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Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Meeting on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South-East Asia, 21 July 1979

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Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Meeting on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South-East Asia, 21 July 1979

21 July 1979

Mr Secretary-General,

Thank you for giving me the floor.

May I say how grateful I am for your deep personal interest in resolving the crisis in South East Asia and for the encouragement and stimulus you have given to our continuing efforts on behalf of the refugees. May I also join you in welcoming the distinguished delegates present at this Meeting.

It is apparent to all of us that the problems we are facing are deadly serious. Too much has already been sacrificed in terms of human life and dignity, in terms of international law and of conduct. We have no alternative but to agree, without delay, on concerted and united actions that much contain, reduce and resolve the appalling tragedy of the Indo-Chinese refugees.

Patently, the massive exodus from the States of Indo-China should not continue in the present tragic manner. Political problems call for political solutions. These are the responsibility of the Governments concerned and they must be faced.

Nothing, however, should obscure the immediate duty of the international community towards those who seek asylum, they are UNHCR's immediate concern. There is no way of reconciling ourselves to the loss of human life that we are witnessing at present.

In the grave circumstances confronting us, it is incumbent on the international community that firm commitments are made, of an on-going character, to end the present suffering. These commitments must give the refugees the chance of new lives. They must also provide the reassurance that the countries of South East Asia need, for as long as the problem lasts. We must deal with the problem in its totality. There are no easy solutions and no short-cuts.

The fact of the matter is that, as a result of cumulative developments - both historical and immediate - over a million persons have left the three States of the Indo-China peninsula since 1975. As the Secretary-General indicated, over 550 000 of them have sought asylum in South East Asia. Over 350 000 of them are presently in countries of the ASEAN group and in Hong Kong, awaiting durable solutions. These numbers increase by the hour.

This refugee problem did not start yesterday and it is necessary we remember this. It is now in its fifth year and more desperate than ever. Yet over the years and months, each day, solutions have been found. Over 200 000 refugees have been resettled away from South East Asia. In June alone, over 12 000 persons were moved.

Food, shelter, clothing, medicines - even drinking water - have daily been brought to the refugees, often in most trying circumstances. This we have ensured, even as we have been appalled by the fate of the many who could not gain refuge or were turned away. Over the years US$ 127 million have been contributed through UNHCR - in cash or in kind - as aid for the refugees. It has been an extraordinary effort. However, for the rest of 1979 alone, the present programme in South East Asia will need at least US$ 50 million more. This figure is based on the current caseload. It will increase I accordance with the numbers. Further, this figure does not include costs that may relate to refugee processing centres, holding centres, or orderly departures from Viet Nam. There is an urgent need to announce new pledges as well as to pay previous pledges as rapidly as possible. May I, with the utmost gratitude, thank the Governments, the inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations that, together with countless individuals, have already helped so greatly, so far.

Yet, manifestly, much more needs to be done, for the problem has out-stripped present solutions. And what needs to be done, can only be accomplished through the conscious and co-ordinated determination of Governments - whether the States of Indo-China, of South East Asia, or beyond. Each has clear responsibilities.

We have tried, in our Note for this Meeting, to identify these responsibilities. We have also suggested a plan of action to deal comprehensively with the situation. I shall not repeat what is in the Note, except to underline certain essentials for they can bear repetition.

Clearly, the situation should be remedied in which thousands upon thousands of Indo-Chinese leave their homes in the present tragic manner.

Next, the "backlog" of 350 000 persons in South East Asian camps must be reduced dramatically. I welcome this Meeting because, in preparation for it, and in consequence of it, there should be a major and increased availability of resettlement places for the refugees. These offers should be used in the shortest possible time. To the greatest extent, movement should be directly to countries of resettlement as this constitutes a permanent solution.

Additionally, however, it will be necessary to identify and establish refugee processing centres or holding centres of far greater capacity than presently made known to us. I am grateful to the ASEAN countries for the initiatives they have already taken and to the Indonesian Government for the Meeting that was convened in Jakarta. I hope that during the present Meeting, Governments will make specific offers of sites - whether within or beyond the region. If Governments wish such centres to be organized with the full participation of UNHCR, we are ready to undertake the responsibility and act immediately.

Future arrivals must be handled with sufficient on-going commitments. I would earnestly hope that the rate of new arrivals declines. I shall monitor developments carefully, and regularly advise Governments of the situation and the needs. It is imperative that the widest range of countries accord resettlement opportunities. That would give real meaning to the often proclaimed slogan of global inter-dependence. For instance, few Indo-Chinese have hitherto been resettled in Latin America, a continent that has been most generous to refugees from Europe after two World Wars. In the past six years, at the request of the Latin American Governments, the international community resettled some 40 000 refugees of this Continent in 40 countries over four continents. May we reiterate the deep hope that Latin America will help us in our present difficulties by receiving those others who, now, so desperately need to start their lives afresh.

With the containment of the problem, durable solutions will need to be pursued in the region. The prospects of repatriation - on a voluntary basis must continue to be explored, wherever possible. The experience and assistance of UNHCR can be counted upon, should conditions permit of such repatriation. Further, as a contribution to the over-all solution, the possibility would arise for a degree of settlement within the region, for those for whom this is the most appropriate solution. There is every reason to believe that international funds would be forthcoming to finance settlement projects which could benefit both refugees and the local population. We have been in touch with Governments concerning the need for a major fund to finance permanent solutions for refugees wherever they are settled in developing countries.

As Governments are aware, UNHCR has concluded an Understanding with the Government of Viet Nam concerning the orderly departure of family reunion and other humanitarian cases from that country. I am glad to say that flights, consequent to this Understanding, have commenced. Clearly this programme needs to be carefully implemented. Its success hinges on the understanding and support of Governments and on a diminishing of the present tragic exodus.

There are linkages in our plan of action that cannot be ignored. Underlying our whole approach has been the need to firmly re-establish the principles of asylum and non-refoulement. These are sacrosanct principles, as are the obligations to rescue those in distress at sea. Today, it is the Indo-Chinese refugees, tomorrow it could be others. As our work indicates, few nations are immune and it is worthwhile remembering this. Indeed, even as we consider the situation in South East Asia, let us not forget that there are millions of refugees and displaced persons elsewhere who are also in desperate need.

Mr Secretary-General, distinguished delegates, throughout this crisis I have sometimes feared, and even said, that it is easier for the world to express concern and outrage for the unknown refugee who drowns, or otherwise perishes, for he makes no demand on any nation. It is far more difficult to be reconciled to resolving the problems of those who live, for they demand that we do more than we have done. This Meeting must respect the living, and it world help, to start with, if we did not think of the refugee as a burden. Over the decades, UNHCR has helped millions of refugees. Not infrequently, in the heat of a crisis, they too were described as a burden. We know they proved not to be so, many contributed greatly to the societies that received them.

Mr Secretary-General, distinguished delegates, we anticipate major governmental commitments during this Meeting. From our side, we are ready. If commitments are made, we can deliver and will do so with the utmost urgency.