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Briefing by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 5 May 1999

Speeches and statements

Briefing by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 5 May 1999

5 May 1999
The refugee crisisThe responseThe future

Mr President,

In my briefing to the Council today I shall focus on the plight of refugees in the southern Balkans. The situation of women, men and children fleeing the Province of Kosovo and Metohija, in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, is increasingly desperate. Kosovo is being emptied - brutally and methodically - of its ethnic Albanian population. In the last three days alone, about 37,000 new refugees and internally displaced people have arrived in Albania, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the Republic of Montenegro. More trains with thousands of refugees have arrived last night at the Yugoslav/Macedonian border. Ethnic cleansing and mass forced expulsions are yielding their tragic results faster than we can respond - faster than anybody's response. Fragile and unprepared countries are bearing the brunt of one of the largest refugee flows Europe has seen in the 20th century. 700,000 people have already been forced to leave their homes.

The refugee crisis

In spite of this, the response is gaining momentum. But let me say at the outset that with the outflow continuing at the current rate and speed, the ability of the international community to deal with it has already been severely tested. The fundamental problem of this crisis, however, has not been an inadequate humanitarian response: its root cause is the systematic and intolerable violence being waged against an entire population, and the failure to prevent it; and its immedate effect is that the capacity of countries receiving refugees has been stretched to its limit, and beyond.

This refugee crisis is not new. Last year, more than a quarter of all asylum requests in Europe were by people from Kosovo. Up to 23 March, when UNHCR had to reluctantly leave the province following a decision of the United Nations Security Coordinator, it was providing assistance to 400,000 people displaced or otherwise affected by fighting inside the province, and to 90,000 refugees and displaced people outside Kosovo. The efforts of verifiers and humanitarian workers were containing, albeit in a limited way, the crisis that was to follow our departure.

Figures are dry, but telling. Last night, there were 404,000 refugees from Kosovo in Albania, 211,000 in The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and 62,000 internally displaced people in Montenegro. Refugees from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia have also fled to Bosnia and Herzegovina - 17,000 from Kosovo and about 20,000 from the Sandzjak, among others. According to unverified government estimates, 60,000 displaced people from Kosovo have fled to other parts of Serbia. Tens of thousands - any estimate is a guess in the absence of credible intelligence - are displaced inside the province. Tens of thousands have fled or are seeking asylum further afield, particularly in Western European countries. By tonight, all these figures will have to be revised upwards.

The response

In spite of previous tragic experiences with ethnic cleansing in this region, nobody foresaw deportations, and a refugee outflow from Kosovo, on such a massive scale, and at such a speed.

It took a few days for UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies to step up their activities and deal with tens of thousands of people streaming through borders. I wish we - all of us - could have reacted faster. But with the indispensable help of other partners, the response has become more organized. I could see it myself when I visited Albania and The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in early April. Refugees are, in spite of all difficulties, relatively well assisted.

The response to the refugee crisis can be described as consisting of four elements.

The first is the reception of refugees at borders and their temporary accommodation in transit camps. This is perhaps the biggest challenge, given the uninterrupted stream of refugees, which compels us to constantly review contingency figures and plans. Host countries have kept their borders open for the most part, in spite of the enormous burden placed upon them by the influx. In recent weeks, however, we have seen some countries waver in their commitment to admit refugees to their territory. It is essential that they continue to keep borders open, facilitate safe access to refugees by humanitarian agencies, and allow refugees to move immediately to secure, adequately equipped camps. Providing asylum is literally vital, since preventing them from crossing the border would expose them to violence and death. On our part, we will continue to mobilize international support in order to ease the burden on asylum countries.

The second element of the response is the search for more suitable accommodation beyond transit camps. Many - about half of those in The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, for example - are hosted by families, and I wish to praise the people in all countries of asylum, who are sharing their meagre resources with refugees. Were it not for their generosity, this would be an even greater tragedy. UNHCR is coordinating projects with governments and NGOs to provide host families with cash grants and food assistance. For the other refugees, UNHCR and its partners are setting up camps away from insecure border areas. I may add that very soon, unless an early political solution creates conditions for refugees to return home, we shall have to make plans to equip refugee camps and public buildings for the bitter Balkan winter. This will require additional, substantial resources.

The third and fourth elements of the response are related to the situation in The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where the reception capacity of transit centres, camps and host families, in a country with a fragile ethnic and social balance, has reached breaking point.

As a third response element, therefore, in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration, UNHCR has initiated a Humanitarian Evacuation Programme, under which refugees, on a voluntary basis, are flown from The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to third countries offering to host them temporarily. This programme has no precedent in UNHCR's history. Initially, we were hoping to evacuate refugees only to Europe, a more obvious choice since the eventual solution for those evacuated is to return to Kosovo. But of the 85,000 slots offered by European countries so far, only 28,000 have been filled to date. On 30 April I have therefore requested extra-European countries to activate their own quotas. I regret that the pace of evacuations to Europe, with some exceptions, has been slow, and I would urge once again European governments to fill their quotas as rapidly as possible.

