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"On the Humanitarian Frontlines" - Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, hosted by the National Human Rights Commission of India and the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi, 5 May 2000

Speeches and statements

"On the Humanitarian Frontlines" - Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, hosted by the National Human Rights Commission of India and the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi, 5 May 2000

5 May 2000
Dramatic evolution of the humanitarian and refugee contextMixed population flows: two Asian cases

Honorable Chief Justice Bhagwati,
Mr. Virendra Dayal, member of the National Human Rights Commission of India,
Dr. Raktakamal Burman-Chandra, member of the Indian Council of Social Science Research,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank the National Human Rights Commission of India and the Indian Council of Social Science Research for inviting me to speak here. It is a privilege to be in this great nation - a nation so important in the history of Asia, and of mankind - and a nation which is such a crucial and supportive member of the United Nations. You will therefore understand that this is a memorable event for my Office, and for myself.

I shall talk to you about refugees, and about the mission entrusted to UNHCR - the mission to protect refugees, and to find solutions to their plight. I would like to do so, first, by briefly retracing the evolution of humanitarian and refugee matters; and second, more specifically, from the perspective of refugee problems in Asia.

Dramatic evolution of the humanitarian and refugee context

Refugee protection, as we conceive it, has its foundation in a juridical framework largely developed during the years following the Second World War - in parallel to the elaboration of international humanitarian law, and of human rights. We should be proud that, 50 years later, these frameworks remain our main moral, doctrinal, and political reference.

The body of international law built half a century ago to protect what, with a contemporary term, we could call "human security", was a wise combination of universal values and operational tools. This has allowed us - the humanitarian agencies of the United Nations, the Red Cross movement, the NGOs - to work effectively on behalf of disadvantaged people. It has allowed us to try to ensure the protection of their lives and rights in times of peace and in times of war.

Refugee movements are indicative of a world in turmoil - rife with humanitarian crises. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations was confronted with a tragedy of uprootedness and exile in a Europe divided by the iron curtain. This led to the creation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1950. Most refugees at that time were fleeing from totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. Viewed as victims of persecution, they were readily accepted and integrated in the Western democracies. This comfortable convergence between humanitarian traditions and political objectives eased UNHCR's task of developing adequate legal structures for the protection and integration of refugees in countries of asylum.

By the early 1960s, refugee movements had changed in nature. The prevailing pattern started to be the large-scale exodus as the process of decolonisation took its human toll, mainly on the African continent. There was strong solidarity for those fleeing the effects of national liberation wars and the large numbers of refugees who poured out of Algeria, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Zaire, Zambia and Zimbabwe, for instance, were hospitably received in neighbouring countries. International assistance was provided through UNHCR, and eventually UNHCR helped refugees return home when their countries gained independence.

The situation worsened dramatically in the following two decades as Cold War rivalries were transmitted into a polarised and heavily armed Third World, exacerbating tensions and leading to regional or internal conflicts. These wars produced displacement on an unprecedented scale in and out of Mozambique, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Angola, Indochina, Central America and Afghanistan. The refugee population which was around eight million at the end of the 1970s had reached 17 million by 1991. Most of the refugees were not fleeing political persecution as much as violence, conflict and insecurity, fuelled by political repression, poverty, recurrent famine and environmental degradation. The paralysis of international relations which marked the Cold War impeded any resolution of these conflicts. Consequently, millions of refugees continued to stagnate in over-crowded camps in countries which had no capacity to absorb these growing numbers. As for the international community, with little scope for pursuing either repatriation or integration of refugees, the best that could be done in most cases was to provide humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs.

Then the Berlin Wall came down. In humanitarian terms, the crisis in Northern Iraq, less than two years later, was a turning point. The Iraqi Kurds brought a new dimension to the concept of displacement. They did not cross an ideological line - they fled an internal conflict, and they fled massively. A majority took refuge in Iran. Another large group fled to the mountain range between Iraq and Turkey. Their fragile situation provoked an urgent need for humanitarian response. An international military intervention took place to protect displaced people and to support humanitarian activities. Some felt that the UN resolution 688 could lead to a New World Order, in which the international response would provide solutions to humanitarian crises.

