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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the presentation of the Nansen Award for 1992 to Dr. Richard von Weizsacker, President of the Federal Republic of Germany

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the presentation of the Nansen Award for 1992 to Dr. Richard von Weizsacker, President of the Federal Republic of Germany

26 October 1992
Nansen Medal Award Ceremon 1992, Bonn

Profound changes in world politics and economy have generated population movements on an unprecedented scale. Some 78 million people are on the move today. Among them are 18 million refugees, and some 20 million persons who have been displaced, like refugees, inside their own countries. The vast majority of them originate from, and find refuge in the poorest parts of the world.

The Nansen Award is an occasion to draw the attention of the world to this human tragedy, and to recognise outstanding service and commitment to the cause of refugees. It is named after Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees, appointed by the League of Nations in 1922. Nansen, a great Norwegian explorer and diplomat, pioneered an international legal and humanitarian system for refugees at a time when millions were being forced into exile in Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. He challenged the conscience of the world by demanding that solutions be found to the plight of the refugees and the displaced. When he had succeeded in resettling ten thousand refugees in Thrace, he did not rest satisfied but said:"If we can do it for 10,000, we can do it for a million."

Today we honour President Dr. von Weizsacker in the name of Nansen for the humanitarian commitment which the President has displayed towards refugees and asylum seekers, and for his leadership in combatting racism and xenophobia. With outstanding clarity and forthrightness, he has sought to sensitise the German people to the root causes underlying population displacement. Just as Nansen tried to awaken an apathetic international community to action, President Dr. von Weizsacker has tried to rouse an affluent German nation to its role and responsibility in alleviating the plight of the distressed and the dispossessed around the globe.

Neither the President nor the German people are strangers to the problem of refugees. Lying at the heart of Europe, Germany has been a frontline state for refugee flows through forty years of the Cold War. Ideological convictions boosted the spirit of hospitality, as many hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from the ostracised regimes in the East were granted asylum and integration in the West. Indeed, it was international support for victims of communist persecution which led to the establishment of my Office in 1951. Germany, which has itself known the pain of separation and exile, opened its heart and home, not only to its uprooted compatriots but also to many refugees. It is a tribute to the German people that many of those who had once lost everything have found new roots in Germany. At the same time, in a symbiotic relationship with the nation which gave them sanctuary, the refugees in turn have served to enrich the cultural, social and economic life of their host country.

In many ways the European refugee problem of the fifties and sixties was relatively easy to address. Forty years later, not only has the refugee problem spread to almost every corner of the globe, the causes, and hence the solutions, have become much more complex. Refugees are fleeing across borders not only to escape persecution but also, and overwhelmingly so, ethnic strife, political oppression and social upheaval, aggravated by economic poverty. Proxy wars between the Super Powers, which ravaged Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola and Central America, have been replaced by conflicts within nations of the kind we are witnessing in Bosnia-Herzegovina or parts of Africa.

Mr. President, earlier this year you took the initiative to visit a Somali refugee camp during your official trip to Yemen. We are grateful to you for focusing international attention on the unfortunate and innocent victims of the terrible chaos and bloodshed in Somalia.

Nor is the refugee problem just a marginal phenomenon of a distant world. With almost three million refugees and displaced persons resulting from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, Europe has once again become a major theatre of refugee movements, bringing full circle the history of my Office. The severity of winter and the brutality of the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina could confront us with a major human catastrophe within weeks, unless the security situation improves and we receive massive political, financial and logistical support. Resurgent nationalism also appears to be raising its head with a vengeance further east, among the uneasy mosaic of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities of what was formerly the Soviet Union. What is happening in ex-Yugoslavia today could be a chilling omen for what might happen tomorrow in the former Soviet Union.

The refugee and migratory trend from the developing world and from Eastern Europe has aroused public concern in the West. The political and strategic value of granting asylum has diminished in a world which is no longer drawn along ideological lines. Unemployment and recession are creating resentment against foreigners. Public hostility has exploded from time to time in violent, xenophobic attacks. Tolerant and hospitable Germans have been shocked by the ugly face of racism on their streets and in their neighbourhoods. The very freedom of movement, which speeded the demise of communism and served not so long ago to unite Europe, is now threatening to divide it. Increasingly worried governments are resorting to legal and administrative measures to control the admission of asylum seekers. It was in Europe that Nansen built his institution of refugee protection, it is in Europe today that the viability of that system is being questioned.