The fourth element of the response is to further relieve pressure on The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia by carrying out a "humanitarian transfer" of some refugees to Albania, with the agreement of the governments of the two countries. Let me stress that such transfers should only be carried out on a voluntary basis.

Humanitarian transfers are not without operational consequences in Albania. Given that this country will also continue to receive refugees directly from Kosovo, as well as via Montenegro, camp construction in Albania has become the most crucial element of the response. I am concerned, however, that it is not progressing as fast as it should. There are two problems: site availability and actual construction. I urge the government of Albania to make available more rapidly a larger number of suitable sites. I also urge governments that have offered to set up new camps, to speed up the pace of construction. If shelter facilities in Albania are not improved soon, there may be little incentive for refugees to accept the transfer from The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Mr President, I also wish to share with the Council my deep concerns with respect to the protection and security of refugees. Human traffickers are a serious threat, especially in Albania. They have already started smuggling refugees across the Adriatic into Italy and the European Union. Young women, often forced into prostitution, and children, are frequent victims, particularly when they are hosted in families, and are thus more vulnerable to these threats. This phenomenon will increase if it is not addressed more forcefully, and immediately. There is also a very real risk of forced recruitment of refugees by the Kosovo Liberation Army. I strongly urge governments to discourage this practice.

UNHCR is coordinating efforts to improve refugee protection, through some basic measures such as setting up camps away from dangerous border areas, or promoting tracing and family reunification schemes. To ensure the protection of refugees, the security of local communities and the safety of humanitarian staff, however, it will also be indispensable to provide international support - material, training, funds - to police and other law enforcement institutions, especially in Albania. This is a most urgent task to which I would like to draw the attention of the Council.

Registration of refugees is another priority, particularly with the reported destruction of identification papers and population civil records in Kosovo. Registration is also essential to conduct tracing activities and bring back together thousands of separated families, as well as for the preparations for voluntary return, when refugees will have to reclaim their properties. In Albania, logistical problems have hampered a proper refugee registration but I am pleased to inform you that - with the support of IOM and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe - the exercise is now beginning.

Because refugees continue to arrive in large numbers, the four elements of the relief operation, which I described earlier, must be carried out simultaneously. Needless to say, UNHCR could not be leading the humanitarian response without support from its traditional partners - UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organisation, national and international NGOs. We have received valuable help, especially in the coordinating, reporting and fund raising functions, by the Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs. A crucial partnership has been established with the OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission. Its staff have played an essential role, especially in the first few days of the emergency.

I wish also to clarify the nature of the assistance we have sought from military contingents. As in all such situations, we insist that protection and assistance of refugees must absolutely remain civilian and strictly humanitarian in character. I can assure you that the fundamental principle of non-militarization of refugee activities has been and will be upheld. Let me remind you that in response to NATO Secretary-General Solana's letter of 2 April offering support to humanitarian activities, I wrote on 3 April defining precisely the four areas in which we required assistance: management of the airlift operation; offloading and immediate storage of aid at airports and ports; logistics support in setting up camps; and air evacuation of refugees from The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. This cooperation was expanded to some other logistical functions in a further exchange of letters on 20-21 April, related to operation "Allied Harbour" in Albania. Let me also add that my appeal for support was not and is not limited to NATO member states. Finally, I wish to stress that military involvement in humanitarian activities will continue only as long as, and wherever, extraordinary circumstances prevail. Should it become unnecessary, it will be terminated, as shown by the hand-over to UNHCR of camp management in Brazda and Kukes. We need logistical support from the military to alleviate refugee suffering, but at the same time we must maintain a clear distinction between the humanitarian operation led by UNHCR and military operations, especially as long as NATO forces are engaged in military action in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

I am extremely worried about the humanitarian situation inside the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Until we had to considerably reduce our presence in the country at the end of March, we were helping the Yugoslav government assist over half a million ethnic Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our assistance has had to be drastically curtailed. The office of the Serbian Commissioner for Refugees has continued its work, albeit with limited means, and under understandably difficult circumstances. And I wish to express my deepest concern for the plight of all civilians affected by conflict in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Civilians have also been victims of air raids, including people trying to flee Kosovo. I wish to take this opportunity to make a plea to the parties, including NATO, to exert their utmost to avoid civilian casualties.

Of great concern is of course the fate of civilians, and particularly displaced people, in the province of Kosovo, which is still by and large off limits to humanitarian agencies. Refugees increasingly report that civilians are being subjected to violence, forced eviction from their homes, deportations and arbitrary detention. Clearly, we only hear of a fraction of the violations taking place. From the beginning of the conflict, I have expressed my strongest protest against this intolerable situation, as has the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Secretary-General, at his briefing to the Council yesterday, announced the plan to send a humanitarian assessment mission to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, proposing that the team start by examining the situation in Kosovo. UNHCR has been invited to participate in the assessment. This mission, as the Secretary-General and various Council members pointed out, must be given all necessary security assurances to be able to function effectively, and in safety.

