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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of Africa Refugee Day, Adjumani, Uganda, 20 June 2000

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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of Africa Refugee Day, Adjumani, Uganda, 20 June 2000

20 June 2000

Honourable Prime Minister,
Dear Guests,

Each June 20th the Organisation of African Unity and UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, celebrate "Africa Refugee Day" to mark the anniversary of the OAU's 1974 African Refugee Convention. This legal instrument is the cornerstone of refugee protection in the continent. Today, I am very, very happy to observe this important date with you in Uganda - and to be in Adjumani, among so many friends.

In the early 1960s, there were some 950,000 refugees in Africa. Today, there are four million people driven from their homes and compelled to live in exile in other countries. This is in addition to millions more displaced inside their own countries. Almost all of them have been forced to flee by war and violence. The tragic situations in Angola, Sierra Leone, Congo, Sudan, and, more recently, in the Horn of Africa, are all examples of the conflicts that continue to plague many regions of Africa.

Last year, there were encouraging signs of peace. The cease-fire agreements of Lomé and Lusaka raised the hope that at least two of the worst conflicts on the continent would end. We hoped that with peace, hundreds of thousands of refugees in West and Central Africa would be going home, at long last.

But new tensions emerged and the truces began to unravel. I commend the efforts of all those, who are tirelessly working towards peace. I remain hopeful that the Lomé and Lusaka cease-fire agreements will eventually be implemented. This is vital. In Burundi, too, the peace process, now led by former President Mandela, is progressing - if it succeeds, hundreds of thousands of refugees may finally return home after many years of exile. All these negotiations are difficult and complex, but we must encourage the efforts of those who seek peace.

However, conflicts will not be resolved unless all countries - and their citizens - take a collective responsibility for achieving peace. In some regions of Africa, controlling natural resources - oil, diamonds, wood - appears to be a more pressing concern for governments and rebel groups alike, than the welfare of the African people. The relative ease with which arms are trafficked within and to Africa feeds the machinery of war. The worst pages of colonial history seem to repeat themselves as enormous resources are wasted in pursuit of wealth, war and domination.

And unfortunately, in areas where refugees were once generously welcomed as brothers and sisters in distress, we see today an increase in xenophobia. Intolerance pushes people to be hostile towards others because of their ethnicity, religion or political views. We must all work together to counter this bad, negative attitude. We must look positively at refugees - understand and explain that they are individuals who can make important contributions to communities hosting them.

At the beginning, I said that I was happy to be here today - I say this not only because you have organised such a wonderful celebration, but also, and especially, because for many years the districts of Adjumani and Moyo, here in Northern Uganda, have been bright examples of African generosity and hospitality. Refugees have been given large tracts of land for agriculture, and this has formed the basis of what we call "self-reliance strategy" - one of the best examples in Africa of a durable solution for a large and complex refugee problem. Clearly, the communities of this region, and the local and national authorities, have had the vision to understand that refugees can make valuable contributions to their host country.

Through you, Honourable Prime Minister, I wish to pay tribute to the people and government of Uganda for having always - since 1955! - kept an open door to generations of refugees from Sudan, Rwanda and Congo. Yesterday I told President Museveni that in spite of all its problems, this is a generous country - and I hope it will remain open and generous in the years to come. He promised me it would. I promised him we shall continue to help Uganda.

I would like to take this opportunity today to express my sincere gratitude to the people and governments of Africa who have so very often opened their doors to refugees and others torn from their homes. You can rest assured that UNHCR will continue to protect and assist the refugees and displaced people of Africa. We will never stop working towards alleviating their suffering and finding lasting solutions for them.

We shall also continue to remind millions of people around the globe who, in the comfort of their own homes, watch TV and Internet images of desperate people driven from their own homes, that they can do more. They should encourage their respective governments to remember the refugee plight in Africa, even when media cameras focus on crises elsewhere in the world.

And finally, on Africa Refugee Day, I call upon all African leaders to put an end to the spiral of violence and war that we have seen over this last year. Only then will Africa find enduring peace and at last focus on improving the life of its people. And only then will every woman, man and child across this great continent have a lasting home, and a promising future.

Thank you.