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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Roundtable on "Refugees: a challenge to solidarity," New York, 9 March 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Roundtable on "Refugees: a challenge to solidarity," New York, 9 March 1993

9 March 1993

At the outset, I wish to congratulate and express my deep gratitude to the Holy See for the presentation of the document "Refugees: a challenge to solidarity". This is indeed a document that reflects the support and solidarity of the Church for the fate of refugees which is a central humanitarian issue of today.

When UNHCR was created in 1951, there were one million refugees. Today, the refugee population exceeds 18 million. As the world gropes for a new political and economic equilibrium, as historic hatreds are unleashed, as the gap between the rich and poor widens, as demographic pressures grow, the phenomenon of displacement has taken on distressing dimensions.

In the course of the past year alone, we have mounted emergency programmes for 3 million people in the former Yugoslavia, for 260,000 refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh, for some 420,000 refugees in Kenya, mainly from Somalia. In early December we sent emergency teams to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. In recent weeks we have had to cope with the influx of some 200,000 refugees from Togo into Benin and Ghana.

During that same period of 12 months we have helped more than 1.5 million refugees to return home voluntarily - more than a million to Afghanistan, 300,000 to Cambodia, tens of thousands to Ethiopia. At the end of this month I will be travelling to Thailand to close down the last of the Cambodian refugee camps. In a few months time we will be embarking on an ambitious plan to repatriate 1.5 million Mozambican refugees. But this optimism must be tempered with the reality that many refugees are returning to situations of devastation and conditions of uncertainty, sometimes even insecurity, threatening the durability of repatriation and reintegration.

I highlight these facts to illustrate the scale and scope of the current refugee problem. This Roundtable is indeed a very timely and appropriate initiative of the Holy See.

I am particularly privileged and pleased to address this Roundtable on "Refugees: a Challenge to Solidarity", for, in a sense, the very existence of my Office is testament to the solidarity of the international community with the plight of refugees. The UN General Assembly established the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1951 to provide international protection to refugees and seek permanent solutions to their problem. The unique and universal mission of protection distinguishes my Office from all other organs of the United Nations. In my statement I would like to expand on how the post-Cold War era has impacted on our mandate to protect refugees.

Today, the international climate in which UNHCR was born has radically changed, as has the nature of the refugee problem. In the past refugees were a product of Super Power rivalry and proxy wars, today they are the consequence of bloody conflicts within nations. Whereas in the past the problem was largely one of refugee flows from one country to another, today displacement is as much a problem within borders as across them. Indeed, according to some estimates the numbers of internally displaced persons may well exceed refugees. In the past, political and economic motives for departure seemed more easily distinguishable. Today, economic, social and environmental problems exacerbate or contribute to the political factors underlying refugee flows, as in Haiti, blurring the classical distinction between refugees and economic migrants.

Yet, today, making that distinction is more important than ever as the political and strategic value of granting asylum diminishes. With the disappearance of ideological enemies, there is a risk major nations are turning inwards. With rising unemployment and deepening economic recession, countries of asylum are questioning the burden they are asked to bear. The cost of processing asylum applications has skyrocketed, while public acceptance of refugees has plummeted. In some countries, asylum-seekers are faced with immigration control measures, in others with racist attacks and expulsion, in still others with interdiction on the high seas. The demise of communism brought down ideological walls. The demands of migratory movements risk the creation of new kinds of walls.

The dilemma is two-fold:on the one hand, how do we respond humanely to those who are compelled to flee and yet maintain the stability of our own societies? On the other hand, if we fail to respond to the problem, do we not jeopardise global security? Because if there is one lesson we have to learn out of the bloodshed and carnage in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is this: the refugee issue is not only a matter of humanitarian concern, but also of international peace and stability.

The answer, I believe, lies in recognising the new imperatives and seizing the new opportunities which have emerged in the post-Cold War era. This means not only responding to refugee situations in countries of asylum, but also preventing and resolving them in the countries from which refugees originate. We must seek to ensure that people are not forced to flee their homes in the first place, but if they are, then their humanitarian needs must be met and conditions 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 launched. The ultimate success of such a strategy will depend on the ability of the United Nations to develop a comprehensive and integrated response, linking humanitarian action and protection of human rights with peace-making, peace-keeping and peace-building. The implementation of such a strategy calls for a broad partnership of actors: governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental - not least among them the Church and the community organisations.

At the heart of such a preventive and solution-oriented strategy must be the clear recognition of the right of people to remain in safety in their homes. There are unfortunately too many instances where displacement is not so much a consequence of persecution or conflict, but a deliberate goal. The former Yugoslavia provides a particularly graphic and painful example. There, UNHCR is providing assistance not only to refugees and the displaced, but also to people who are under a direct threat of expulsion either through military attack or through the form of persecution referred to as "ethnic cleansing". Murder, torture, mutilation and rape are the tools of this atrocious policy. Despite all our efforts, they continue even now. And this unfortunately is only one example of the threat worldwide to the human right to remain.

In speaking of "the right to remain", I mean to underline the basic right of the individual not to be forced into exile, and of the need to further develop this aspect of human rights in our efforts to address the causes of refugee flight. The right to remain is implicit in the right to leave one's country and to return. In its simplest form it could be said to include the right to freedom of movement and residence within one's own country. It is linked also to other fundamental human rights because when people are forced to leave their homes, a whole range of other rights are threatened, including the right to life, liberty and security of person, non-discrimination, the right not to be subjected to torture or degrading treatment, the right to privacy and family life.

