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Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Asian Development Bank Seminar "Inclusion or Exclusion: Social Development Challenges For Asia and Europe," Geneva, 27 April 1998

Speeches and statements

Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Asian Development Bank Seminar "Inclusion or Exclusion: Social Development Challenges For Asia and Europe," Geneva, 27 April 1998

27 April 1998

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank the Asian Development Bank and the Graduate Institute for Development Studies for the opportunity to participate in this seminar. Today's discussion is timely: last week the ADB issued a warning of the risk of political turbulence in Asia if social problems created by the region's economic crisis were ignored. Indeed, insufficient attention is given to the impact of economic developments and policies upon forced population movements - including the needs of refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons.

Today, there are more than 22 million persons of concern to my Office worldwide. They include 13 million refugees who have been forced to flee abroad; 3.3 million returnees who have returned home but require our assistance to reintegrate into their communities; and nearly 5 million people who are displaced inside their own countries or otherwise affected by war and violence.

After Africa, Asia still hosts the second largest number of refugees, 4.8 million, and some 1.7 million internally displaced persons are assisted by my Office. Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran remain the largest refugee population, amounting to more than 2.5 million people. In addition, more than 300,000 Afghans have been displaced inside their country due to the ongoing fighting.

Despite these considerable numbers, Asia has witnessed a steady decline in numbers, in particular in Southeast Asia. Millions of people were displaced internally and externally as a consequence of the Indo-Chinese conflict. More than 1.2 million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians were resettled primarily in Europe, North America and Oceania. Today, only handfuls of boatpeople remain in the countries of first asylum in Southeast Asia.

The divisions of the Cold War have been replaced by political and economic partnerships. Sustained economic growth, improved standards of living, and stronger civic institutions have brought stability to many countries in the region. Nevertheless, the current economic and financial problems have brought again to the fore many of the underlying tensions and potential conflicts.

In my brief remarks today, I would like to emphasize two points. First, the need for a better understanding of the causes that lead to refugee flows. Second, the importance to focus on the security of people. From the perspective of my Office, I would like to advocate the notion of human security, of which social inclusion is an integral part.

Today we live in a rapidly changing world and our understanding of the causes of refugee flows must also be reassessed in the light of these changes. On the one hand, there is a rush toward globalization through technological advances, commerce, and information sharing. On the other hand, strong forces exist which are moving countries toward fragmentation and giving rise to insecurity and civil conflict.

In the past, wars between countries and serious human rights violations were the main causes of refugee movements. Today, conflict within states is the main cause of forced population movements. Group identity along ethnic, religious or linguistic lines has become a destabilizing factor in many states. In Asia, ethno-nationalism is one of the principal causes of conflict. Take for example, the some 65,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India or the 90,000 Karen refugees from Myanmar currently in Thailand: discrimination has resulted in a feeling of "exclusion" or "separateness," which has contributed to calls for autonomy and even independence at times. This has inevitably led to violent civil conflict, compelling members of these groups to seek protection elsewhere. In some instances, the forced displacement of minorities has not only been a by-product but the objective of fighting and human rights violations. De-population and re-population tactics are a sad characteristic of conflicts in many regions.

In many states, certain ethnic, religious or linguistic groups are excluded from the political, social and economic processes and do not benefit equally from development programmes. In countries such as Cambodia, despite international efforts to restore peace and stability, we see once again Cambodian refugees flooding into Thailand as a result of political/military confrontation.

Another cause of refugee flows are violations of human rights and the persecution of persons because of their political opinion, ethnicity or religion. In some countries, minorities may not be considered citizens or habitual residents - for example the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia - although they may have lived in the country for generations. Citizenship is a sensitive issue that can force people to move. The flight of some 85,000 Bhutanese to Nepal and the departure of Muslims from Myanmar to Bangladesh were in part due to economic hardship, but the citizenship question has complicated their return to their original communities. In some instances, the country of origin refuses to take people back on the basis of their citizenship and abdicates its responsibility towards its own population.

The link between economic development and forced population movements also requires further examination. While it is true that poverty as such is not a cause of refugee flows - after all, refugee flows have taken place from developed countries such as Yugoslavia - economic circumstances can, and do, aggravate existing tensions that lead to involuntary population movements. The current economic and financial confidence crisis in Southeast Asia has brought again to the surface many of the ethnic, religious and linguistic tensions among communities. It demonstrates that years of economic growth does not ensure effective community building. Likewise, environmental concerns may force people to leave their homes.

I would also like to draw your attention to the migration issue, which is a major policy concern in Asia. Migration has both contributed to economic growth and eased population pressures in many parts of the world. Among migrants, however, there are many persons leaving, for political and conflict related reasons. The recent events in Malaysia bear sad witness to this phenomenon. The drastic measures that host governments feel compelled to implement to curtail such flows aggravate human suffering.