This illusion was short lived. In the early 1990s, the end of Cold War polarisation resulted in countless internal conflicts. In Somalia, the international community thought it would rapidly replicate the relative success of Northern Iraq. Troops sent in to support humanitarian agencies found themselves mired in a civil conflict of unforeseen complexity. Rightly or wrongly, they were perceived as taking sides. Casualties among the soldiers not only made the humanitarian mission unsustainable, but also created resistance in the public opinion of western nations - against further military interventions in crisis situations.

The failure in Somalia affected all subsequent attempts to mobilise more decisive support to humanitarian action. In the former Yugoslavia, it was only its proximity to the West, and the horrors of Srebrenica, which convinced western countries to compel the warring parties to discuss peace at Dayton - and this, three years after the conflict started.

The successive crises in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa are an example of this failure to implement any kind of humanitarian order: the withdrawal of UN troops from Rwanda in April 1994, at the very time when a multinational force was most needed, coincided with an explosion of genocidal violence, which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent victims. In refugee camps in Eastern Zaire, armed elements and political extremists could not be separated from genuine refugees, because the few troops the international community was willing to send for a short period, provided only logistical support to relief operations. In November 1996, a Security Council resolution supporting the dispatch of troops to help protect refugees in the embattled areas of Eastern Zaire was not implemented - the flight and death in the rain forest of thousands of unprotected refugees was the result of that failed intervention.

True, the situations in the former Yugoslavia and in the Great Lakes region may have been exceptional. However, they indicated in a dramatic manner that humanitarian action alone could not resolve fundamental social, economic and political problems. Like all of us, I hope that in due course, from the turmoil of this transition period, a more balanced approach will arise, resulting in renewed stability and in the establishment of effective conflict resolution mechanisms. The crux of the matter, however, is that such mechanisms are eminently political, and do not augur well with humanitarian response, which is meant to cure the symptoms of conflicts, but unable to alone remove the root causes.

Mixed population flows: two Asian cases

As I have outlined, the root causes of population displacements across the globe have been gross violations of human rights, political persecution and violence. There have also been regional and internal conflicts, in which the States failed to deal with the aspirations and rights of ethnic minorities, or various social groups. There is, however, a third dimension to this problem: poverty, under development and unemployment are also contributing to population movements in search of economic opportunities. Population flows are therefore increasingly becoming mixed in nature. Some are migrating for economic reasons; others are fleeing from conflict and persecution. Managing mixed migrations poses serious challenges, if the rights of asylum seekers and refugees are to be safeguarded.

Let us examine two major population flows in Asia in the past three decades: the outflow of Indo-Chinese refugees to a number of South East Asian States in the 1970s; and more recently, the mass movement of Muslim refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh in the 1990s.

The exodus of nearly a million Vietnamese boat people to countries in South East Asia, to Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and to Thailand brought enormous constraints for the hosting States. The protracted presence of the boat people posed very serious economic difficulties for countries struggling to meet the needs of their own people. At the same time, the presence of large numbers of Vietnamese threatened to upset ethnic balances in host populations and kindle historic animosities. In political terms, the outflow of the boat people was seen to be a destabilizing factor in the region. The imperative to meet urgent humanitarian needs had to be balanced by national and regional security concerns. Striking a balance between the rights of refugees and the legitimate interest of States posed vital challenges.

In order to examine options for a comprehensive solution to this problem, in 1979, the first International Conference on Indo-Chinese refugees recognized the principle of admission, and of refuge, on a temporary basis in the region. Temporary asylum was linked with a commitment from the international community to facilitate a long-term solution, through the resettlement of refugees in third countries. This unique new arrangement of international burden sharing was to last for a decade.

Improvements in international and regional political relations, deriving mostly from the end of the Cold War, created new opportunities for a solution oriented approach to this problem. A second International Conference on Indo-Chinese refugees in 1989, recognized that while conditions in Vietnam had stabilized, many people were no longer fleeing persecution but poverty. The success of large-scale third country resettlement was contributing to the problem. The motivation for flight had become mixed. The outflow from Vietnam was no longer only that of genuine refugees, but also of economic migrants.

