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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Informal Meeting of Representatives in Geneva of States Members of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), 23 February 1983

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Informal Meeting of Representatives in Geneva of States Members of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), 23 February 1983

23 February 1983

Mr. Chairman,

Let me first of all extend a warm welcome to all of you.

The purpose of this informal meeting as usual, is for us to discuss what has happened in the refugee world since the Executive Committee met in October.

First I would like to recall that, in December 1982, the General Assembly of the United Nations, in its resolution 37/196, has extended UNHCR for five years as from 1 January 1984. Thus, UNHCR has six years ahead at this juncture. When we met in October we discussed the UNHCR mandate, and I am glad to report that the General Assembly has prolonged UNHCR, leaving the mandate unchanged. I am still convinced that it was the right thing to do and that the mandate, which has been the solid basis for the refugee work throughout the years, will prove flexible enough in the coming years to cope with the changing problems. l know that members of the Executive Committee did agree and personally made efforts to ensure that the mandate would remain unchanged. This has now been the case in the General Assembly, by consensus, and I do thank the Executive Committee for this achievement.

Five years is the new period for UNHCR. It seems natural to look back at the five years now running out and, as far as possible, to look ahead towards the coming five years - with a note of caution since they comprise the unknown and the unexpected.

Five years more of refugee problems. When UNHCR was established it was for a three-year period. And now, it is more than thirty years ago. As if the refugee problem would never end.

Often have I been asked: don't you think it is hopeless? - and how is it possible to witness so much suffering? How can you bear to see so many refugees in distress? Is it not depressing to see so many tragedies? It is true that if you have not a heart of stone, you cannot help being affected by what you see. That being said, it is worthwhile to remember that even if, year after year, there are many millions of refugees in the world, these are not the same refugees. The refugees we had five years ago are not the refugees we have today. Well, some of them are still waiting for a solution to their problems, but many - indeed the majority - have been helped. They are no longer refugees. That is the great encouragement for all who work for the refugees.

That is also why we always have to work in a durable solution perspective, as it is already clearly set out in our mandate.

There have been many examples of durable solutions in the past five years, especially in the fields of voluntary repatriation and resettlement. Repatriation, with limited programmes for rehabilitation of the returnees, took place to Burma, Zaire, Equatorial Guinea, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe and Chad. In this latter country, a programme for Chadian returnees and displaced persons - covering some 200,000 people - was concluded during the first half of 1982. A smaller size programme, to last six months, was subsequently launched in November for 13,000 persons who returned from Cameroon and Nigeria after the conclusion of the initial programme. It is encouraging to see that voluntary repatriation is more or less a permanent feature of our work.

During the past five years, resettlement also very much developed as a solution. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are now rebuilding a new existence far away from their homes.

The need to find solutions through resettlement of refugees in third countries does persist worldwide. Of course, we support and entertain requests for resettlement only when we are convinced that this solution is absolutely necessary and that no other solution is available. Still, in recent years, in view of circumstances, promotion of resettlement has become an important activity of UNHCR, which we realize must be carried out in a spirit of equitable burden-sharing between States. The main group at stake is that of Indo-Chinese refugees - and especially Vietnamese who in 1982 constituted over two-thirds of all Indo-Chinese resettles.

Arrivals by boat from Viet Nam were lower in 1982 as compared to 1981: the decrease was some 40 per cent. However, resettlement figures during 1982 also decreased to a large extent, so that the number of Vietnamese refugees in camps awaiting resettlement has remained practically unaltered. The figure was 45,159 on 31 December 1981. It was 44,054 on 31 December 1982. Resettlement needs are, therefore, no longer adequately met, and - following my previous appeals - I am compelled once more to urge governments to continue actively, or step up, their programmes for admission of Indo-Chinese. Where no specific programmes exist, a liberal attitude is necessary to admit refugees who have family members overseas.

There are other types of resettlement needs. The Programme of Orderly Departures from the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam offers particular features. You will recall that - as we had done in 1981 - we invited last year a delegation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Viet Nam for an exchange of views, notably on this programme. The visit took place just before the last session of the Executive Committee. Though acknowledging progress made, testified by the fact that average monthly departures from Viet Nam had reached 1,000 people under the programme, both the Vietnamese authorities and UNHCR felt that results could be further improved if all interested parties, including resettlement countries, could reinforce their co-operation in an endeavour to overcome existing obstacles. We are actively pursuing this with the Vietnamese authorities.