Each of the issues touched upon may not on its own produce refugee flows, but taken in conjunction with one another, can lead to large scale exoduses. During the last few years, there has been increasing awareness that refugee crises pose formidable political, security and development challenges. The massive humanitarian crises in the early 1990s - northern Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda - have demonstrated the international and regional implications of large refugee movements for maintaining peace and security.

This leads me to my second point: the issue of security. In contrast to the traditional approach to define security in terms of foreign relations and military strength, there is increasing focus on human security as relevant to ensuring peace in today's world. Security is being interpreted in a broad sense to include economic, social, and political concerns of people in addition to their physical safety. Unless people feel secure in their own homes, the stability of societies. states and whole regions will be threatened by internal rather than external tensions.

Several key elements make up human security. A first essential element is the possibility for all citizens to live in peace and security within their own borders. This implies the capacity of states and citizens to prevent and resolve conflicts through peaceful and non-violent means and, after the conflict is over, the ability to effectively carry out reconciliation efforts. A second element is that people should enjoy without discrimination all rights and obligations - including human, political, social, economic and cultural rights - that belonging to a State implies. A third element is social inclusion - or having equal access to the political, social and economic policy making processes, as well as to draw equal benefits from them. A fourth element is that of the establishment of rule of law and the independence of the justice system. Each individual in a society should have the same rights and obligations and be subject to the same set of rules. These basic elements which are predicated on the equality of all before the law, effectively remove any risk of arbitrariness which so often manifests itself in discrimination, abuse or oppression.

Underlying these elements is the role and responsibility of the state toward its citizens. When states abdicate or fail in providing national protection - if the security of people is not safeguarded - massive forced population movements will continue to plague our world.

The international community, in the wake of World War II, decided to set up a system of international protection to safeguard those who no longer enjoy national protection. It is perhaps the boldest attempt to ensure human security even beyond the reaches of states. My Office was created in 1951 to provide international protection, of which the main tenets are to ensure: that people can seek asylum; that they are not forcibly sent back to their country of origin; and that their basic rights - as outlined in the 1951 Convention relating to Refugees - are upheld. Moreover, my Office was assigned to identify solutions to refugee crises, which in the majority of circumstances imply either voluntary repatriation to the country of origin or settlement in another country. In other words, refugees were given the possibility of regaining protection either in their own country of origin or of asylum.

I have already portrayed a somewhat daunting challenge ahead, if we are to prevent the outflow of refugees and to find adequate solutions to their plight. Obviously early warning based on reliable information is useful, but is to my mind not sufficient. Early warning must be followed by early action. The World Bank's recent effort to provide social safety net measures at the height of the economic and financial crisis in Asia is a case in point. It not only lessens the suffering of the most vulnerable, but also may alleviate social tensions and even communal conflict.

As early action is the clue to prevention, quick action is the key to restore peace to conflict situations. Whether in northern Iraq, Mozambique, Bosnia, or Rwanda, return of refugees and displaced persons is the first symptom of peace. It also is an indispensable factor to consolidating peace.

UNHCR is a field-oriented agency, and our greatest contribution has been at the "grass-roots" level, assisting people to return home and working toward their reconciliation. For example, in Rwanda and Bosnia Herzegovina, UNHCR has initiated special projects for women returnees. These include income generation and economic empowerment programmes because women are often the primary breadwinners and caretakers of the family. They also bring diverse segments of the population together. I am pleased that Mohammed Yunus is with us today, to share his experiences of what remarkable achievements can be made through the most simple and rudimentary grassroots organizations.

To make immediate post conflict efforts durable, early rehabilitation and reconciliation efforts have to be instilled. During and immediately following conflict, humanitarian agencies are often the only international actors present. In order that the transition from relief to development takes place smoothly and effectively, economic and development agencies should re-establish their presence early on. It is in this context that I expect quicker action from Banks and financial agencies. Particularly in Asia, there are countries - such as Cambodia and Myanmar - where refugees have returned following periods of tensions and conflicts. They are in dire and urgent need of stability. Although they are high on the list of countries receiving humanitarian aid, they benefit little from development assistance.

I appreciate the reluctance of some Governments to place these countries higher on their development agenda. Nevertheless, sustainable development to eradicate poverty and other causes of instability is essential if the international community wants to eliminate the causes that lead to forced population flows. Moreover, any political action at the global and regional level in this regard, has to be accompanied by a comprehensive development strategy, if development is to contribute to peace and security.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In Asia today, significant progress has been made toward achieving solutions to many refugee crises. Undoubtedly, the rapid economic growth has contributed greatly to this. I would like to end, however, on a cautious note. Despite the relative wealth, many problems have continued to exist and have recently resurfaced. I share the ADB's concerns of a risk of political turbulence which may result in large scale refugee and migration movements if social problems created by the region's crisis are ignored. In the design and implementation of economic, financial and development policies, greater attention should be given to the impact on human security. It is essential to ensure that humanitarian, social, economic and political efforts reinforce each other in the overall design for peace and prosperity.

Thank you.