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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Second Regular Session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), 16 July 1984

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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Second Regular Session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), 16 July 1984

16 July 1984

Mr President, Distinguished Delegates,

I am very happy to nave this opportunity to address the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations at this particular time and to report on certain specific aspects of UNHCR'S activities in Africa. The major theme of this Summer Session of ECOSOC is the grave economic and social crisis through which the African continent, as a whole, is passing. There is no doubt that refugee problems in Africa have been and will continue to be exacerbated by this crisis, both because refugees and returnees, like nationals, are affected by it, and because, in many instances, the economic and social ills which have stricken many countries contribute to the tensions which have in their turn provoked massive displacements of populations, including the flight of refugees. For these reasons my office associates itself whole-heartedly with the Secretary-General's initiative for a UN system-wide approach to the African crisis, addressing it self to those specific areas which fall within its Mandate with all the means at its disposal. The situation calls for speedy, concerted, and imaginative solutions. UNHCR is playing, and will continue to play, its part. That is the first message I wanted to bring to you today.

The second thing I wanted to offer this Council today is a glimmer glimmer of hope - a light at the end of the tunnel if I may be forgiven for using such clichés as regards long-term solutions to refugee problems in Africa. Only a few days ago we concluded, here in Geneva, the Second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa, on a note of optimism and in a general atmosphere of goodwill. The Conference brought together 112 nations from all continents, a myriad of inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations, more than 1000 people with a single purpose to seek realistic and practical solutions, not only to the refugee problems themselves, but also to the difficulties created for the host countries by the presence of such large numbers of newcomers clamouring for a share of scarce national resources and infrastructure in a time of crisis. What the Conference did was to reconfirm the existence of a link between these two concepts: refugee aid and development assistance. I can best illustrate this philosophy of linkage by an example taken from our own experience: country X receives tens of thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries, with the help of UNHCR and others, it provides them with emergency care, then, knowing that the refugees are there to stay, the host country allocates land to them, and with tools and seeds and expertise, provided by UNHCR in co-operation with partner agencies, a thriving settlement is carved out of the bush, primary schools and small clinics are built, and little by little the refugees become self-sufficient and international assistance is no longer required on a day-to-day basis. That is what we in UNHCR call a "durable solution", and it falls squarely within the Mandate of my office. But as the settlement grows and matures, the refugees not only provide for their own needs in food and other basic necessities, they also start to produce in excess of these needs and are in a position to export produce to nearby markets, perhaps even to other parts of the world. To do so, there must be a good road linking the settlement to market towns and railheads. The upgrading of such a road is a typical development project and you will find such projects among those presented to ICARAII. It will benefit refugees and nationals alike. Without it the refugees could survive but they would stagnate. With it the whole region can progress. By the same token, while local children can and do attend refugee schools, as the refugee children grow older, they, like nationals, need secondary and hopefully higher education. They must be absorbed in the national educational institutions. Expanding these facilities calls for development assistance. Bush clinics can care for basic refugee health needs, but when there is a serious accident, or major illness, refugees overcrowd existing hospitals. Improving and expanding them calls for development assistance. I could go on, but I am sure that I have made my point.

At ICARA II there was general recognition of this linkage. To start with, the Conference was organized by a Steering Committee composed of Representatives of the UN Secretary-General, the organization of African Unity, UNDP, and UNHCR, demonstrating this concept. The projects submitted to the International Community for its consideration at ICARA II were divided into those falling under my Mandate for emergency refugee care and durable solutions (in other words, for the refugees themselves), and those of a developmental nature (in other words, to help the countries to bear the refugee burden). Potential donors made commitments or expressed strong interest in at least one third of these latter projects, and I am confident that over the next three or four years, most, if not all, will be implemented. But, if this is to be the case, the momentum created by ICARA II must not be lost. Mr President, as I said at the outset, UNHCR will play its part. In transforming ICARA II from a conference into a tangible reality, my office is at the disposal of the Secretary-General, the host countries and the donor community to serve, within the parameters of its competence, in any way necessary to ensure that the roads, the schools, the hospitals are made of earth, bricks, and mortar and not just of paper. It goes without saying that we will carry on with our own search for durable solutions to the refugee problem in Africa, as elsewhere.

