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Statement of Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Informal Meeting of Permanent Representatives of African States accredited to the United Nations Office at Geneva, 22 May 1980

Speeches and statements

Statement of Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Informal Meeting of Permanent Representatives of African States accredited to the United Nations Office at Geneva, 22 May 1980

22 May 1980

Allow me to extend a warm welcome to all of you. Four months only have elapsed since our last informal gathering. Much has happened in the refugee field in Africa in this comparatively short time, and I thought, therefore, that a new meeting would be appropriate, to exchange views once again on important developments. African States have continued to respond to refugee situations in their traditional way: doors have been opened to new groups of refugees, and understanding and generosity have been demonstrated to meet continuing or newly - arising needs. The magnitude and complexity of certain problems, however, continue to warrant a vigorous and ever-increasing effort from the international community. As far as UNHCR is concerned, several missions were sent to various African countries; I myself have just returned from a visit to Ethiopia, where contacts took place at the highest level, both with the Ethiopian authorities and with the Organization of African Unity. Furthermore, new programme for large-scale assistance has been devised, to which I shall revert. UNHCR staff has bee considerably strengthened, especially in Somalia, the United Republic of Cameroon and Zimbabwe.

On the understanding that all refugee situations equally deserve, I should like to concentrate on those where important developments have occurred since we last met in January. And first, I turn to a great landmark in African history, with significant consequences in the refugee and displaced persons field. I refer to the process that followed the successful outcome of the Lancaster House Conference, and that culminated in the independence of Zimbabwe, the celebration of which - on 18 April - I was privileged to attend. Before independence, as you will remember, UNHCR had been called upon to undertake the overall co-ordination of the international effort to repatriate refugees to Southern Rhodesia. The first phase of the repatriation movement had to be completed before the elections at the end of February. Thus under UNHCR auspices, over 18,000 refugees were repatriated from Botswana, 11,000 from Mozambique and over 4,000 from Zambia. Additional numbers are known to have returned on their own, individually or in small groups, from the three countries I mentioned, and also from various others. Reception facilities were set up, initial assistance was provided to the returnees, and UNHCR reinforced its staff deployment in the country. The second phase of this repatriation process is now well under way. Furthermore, at the request of the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, the Secretary-General of the United Nations asked my Office to co-ordinate, for an initial period, a United Nations programme of humanitarian assistance to returnees and displaced person within Zimbabwe. I immediately sent a mission to identify numbers and needs, and members of other United Nations agencies joined the team. Together with the Government, reinstallation needs have been identified for up to 660,000 returnees or displaced persons over a twelve-month period. I fully realize the magnitude and urgency of this humanitarian task: measures are already being taken in basic priority fields, such as group transport of people to the rural areas, provision of housing, provision of seeds and tools for immediate planting and cultivation, and the revitalization of agriculture. I have made the needs known to over 60 governments, seeking their support, bilateral or multilateral, towards a $110 million target programme, in addition to food needs until the major harvest in April 1981. I do hope that the response will be generous and up to the requirements.

As I have stated on numerous occasions, voluntary repatriation is the best solution to refugee problems and a most rewarding task for my Office. Another important development in this area is the return of refugees to Equatorial Guinea, mainly from Gabon and the United Republic of Cameroon. Following the request of the Government, a UNHCR team has been organizing the repatriation and assistance to the returnees.

While voluntary repatriation and assistance upon return are taking place in various countries, in others new refugees continue to arrive, sometimes in a totally destitute condition. In March last, reports reached my Office that, following the disturbances in Chad, tens of thousands of persons from that country had crossed the Chari River and arrived in the United Republic of Cameroon, in the region of Kousseri. The total number today is reported to be approximately 100,000. Following a request from the Government an emergency programme was launched for appropriate measures of assistance. An allocation of $500,000 from the UNHCR Emergency Fund was approved mainly to finance the purchase of tents, as shelter appeared to be the paramount need. Several governments pledged contributions in cash and kind, to enable UNHCR to install a water-supply system and to purchase food locally. A mission to the United Republic of Cameroon, headed by my Director of Assistance, who was received by President Ahidjo, returned last week, and a more comprehensive programme is now being elaborated for assistance of various kinds to continue without interruption, once the initial emergency phase is completed.

Turning to another region, the Horn of Africa and the Sudan have continued to be the subject of the closest attention from my Office. Problems in the area are interdependent to quite an extent, and I feel it is important to keep this regional character in mind in our general approach and in the formulation of our programmes. Thus, last January, I appointed a Co-ordinator for UNHCR activities in the four countries concerned.

