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"Refugees: A Comprehensive European Strategy" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Peace Palace, The Hague, 24 November 1992

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"Refugees: A Comprehensive European Strategy" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Peace Palace, The Hague, 24 November 1992

25 November 1992

Thirty-two years ago UNHCR closed the last of the post-Second World War refugee camps in Europe. Today, Europe has once again become the scene of tumultuous population movements.

A murderous ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia has displaced or affected almost 3 million people, and the numbers continue to rise in a horrendous spiral. In addition to the refugees and displaced persons within the republics of former Yugoslavia, several hundred thousand people have sought refuge in the countries of western Europe. From central and eastern Europe through the Caucasus to Central Asia, new divisions are opening up along ethnic and national lines, endangering the architecture of a whole region, and rousing fears of large-scale population displacement. Moreover, economic upheavals in eastern Europe have created new sources or fears of movement to the west. The much revered freedom of movement took on ominous tones, as a horrified western Europe watched overladen ships disgorge destitute Albanians on the Italian coast eighteen months ago. It has added to the already existing pressure in Europe of refugees and asylum seekers from the developing world, mixed with economic migrants seeking a better life.

In the 1970s the number of asylum-seekers arriving in Europe averaged no more than 30,000 per year. A decade later they surpassed 400,000. This year they are likely to reach close to 600,000. In the case of the Netherlands, asylum applications have increased from just under 6,000 in 1985 to a projected figure of 15,000 for this year.

The growing number of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe is indicative of the larger numbers of people on the move today. In 1970 there were 2.5 million refugees in the world, ten years ago it reached 11 million. Today the world refugee population exceeds 18 million - far more than the total population of the Netherlands. In addition, there are some 20 million displaced persons in a refugee-like situation in their own countries. But let me hasten to add that the vast majority of refugees and displaced persons, not only originate from, but also find sanctuary in the poorest parts of the globe. Western Europe has only a small percentage of the world's refugees. However, that is not a ground for complacency. The cost of asylum-seekers to European governments is several times the total budget of UNHCR.

The European refugee problem should be seen in the larger global context in which no region, no continent seems immune from the uncertainty and instability which has replaced the predictable universe of Cold War relations. Super power rivalry and proxy wars have been replaced today by vicious and bloody conflicts within nations. Oppression of speech has been overcome by anarchy of expressions for independence, autonomy and self-rule. Previously suppressed nationalism, coupled with the serious economic and social consequences of the collapse of the world order, has led to a multiplication of ethnic conflicts. Be it in the Horn of Africa and the Sudan, in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, the Middle East or parts of the Indian sub-continent, ethnic tensions have flared into violence. In some extreme cases, as in Somalia and Yugoslavia, they have reached a paroxysm of destructiveness and national disintegration. In every case, they have added new magnitude and complexity to the problem of displacement.

Looking around the world, in Somalia, internal chaos, bloodshed and famine have left my Office struggling to provide assistance to over a million Somali refugees - almost twenty per cent of the Somali population - who have sought asylum in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen. Despite the signing of the Peace Agreement in Mozambique, the exodus of refugees into Malawi and Zimbabwe has gathered new momentum in the context of the drought in southern Africa. In west Africa, renewed fighting has broken out in Liberia, jeopardising the lives of hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons. Meanwhile, over 265,000 refugees from Myanmar have, for the second time in little more than a decade, flooded into generous but poverty-stricken Bangladesh.

Political factors underlying refugee flows are often closely inter-linked with the enormous economic and social challenges of these regions, blurring the facile distinction between refugees and economic migrants. Is a Tamil from northern Sri Lanka who arrives at Amsterdam airport, escaping the violent consequences of civil war or the debilitating effects of poverty? Today, more than ever, refugees are part of a complex migratory phenomenon. What is clear is that in a world where impoverishment is the common lot of a large percentage of mankind, where income differentials between the developed and the developing world are widening, where the numbers living in absolute poverty are increasing, where more wars are being fought than at any time in modern history, and where mass violations of human rights are still a common occurrence, more people are being forced to leave their homes.

At the same time, mass communications and easy international travel have made the world a smaller place, not only for tourists and travellers but also for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. With most channels of regular migration to western Europe closed, except for family reunion, would-be immigrants have tended to use asylum procedures to circumvent immigration controls, bringing the procedures to the verge of collapse.

