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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 12 November 1984

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 12 November 1984

12 November 1984

Mr. Chairman,

Each year it is my honour and privilege, in presenting my annual report to this Committee, to share with the distinguished representatives of Governments assembled here some of my thoughts on the situation of refugees in the world, and to listen to their views on the subject. This constructive dialogue is of great value to me and my Office as we continue to carry out the Mandate given to UNHCR by the General Assembly more than three decades ago, and followed up year after year. I am confident that under your able leadership, Mr. Chairman, and with the co-operation of the other members of the Bureau, this year's debate will be no exception and will further reinforce the co-operation which has always existed between my office and Member States. I know there can never be total identity of views. But I am sure that, despite the differences which may arise, we will once again be able to draw renewed energy from our discussions to carry on our work in the knowledge that we do so with the international community's wholehearted support for our humanitarian objectives.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, I have referred to the Mandate given to the High Commissioner for Refugees 33 years ago. Rather than reviewing at length the events of the past year in the life of UNHCR, I would like, with your permission, to think aloud today on the universal and timeless nature of that Mandate and how it inspires our action. As you all know, the Mandate charges the High Commissioner with the twofold task of providing international protection for refugees and seeking lasting solutions to their problems. When one thinks of certain still unsolved problems and the extent to which they have exacerbated world tensions, one cannot but admire the wisdom and foresight of the drafters of General Assembly resolution 428(V) and the accompanying Statute of my Office for, already in 1950, making our work solution-oriented. I will come back to this key aspect of our activities in a moment, but first of all I would like to share with you some of our concerns on the subject of international protection, which are covered in detail in my annual report, document A/39/12, and its annex.

The international legal instruments which define refugees and how they should be protected - the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees, the regional Conventions, notably the OAU Convention of 1969 - and the General Assembly resolutions which extend the competence of my Office to returnees and in some circumstances displaced persons in refugee-like situations, coupled with the various acts of national legislation which put the Conventions into practice, constitute an edifice of goodwill towards the uprooted that is second to none. What could be more noble than to extend sanctuary and succour to men, women and children fleeing persecution, war, racial and religious intolerance, deprivation of basic human rights? I am most encouraged that through new accessions to the international instruments I can report today that 97 Member States have adhered to one or the other, or both, the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, and we have reason to believe that this total will reach the 100 mark in the near future. As guardian and promoter of the Convention, my Office takes pride in this achievement. There has also been considerable progress in the implementation of the provisions of the instruments through national legislation and improved procedures. Yet there is no room for complacency, for it is only in the spirit of their application that dry legal documents become living instruments of justice. It is the behaviour of States that counts more than the letter of the law. In this regard, it is distressing for me to have to report that there continue to be violations of refugees' rights in many parts of the world - cases of refoulement or rejection at the frontier both of individuals or groups, acts of violence and brutality against them, both on the land and on the high seas, measures of deterrence including abusive and unnecessarily long periods of detention and restrictions on their movement, even in States which are parties to the international instruments. On the other hand, we also continue to see heartening examples of States, including some not parties to the instruments, that have shown generous hospitality towards refugees going far beyond what is called for by the Conventions. I sincerely hope that such humanitarian attitudes will regain the upper hand over the recent trend towards an erosion of the institution of asylum affecting even the most consistently generous nations. It would seem that this disaffection with refugees, this "compassion fatigue", has been provoked, in part, by a recent phenomenon affecting a number of countries which had remained in relative isolation from the mainstream of massive refugee flows. Now they too find themselves increasingly overwhelmed by the volume of asylum-seekers, what we might call jet-age refugees, who arrive across continents and oceans instead of just across a border. Too often they are assimilated with the growing masses of economic migrants, competing for scarce jobs, housing and social services. This phenomenon has added fuel to smouldering xenophobic tendencies in public opinion which, I fear, may lead to more restrictive measures in the application of legislation on aliens, including refugees. It may well be that some of these persons knocking at the doors of industrialized countries facing economic and social difficulties are not really refugees but rather opportunity seekers. But there might be real refugees among them. They should not be made to suffer. Jet-age refugees all too often become refugees in orbit, shuttled from pillar to post by countries unwilling to admit them the technical grounds that they have been elsewhere first. I am obliged to note that unfortunately such practices are not confined to any one continent or region. A small sore, if not cared for quickly, can become infected, and an infection can spread from a limb to the whole body, indeed to the heart. We would like to see effective treatment before this little wound becomes an illness that could be fatal to the whole humanitarian cause of refugees.