A comprehensive regional approach was therefore developed, which sought to address the crisis by engaging the countries of origin, the countries of asylum and the international community. Based on internationally recognized principles and practices, a new approach was developed in order to protect genuine refugees and prevent the outflow of migrants. The Comprehensive Plan of Action, which emerged from these deliberations, placed mutually reinforcing obligations on the countries of origin, of first asylum, and the major donor and resettlement States. These included the right to seek and enjoy asylum, the right to a fair status determination procedure, and the assumption of responsibility by States with regard to their own citizens. In practice, the countries of asylum in the region agreed to continue to admit the boat people, and with UNHCR assistance, screen them to identify those with a legitimate refugee claim. Those granted refugee status, were guaranteed resettlement in third countries. In turn, the countries of origin acknowledged their responsibility towards their citizens by agreeing to take back all non-refugees, and ensure their safe and orderly return. As a result of this historic agreement, some 110,000 Vietnamese non-refugees were able to return to their country of origin. At the same time, the principle of asylum was upheld and genuine refugees protected. It was the linking of diverse measures and combined efforts of regional and international actors that a comprehensive solution was brought about.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Current efforts to pursue a lasting solution for some 250,000 Muslim refugees from Myanmar, who arrived in Bangladesh in the early 1990s, are similarly taking into account the complex mix of factors that provided the motivation for this flight. In Northern Rakhine State of Myanmar, the Muslim population had been marked for its acute poverty, poor health, and widespread illiteracy. Inadequate infrastructure and basic facilities in the area, limited opportunities for progress. Uncertain legal status, practices of compulsory labour, compulsory contributions and restrictions on the freedom of movement imposed by the authorities, contributed to the exodus to Bangladesh.

Following a 1992 agreement between the Governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, and UNHCR assistance, some 200,000 refugees were voluntarily repatriated. In Myanmar, international assistance has focused on the return of refugees to their places of origin in safety and dignity, and on their reintegration. But, for this return to be durable, the international community has also appreciated the need for broader humanitarian action to mitigate further population movements. A dialogue with the Myanmar authorities has therefore been underway, to address the question of citizenship for the Muslim population. Interventions have and are being made to curtail forced labour practices and compulsory contributions. The need for greater freedom of movement for the Muslim population has been underlined. At the same time, with the support of the international community, UNHCR assistance has focused on improving basic infrastructure, essential to the economic development of the area. Thus, roads have been constructed, bridges built, health care and educational facilities upgraded, and women's programmes re-enforced. Agricultural and community development activities are strengthening the food security of the people. As UNHCR begins to phase out its rehabilitation assistance, a concerted effort is also being made to establish a United Nations Integrated Development Plan for the area, to ensure the sustainability of the progress. These examples clearly indicate that refugee problems can be solved, if approached comprehensively with vision and commitment.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me now turn to India, a country straddling a very vast region, in which, for centuries, population movements have played a crucial part.

History provides testimony to the successive waves of people, facing hostile invasions, persecution and intolerance, who have found sanctuary here. Within our lifetime, the independence and partition of British India generated enormous refugee flows. At the birth of modern India after centuries of colonial rule, this nation looked forward to a free and self-determining future, which Prime Minister Nehru so eloquently characterized as a " tryst with destiny". But the elation of independence was short lived, and with partition, the people of India were faced with a huge inflow of destitute families and shattered dreams.

India has since then hosted enormous refugee movements. Successive mass flows of Tibetans, of refugees from former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), of Chakma tribals from the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and of Sri Lankans, have been accommodated with compassion and concern. Some refugees have returned to their homes to rebuild their lives, others have settled within the host community. What the people of India have done for all these people is an example to the world. However, the refugees have not just been a burden either. They have also participated in the progress and the promise that Indian society holds today. The determination of refugees to rebuild their own life has contributed, over decades, to the development of their host communities and of this nation.

In the case of sudden, large-scale population movements across borders, it is easier to forge co-operation between countries of origin and host countries. The very nature of mass population flows demands concerted action. But, mixed population movements on a less dramatic scale, which may over time involve very substantial numbers, also demand our attention. This is particularly true in the Asian region.