This approach is not new. On 10 April 1978 already, I had addressed a cabled appeal to a number of governments for substantial financial support for a UNHCR Humanitarian Assistance Programme in the Horn of Africa. In the wider United Nations context, four resolutions on refugees and displaced persons in the Horn of Africa and the Sudan were adopted, by consensus, in the Economic and Social Council on 28 April this year. They relate to Assistance to Displaced Persons in Ethiopia, Assistance to Refugees in Somalia, Situation of Refugees in the Sudan, and Assistance to the Refugees in Djibouti. These resolutions recognize the gravity and magnitude of the problems at stake, and the heavy burden faced by each of the four countries. They call for assistance from various United Nations Agencies and stress the need for support and assistance from the international community. No doubt this increasingly universal recognition of such serious situations will contribute to alleviating the burden placed on the governments concerned and to improving response to needs, thereby relieving human suffering. Let me briefly review each country concerned.

In Somalia, the Government reports that 670,000 refugees are now in camps. Their situation is very precarious. In February of this year, the Secretary-General of the United Nations drew the attention of governments to the findings of an inter-agency mission that had taken place the previous December, and requested UNHCR to co-ordinate contributions made available against the overall requirements. On 4 March, I followed up with an appeal to the international community for the financing of the considerably increased 1980 assistance programme. The target for non-food relief items was $40.7 million. Under the overall co-ordination of UNHCR, valuable co-operation is offered by the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization and UNICEF under food, health, education and water-supply components. A number of governmental and voluntary organizations offer assistance in the form of technical experts attached to the programme in a wide range of fields, notably in health and agriculture. The National Refugee Commissioner's Office, which is the governmental agency, has been reinforced to carry out, centrally and locally, the multiple tasks resulting from the increased programme. UNHCR has strengthened its staff considerably, both in Mogadishu and in three sub-offices in the regions where the refugees are located.

In Djibouti, the number of refugees is estimated by the authorities at 30,000 to 40,000. While assistance continues with the provision of relief items such as food, medical facilities domestic supplies and shelter, efforts are being made towards resettlement and educational opportunities in other countries.

As I said, I have just returned from a mission to Ethiopia. At the end of March, I had the opportunity for discussion in Geneva with the Ethiopian Commissioner for Relief and Rehabilitation. He stressed then the needs of internally displaced persons in areas affected by both armed conflict and drought. In Addis Ababa, I assured the authorities that my Office was ready to take part in a planned United Nations multi-agency mission and that, within the overall United Nations efforts, I would give special attention towards assistance to and rehabilitation of Ethiopian refugees returning home from neighbouring counties. Indeed, I am happy to note that, in the framework of the development of good neighbourly relations between Ethiopia and other countries, the voluntary repatriation of refugees is never overlooked. Until new UNHCR programmes in these areas can be launched, assistance has continued in 1980 with funds raised following the appeal I made on 10 April 1978 for the UNHCR Humanitarian Assistance Programme in the Horn of Africa.

In the Sudan, where the number of refugees has been estimated at 441,000 by the Government, the implementation of the 1980 programme for local integration of refugees is well under way. UNHCR has increased its financial assistance to the country, and strengthened its staff. With regard to the Conference on the Year of the Refugee, proclaimed by the Sudanese Government, UNHCR is providing support in the form of expert teams in various fields and in public information. I am happy to announce that the Deputy High Commissioner will head the UNHCR delegation to the Conference.

I should now like to review the funding requirements of UNHCR in Africa in 1980. According to present estimates, expenditures under General and Special Programmes will amount to some US $150 million. This represent an increase of over 100% as compared to expenditures in Africa for similar purposes in 1979. The programme of humanitarian assistance to returnees and displaced persons within Zimbabwe, which I mentioned, is in addition. Thus the total amount of UNHCR programme activities in Africa this year is at present estimated at some US$250 million, which is well above the amount spent by UNHCR for the whole world in 1979.

To raise such funds, as well as contributions in kind, is no easy task. The scope of UNHCR programmes in Africa has increased considerably. There are similar urgent needs in other parts of the world and - as we all know only too well - the cost of assistance in general is growing substantially while the overall economic situation has placed definite financial constraints on major donors.

In this context, therefore, I am gratified to note that the Economic and Social Council, realizing that a concerted effort is needed to find solutions - be they immediate or towards longer-term development - to the problem caused by the refugee situation in Africa, has recently invited the United Nations system as a whole to give support and resources to complement the activities that my Office is already carrying out.