Mr. Chairman, I said at the outset that the founding fathers of UNHCR in their wisdom three decades ago had charged the High Commissioner with seeking durable solutions to refugee problems.

The idea behind the concept "durable solution" is, in simple words, that the goal for us in UNHCR is to bring the refugee back to a normal life. A refugee is a person who is forced to leave his or her community, his or her country. He (or she) has left behind relatives, property, job, and all prospects for education, for building a future for himself and his children. From the moment he crossed the border, he became dependent. He is at the mercy of the authorities of the country of refuge. He has to ask them for protection - as he can no longer seek the protection of his national authorities. He is dependent - often dependent on delivery of food, shelter and all necessities of life. The idea of a durable solution is to restore the refugee to independence, to make him self-sufficient, to bring him back from the refugee situation to the normal situation of a human being.

When we talk of different durable solutions, we usually refer first to voluntary repatriation; secondly, to local settlement in the country of first asylum; and thirdly, to resettlement in a third country. The quintessence of the concept is to enable the refugee to begin a new life - either, if possible, back in his own country - or in another country. To begin a new life, to have a new start, to be an independent human being fending for himself and no longer a refugee.

A new start will include enjoying the human rights that nationals of a country enjoy, the right to work, to move, to settle, to send his children to school, to appear before the courts, etc.

It is to the credit of the United Nations that the governments decided - and maintain - that refugees should be given lasting solutions. It is not enough to hand out alms, to give care and maintenance. It might be necessary temporarily, but it is not enough.

A lasting solution, the possibility to begin a new life, is the only dignified solution for the refugee himself. If you keep a normal person dependent on what is given to him, you are bound to demolish his self-respect, his morale, his initiative. To live in camps dependent on what is delivered, will soon create idleness, discontent, jealousy among the inmates of the camps. The horizon of children living all their childhood in a camp is restricted to the borders of the camps. They survive, the get - maybe - enough to eat, but many valuable perspectives of life are lost. The only dignified way out of the refugee problem is to restore the refugee to normal life.

It is also the most economic way out. Care and maintenance is expensive. To mobilize the necessary funds, to provide the necessary amount of food and other needs, to have it transported, administered and distributed is an expensive affair.

To these costs, you have to add what you lose in human resources. The hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps all over the world are not contributing, only receiving. Most of them are strong, healthy, able - but they are not using their strength and their capacity. We are wasting human resources - also spiritual resources, energy, imagination, creativity.

There is also a political aspect to be taken into consideration. Refugees are often a result of political problems but they can also be themselves a political issue. If a durable solution to their problems is achieved, if the refugee reaches the normal situation of a national - he, or she, ceases to be a political problem. But if you keep refugees in camps or settlements year after year, dependent on care delivered from outside, you also run the risk of increasing the political problems. It is a sad fact that refugees can be, and often are, used for political purposes, even if the refugees are not involved in politics themselves. Many poor people, women and children, people without political ambitions - often without any political involvement or knowledge - are used in political contexts. They are used as pawns in the big chess game - against governments, against movements, against neighbours. The very existence of a group of refugees can be used as proof, as a tool, an argument, a threat. Some governments might be interested in inflating the numbers - and the suffering - of the refugees, other governments might be interested in decreasing or belittling a refugee problem.

Refugees may also be scapegoats. When an unpleasant situation or a difficult problem threatens a country, be it unemployment, food shortage, tensions between group representatives, it often happens that the very presence of refugees is blamed. So, if you keep a dependent refugee population for a long period you run the risk of creating a breeding ground for political difficulties inside and outside the country. You add to the unrest and the insecurity of our world. But if you succeed in providing a solution - a durable solution to the refugee problem, you have provided a contribution to depoliticizing the situation, you have made a contribution to peace and stability in the world.

My conclusion is that the founding fathers were right and wise 33 years ago when they formulated the purpose of what the United Nations should do for refugees. They saw clearly that refugees need international protection - and a durable solution to their problems. This is the only valid approach, seen from the humanitarian, economic or political point of view.

To what degree are these principles applied in the practical world today? The answer is that we in UNHCR, supported by our Executive Committee and very much backed by governments, do our utmost to find durable solutions for refugee problems. But we have to admit that it is not always easy, even if we aim at a solution from the very beginning of any problem. As it is, we now spend almost one half of our budget on durable solutions. This means that the rest is used for necessary care and maintenance. The money spent for durable solutions is a good investment. It is an investment in the future. It is an investment with a clear perspective.