Whether in the tragic displacement in former Yugoslavia, the passionate debate on asylum in Germany, the long discussions on harmonising asylum procedures in the European community, the concern over illegal immigration and xenophobia in many European countries, the drama and complexity of the refugee problem in Europe today is evident. It was much easier in the past when not only were the numbers more manageable, but there was greater public acceptance and a coincidence of political interests and humanitarian values. Now the political and strategic value of granting asylum appears to have diminished. Unemployment and economic recession have deepened. The cost of processing asylum applications has skyrocketed. The number of racist attacks against refugees and asylum-seekers have grown. Deeply troubled governments have resorted to legal and administrative measures to discourage illegal immigrants, some of which regrettably also impact on the admission of asylum seekers.

The demise of communism brought down the walls of Europe. The demands of migratory movements are creating new kinds of walls. It was in Europe that the institution of refugee protection was born, it is in Europe today that the adequacy of that system is being tested.

In drawing attention to these facts I do not wish to minimize the difficulties of governments nor the sense of insecurity of communities, but to highlight the dilemma with which Europe is confronted. It is a dilemma between preserving the fundamental principles of human rights and humanitarianism, and resisting real or perceived threats to the security and stability of our societies.

Rarely before has western civilization faced a greater challenge, rarely before has there been a stronger need for determined leadership. What we need is not charity, nor compassion, but courage, vision and political will. Courage to face the challenge fairly and squarely. Vision to build a strategy which goes beyond national interests or short-term political considerations. And political will to pursue such a strategy. For the refugee issue today is not only a matter of humanitarianism but a major political and security concern. Surely that is the ultimate lesson we must draw from the horror and bloodshed in former Yugoslavia.

I believe that a European refugee strategy must be two-fold. It must address Europe's responsibility for its own refugee problems, just as other regions have done for theirs. But it must also reaffirm Europe's leadership role and solidarity with the global refugee problem. Today, former Yugoslavia is uppermost in most of our minds - and rightly so for many reasons. Indeed, I am deeply grateful to the government and people of the Netherlands for their financial, material and logistical contribution to our humanitarian effort in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But there are many other Yugoslavias out there, when we survey the seething sources of conflicts and tensions. It would be short-sighted to equate priority with proximity. In an inter-dependent world, distant problems can rapidly become domestic ones.

A European refugee strategy must therefore be outward-looking. It must also be a comprehensive and concerted one. For too long, refugee policies and practices, conditioned by the Cold War, have concentrated on the countries of asylum. Today, the growing scale and complexity of the refugee problem, as well as the changed international context, make clear the inadequacy of asylum as the whole response. An effective and adequate strategy must address the entire continuum of refugee flows from its root causes and prevention to emergency response, protection and eventual solution. This has indeed been the approach in other parts of the world, whether through the International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA), or more successfully, in the context of the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) for Indochinese refugees in South-east Asia or the International Conference for Refugees and Exiles in Central America (CIREFCA). These areas with far larger refugee populations than Europe have demonstrated how traditional approaches to protection in the country of asylum can be complemented by innovative and flexible concepts of prevention and solutions in the country of origin, which meet the needs of the refugees as well as the interests of States.

There are lessons to be learnt, and conclusions to be drawn on international solidarity and regional cooperation for tackling the refugee situation in Europe. But Europe has its own contribution to make too, from its rich and generous human rights and humanitarian traditions and instruments.

A comprehensive European refugee strategy, founded in international solidarity, cannot stand alone on asylum. It must be supported by other elements. I would like to outline five main elements of the strategy, as I see it.

The first element must be protection to those in need. Despite all its shortcomings, the 1951 refugee Convention remains the strongest expression of international solidarity for the persecuted. It is still the clearest legal basis for protection against refoulement or return to danger. In all its horror, in all its tragedy, the conflict in Yugoslavia reminds us daily that persecution is still very much a reality in our world. There are still too many who are forced to flee in order to escape persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a social group. For them, the 1951 Convention remains the only source of protection. For their sake, European governments must continue to apply the Convention - and apply it liberally. To do otherwise would be to deny our common moral and legal heritage.