As to the dissemination of information, co-operation continues with the Organization of African Unity, and we are planning a special information effort for Africa Refugee Day on 20 June. UNHCR has organized a tour of several African countries by a group of international journalists, to take place next month. We have also produce films on major refugee situations on the continent, and major TV networks have shown programmes on refugees, which were produced in co-operation with my staff. The UNHCR bi-monthly publication has published a number of feature articles on Africa.

Turning now to more general questions, I should like to single out the main aspects of our follow-up of the Arusha Conference. In the protection field, it will be recalled that the basic principles for the treatment of refugees in Africa where reaffirmed and recommendations were approved. The Director of my Protection Division recently visited Addis Ababa to finalize, in agreement with the OAU, a plan of action covering both immediate and long-term tasks for the implementation of the Arusha recommendations. A working group of the two organizations has been set up to ensure effective and regular follow-up of progress achieved in this respect. I might that the experience of Africa in developing regional solutions to refugee protection problems has been particularly fruitful and may provide a valuable example to other areas of the world: at a Round Table in Manila last month comprising experts from a large number of Asian countries, a representative of the OAU - who had also been closely associated with the Arusha Conference - was able to attend and described the solutions to refugee problems that had been achieved in a regional context in Africa. In another area, that of rural refugees, UNHCR has taken an active part in the planning and co-ordination of a detailed study of the problems of those refugees spontaneously settled. A consultant will now organize action-oriented research projects in selected situations involving rural refugees. This will assist UNHCR in its on-going review of its work, aimed at updating policies for future programming.

Much attention has also been given to UNHCR collaboration with the Bureau for the Placement and Education of African Refugees, the BPEAR, Meetings to this effect took place in Addis Ababa this month in the most constructive spirit, so that progress may be expected in the fields of resettlement, education, employment and job generation, counselling, and information. As regards resettlement, the number of African refugees who need this type of assistance does not usually surpass a few hundred within any one year. It is thus believed by the BPEAR that, if those Member States of the OAU who have the potential to accept refugees for resettlement were to pledge to do so within the well-organized programme that the Bureau is developing, this problem would be under control. I do hope that each country that has the possibility of absorbing refugees, some of whom are skilled while others are not, could envisage admitting some families.

Much remains to be done in following up on the Arusha recommendations, but, clearly, the impetus of Arusha is maintained, and many promising steps have been taken in the last four months.

Our close relationship with the OAU has continued. I am convinced that constructive co-operation between the OAU and UNHCR is fundamental in improving the refugee condition and in reaching durable solutions for the largest number, through voluntary repatriation, effective integration in their host countries, or resettlement, in this perspective, I considered as most important the talks my delegation and I had last week with the Secretary-General of the OAU and his close collaborators. UNHCR was also represented at the fourteenth Extraordinary Session of the OAU Council of Ministers in Lagos from 19 to 27 April, and a UNHCR delegation, headed by my Director of Assistance, attended the First Lagos Economic Summit on 28 and 29 April. I also plan to send a delegation to the meeting between Representatives of the OAU and the United Nations system, to be held in Nairobi in June.

I should now like to say a word about accession by African States to international instruments. The efforts of African States to ensure that refugees are granted a favourable legal status is evidenced by the adoption in 1969 of the OAU Convention governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, to which the accession of Rwanda in January this year, there are now 19 States Parties. On the universal level, the United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees has been widely accepted in Africa. With the accession of Rwanda and the Seychelles since the beginning of this year, there are now 35 African States that are party to either or both these basic international instruments. I should like to mention the valuable role that the OAU has played in this regard, and I have been most gratified by the adoption of resolutions by the Heads of State and Government, at successive sessions of OAU Summit meetings, which have urged further accessions by member States to the basic international texts relating to refugees.

The countries of Africa have always been a great support to me and to my predecessors in carrying out the basic tasks entrusted to my Office by the United Nations General Assembly. When I addressed you in January, I particularly stressed the long tradition of hospitality in Africa, which has also proved a great blessing to refugees on that continent. The task of assisting refugees and giving them reasons for hope is not easy, neither for the African States nor for the international community. A meeting like the one today must evaluate the situation in its positive aspects, but also in its difficulties and shortcomings. I have in mind especially the difficulties in raising funds when so many emergencies are to be faced in the world. I also think of the necessity of ensuring that available resources are fully utilized: this is the problem of absorption capacity of recipient countries, in which my Office stands ready to help through reinforcing implementing capacity as necessary.

In closing, I wish to repeat to you my assurance that my Office will make every effort, as it has done in the past, to mobilize the international support required to alleviate the suffering of refugees in Africa. I shall be glad to hear your views. Thank you.