We have tried to calculate how many persons have been helped to a durable solution over the last 30 years, and we come to more than 25 million people. More should be done. Many are still waiting - just waiting - for a solution. UNHCR - that really means the governments - is their only hope.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, these are a few of my thoughts on the reasons why, on the one hand international protection has to be taken care of, and why on the other hand we must move immediately towards finding a durable solution to a refugee problem. While we are by no means satisfied that only about one-half of our total resources are spent on durable solutions and would like to see much more done in this direction, there have none the less been a number of successes in this area in the past year or so, in, you might say, getting refugees off our books. Voluntary repatriation programmes where UNHCR assists the return movement and provides initial assistance for a fresh start in the country of origin have seen tens of thousands of refugees go back to their country, their villages, their farms, notably in Africa. From Djibouti, for example, about one-third of the total refugee population has gone back to Ethiopia. Large numbers have returned to Uganda from Zaire and the Sudan, and from Burundi and Uganda to Zaire. Refugees have also been assisted to repatriate in Latin America, notably to Argentina, and, although the numbers are still small, in South-East Asia, particularly to the Lao People's Democratic Republic. In Central America and Mexico, UNHCR has expressed its willingness to co-operate with all concerned to facilitate voluntary repatriation once conditions permit, but I always stress that these must include the clear agreement of the governments concerned, and of course, first and foremost, of the refugees themselves. We always insist that the voluntary character of the repatriation be scrupulously respected. There are, Mr. Chairman, some situations where voluntary repatriation would be the ideal durable solution, and where UNHCR would be happy to do its part when circumstances permit. We have been informed, for instance, that His Majesty the King of Morocco has declared that Morocco is willing to receive refugees back from Tindouf, in Algeria. Should agreement be reached between the host country and the country of origin and should the refugees express the wish to return, my office stands ready to provide whatever assistance is required. We have recently established a Branch Office in Algeria in order to facilitate implementation of our assistance to the most vulnerable groups among the refugees and, in conformity with my mandate, to seek a durable solution to their problems. We have always said, but it bears repeating here, that voluntary repatriation is the most desirable lasting solution to any refugee problem.

Turning to local settlement, Mr. Chairman, a number of examples are given in my report of progress in this area in various parts of the world. In Africa, in particular, we have made some steps towards bringing refugees to self-sufficiency through income-generating projects in countries like the Sudan and Somalia as well as in southern Africa. In such projects we are fortunate in being able to count on the co-operation of sister United Nations agencies such as the ILO and UNDP. Even in areas where a long-term solution does not immediately appear to be in sight, income-generating activities can go a long way towards lessening the burden refugees place on the host countries and the international community. An example is the project we have initiated in Pakistan with the World Bank as our implementing partner. Through schemes for reafforestation, road and irrigation canal building, employment is provided for Afghan refugees who otherwise would be totally dependent on international assistance. We would like to see this model followed elsewhere, in what we might call an interim durable solution, for want of a better term.

A third type of durable solution, not I must say the most desirable but often the only way possible to help refugees start new lives, is resettlement. This has particularly been the case for large numbers of refugees in South-East Asia. Movements to countries of resettlement in many different parts of the world have continued at a steady pace through the reporting period, and I am happy to say many receiving countries continue to fix generous quotas. Here again, however, I must stress that the momentum must be maintained, which is not so easy nowadays when the drama of refugees in that part of the world is largely off the front pages. Here, Mr. Chairman, I would also like to open a brief parenthesis to say a few words about what we call the Orderly Departure Programme from Viet Nam. I recently visited that country, and I am very encouraged by the progress that has been made in providing a safe alternative to the illegal and terribly risky departures by boat. Running at the rate of 500 departures by air every week, ODP statistics have been consistently higher than those of boat arrivals in countries of first asylum for more than a year now. I believe this is an impressive result if you consider that six years ago, one hundred times as many people left by boat as by air. UNHCR. provides the necessary facilities in Ho Chi Minh City for this Programme, and we are happy to go on and expand our operations if required.