Still on resettlement, I would mention that a number of countries have responded to our requests to facilitate admission of refugees in urgent need to leave the countries where they are, either because they are disabled and their rehabilitation should not wait, or because they fear for their safety. In spite of positive responses, I feel obliged once more to ask for more openings for these categories, to keep pace with the needs.

Many refugees have been helped, but the number for whom durable solutions need to be found remains high. And while they are waiting and still find themselves in a disastrous and vulnerable situation, appalling events occur affecting and shattering human lives, requiring UNHCR intervention. A most recent example occurred during the night of 8 to 9 December, when the South African Defense Force raided houses and apartments in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, killing over 40 persons and injuring several more. This abominable act of aggression aroused the world's indignation. Lesotho is a country which has always practised a liberal policy of asylum. Among the victims, 19 were registered refugees and four were asylum-seekers. I sent a mission at once to Maseru to join my Representative on the spot and hold discussions with the authorities on short-term and longer-term issues of competence to my Office in the aftermath of the raid. UNHCR made an amount of 50,000 dollars available to the fund established by the National Disaster Committee for the families of the victims, and towards the restoration of the physical infrastructure. in January, in the framework of Security Council resolution 527 of 15 December 1982, the Secretary-General of the United Nations sent a high-level mission to Lesotho led by the Under-Secretary for Special Political Questions, in which my Director of International Protection took part. The resolution mentions the need for ensuring "the welfare of the refugees in Lesotho in a manner consistent with their security" and for strengthening Lesotho's "capacity to receive and maintain South African refugees". The resolution has political, economic and humanitarian aspects, and UNHCR reaffirmed to the authorities its determination to play its role.

In another area of the world, in Mexico, refugees' security has also been seriously affected, very few weeks ago. During a recent mission, I arrived in Mexico on 29 January and was immediately told that there had been a foreign armed incursion on refugee sites along the southern border, resulting in five casualties and one abduction. There are, in that part of the country, over 30,000 refugees, many of them in a tropical forest area, where access is not easy and assistance difficult to deliver. The authorities, which are practising an open-door asylum policy, were deeply concerned by the events and, while taking measures within their national sovereignty and outside the scope of UNHCR, they are also studying with us a possible relocation of the refugees further away from the border.

The Executive Committee, during its last session, welcomed that appointment of Ambassador Schnyder to survey the various aspects of the problem of military attacks on refugee camps and settlements in southern Africa and elsewhere. Mr. Schnyder has continued his contacts and negotiations in Geneva and New York, and is working on his report in close co-operation with my Office. Upon my request, he undertook a mission to Africa, namely to Addis Ababa and Dar-es-Salaam, accompanied by the Director of International Protection. They had, during this mission, extensive talks and exchanges of views with the Secretary-General of the OAU and other high officials, with the Commission of 15 in Addis Ababa, with the Executive Secretary of the OAU Liberation Committee, and the representatives of the three liberation movements in Dar-es-Salaam. I am confident that the information gathered during this visit to Africa will facilitate the task of Mr. Schnyder in preparing his final report. I intend to convene the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection as soon as Mr. Schnyder's report is available, in a few weeks' time.

Another example of how refugees are in an extremely vulnerable situation is the plight of the boat people in danger of attacks from pirates.

You will recall that on 23 June 1982, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Royal Thai Government entered into an exchange of letters by which the High Commissioner for Refugees, on behalf of twelve donor governments, provided the Royal Thai Government with US$3,672,275 in order to increase the capabilities of the Royal Thai Navy, Police, Marine Police and Harbour Department, in curbing piracy

Since the beginning of the above programme, the Royal Thai Government has used Programme funds to deploy ten vessels and two aircraft which are exclusively engaged in the operation. Some items of equipment prepared for the programme have yet to be deployed.