Mr President, if I have gone at some length into matters which do not directly relate to the specific items on which I am called upon to report to you today, it is because the parts cannot be disassociated from the whole when we talk of refugee situations in Africa. They serve well to illustrate our efforts to reach durable solutions and to alleviate the burden on the countries of asylum of hosting refugee populations.

I turn now to assistance to refugees in Somalia, upon which General Assembly Resolution 38/88 requires me to make an oral report at this Session of the Council. The refugees in Somalia live in 35 camps in four regions: Lower she belle, Gedo, Hiran, and North West. For purposes of assistance planning, their number has been estimated at 700 000. Over the past years, the Government of Somalia and the voluntary agencies have progressively shifted the programme from care and maintenance to income-generating and self-help activities, especially in the agricultural sector. At present, some 2,300 hectares are under cultivation and other activities, such as the training of the refugee farmers and the establishment of small-scale poultry farming are being implemented. In addition, some 3,500 refugees are currently involved in various small income-generating schemes. Moves have been made towards decentralization of the technical responsibility for the implementation of projects in the agriculture, health, water, and education sectors to the appropriate Ministries, with the National Refugee Commission retaining overall co-ordinating responsibility. Meanwhile, the Government, although reaffirming the view that voluntary repatriation remained the most appropriate long-term solution to the problem, announced the formulation of a programme of rural settlements for refugees who could not attain self-sufficiency under conditions prevailing in the camps. The planning of rural settlements requires detailed technical assessments in order to limit risks of failure and to ensure that only those sites which are considered viable will be developed, and to that end UNHCR has undertaken the necessary pre-feasibility studies. The following programme options are now being considered:

  • Transforming of existing refugee camps into rural settlements
  • Integrating refugees in existing Government schemes
  • Creating new settlements for additional refugees that cannot be settled under the two options mentioned above.

An operational structure has been established for the implementation of the settlement programme, comprising a steering committee, a technical unit and executing agencies. The Steering Committee, chaired by the National Refugee Commission, and including the Ministry of Planning, UNDP, and UNHCR will assume the responsibility for identifying areas for settlement and approving projects prepared by the Technical Unit. The Technical Unit, composed of a rural settlement specialist, an agronomist, a water development specialist, and a physical planner, as well as consultants and experts as deemed necessary for limited periods, will formulate projects, collect data and draft reports for submission to the Steering Committee, and generally evaluate the projects. Executing agencies, composed of functional government ministries, UN specialized agencies and voluntary agencies, will be responsible for implementation. In a complementary initiative designed to further promote self-sufficiency, an International Labour organization mission, initiated by UNHCR, visited Somalia in October 1983 to assess vocational training requirements and to establish a training programme based on the labour needs in the country.

Mr President, now for General Assembly Resolution 38/91 concerning assistance to displaced persons in Ethiopia. The best of all durable solutions to refugee problems remains voluntary repatriation. UNHCR's assistance to returnees, while necessarily limited in scope and in time, can be a vital factor in cementing such a solution. In the framework of the above-mentioned Resolution, I would like to give you a brief report on progress in our programmes for returnees in Ethiopia. It will be recalled that the special twenty million dollar programme of assistance to Ethiopian returnees was originally scheduled to be fully implemented by June 1983. It has had to be extended due to delays in implementation in various programme sectors. As a result of a UNHCR programme evaluation mission which visited Ethiopia in October-November 1983, some changes of emphasis in the programme were introduced. The mission concluded that the major objectives of the assistance programme are being met, particularly in the eastern and southern part of Ethiopia. The implementation of relief and rehabilitation measures is now progressing smoothly and these sectors are expected to be fully implemented in the very near future. A project agreement on the Agricultural Rehabilitation Project in the Kelafo-Mustahil area in the southern part of the Ogaden was recently signed with the Lutheran World Federation. The project is labour-intensive and avoids the use of high technology. The 10 established rural co-operatives are rapidly on their way to becoming self-sufficient. The UNHCR inputs to the project are expected to be phased out by the end of 1984. Similarly, a project agreement was signed with the Lutheran World Federation on the rehabilitation of the fishing industry in the port of Masswa. Equipment is expected to arrive shortly and UNHCR's contribution to the project is expected to be completed by September 1384, after which the Lutheran World Federation will continue the project on its own. Generally speaking, it is felt that the dual objective of the returnees programme, i.e. to provide relief and rehabilitation to individual returnees and to develop an environment which is conducive to further voluntary repatriation, is being met. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian authorities have informed us of further large numbers of persons needing assistance in the Ogaden. UNHCR is currently studying how best to come to the assistance of the most needy among them.

