevention, protection and solutions.

Prevention is a controversial concept. In one sense of the word, it can mean building barriers to stop victims of persecution and violence from entering another country. This may serve to shift the problem in the immediate-term, but at what cost to the victims and to humanitarian principles? I am convinced that such measures cannot deal with the problem adequately in the long-term. Therefore, a more constructive concept of prevention must be elaborated to tackle the causes which compel people to move. This longer-term goal is more difficult to achieve, demanding a profound analysis of root causes, a clear understanding of their inter-linkages and a strong political commitment to address them.

Such a preventive strategy requires a human rights focus in foreign policy matters. It involves encouraging other States to assume their responsibilities to protect their own nationals by setting up effective institutions, laws and procedures that enshrine the principles of human rights and minority protection. It demands a greater commitment to preventive diplomacy and mediation efforts in potential areas of war and ethnic conflict. It calls for an economic and development policy which focuses on population movements. It demands a better comprehension of the relationship between aid, trade, migration and potential refugee flows.

I welcome the attention which the Informal Consultations is beginning to give to the issue of development and migration. My Office is also intensifying contacts with organizations and experts in these areas. As we all know, illegal immigration impacts upon asylum procedures. What we are perhaps less aware of is the impact of poverty on political tensions which flare into violence which then might produce refugees. I am convinced that the way in which we respond to the problems of migration and economic development will profoundly affect our ability to deal with the refugee problem.

Efforts to protect and assist the internally displaced in their own countries, so that they no longer feel compelled to cross borders for humanitarian assistance, can also be an important measure of prevention. UNHCR's growing involvement with the internally displaced in different parts of the world should be seen in the context of such a preventive strategy to stabilize population displacement.

Experience, however, has demonstrated that prevention has its limits in a world which is still grappling with fundamental political and socio-economic problems. Hence, the need for protection and assistance to those who are compelled to flee persecution, war and violence.

The basic framework of international protection was shaped by the experiences of the Second World War and deeply influenced by the values and goals of a bi-polar world. Today, the end of the Cold War, the proliferation of refugee emergencies, the growing pressure of economic migration, the problem of internal displacement, the complexity of causes which uproot people, the shrinking of asylum opportunities and the expanding possibilities of return home, albeit in uncertain conditions: these have all challenged the traditional approach of international protection.

They indicate clearly the need to reorient our approach. I believe we must continue to uphold the right to seek asylum and strive to provide protection to all those who flee violence, conflict and persecution. The content and tools of protection, may however, bear some scrutiny and refinement.

Let me stress that the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees must continue to be applied fully and liberally. While we must recognize and respond to serious abuse of asylum procedures, we should refrain from using these procedures as means for immigration control. Asylum procedures, whether normal or accelerated, must serve the purpose for which they have been created: that is, to determine, in a fair and efficient manner, who is in need of international protection. Provided that each asylum claim is examined properly, and effective protection is available to those who need it, it is compatible with principles of international refugee law that States agree amongst themselves which of them is responsible for examining the asylum request.

The issue of return in safety and dignity of those who are determined not to be in need protection is also relevant in this context. While wishing to assist States within the humanitarian mandate of my Office, I would like to stress that any involvement of my Office should be in a concerted approach, including the country of origin and, where possible, other international organizations, notably the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Recognizing the continued importance of the 1951 Convention does not mean overlooking its limitations in large-scale influx situations. Individual examination of claims of the kind associated with the 1951 Convention, and durable protection of the kind promoted by the Convention are neither feasible nor desirable when there is a mass influx of refugees and asylum-seekers. Other regions have forged their own, alternative tools in such situations: in the case of Africa, the 1969 OAU Convention for example, and in Latin America, the Cartagena Declaration. In South-East Asia, the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) has addressed the specific issue of Indochinese refugees. In Europe, I have appealed to Governments to do what other regions are doing and grant temporary protection to those fleeing the conflict in former Yugoslavia. The basic principles of temporary protection should include admission, respect for non-refoulement or prohibition against return to danger, humanitarian standards of treatment, and return and reintegration when conditions so allow in the country of origin.

I realize that the concept of temporary protection raises a number of issues which require further thought. This is why my Office has engaged in an informal dialogue with Governments about its implementation. With the conflict in former Yugoslavia dragging on, one of the key questions is how "temporary" is temporary protection. For how long should it continue? How should the standards of treatment be improved over time? The grant of temporary protection has triggered off a discussion as to whether those who flee ethnic conflict qualify as refugees under the 1951 Convention. Ethnic persecution is an integral part of the refugee definition, but State practice greatly varies, with recognition rates ranging from zero to 75 per cent.

These issues do not, however, diminish the value of temporary protection as a pragmatic, flexible and solution-oriented tool of refugee policy and a major component of a comprehensive approach. In line with the conclusions of ExCom and in the light of experience, the concept should be further elaborated to see to what extent it can provide an intermediate solution to large-scale refugee flows in this part of the world. My Office intends to pursue actively this dialogue with States.

I see durable solutions as the third and final component of a comprehensive strategy. When circumstances in the country of origin allow, voluntary repatriation is the most preferred solution to refugee problems. Indeed, it is a solution that my Office is promoting in many parts of the world. The growing opportunities for voluntary repatriation is yet another reason for temporary, rather than durable, protection in case of large-scale influx. However, as our experience in Central America, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and elsewhere has shown, successful repatriation is dependent on political solutions and economic rehabilitation.

I believe the industrialised countries have a particular role to play in promoting such conditions. Socio-economic development can sustain political reconciliation, cement return and reduce migratory pressures. It can encourage regional stability and prevent further refugee outflows. This is yet another dimension of the discussion on political stability, economic development and population movement, that calls for better understanding and stronger support, which I hope this forum will cultivate.

Growing opportunities for voluntary repatriation have had profound implications for integration and third-country resettlement as durable solutions to refugee problems. However, as we have seen in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, third country placement continues to be an important tool of protection, international solidarity and burden-sharing. The Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees (CPA) is another example where resettlement has been successfully combined with return to resolve a mixed movement of refugees and economic migrants.

Prevention, protection and solutions provide a broad conceptual framework for a comprehensive strategy, but if they are to move from the realm of rhetoric to the sphere of action, then they must be translated into coordinated and concrete measures, tailored to specific situations. There are important lessons to be drawn from our experiences in Central America, Southeast Asia and former Yugoslavia. The informal nature of these Consultations gives us an opportunity to explore these approaches and discuss other possible responses to current or future refugee problems.

As war and winter take their toll in the Balkans, as ethnic hatreds de-stabilise state structures in the former Soviet Union, as demographic pressure, social conflict and political tensions combine to form an explosive mix in North Africa, it is obvious that the refugee problem has gained a new urgency for this part of the world. I am convinced that Governments can no more insulate themselves from the consequences through border control alone, than they can resolve the problem without a comprehensive and concerted approach.

The strategy should be, at the national level, to promote a more concerted effort among those dealing with foreign policy, development and economic cooperation, immigration and refugee issues. At the international level, it should be to develop closer cooperation among States, international agencies and non-governmental organizations. It is only through such dialogue that we can address today's problem. It is only through such partnership that we can meet tomorrow's demands.

My Office, Mr. Chairman, intends to play an active role to help provoke such a dialogue and promote such a partnership.