It is too early to evaluate the impact of the programme, also taking into account that the number of arrivals by boat has been decreasing. According to reports collected by UNHCR, still more than half of the boats arriving in Thailand during the first six-months' programme period (July-December 1982) were attacked, on an average more than twice each, with the same distressing results of rape, abduction and killing. At the same time, some previously arrested perpetrators of these acts have been brought to trial and heavily sentenced by the courts.

On the basis of experience gained, further improvements must be sought to increase the programme's efficiency and I am in close touch with the Thai Government and donor governments to ensure the possible renewal of the programme on this basis. As I have always underlined, the persistence of the problem of piracy throughout the region, which affects all sea-going traffic and not only refugees, calls for a wider international response. To this end, I continue to be in touch with the Secretary-General of the United Nations and with interested governments, with a view a to establishing a basis for such a wider international action.

While giving all the necessary attention to anti-piracy programmes, we are pursuing our endeavours to promote conditions favourable to the rescue of asylum-seekers at sea. Since last October, about 10 per cent of boat people arriving in first asylum countries were rescued on the high seas and there is still an essential need to secure increasing observance of the rescue at sea principle. Following the meeting of the Working Group of Government Representatives on the rescue of asylum-seekers at sea, which met in Geneva in July 1982, the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection adopted a series of recommendations which have formed the basis of consultations between my Office and interested parties. We believe that these consultations could lead to practical results, in which case I would convene a further working session before submitting specific proposals to the next regular meeting of the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection.

May I, in the context of protection, mention that, as you are certainly aware, our Chairman, Ambassador Kharma, delivered a most stimulating statement at the closing session of the Refugee Law Course held in San Remo last December, under the auspices of the International Institute of Humanitarian Law. Most of you, I trust, have had the occasion to study this statement. As it contains important and challenging ideas, in particular in the field of international protection, I would welcome having your reaction or your suggestions as to how these ideas could further be considered.

At the time of the Executive Committee's meeting in October, a new refugee problem burst out. Starting in October 1982, over 40,000 refugees - 60 per cent of them under 16 years of age - arrived in Rwanda. Some 30,000 were farmers, and the rest stock-breeders. They had brought cattle. As an immediate measure to face the emergency in a country where resources were already strained to the maximum, UNHCR sent two charter planes, on 14 and 21 October, with tents, blankets and medicaments. A programme to cover the most essential needs for a six-month period was then set up, with the Rwandese Red Cross acting as main operational partner. The participation of the World Food Programme and UNICEF was enlisted. A plan for the continuation of assistance beyond the initial six-month period is being drawn up. Once more, as in so many other situations, care and maintenance - in the form of food, water adduction, domestic supplies, shelter and health - is the only feasible way of assisting the majority of the refugees for some time to come. Two refugee situations are never exactly alike. In this case, livestock has been a most important concern. Grazing land was highly insufficient to face the needs in the area where the refugees had arrived, and indeed cattle were dying for lack of food. The Rwandese authorities, the FAO - which has been of great assistance and remains actively involved in this field - and UNHCR, set up a project for a ranch further south in the country. Accompanied by stock-breeders, 15,000 cows walked down to the ranch by successive waves of one to two thousand. A set of precautions was taken, and the operation can be considered as successfully concluded.

I shall soon see the situation for myself since, following an invitation from the Rwandese Government received already several months ago, I shall leave for Rwanda this coming Sunday.

Another recent development relates to the situation of Ethiopian refugees in Djibouti. After extensive consultations with the Governments of Djibouti and Ethiopia, I organized a tripartite meeting between both governments and UNHCR, to try to set up the modalities for the voluntary repatriation of these refugees to Ethiopia. The meeting took place in Djibouti on 31 January and 1 February; I was represented by my Director of International Protection who was accompanied by the Head of the Regional Bureau for Africa and the Co-ordinator for the Horn of Africa. The Tripartite Commission agreed on certain basic guidelines, namely that the voluntary character of the repatriation will be full respected, that the Ethiopian authorities will define a programme for the reception and rehabilitation of the returnees in consultation with UNHCR and other concerned United Nations agencies, that free access to the installation sites in Ethiopia will be provided to UNHCR and to voluntary agencies associated with the programme, and that UNHCR will do its utmost to mobilize the necessary resources for this rehabilitation programme. Furthermore, the Ethiopian authorities have extended the validity of the Amnesty to returnees from Djibouti to 31 December 1983. The next meeting of the Tripartite Commission is to take place in Addis Ababa on 15 April 1983 to examine the contents of the rehabilitation programme which is to be prepared by the Ethiopian authorities. Utmost care, patience and goodwill from all parties will be required to permit a successful operation. It is expected that a number of refugees will not want to avail themselves of this repatriation opportunity, and the President of the Republic of Djibouti informed the Commission that they will be allowed to remain in Djibouti or be resettled elsewhere.