In Asia, society represents an incredible diversity of social groups that define their identity in many different ways. From India to the small nations of the Pacific, from Indonesia to the Indo-Chinese states, the fabric of society has historically been strengthened and tested by its social diversity. For some groups, links of ethnicity guide their relations with other social groups and sub-groups. For others, language or religion are the defining factors of kinship and adversity. There are also a multiplicity of sub groups who derive their self-image from their dialect, caste and particular religious observances.

In much of the Asian region, and in South Asia in particular, the demarcation of the boundaries of newly independent states, emerging from colonial rule, was often arbitrary. The delineation of international borders by colonial powers, in many cases, took little account of the geographical and historical realities, and of past linkages of community and kinship between them. As a result, national borders have become porous in nature and difficult to secure. Moreover, the ethnic, linguistic or religious affinity of communities has led to constant cross border movements of a significant scale. These included people migrating for economic reasons but also refugees and asylum seekers.

In the past, century-old links between populations on both borders led to a basic generosity towards population movements. Migrant communities were often regarded more as distant kin than as foreigners. Today, however, greater economic competition for limited resources is resulting in a hardening of social divisions. In many countries, this has been translated into an urge for a greater demarcation of communal or national boundaries, as each community and social group struggle to assert their access to resources, and to defend their shrinking space. Thus, competition arising from uneven economic development threatens to erode the accommodation of migrants by hosting communities. Needless to say, refugees and asylum seekers can only be the victim of this development.

Let me go back to the point that I made in the beginning - the nature of today's conflicts means that refugee flows will continue, and perhaps increase. Increased mobility, however, and the disparity in resources also mean that population movements will be, more and more, a mix of refugees and economic migrants. We shall encounter with increasing frequency the case of a same person fleeing his or her own country for a variety of motives: fear, danger, persecution, certainly; but also, equally compelling, the legitimate urge to seek a better life.

Today, one of the greatest challenges confronting all of us - including India - lies in the proper management of mixed migrations across national borders. The asylum and immigration debate in Europe clearly shows that inadequate mechanisms to manage this growing population flow can have very negative consequences: first, social harmony may be undermined; second, national security imperatives may unleash xenophobic practices that impinge on the rights of non-nationals in general - in particular of those genuinely seeking asylum. An appropriate response to these, seemingly, conflicting needs, requires a better understanding of the root causes and a clearer definition of each of the categories composing the mix flow of people on the move. It also requires the elaboration of a set of principles and best practices, which would, in turn, permit the establishment of a consistent and predictable approach for the management of these flows. These, being transnational by nature, cannot be confined at the level of States but call for international and regional cooperation. Organizations like UNHCR have a role to play in this undertaking.

I would never argue against the legitimate need of states to check uncontrolled population movements. At the same time, states must ensure that their obligations to refugees are met. Whilst all population groups on the move require proper attention, it is important that the management of mixed migrations includes clear, recognized and practical mechanisms to separate those fleeing from persecution or conflict, and those seeking economic betterment. In accordance with international principles, well-regulated national laws must provide transparent and fair procedures for those in need of asylum.

The price of xenophobic attitude towards refugees, and the price of inadequate asylum laws - or of their inadequate implementation - is that people may be pushed back to their own country, where his or her life would be at great risk.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I believe that India's perspective on the problems of developing societies - and indeed, its very role among developing countries - is unique. At the same time, it is a country progressing steadily, and rapidly, towards greater economic prosperity. As I said, India straddles a region deeply affected by mass population movements. But it also straddles, figuratively, the developing and developed world.

I therefore appeal to you, and through you to your government, and people to tackle refugee and migration issues in a just, balanced and visionary manner. My Office, which has often benefited from India's support and advice in other parts of the world, stands ready to provide in turn its support and advice in developing adequate instruments to deal with refugees and asylum seekers, and to solve their problems.

India is the largest democracy in the world - but as I have said many times, no democracy is complete if it excludes those whom history has pushed to the margin of society. Refugees are the most outcast among the outcast. To stand for their rights, and to help find solutions to their plight, should be legal and moral obligations for all of us. Prime Minister Nehru once said, "the rule of Law must strengthen the rule of Life."

Thank you.