We must equally recognize that the 1951 Convention, while essential, is not an all-inclusive response to protection in the face of large-scale refugee flows of the kind we are witnessing today. New concepts of protection must be devised. The vast majority of the world's refugees today are not fleeing persecution but war and violence of the kind we are witnessing in Somalia or Liberia. For them the best solution is temporary sanctuary, followed by voluntary return in safety and dignity. Today, a changed international environment is allowing greater possibilities for conflict resolution and political reconciliation, and opening the road to return. I am pleased to report that almost 1.5 million refugees have gone home voluntarily this year, mainly to Afghanistan, Cambodia, Iraq and Angola.

Keeping alive the notion of return is particularly important in ethnic conflicts, as in the former Yugoslavia, where expulsion - so-called "ethnic cleansing" - is the very objective of the conflict. The traditional notion of integration-based asylum could make the international community an accomplice to "ethnic cleansing". On the other hand, to what extent can we persuade people to remain where they are, when doing so could jeopardise the very lives we are meant to save?

Therefore, what we need today is not only the kind of durable protection promoted by the 1951 Convention for those fleeing persecution, but also protection, on a temporary basis, for those fleeing situations of war and violence, until they can return home in safety and dignity. Such temporary protection is indeed available in many national legislations of European countries. The Netherlands was among the first to adopt this concept with respect to the Yugoslav situation. The time has come to give it a broader, more concerted and coherent recognition as a legitimate tool of international protection. The basic principles of temporary protection must include admission, respect for non-refoulement or non-return to danger, humanitarian treatment, and repatriation when conditions so allow in the country of origin. The provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights could help in building an internationally recognized, common framework for the concept in Europe. What we are talking about is quite simple: admission to safety and assistance for survival. Through such a concept, victims of war and violence can find the sanctuary they badly need, while governments can afford to be more generous in the knowledge of the temporary nature of their burden.

The second point must be a clear distinction between refugees fleeing persecution and violence, and migrants fleeing poverty. The plight of both groups are equally deserving of attention. But differing needs require different responses. As a first step, therefore, efforts must continue to establish fair and efficient procedures to ensure that valid claims to asylum or temporary protection are duly and expeditiously recognized. The harmonization of asylum procedures and practices among European Community countries is important for improving coherence and avoiding disruptive movement of asylum seekers. It must however be undertaken in a spirit of generosity, and not restrictiveness which may create unreasonable barriers and impossible burdens for asylum seekers.

Some of the legal and procedural measures being taken by European governments result partly from the difficulties many of them face in returning those whose asylum claims have been rejected. Although the removal of aliens is the exclusive domain of sovereign governments, there is increasing international focus on the orderly return of non-refugees in safety and dignity. UNHCR has in fact been involved in developing just such an approach for Vietnamese asylum-seekers in Southeast Asia. Our role has been exceptional one, determined by the peculiar circumstances of the Vietnamese boat people. While I am convinced that our involvement with non-refugees must remain a very limited one, I nevertheless feel that there is scope to examine how UNHCR, together with other international organisations, could be helpful in international monitoring and reinsertion of rejected asylum seekers back into their home community.

Many rejected asylum-seekers are in reality would-be immigrants using the asylum channel, because there is not much opportunity for immigration to Europe. Just as protection policies must address those fleeing war and persecution, migration policies could be developed to cope with those moving for economic and social reasons. Some demographers and economists argue that western Europe would stand to gain, at least in the medium-term, from an increased level of immigration. Governments must be more forthcoming in considering appropriate immigration policies which meet the labour needs of an ageing and affluent Europe as well as the aspirations of the poorer countries of eastern Europe and the Third World. Such a mix of asylum and immigration may give European governments greater flexibility to respond to some population movements, as well as preserve the asylum procedures from abusive claims.

The third element is greater assistance to refugee programmes in the poorer parts of the world, both to enable asylum countries to continue to provide sanctuary, and to promote solutions in countries from which refugees originate. Europe in general, and the Netherlands in particular, have always shown great generosity in responding to our appeal for help, and are among our top donors. I can only call upon you to maintain your interest at a time of unprecedented needs. In addition to a spate of emergencies, we must also respond to the opportunities for repatriation of refugees in countries as far apart as Angola, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Cambodia and now Mozambique. Return however is not under ideal conditions. People are going home to areas where security is fragile, mines abundant and infrastructure non-existent. If voluntary repatriation is to be a lasting solution, then proper opportunities must be created for reintegration of returning refugees. A comprehensive programme of social and economic development will help to sustain political reconciliation, thereby not only cementing the return of refugees, but also increasing regional stability. Repatriation, reintegration and development can be consolidated into an overall framework of returnee aid and development, which I am convinced will receive the support of European governments as greater coordination is established between development cooperation, refugee and immigration policies.