In drawing attention to these facts, I do not wish to minimise the difficulties of governments nor the sense of insecurity of communities, but to highlight the dilemma with which Europe in general, and Germany in particular, is confronted. It is a dilemma which President von Weizsacker has clearly foreseen in many of his public statements.

It is a dilemma between preserving the fundamental principles of human rights and humanitarianism, which are the very fabric of our political values, and maintaining security and social stability, without which democracy itself may be threatened.

At the core of the dilemma lies the response to the refugee problem, which is not only a humanitarian issue but a major political and security concern today.

Rarely before has western civilisation faced a greater challenge, rarely before has there been a stronger need for determined leadership. What we need is not charity, but political vision. For, ultimately, how we deal with the refugee issue will greatly determine the shape of our world to come.

I believe we must face the challenge fairly and squarely.

First and foremost, we must be vigilant in our defence of tolerance and human rights for all those who live among us. I commend Dr. von Weizsacker for the courageous stand he has taken against racism and xenophobia towards refugees and migrants. Through his visits to the centres for asylum seekers, he has not only demonstrated his solidarity with the victims of violence, he has also underlined the threat which xenophobia poses to the foundations of democratic society, and the personal, moral commitment which is needed from each of us, man or woman, to oppose these forces of evil.

Secondly, we must recognise the refugee problem not only as a matter of humanitarian concern but as a major issue of international peace and security. The exodus of 1.7 million Kurds from northern Iraq last year showed the vulnerability of global security in the face of large-scale movements. The brutality of the conflict in Yugoslavia and the consequent displacement of almost three million persons have only served to underscore the issue.

The conflict in ex-Yugoslavia demonstrates the need for comprehensive, coherent and coordinated action - both on the political and humanitarian fronts - to deal with the causes, and not just the symptoms of refugee flows. It is only by addressing the root causes of population movements that we can hope to reduce refugee problems, stabilise turbulent societies and enhance global security. As Dr. von Weizsacker has stated himself, in a politically turbulent world, security, stability and peace cannot be defined merely in military terms. In his own words, "the real dangers of the future lie not in military might nor pressure exerted by rulers, but in the disappointment evoked in individuals and societies by the denial of basic rights, economic injustice and social insecurity."

Thirdly and finally, we must continue to uphold asylum as a key component in a comprehensive strategy for the prevention and solution of refugee problems. The vigorous pursuit of such a strategy will reduce the numbers forced to flee but it will not completely eliminate them. Therefore, persons whose lives and liberty would be in danger if they were forced back to their own countries should continue to be granted asylum, at least until a solution is found to their plight. However, the right to seek asylum must not become a privilege for abuse. Fair and efficient asylum procedures are essential to ensure that valid claims to refugee status are duly and expeditiously recognised. I call on all political leaders to preserve and consolidate the consensus of the international community in this regard.

The Nansen Award is an occasion to look back and acknowledge the contribution of the German people and their President, Dr. von Weizsacker, to the humanitarian cause. It is also a time to look ahead at the challenges which confront us. The risks which are evident. But also the opportunities which are abundant.

I call upon the political leadership of the world to seize this rare moment in history, a moment not simply of danger but also of immense opportunities. Opportunities to prevent and resolve refugee problems, and build a safer, more stable, more tolerant world.

Germany, like the rest of Europe, is at a crossroads. Will self-interest and intolerance side-track us into failure? Will Germany turn its back on those who are forced to move, or will it retain its long tradition of safeguarding the rights of the uprooted and the oppressed? Will it build new walls knowing that walls did not stop those fleeing persecution in the past? Or will Germany and the rest of Europe engage themselves in a new struggle for freedom? Freedom not only in political and economic terms, but freedom to define a new concept of human solidarity, a new code of global morality in which peace, security, democracy, human rights and sustainable development can become truly universal values - and people will no longer be forced to flee.

Dr. von Weizsacker, we look to your leadership, vision and commitment in this formidable task ahead of us.