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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Seminar on Global Refugee Issues, Dhaka, 15 May 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Seminar on Global Refugee Issues, Dhaka, 15 May 1993

15 May 1993

Honourable President of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, Honourable Foreign Minister, Mr. Foreign Secretary, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am honoured by your presence, Mr. President, and indebted to you for having graced this occasion. Your presence symbolises the compassion of the people and Government of Bangladesh for the plight of refugees - compassion which has been expressed in very concrete terms already twice in recent years. In 1978, 200,000 refugees from Myanmar sought and found refuge in the Cox's Bazaar district. Thanks to the cooperation of the two governments and the assistance of UNHCR, the refugees were all able to return to their homes in Myanmar. Unfortunately, however, they have again been forced to seek sanctuary. But I am pleased to note that once again, this country has responded generously and hospitably to a major humanitarian crisis.

Yesterday I visited the refugee camps in Cox's Bazaar. It was a brief trip, but as I went around the camps, I was deeply impressed by the efforts of the authorities and the NGOs. The burden of hosting refugee populations is never a light one for any country - it is particularly arduous for a developing country like Bangladesh which is itself prone to natural disasters. I therefore commend the Government of Bangladesh for having responded to the challenge so admirably.

Two days ago, the Foreign Secretary (Foreign Minister) and I signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the Myanmar refugee issue. This agreement is testament to our joint resolve to continue to cooperate closely as we pursue our efforts to resolve the humanitarian crisis. I am optimistic that with the help and cooperation of all parties, we can facilitate the rapid repatriation of Myanmar refugees in conditions of safety and dignity and on a voluntary basis, in line with the agreement of 28 April 1992 signed between the Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh.

In the meantime, my Office remains committed to assisting the Government of Bangladesh to meet the basic needs of refugees. In providing such assistance we have not been oblivious to the situation of the Bangladeshi communities in Cox's Bazaar, Bandarban and Teknaf areas which have been directly affected by the refugee influx. While UNHCR funds are normally intended for assistance to refugees, in the case of Bangladesh, following consultation with donor governments, I have approved a programme of assistance aimed at affected Bangladeshi villages. I am pleased to announce here that the project agreement has just been finalized and signed by the Government and my Office.

Mr. President, we are also aware of the concerns about the environmental cost of hosting refugees. Cognisant of the need to minimise the damage caused by the presence of refugees, my Office has been in close consultation with the responsible Ministries to find ways and means whereby the energy needs of refugees can be met without damaging the environment. Already, roughly half of the fuel energy needs of the camps are being provided through environment-safe compressed and loose rice husk. My Office is also prepared to act as a catalyst to mobilize international support for long-term reforestation projects in areas affected by the refugee influx. Initial steps in this direction have already been taken and discussions with the Ministries of Forestry and Relief continue.

Mr. President, the refugee problem in Bangladesh is part of a larger global refugee problem, which is the subject of today's seminar. When my Office was established by the UN General Assembly in 1951 to provide international protection to refugees and to seek permanent solutions for them, the world refugee population was just one million. Today it exceeds 18 million. In the course of the past year alone, more than 3 million refugees were forced into exile, while a million and a half have returned home. Never has the experience of my Office in protecting and assisting refugees been so intensely relevant or so extensively tested.

The scale and complexity of refugee emergencies today reflect the transitory and turbulent state of a world in which old power structures are crumbling and new ones are yet to emerge. Today, ethnic and religious tensions, often aggravated by poverty, demographic pressure and environmental degradation, have become a common denominator of population displacements, whether in the Horn of Africa and the Sudan, in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, or in the Middle East and parts of south Asia.

In the course of the past year, UNHCR has launched emergency programmes for some 3 million refugees, internally displaced and besieged population in the former Yugoslavia. We have grappled with an influx of some 420,000 refugees in Kenya, mainly from Somalia. Closer to your own country, we have responded to a major refugee flow into Nepal. Last December we sent emergency teams to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. Earlier this year we have had to cope with the influx of some 200,000 refugees from Togo into Benin and Ghana.

During the same period of 12 months we have helped more than 1.5 million refugees to return home voluntarily - more than a million of them from Pakistan and Iran to Afghanistan. Just six weeks ago I was in Thailand to close the last of the Cambodian camps on the border as over 350,000 refugees have now gone back to Cambodia. In a few months time, we will be embarking on an ambitious plan to repatriate 1.5 million Mozambican refugees. Let me hasten to temper that optimism by acknowledging that the refugees are often returning to countries devastated by war, areas which have been heavily mined or situations where the national reconciliation process is precarious. The fragility of the peace agreement in Cambodia, continuing conflict in Afghanistan, extreme volatility in Angola, violence in South Africa, all demonstrate the precarious nature of return.

Confronted with large-scale refugee movements, under such challenging circumstances, how can we ensure that the refugees are accorded asylum and protection until they can return home in safety and dignity? In situations of continuing uncertainty and insecurity, how can voluntary repatriation be made a truly durable solution? Industrialised countries of the North as well as developing countries of the South are faced with a major dilemma. On the one hand, how to respond humanely to those who are compelled to flee and yet maintain the stability of our own societies? On the other hand, if we do not respond to the problem, we may jeopardise regional and international security. Indeed, the linkages between humanitarian crises and threats to peace are being increasingly recognised by the Security Council, first in the context of Iraq, and now in relation to former Yugoslavia and Somalia.

