Statement by Mr. António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Debate on Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons in South East Europe, Strasbourg, 27 June 2007
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A week ago, on World Refugee Day, I accompanied a group of 160 refugees going home to Southern Sudan after decades of exile in northern Uganda.
Beginning last year, tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees have made the brave choice to return to their devastated homeland after decades of conflict. They are coming home with UNHCR's help from refugee camps in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia and the Central African Republic. Others are returning from exile in Libya and Egypt, as well as from other parts of Sudan itself.
With its millions of uprooted people and the continuing horrors of Darfur, Sudan is not a place one normally associates with humanitarian success stories. Like so many other uprooted people forced to flee violence and persecution worldwide, the southern Sudanese have long dreamed of going home - despite the uncertainties and hardship. Their repatriation now is a ray of hope in a strife-torn region.
I mention Southern Sudan today for two reasons. The first is to recall that our greatest satisfaction at UNHCR comes from helping a refugee family go home. The second is to underscore that no family goes home simply because we offer our help. They go home when return is made possible. And that is beyond the control of humanitarian agencies such as mine.
This is certainly true in South Eastern Europe, another region which has been dealing with the humanitarian consequences of forced displacement for decades.
Ten years after the Dayton Peace Agreement, there can be no questioning the progress achieved on behalf of refugees and displaced in the region. The number of people who are of concern to UNHCR in the Western Balkans now stands at just over 500,000. That figure is down from over two million at the peak of the Bosnian crisis in the mid-1990s and 1.7 million in 1999 during the Kosovo crisis. The decline has been secured through both voluntary repatriation - notably more than one million returns to and within Bosnia and Herzegovina, of which half a million was to districts where the returnees constitute an ethnic minority - and local settlement. Almost 200,000 refugees from Croatia and BiH have been naturalized in Serbia.
But half a million people is still a considerable number, and the success recorded so far should not blind us to the work that remains.
As the report by the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population on the "Situation of longstanding refugees and displaced persons in South Eastern Europe" states, the remaining refugees and displaced persons "often represent the most vulnerable persons, most of whom have been neglected in recent years as a result of a lack of local resources and humanitarian aid."
We should also be concerned at the lack of progress on lasting solutions for the nearly 250,000 internally displaced and refugees from Kosovo.
I am pleased that the Committee's recommendations on the way forward in South Eastern Europe are very much in line with UNHCR's policies and priorities. I am particularly touched, in fact, because between 1981 and 1983 I was a member and even Chair of the same Committee. That experience was a formative one for me and I have since followed its work with great interest.
Today, I believe our most important point of agreement is that answers for the remaining refugees and displaced of South East Europe will come through a political, rather than a humanitarian, resolution. Humanitarian calamities are always the result of political crises. And while our disposition and duty as humanitarians is to help those in need, we should not harbour any illusions about the impact of our work; without a political solution, there will be no end to that need.
That challenge should be at the top of the political agenda in every country of the region. As just one example, effective and timely integration, voluntary return, assistance - even determining who is and who is not a refugee - all depend on much needed reforms in national administrative, judicial and even police services.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The importance of a united political strategy for population displacement in South East Europe cannot be underestimated. It will help determine how the region is integrated into Europe and shape migration from and within these States. Already, the scourge of human trafficking demands an effective response. And of course, UNHCR is eager to see asylum capacity in the region strengthened in a coherent way.
Allow me to outline some specific concerns of my Office in relation to South East Europe, issues which clearly depend on political progress and resolve.
People from areas where they are in the minority in Kosovo - Serbs, Roma and even Albanians in North Mitrovica - should continue to benefit from international protection, or at least complementary forms of protection. They should not be sent back to Kosovo against their will, as UNHCR's Position Paper of June 2006 states. If and when the status of Kosovo is resolved, I trust conditions for return in safety and dignity will be part of that, but asylum states hosting Kosovo minorities should not rush their return against their will.
People displaced from Kosovo must also be able to access their rights in Serbia and in Montenegro, such as education, employment and citizenship.
We hope no political development will trigger further displacement from Kosovo. For the present, we continue to promote the right to repatriation by creating conditions conducive for return and to help and monitor the voluntary return of refugees and displaced.
For displaced Roma, a chronic lack of documentation is a serious handicap. People without proof of their original residence have much more difficulty invoking their rights, including access to education, citizenship and employment, and are at risk of becoming stateless.
Many of our programmes in these areas have benefited from the support of the Council of Europe Development Bank. UNHCR is extremely grateful for help from the Bank and hope our partnership can be expanded to our efforts in Kosovo, Montenegro and the South Caucasus, Georgia in particular, where we are applying lessons learned in the Balkans. The Caucasus is another area where the Parliamentary Assembly has been active and on which we share many views.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
More and more people are on the move and our societies are now increasingly multiethnic, multireligious and multicultural. Yet the backdrop against which people are moving is one of rising intolerance - in our societies as well as in places like Darfur. People must learn to live together, respect each other and view diversity as an asset. When I was younger, the struggle against apartheid mobilised youth worldwide. I hope I will not see, in the 21st century, apartheid become a solution rather than an intolerable problem. Everywhere on the continent and the globe, we need to fight irrationality in social and political behaviour, and its manifestations in populism, racism, religious fundamentalism and xenophobia.
With the number of asylum-seekers in most European countries now at or near its lowest level in decades, we have an opportunity to de-politicize the issue and to value tolerance. This trend weakens arguments for forced returns, whether to the Balkans, the Caucasus or Iraq. UNHCR is particularly concerned that the response of European States to Iraqi asylum-seekers varies enormously, and in some cases is seriously deficient. Persons from Central and Southern Iraq should at present be considered favourably for refugee status or subsidiary protection.
UNHCR is particularly concerned that the response of European States to Iraqi asylum-seekers varies enormously, and in some cases is seriously deficient.
Declining asylum claims should also remind us that people fleeing persecution may try to reach Europe by different means. My Office understands the challenges posed by the arrival of mixed groups of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. Countries have the right to define their own migration policies, to protect the security of their citizens and to manage their borders in a responsible way. But those in need of protection should have access to asylum procedures at any border, and people in distress at sea must be assisted.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Humanitarian and development agencies can, with your help, meet the needs of the remaining refugees and internally displaced. But an end to population displacement in South East Europe as anywhere else in the world will depend, finally, on governments, on communities and on political will.
An end to population displacement in South East Europe as anywhere else in the world will depend, finally, on governments, on communities and on political will.
States in the region must have the support of the wider diplomatic community. Europe has a special responsibility - to these young governments, to the millions of displaced who have returned home and to the thousands who still wait. It must speak and act as one, including on the difficult issue of Kosovo's future. A united Europe has the will and should lead the way.
Thank you very much.