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Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Resumed Third Meeting of the Steering Committee of the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees, 23 January 1990

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Resumed Third Meeting of the Steering Committee of the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees, 23 January 1990

23 January 1990

Distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a privilege to be making my first appearance before an international gathering as High Commissioner at such an important one as the Steering Committee of the International Conference on Indo-Chinese Refugees. Although I took up my duties only a week ago, I have been following developments in this area with the greatest interest - in fact one need only be a casual reader of the newspapers to realize that the problems and the issues which you gave been addressing in recent months are indeed complex, entailing major consequences for tens of thousands of unfortunate human beings. Their future directly depends on the success of our joint endeavours.

I do not plan to make a lengthy formal statement today. You have a very full agenda and time is clearly of the essence. The work of this Committee has, however, reached a critical stage, and I should, therefore, like to touch briefly upon some of the basic issues as far as UNHCR is concerned.

First, as you are aware, a fundamental objective for UNHCR under the Comprehensive Plan of Action remains the preservation of the principle and practice of first asylum. We are fully aware of the heavy burden that the Indochinese influx has imposed on asylum States in the past 15 years. The continued generous granting of temporary refuge to new arrivals has been a most encouraging commitment in these circumstances. Having said so I must, however, express serious concern at the continuing reports of denial of refuge in the region. The CPA was intended to balance this contribution of asylum states with those of other parties. It is therefore my earnest hope that this Steering Committee will strongly reaffirm this fundamental commitment and find a way to overcome the major difficulties recently experienced in the implementation of this component of the CPA.

Second, it is of paramount importance for the effective implementation of the CPA that all Vietnamese asylum seekers, without exception, are given temporary refuge and access to status determination procedures in the region. So far, one category of Vietnamese asylum seekers have in practice been excluded from the provisions of the CPA - those rescued at sea and stowaways. For this category, I hope the Steering Committee will be able to reach a conclusion at this session which will allow them to be treated in the same manner as other asylum seekers, in line with the CPA, thereby resolving this long-standing anomaly.

Third, as you are also aware, the CPA proposed the region-wide introduction of procedures for the determination of refugee status which is a complex task involving considerable deployment of resources. We have been impressed with the seriousness with which governments in the region have approached this task, although in some countries there remains a considerable backlog of cases to be processed. We are at the disposal of Governments for advice and assistance in this respect and would hope that in some cases more resources could be devoted by governments to this task. The prompt and fair determination of the status of new arrivals - seen by all to be credible and impartial - is obviously crucial also in the context of the return of those determined not to be refugees.

Of course I am fully aware that the problem cannot be limited to the two components I have just evoked, i.e. the granting of first asylum and a fair refugee status determination procedure, however critical these might be. Indeed, it is fundamental that all elements of the CPA are mutually reinforcing and cannot be implemented in isolation from one another.

We understand, therefore, the concern of countries of asylum in the face of the steady influx registered in 1989 and we agree that every effort must be made to encourage people to use authorized channels if they wish to leave Vietnam, provided those who have valid reasons to depart are indeed permitted to do so through legal and orderly channels. The considerable increase in departures under the ODP and other bilateral schemes is an encouraging development, for which Vietnam and the resettlement countries deserve full credit.

But the progress registered in this respect obviously does not fully address the difficulties that continuous arrivals have caused to countries in the region. It is, therefore, essential that the admirable effort made by resettlement countries in clearing the pre-cut-off camp population in the region as well as in ensuring the early resettlement of persons determined to be refugees, be maintained and not moderated.

Turning now to the, perhaps, greatest challenge under the CPA - I am speaking of the reversal of the trend since 1975 for persons who do not have valid reasons to seek and obtain asylum abroad - it is not for me to prejudge the outcome of your deliberations which, I understand, will focus particularly on this topic. I believe that all governments represented in this room are aware of the importance of meeting the legitimate concerns of first asylum countries. At the same time we must take fully into account the position and the needs of the countries of origin, as well as the expectation of all countries committed to humanitarian principles that this matter be dealt with in a manner that fully respects the dignity and basic rights of the human beings concerned. This will be a major test of the ability of the parties to demonstrate in practice their will to tackle humanitarian problems in a cooperative and responsible fashion. My Office has, I believe, already displayed, in the promotion of voluntary returns to Laos and Vietnam, its determination to do its utmost to bring about this solution, which is obviously preferable in all respects. I remain ready to consider lending any further assistance, in this and in other connections, that governments would deem necessary to help achieve consensus. All of you, I am sure, will agree that unilateral or strictly bilateral formulae are insufficient to deal with a problem of this magnitude, and with such international repercussions. The unique historical legacy to which I have referred places an equally unique responsibility on us all.

Before I conclude, let me also recognize that the CPA is an instrument which does not, for very good reasons, deal with the question of the underlying causes of this refugee problem. It is difficult, particularly for my Office, to formulate and implement lasting solutions to large-scale exoduses and contribute to the stabilization of population movements unless the origins of the problem are clearly identified and resolutely addressed.

In this connection I can only recall the Secretary-General's statement at the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees last June that "there is neither a purely humanitarian nor an effective unilateral answer to this question. The heavy legacy of history in that part of the world continues to breed political and emotional problems, both at the domestic and international levels, which further complicate the search for a solution. Moreover, gloomy economic and social realities have compounded the nature of the problem we are addressing here."

While it is not for the Steering Committee to address this dimension of the challenge, the issue raised nevertheless underlines the urgent need for governments to consider such innovative measures as may be open to them in this regard. Finally, let me repeat the obvious: the CPA can only be preserved and our common goal achieved if our Office is given adequate financial resources, material facilities and strong diplomatic support. Let me only add that the financial appeal which was launched on 19 January 1990 to cover the needs in South East Asia and in Hong Kong, both under the Annual Programme and various special programmes, has my full backing and that I strongly request that it be given urgent sympathetic consideration by as wide a number of governments as possible.

I wish you every success in your deliberations.

Thank you.