Following expulsion measures taken by Nigeria, UNHCR immediately sent a mission to Benin and Togo, the two main countries of transit, and we decided to respond positively to the appeal from the Secretary-General of the United Nations for assistance to affected persons. Joining the United Nations effort, on humanitarian grounds and in recognition of the urgency and the magnitude of needs, I made available a contribution of 375,000 dollars to be divided between several affected countries. The contribution was designed to cover requirements mainly in the fields of health, shelter, and transport costs. In co-operation with UNDRO - appointed as the co-ordinating agency of the United Nations system for this emergency - and the respective UNDP Resident Co-ordinators, needs were identified by UNHCR officials on the spot. Meanwhile, inside Nigeria, assurances were received that recognized refugees - who are in small numbers - would not be affected and would not have to leave the country.

To the many refugees in the world for whom a durable solution has not been found, it is still necessary to bring assistance. This explains the high component of care and maintenance in our annual programmes. But, much more important, this situation means hardship in humanitarian terms. Let me take one example.

In late November/early December, a senior mission from this Headquarters visited Honduras, and went to all refugee camps and reception centres throughout the country. Talks at the highest level were then held in the capital, Tegucigalpa, led, as far as UNHCR was concerned, by the Deputy High Commissioner. What is true in many refugee situations in the world was made particularly conspicuous in Tegucigalpa: Honduras, which has received a total of 30,000 refugees from all three of its neighbouring countries, fears to be drawn into its neighbours' conflicts. The refugees, in this connection, are looked upon with much uneasiness. For a large number at present in camps, rather close to the border, and entirely dependent on outside assistance, some form of self-sufficiency activities on selected sites away from the border seems to be the only reasonable objective to attain in the foreseeable future. Talks to this effect were held with the authorities and active follow-up is taking place. Yet, to be realistic, and though the authorities were certainly amenable to the refugees' plight and the need for solutions, care and maintenance will continue to be required on a sizeable scale for some time to come.

There are many other examples of such inconclusive situations. Hence, our determination to strengthen continuously our search for durable solutions in spite of all difficulties, or for at least placing the refugees on the road to self-sufficiency through the promotion of small-scale subsistence agriculture, crafts and other wage-earning activities as feasible, and vocational training.

The close association with other organizations of the United Nations system remains paramount in this effort. Many organizations of the system co-operate with us as from the initial stages of emergency relief, care and maintenance. We are fully aware of the importance of a systematic effort to involve the United Nations family in subsequent phases as well. This may also help us to phase out our assistance at the right moment, although in this respect much depends, as I said in October, on the real possibilities for others to take over within their respective procedures, mandates, and resources. Also, by placing the refugee assistance in a wider context, co-operation with the United Nations system may permit a more rational and global approach to economic problems faced by countries which have difficulties in coping with large numbers of refugees. Such an approach is clearly required in the framework of the second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa - ICARA II - called by General Assembly resolution 37/197, which is to take place in Geneva in May 1984.