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 control the abuse of State power? 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? These indeed are the challenges to solidarity today.

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.

More significantly, the pursuit of a preventive and solution-oriented strategy has meant more direct engagement of UNHCR into situations of acute crisis or open conflict. Today we are going into situations from which in the past we would have evacuated our staff. In some cases, such as Afghanistan or Ethiopia, we have gone there in order to protect refugees who have chosen to return home, despite fragile security conditions. In other situations we have sought to extend protection and assistance to the internally displaced, for instance in former Yugoslavia and in northern Sri Lanka, in order to contain the impetus for flight across borders.

Working to protect nationals in their country in the midst of conflict situations, whether they be returning refugees or internally displaced, has challenged many existing dogmas and doctrines. It has posed new dilemmas. Among the most significant has been the resort to military cover for our humanitarian activities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was not an easy decision. There are understandable and obvious differences between the humanitarian aims of UNHCR and the political objectives 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. Indeed, even the International Committee for the Red Cross has requested - and received - the protection of the UN peacekeeping force for its convoys of released prisoners.

In all these situations, we have found international presence to be of crucial importance in protecting the people. UNHCR's Open Relief Centres in northern Sri Lanka have become havens of safety, accepted and respected by both warring parties although they have no legal status as such. In former Yugoslavia and notably, Bosnia-Herzegovina, more than 600 UNHCR staff help, not only to distribute relief to the displaced and besieged population, but also to monitor their protection situation. In northern Iraq, until last summer UNHCR deployed some 180 staff, augmented by the presence of hundreds of NGOs and some 500 UN guards, as a confidence-building measure to enhance security. In Somalia, we have established 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. Two weeks ago I saw for myself the encouraging, though fragile, effects of our presence and that of the Unified Task Force, which I hope will be consolidated by the early deployment of UN peace-keepers to the area.

The experience with UN human rights observers in El Salvador and human rights officers in Cambodia, as well as the recent proposals for human rights monitors in Haiti and former Yugoslavia, should be examined further to see how peace-keeping forces, humanitarian organisations and human rights observers can be brought together to ensure effective international presence. Independent, credible non-governmental entities can also be an additional strength. In this context, relief organisations of the Episcopal Conferences might play a role.

I am convinced that preventive activities can help to contain the dimensions of human catastrophe by creating time and space for the political process. But prevention, if it is to be effective, must be seen in the broader context of peace-making and peace-keeping efforts, as must solutions to refugee problems. Indeed, the linkages between human rights violations, humanitarian crises and threats to peace are being increasingly recognised by the Security Council, first in the context of Iraq and now with former Yugoslavia and Somalia. As humanitarian action becomes dynamically linked to peace-making and peace-keeping, UNHCR must endeavour to seek political support for its activities, but must at the same time preserve its non-political and humanitarian approach. Humanitarianism can support political action but it cannot be a substitute for it. Nor must it be allowed to become an alibi for political inaction.

Prevention and solution of refugee problems are not only linked to peace-keeping and peace-making but also to peace-building, in other words, economic and social rehabilitation and reconstruction. Many of the countries from which refugees originate have been devastated by war. If the process of political reconciliation is to be sustained in these countries, it needs to be accompanied by a comprehensive programme of social and economic development. Returning refugees and displaced persons will be properly reintegrated only if they are made part of that national development effort. UNHCR has sought to ensure, notably in Cambodia and Central America, that our short-term assistance is linked to the longer term rehabilitation and reconstruction plans. In south-eastern Ethiopia, we have launched an innovative approach, in cooperation with other United Nations and non-governmental organisations, to address the needs of the entire community - refugees, displaced and affected population - in order to break the vicious cycle of exile, return, internal displacement and exile. It is prevention and solution at the same time.

If I, as the High Commissioner for Refugees, have advocated the right not to become a refugee or remain a refugee, it is because I know that the international protection that my Office, in cooperation with countries of asylum, can offer to refugees is not an adequate substitute for the protection that they should have received from their own Governments in their own countries. The generosity of asylum countries cannot fully replace the loss of a homeland or relieve the pain of exile.

To say this is not in any way to ignore or undermine the continued importance of the right to seek and enjoy asylum. In a world where persecution, massive violations of human rights and armed strife remain an every day reality, the institution of asylum must be preserved. Those fleeing persecution, war and violence must be able to receive sanctuary until they can return home in safety and dignity. I call on all leaders to consolidate the consensus of the international community in this regard.

To sum up: the impact on my protection mandate has been three-fold, covering not only the right to seek asylum but also the right to remain and return home.

In the pursuit of this objective, and particularly in our activities in the country of origin I believe the Church can play a crucial role. The church can provide spiritual and social support and create a climate of mutual understanding and confidence in the context of preventing displacement. It can promote greater hospitality towards those who are forced to seek asylum.

When refugees and displaced persons return home, the church can be instrumental in their reintegration into the community. Most important of all is the Church's role - and indeed responsibility - in promoting tolerance for diversity and respect for human rights. This is not a platitude at a time when ancient hatreds are being unleashed and exploited by ultra-nationalists and religious fundamentalists.

The challenge to solidarity with refugees is more than an issue of compassion when images of human misery appear on our TV screen. More than an issue of hospitality when refugees appear on our doorstep. It is a question of courage, vision and political will to tackle the root causes. Courage to face the challenge fairly and squarely. Vision to build a forward-looking strategy. And the will to pursue such a strategy. At stake is not only our common humanity, but also our common future.