The future

Mr President, the response to the refugee crisis is taking up much of our resources, energy and time. This should not prevent us from looking to the future. We must eventually help refugees return home and live in security - security, I should add, that can be sustained over time; and that is not just safety from physical threats, but that will be included in a broader rehabilitation framework, and reinforced by appropriate legal guarantees, and formal assurances of respect for the rights of those who return. It is not too early for planning.

Planning for return, on which we have already engaged, is made difficult by the on-going outflow, and by the uncertainty about what kind of peace will eventually be implemented. In the meantime, we must plan along two different tracks. On the one hand, as I have already described, we have to continuously review preparedness plans to meet further outflows of refugees. On the other, we must start planning for their return to Kosovo. I foresee a "mixed" scenario eventually prevailing, with some refugees returning, and others remaining in host countries. For this reason, we must adopt, and be funded for, a flexible approach, allowing for preparedness resources to be utilized either to respond to new outflows, or to support return, or both.

Voluntary return is not only the best solution for refugees - it is also the hope of a majority of them. This said, I can assure you that it is very unlikely that any refugee will return to Kosovo unless Serbian forces withdraw, and international armed forces are deployed in the province to keep peace. I have to insist on this point. Until March, the international community attempted to maintain a fragile agreement between the parties with an unarmed mission. Such an option, already facing difficulty in February and March, will prove inadequate when hundreds of thousands of refugees, who have been forced out of their homes, return to Kosovo. However, if people feel that adequate security is provided to all civilians, I am confident that a majority will choose to return, probably very quickly. My Office, Mr President, will play its mandated role in leading a repatriation operation. This must - and I stress must - be based on internationally recognized standards of voluntariness, and provided that security conditions are fully re-established.

The return of refugees, obviously, will not just be a logistical operation. A major reconstruction programme must be carried out in Kosovo, with extraordinary means and the intervention of bilateral donors and financial institutions. Many refugees may not even return if such a programme does not start in earnest, as soon as repatriation becomes possible. I am not referring simply to the rebuilding of infrastructure - houses, roads, water and electricity - but also to the reconstruction of institutions, the re-establishment of the rule of law and respect for basic human rights, and the rehabilitation of a traumatized society. The Secretary-General yesterday in his briefing outlined a structure for a transitional civilian administration of Kosovo, which I welcome. Let me also add that reconstruction should extend to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as a whole. Economic, social and environmental programmes will have to be carried out also in the regions as a whole, and especially in those countries hosting large numbers of refugees.

In conclusion, a return plan will be carried out only if adequate security measures guarantee a solid, lasting peace, that requires more than just physical safety; and if the international community will implement a comprehensive, regional rehabilitation plan in the southern Balkans. There should not be a "gap" left between immediate humanitarian and medium to long-term development efforts if recurring conflicts are to be prevented and an inevitably fragile peace is to be reinforced. Our goal should not just to bring refugees back, but to create durable conditions for them to stay, in safety and peace.

Mr President, having experienced the world's indifference to many refugee crises, I welcome the sense of solidarity - almost of international ownership - that has developed around the Kosovo crisis. I hope it will foster a heightened sense of determination to reach a political solution in the very near future. Faced with an increasing tide of human suffering, I join my voice to that of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and urge governments to multiply efforts to re-establish peace soon. I count very much on the leadership and determination of the Security Council.

In the meantime, I pledge that UNHCR, with support from partner agencies, will continue to lead efforts to protect and assist refugees and internally displaced persons. I welcome the help of governments. I also welcome their scrutiny and constructive comments about our work. But I shall be frank again. Direct support should not become direct management. We appreciate the need for visible bilateral efforts, but to be effective, they must be integrated into a larger multilateral effort, that my Office is mandated to lead. Failure to uphold this system, for which my Office exists, will ultimately make relief efforts less effective, and will also seriously weaken the international refugee protection regime worldwide established by the member states of the United Nations almost 50 years ago. And I should add that for efforts to succeed, we also need immediate better financial support, and we need such support to be sustained while the crisis continues, even if it disappears from the headlines. Since the crisis began, we have received 50% of the required resources foreseen until the end of June.

Mr President, I would like to conclude this briefing by appealing to the Security Council not to overlook other refugee crises around the world. Unresolved conflicts continue to make victims and force people to flee their homes in many African countries - the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Angola and Sudan, just to mention a few; the situation in Liberia is fragile and the return of refugees is threatened; Burundi refugees are still hosted in Tanzanian camps; Western Sahara is an unresolved issue, and the potential for further displacement in the Horn of Africa is very real. Beyond Africa, Afghanistan remains of great concern - there are more than three times as many Afghan refugees as there are from Kosovo. Most of them have been away from home for over twenty years. The situation in Indonesia is fragile, with great potential for massive displacement.

Huge means are desperately required to respond to the Kosovo refugee crisis. I am worried, however, that this may result in decreasing resources to resolve other, equally grave and destabilizing refugee situations, that humanitarian agencies continue to tackle alone, far from the spotlights of media and the preoccupation of governments. I trust that the Security Council will ensure that in addition to the efforts currently made to address and resolve the Kosovo emergency, adequate political attention and material resources continue to be devoted to the solution of all other such crises.

Thank you, Mr President.