The large number of refugees in many African countries, imposes significant sacrifices on those countries and constitutes a heavy burden on their development process. The refugees must be helped, but also the receiving countries need a great deal of assistance. Hence, the two following goals set by the resolution requesting the Secretary-General to convene an ICARA II, in close co-operation with the Secretary-General of the OAU and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: "To consider the continuing need for assistance with a view to providing, as necessary, additional assistance to refugees and returnees in Africa for the implementation of programmes for their relief, rehabilitation and resettlement;" and "Consider the impact imposed on the national economies of the African countries concerned and to provide them with required assistance to strengthen their social and economic infrastructure to cope with the burden of dealing with large numbers of refugees and returnees".[1]

For the success of the Conference, a very careful and thorough preparation is needed. Indeed, this has already started. The Steering Committee created to guide and monitor action after ICARA I, where the Secretary-General, the OAU and UNHCR are represented at high level, met in Nairobi on 17 January to consider the initial steps to take on ICARA II. The Deputy High Commissioner participated in the name of UNHCR. Already at this first meeting on ICARA II, the Steering Committee decided to invite UNDP, also represented at high level, to take part in all future meetings of the Steering Committee. In each country concerned, the United Nations system will be closely associated in a careful preparation of projects to be submitted to the Conference for funding. This co-ordination will continue, as well as with the African countries concerned, the countries which are expected to contribute financially and the non-governmental organizations. To give you further information on ICARA II, we have distributed here a paper about the plans for the Conference.

On 8 December 1982, my Director of External Affairs wrote to the members of the Executive Committee outlining the essential aspects of a pilot project under preparation in Pakistan, with the active assistance of the World Bank. The project, to which I had already referred in our meetings last year, would provide work opportunities for refugees and local people, help repair part of the damage caused by the presence of refugees and their livestock and create some durable economic assets in the refugee areas. Measures foreseen relate to irrigation, afforestation, rangeland improvement and establishment or improvement or road network. The Bank will issue a progress report very shortly, which I intend to make available to Governments. This illustrates a new type of venture in which UNHCR is engaged, to promote self-sufficiency of refugees through the involvement of other organizations having the adequate expertise and experience in development assistance. This particular project would fall outside UNHCR's programmes, and will, therefore, not be funded by UNHCR. But UNHCR is playing an active catalytic role. The project should be considered by the Consortium on Aid to Pakistan in less than two months' time, and hopefully get off the ground in July.

In our endeavours to mobilize energies, resources and imagination towards improving the refugee condition with durable solutions as a final goal, we realize the magnitude of the needs of the refugees and of the countries affected by their presence. We also realize the fact that the international community, on the other hand, in its support to the refugee cause, is placed under severe financial constraints. UNHCR, in formulating its programmes, must continuously try to adjust to both categories of exigencies - magnitude of needs, limitation of resources. This is not so easy to reconcile. Throughout this process, UNHCR must remain an efficient tool.

Recommendations of the AMS survey, and the Executive Committee's views, are most important factors in this exercise, and I have followed carefully our debate last week. As said on 17 February, I take this report seriously. Once I finalize my comments to the report, taking the remarks made by the Executive Committee into account, I will provide you with the necessary details. l shall implement the recommendations that will help us improve our work. In cases where, after careful analysis, it would not prove adequate to follow a given recommendation, the reasoning for this will be shared with the Executive Committee and presented to the Secretary-General. As for the time frame, I hope our reply to the AMS survey can be completed within the next few months.

I have presented you with a survey of the developments over the last few months in order to give you a report on what has been done. I would welcome your comments.

As far as the future of the Office is concerned, I cannot go into very much detail because we do not know exactly what will happen. One thing, however, will certainly not change in the near future: there will continue to be problems in the world, and therefore refugees. Those refugees will, as in the past, require the protection and assistance from the international community which it has been our privilege to give and which we have now been mandated to continue.

I believe the principal objectives for the Office in its new term should be the following: to continue to help and to serve; to strengthen our capacity to do so; to work in new directions wherever we can, looking for new ways to implement durable solutions and also for new ways of collaborating with other organizations in the assistance area, particularly to improve the relationship between relief and development aid. I will also work to encourage more countries to associate themselves with the instruments of protection, as they have done in the past. In all this, I hope to continue the close collaboration of the Office with the members of the Executive Committee.

Many of today's refugees are not yesterday's. Many solutions have been found. Today's refugees should remain as shortly as possible on the waiting list for a new life. Tomorrow's refugees must benefit from the wealth of experience accumulated by all those who are concerned today with the fate of the uprooted. All together, in a humanitarian spirit, as long as injustice, tension and strife continue to prevail in the world, we must continue to surmount the obstacles and give the refugees a better chance.

[1] paragraph 5, points (b) and (c) respectively.