The answer is not easy, but, I believe, it lies in recognising new imperatives and seizing new opportunities which have emerged in the post-Cold War era, not only for responding to refugee situations in the countries of asylum but also for preventing and resolving them in the countries from which refugees originate. Greater efforts can and should be made to ensure that people are not forced to flee their homes in the first place, but if they are, then they must be protected and given asylum. At the same time, conditions must be created to allow them to return home in safety and dignity. This is the three-pronged strategy of prevention, preparedness and solutions which I have been promoting. The implementation of such a strategy requires a broad partnership of actors: governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental.

By prevention, I do not mean putting barriers to stop people moving but rather tackling the underlying political, economic and social causes which force people to move. There must be greater recognition of the right of people to remain in safety in their homes, and the obligation of States to accept responsibility for their citizens. In this age of heightening tensions, the primary aim of which is to force one group of people to leave territory shared with another, the international community must ensure greater respect for human rights in general, and minority rights in particular. The challenge is to translate the rhetoric of human rights into practical measures. How do we promote tolerance for diversity? How do we get States to eliminate violations of human rights in their territory and cooperate internationally to reduce "push factors"? How do we foster responsibility as well as international accountability of States as regards the treatment of their own citizens?

For its part, my Office has sought to enhance its cooperation with the human rights machinery, and intensify its efforts in training, legal advice, information and institution building in countries with potential refugee problems, particularly in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Furthermore, with the consent of the government concerned and at the request of the UN Secretary General, we have sought to extend protection and assistance to the internally displaced persons before they cross the border, for instance in northern Sri Lanka and in Bosnia Herzegovina.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, UNHCR is providing assistance not only to refugees and the displaced, but also to people who are under direct threat of expulsion either because of military attack or because of persecution and expulsion on ethnic grounds - notoriously known as "ethnic cleansing".

The pursuit of a strategy, which complements asylum outside the country of origin of refugees with activities inside the country of origin has meant a more direct engagement of UNHCR in situations of acute crisis or open conflict. It has security risks of a type never known before to us. In Bosnia-Herzegovina it has led to the use of UN peace-keeping troops to provide military cover for our humanitarian activities. It created a major dilemma for us. There are understandable and obvious differences between the aims of UNHCR and those of the Security Council. Linking the two could at least potentially jeopardise our neutrality and impartiality, thereby affecting our ability to work in security and confidence on both sides of a frontline. But the security conditions on the ground left us with little choice.

Just as UNHCR's presence in countries of asylum has proven over the past 40 years to be a crucial factor in ensuring the protection of refugees, so too today, international presence is proving to be of critical importance in protecting people who are internally displaced. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, UNHCR staff help not only to distribute relief to the displaced and besieged population, but also to monitor their protection situation. In northern Sri Lanka, UNHCR's Open Relief Centres are accepted and respected by both warring parties as havens of safety, although they have no legal status as such.

International presence is not only important for prevention of refugee flows but also for seeking solutions to refugee problems. In the context of voluntary repatriation, international presence can be an important confidence-building measure for returning refugees, particularly when refugees choose to return to countries where security is fragile. In Cambodia, UNHCR negotiated guarantees for the safety of refugees, organised their return and provided basic reintegration assistance as well as monitoring of their security situation after return. In South Africa, my Office monitors the safety guarantees for returning refugees which we negotiated with the government. In Somalia, we have established a presence across the border from Kenya, and brought in food and basic assistance in an effort to stabilise population movements and eventually create conditions conducive to the return of refugees.

Like prevention, repatriation is a difficult undertaking, of great political and operational complexity. The potential for solution can easily become the seed for disaster in the face of premature return of refugees to insecure and unsatisfactory conditions, as our experience in the Horn of Africa has shown. The success of repatriation is linked on the one hand to protection and security issues, and on the other to the prospects of economic and social reintegration and rehabilitation. Clean water, primary education, health care, basic income generation, as much as guarantees of safety, are necessary to make sure that those who return are then able to remain at home. In Cambodia and Central America, UNHCR has sought to develop quick-impact projects which bridge the gap between immediate relief and longer term rehabilitation and reconstruction. Small in scale and community-based, the projects can vary from a threshing machine to a clinic or a few wells. While implementing such projects through NGOs, we are working closely with development agencies, particularly UNDP, to build the bridge between such short-term reintegration and the longer term national development plans. It is only by stabilising communities in this way, that we can hope to break the vicious cycle of exile, return, and exile again in some parts of the world.

If I, as the High Commissioner for Refugees, have spoken of prevention and solutions, if I have emphasised the right not to become a refugee or remain a refugee, it is because I know the generosity of asylum countries and international protection cannot fully replace the loss of a homeland or relieve the pain of exile. To acknowledge this is not in any way to undermine the continued importance of the right to seek and enjoy asylum. As long as we live in a world in which massive violations of human rights, war and violence are an everyday reality, it will be necessary to provide protection through asylum to all those who need it. Refugees must not be held hostage to the lack of political solutions. Nor must they become the victims of political expediency.

Let me emphasise that the task of protecting refugees and seeking solutions to their plight is not just a question of logistics and relief but of putting forth the humanitarian concerns as well as balancing the interests of States with the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, often in very delicate situations.

Mr. President, as Bangladesh's own experience on the Myanmar refugee issue shows, we live in a complex world where major issues rarely lend themselves to evident choices or easy solutions. I offer no panacea for the ills that characterise the global humanitarian scene today, but I dare to say that in this age of uncertainty if there are risks, there are also opportunities. I hope that this seminar will help to increase understanding of the humanitarian challenge which confronts the world today, and will strengthen the support of government officials, non-governmental organisations, intellectuals, scholars, journalists and opinion leaders alike for the refugee cause and humanitarian mandate of my Office.