If I could describe this third element as one founded in solutions, then the fourth element is rooted in prevention:the prevention of refugee flows through the concerted and purposeful promotion of human rights and sustainable development. Respect of human rights in general, and the protection of minority rights in particular, are fundamental to the establishment and continued development of democratic states. Without that respect and protection, minorities and other groups will feel increasingly marginalised and exploited, and could be provoked into seeking escape in virulent forms of nationalism and sectarianism. In this sense, UNHCR and the CSCE have complementary interests in promoting the protection of minorities and thus preventing disruptive movements.

Furthermore, as internal displacement resulting from conflict assumes acute proportions, a legal framework must be developed to draw together refugee law, humanitarian law and human rights. This would help strengthen the protection of those displaced in their own countries, thus preventing or at least reducing cross-border movements. Admittedly, development of the law will not resolve the problem, if the political will to observe legal obligations is lacking.

The international human rights machinery, which was long paralysed by ideological confrontation, must now be used to greater effect to hold governments accountable for abuses. In their bilateral and multilateral relations with States, European governments must seek to use their political influence to counter human rights abuses.

At the same time, western governments must look beyond their traditional emphasis on political and civil rights and broaden their receptivity to the economic and social rights and aspirations of the citizens of the developing countries. Poverty not only creates migratory pressures but also leads to unrest and social upheavals which in turn may result in refugee flows. Development assistance, with an emphasis on priority human needs, including job creation, poverty alleviation, education and health could help to reduce some migratory pressure. I would urge development cooperation policy makers to include migration considerations as part of a larger international cooperative effort encompassing aid, trade and investment. Europe, and particularly the European Community, could play a major role in this. I know I rightly share these ideas in the Netherlands in the same Peace Palace where Mr. Pronk, on the tenth anniversary of the Dutch Refugee Council, developed similar thoughts which attracted international attention and support.

The fifth and final element is public information. Information in the largest sense of the word must bean important part of any strategy to manage population movements. Today, television beams the life-style of the west into the homes of the poor, generating expectations and new psychological terms of reference. It must be balanced with accurate information so that such individuals can make an educated decision after weighing the consequences of movement against the possibility to stay at home. A massive UNHCR information campaign in Vietnam has played a significant part in directing those wanting to leave towards orderly migration programmes rather than risking their lives in perilous boat journeys. In Albania, UNHCR is cooperating with the International Organisation of Migration in a similar campaign. We are now planning an initiative along the same lines in parts of former Yugoslavia.

Information can be used also to create a more positive understanding of the plight of refugees in western countries. Public opinion and public policy are shaped by mass media and the statements of policy makers. The Netherlands is a good example where information has been successfully used by the non-governmental community to build public support for the refugee cause. The NGOs and the media have a crucial role to play in a European refugee strategy.

Finally, let me stress that we need political will to bring together these various elements and actors in a truly coherent and coordinated response. For too long the response has been fragmented, the actors compartmentalized. On the governmental side, those dealing with asylum, immigration, human rights and development assistance must be brought together. On the multilateral side, international and regional organisations such as the European Community, the Council for Europe, the CSCE, UNHCR, IOM and ILO have overlapping concerns. We must join hands in partnership, as we have done in the comprehensive humanitarian response to the crisis in the former Yugoslavia.

I call upon European governments, political leaders, international and regional organizations to engage in a dialogue with my Office in order to chart a forward-looking comprehensive strategy on movement of people in Europe.

We have to look beyond parochial national interest. The new climate of multilateralism offers hope for the way forward. We must seize this rare moment in history to define a new concept of international solidarity, a new code of global morality in which peace, democracy, human rights and sustainable development can triumph over human misery.

Europe stands at a cross-roads. The risks are evident. The opportunities are abundant. The path we follow will determine the kind of world we bestow on future generations.