Mr. Chairman, we cannot lose sight of the fact that when we assist refugees and returnees, the needs of the local population must also be taken into account. There is a clear link between refugee aid and development assistance, a concept which was unanimously proclaimed by the Second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa in Geneva last July - to which I will revert in a moment - and further endorsed in the most recent session of my Executive Committee. On the opposite side of the coin, refugee assistance projects and the refugees themselves are affected by the economic and social crises and natural calamities which strike the host countries. The dramatic drought now causing so much suffering and tragedy in several African countries has also had an impact on our own programmes and has contributed to increased influxes of persons sometimes seeking asylum but sometimes also simply seeking a source of food. We consider them to be of concern to my Office when they come to our camps and settlements, even if they are not always, in the strict sense of the word, refugees under my Mandate. I have, therefore, within the overall framework of the United Nations efforts to bring relief and longer-term solutions to the problems caused by drought and other natural disasters and economic difficulties, just launched a modest appeal for some 8.9 million dollars to care for refugees and returnees affected by drought and other emergencies in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and the Central African Republic. Mr. Chairman, Africa's current crisis cannot but have a negative effect on our search for durable solutions to refugee problems in that continent, which harbours almost half of the total world refugee population. I am none the less confident that we are on the right track in always aiming our efforts in that direction. I think the fact that over the past three years we have been able to bring down our financial requirements by almost 20 per cent from the peaks of 1980-81 testifies to the results of these efforts. In 1985, our General Programme target is 384 million dollars, and we estimate that overall voluntary fund requirements, including Special Programmes, will be in the order of 430 million dollars. I would remind distinguished delegates that we have our pledging conference on Friday, 16 November, and that, as usual, I hope that we can count on their announcements of generous pledges for our programme in 1985.

Now, Mr. Chairman, turning to sub-item (b) on our agenda today, I have pleasure in introducing on behalf of the Secretary-General, Document A/39/402, the Report on the Second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa, ICARA II, which was held in Geneva in July of this year, as well as its addendum A/39/402/Add.1, which provides the latest available Information on developments since ICARA. The technical team's summary report is an integral part of the Secretary-General's addendum, while the full report will be issued in the course of this week. In this connection, I should like to mention that at the time of the ICARA II Conference on July, five additional Governments, namely Benin, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad and Djibouti, requested infrastructural assistance under ICARA II to cope with refugee/returnee situations in their countries. A sixth country, Guinea, made a similar request in September 1984.

To ensure a uniform approach in the presentation of such requests the Secretary-General decided to send a technical team to each country to help in the formulation of the needs for assistance. The team, composed of representatives of the United Nations Secretary-General, UNDP, UNHCR and the OAU, visited Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Guinea and Djibouti during the period 24 September to 25 October. The team did not go to Benin as the Government requested the postponement of the visit to a later date.

ICARA II was an eminent example of international solidarity in a humanitarian aim. There can be no doubt that it was a success and a significant step forward in United Nations efforts to solve a most difficult problem. It adopted, by acclamation, a Declaration and Programme of Action. These documents endorse an important principle, the complementarity between humanitarian assistance to refugees and development assistance to countries hosting large numbers of refugees or returnees.

Despite its importance, ICARA II was really only the first step in a process which is designed to lead to lasting solutions to the problems of refugees in Africa. The spirit of solidarity and the momentum created at the Conference have to be maintained throughout the ICARA process, until its projects have been realized. African countries have pledged to conduct policies which are conducive to solutions, be it in the form of voluntary repatriation or local integration of refugees. Financial donors have pledged to make additional resources available. Indeed, it is only logical that if low-income countries, faced with innumerable other difficulties, have to bear an additional burden through receiving refugees, not only should that burden be shared, but help to those countries should also be additional to that aimed directly either at the refugees or at other development needs.

My Office was actively involved in the preparations for the Conference and will continue to play its role in the follow-up process, notably in close co-operation with its partners on the ICARA Steering Committee, i.e. the Secretary-General's Office, the United Nations Development Programme and the Organization of African Unity.

Mr. Chairman, in my statement at the opening of our Executive Committee session this year I said that it has been possible for the United Nations to help millions of refugees to begin a new life because UNHCR has been kept humanitarian and non-political. It is to the credit of all United Nations Member States that this line has been maintained for more than three decades. The decisions in my Executive Committee have always been taken by consensus and my report to the General Assembly has been approved year after year without a vote. In my opinion it is absolutely indispensable that we stick to that line. If we begin to politicize refugee problems we will lose our ability to act, we will bind our hands with many ties of a political nature and the refugees will be the victims. They are waiting for durable solutions. Their wait will be very long indeed if they must wait for politicized compromises. Let us not tarnish the precious jewel that is the purely humanitarian character of UNHCR's work.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, I thank you for your attention. I am looking forward to a constructive debate from which we can all draw inspiration for our continued humanitarian efforts on behalf of the world's refugees. Thank you.