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Speech by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the European Consultative Meeting, 1 April 1968

Speeches and statements

Speech by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the European Consultative Meeting, 1 April 1968

1 April 1968

Mr. Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I assumed office as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at the beginning of this year. One of the first tasks to which I had to turn my attention was the problem faced by European governments with regard to the increased number of refugees and asylum-seekers moving into European States. One aspect of this phenomenon has been the fact that, in recent years, the majority of asylum-seekers entering Europe are from non-European countries far away from the region. This increased number of non-European refugees has drawn the attention, not only of government officials and refugee workers but also of the media and the public at large. The question of their treatment has been important. More important perhaps, is a matter which received greater attention: the concern of States and the general public about the arrival of a large number of immigrants in general - of which the asylum-seekers are but a small part - in the context of the growing economic and social problems in European countries.

These are real, fundamental and complex problems, unless the international community as a whole is able to address them, I am afraid that the principles which have been so carefully nurtured and developed over the years on the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers will be put at risk. I therefore feel that it is important that we join in taking a fresh look at the subject so that together we can identify and resolve the increasingly complex problems that have emerged. This meeting provides us with a good opportunity to do that. I hope that our deliberations over the next two days will enable us to work out an action-oriented approach more attuned to the needs of today's refugees and asylum-seekers.

To begin with, I believe we must recognize the difference between the circumstances of today's refugees and asylum-seekers and those which existed when the 1951 Refugee Convention was drawn up. While the 1951 Convention was primarily attuned to the situation of refugees who came from "classical persecution situations", today's refugees and asylum-seekers are leaving their countries largely to avoid situations of danger to their lives or freedom emanating from wars and other violent conflicts. While the refugees of the fifties and sixties looked for a new life in their countries of asylum and sought to be integrated into new communities, today's refugees are more in need of a temporary safe haven pending their return to their countries of origin when circumstances so permit. How soon they can go beck would depend on the political will of the international community as a whole to find appropriate political solutions to the root causes. I would like to underline, therefore, that to my mind not all asylum-seekers today who come to the countries you represent here are refugees requiring ultimate and definite integration in your countries. Yet they are, urgently, in need of humanitarian treatment and an active effort on the part of the international community to make it possible for them to return in a timely fashion to their countries of origin in safety and dignity.

These thoughts were behind my statement to the mini-ExCom in which some of you participated. I then expressed my hope that the temporary disparity between the relevant norms and the reality we are experiencing today will encourage States - the ultimate guardians of international law - to resist the temptation to entrench themselves behind the narrow boundaries of existing texts. The challenge before us is to recognize the need, while re-affirming the basic principles, to adjust to new practical exigencies when the time comes. In other words, I would hope that in line with basic humanitarian principles, States will also assume some responsibility for persons whose applications for refugee status and asylum are in doubt or have been rejected, in particular for those who would nevertheless be at risk if they are returned immediately. In this context, may I also state that the responsibility for determining who should be considered as refugees falls to States which have ratified the relevant international instruments. In order to achieve success in our efforts, I believe that we should avoid any confusion in this regard. The efforts of my office should be concentrated on actively pursuing solutions for refugees and asylum-seekers. In this process, my Office would welcome closer consultations with concerned governments as it is the case today here.

I would like to underline that when we talk about solutions we do not just mean settlement in European and other countries to which these refugees and asylum-seekers travel. To us the best solution is one in which refugees and asylum-seekers can return in safety and dignity to the countries of origin. When that is not possible, one should also actively pursue temporary solutions in the regions to which they have greater affinity.

As you will have noted from the paper submitted by my Office to these consultations, we would like to invite concerned States to address these problems in the context of informal working groups which would study specific refugee groups wit ha view to recommending specific courses of action. What I have in mind is the setting up of working groups composed of concerned governments and, where possible, governments in the region of origin of the refugees including the country of origin, when appropriate. UNHCR would be willing to arrange, if wished so, for these meetings and to act as a focal point in this respect.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the world context has been changing more and more rapidly. In our century, changing international relationships have given rise to a search for new forms of dialogue and relationships. This search, of which these Consultations are one expression, places the challenge before us. The question we must ask is: Can we afford not meet it?

I would welcome your reactions to this proposal in the course of our discussions. May I underline, however, that this approach clearly requires a political commitment to address problems created by refugee situations. It also implies seeking a clear understanding of the underlying factors giving rise to refugee movements and the need for States to assume their responsibilities fully in implementing appropriate solutions.

Thank you.