Although the provision of relief to returnees in Eritrea is progressing well, it is felt that conditions for further large-scale repatriation are less readily available than in the Ogaden. Vie relief programme implemented by the Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner and the League of Red Cross Societies is due to be completed by mid-1984. Progress of the agricultural project at Alighider was less satisfactory, and it was agreed with the authorities to terminate it and to redeploy the equipment purchased to other projects in Ethiopia.

In addition to these programmes Mr President, I am happy to report that more than 14 000 persons have returned voluntarily to Ethiopia from Djibouti under the tripartite arrangement concluded between the two Governments and UNHCR. Here again, measures have been taken to ensure that UNHCR's rehabilitation assistance is quickly reaching the returnees, encouraging them to leave the transit centre for permanent houses in their villages of origin and in the agricultural settlements of Harawa and Shinille. This programme is currently being evaluated, and I understand a further tripartite meeting will take place later in the year. It is important to stress, however, that it has already proven the value of such arrangements which lead to refugees returning home.

Mr President, as requested under General Assembly Resolution 38/95, I should like finally to evoke briefly a subject which continues to be both a source of worry and of gratification for my office, the situation of student refugees in Southern Africa. There have been a number of developments in the region which affect this particularly vulnerable and deserving group of refugees. I have been encouraged by the assurances given to my office by the countries of asylum in this regard, but we must remain vigilant, and also act swiftly in co-operation with the Governments directly concerned and other African countries when it becomes necessary, for the safety of the refugees themselves, to resettle them in other parts of the continent.

The student refugees in question are mainly located in six countries Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. They originate from both South Africa and Namibia, and total between 4,000 and 5,000 in all. Assistance to these refugees has over the past few years become a regular feature of UNHCR's programmes in the region, and ranges from scholarships covering tuition fees, board, books, uniforms and so on, to the building or enlargement of schools and facilities from the primary through to the university level. UNHCR works closely with other national and international scholarship-giving agencies in this field, such as the United Nations Educational and Training Programme for Southern Africa, the World University Service, Christian Councils in the countries concerned, the Lutheran World Federation, the British Council of Churches, the African American Institute and others, as well as the recognized liberation movements. It also, in co-operation with other agencies, including the International Labour organization, encourages placement of students abroad and the creation or identification of employment opportunities for them. Mr President, all of the projects undertaken in past years to alleviate the burden of asylum countries as a result of the presence of student refugees have been completed. New needs will continue to be met as they arise, provided the International Community continues its support for these programmes, and I am convinced that this will be the case. The gift of education is certainly the most precious we can give to young people who have had to suffer and seek refuge from a pernicious system which deprives them of its advantages.

In conclusion, Mr President, I believe, that despite the enormous difficulties facing the African continent, "The refugee problem is not hopeless unless you think so", to quote one of our poster slogans. We are finding durable solutions to refugee problems, in the Horn of Africa, in Southern Africa and elsewhere on the continent. At the same time, and this was the message of the Belgian Foreign Minister, Mr Leo Tindemans, the President of ICARA II, we have taken the first step down the long road to linking refugee aid and development in the countries which so generously and hospitably admit so many millions of refugees.

Thank you, Mr President.