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"Beyond Humanitarianism: the need for political will to resolve today's refugee problem" - Joyce Pearce Memorial Lecture by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Oxford University, 29 October 1986

Speeches and statements

"Beyond Humanitarianism: the need for political will to resolve today's refugee problem" - Joyce Pearce Memorial Lecture by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Oxford University, 29 October 1986

29 October 1986


Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am honoured by your invitation to deliver the first Joyce Pearce Memorial Lecture at Oxford University. I am also profoundly grateful to the Refugee Studies Programme of Queen Elizabeth House and to the Ockenden Venture for their joint efforts in drawing attention to the contemporary refugee problem. I understand that my lecture this evening is part of a series of seminars and lectures on different aspects of the refugee problem spread over several months. I should like to thank all those involved in this important venture.

Earlier this evening you delivered a most eloquent tribute to Joyce Pearce. I hope you will nevertheless permit me to take this occasion to add a few words of my own. Those who know her story will never forget her devoted and unceasing efforts to mitigate the plight of refugees. Through her boundless energy and unflinching determination and through the network of homes that she helped establish around the United Kingdom, she brought happiness and joy and a new meaning to the lives of many refugees - particularly the young, the handicapped and the most needy. The Ockenden Venture, which she founded in 1955, is involved today in refugee work in many parts of the world. It is an important partner of UNHCR's work for refugees in Thailand and Pakistan. There could not be a more fitting tribute to the outstanding example that she set for us than the undertaking of this series of lectures, seminars, discussions and hopefully the further studies to which these might lead.

I am happy to be here this evening in the midst of such an august academic gathering. Even though I have spent the past 20 years in action-oriented humanitarian endeavours first with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and now, since the beginning of this year, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I have always attached a great deal of importance to reflection, which is the essence of your profession. For me, proper reflection is essential for identifying the appropriate course of action in any field. Action and reflection are but two sides of the same coin. I am, therefore, pleased to avail myself of this opportunity to share with you some of my reflections on the subject of the refugee problem in the world today.

Given both its enormity and complexity, it is time that the world took a fresh look at the refugee problem to assess the available normative tools and, more particularly, to identify appropriate approaches to solutions. Here the academic community can play a very useful role. I have no doubt that the development of a body of critical and independent literature encompassing the crucial areas of concern would be of great assistance not only to my office but also to the international community as a whole in charting new directions both in policy and practice. In this process, my presentation this evening is but a modest contribution.

Mr. Chairman, in order to set the context for my lecture, let me begin with some perspectives of the contemporary refugee scene.

First, there are today some 12 million refugees spread all over the world. No region is spared the agony of the tragic movements of scores of men, women and children, up-rooted from their homes and land because of armed conflicts and intolerance. They are either in search of temporary refuge pending the change of circumstances that may permit their return home in safety and dignity or, should this not be possible, new homes where they may start life again in peace and security. Whether from the point of view of numbers, causes or geography, the world today is faced with a refugee problem the dimensions of which have never been experienced before. If left unchecked, its consequences may be dramatic both in the shorter and in the longer term.

Second, more than nine million, i.e. about eighty percent, of the world's refugee population is to be found in the developing countries of the Third World which are least able, because of their own population pressures and economic difficulties, to assume this added burden. There are some three million refugees in Pakistan, two million in Iran, over a million in Sudan, hundreds of thousands in Somalia, nearly 300,000 in Thailand and tens of thousands in various other countries in Asia, Africa and Central America. Not to speak of the tragic situation of Palestinian refugees still awaiting a solution for almost forty years after they became homeless. And the numbers continue to rise as new groups of asylum seekers emerge before solutions are found for the old.

Third, unlike the not too distant past, when most refugees had the opportunity to be integrated and become useful and productive members of their host societies, today's refugees often find themselves confined in over-crowded refugee camps and settlements. For too many persons, refugeehood has become a normal way of life. Its perpetuation crushes human dignity and progressively reduces human ability for hope and regeneration. This should certainly be a blot on the human conscience. An additional aspect of this situation is the fact that among today's refugees we often find entire communities who have moved en masse and for whom solutions must be found not individually but as groups.

Fourth, today's refugees not only cross land borders but also travel by sea and air. The spontaneous movement of large numbers of asylum seekers from one continent to another, particularly from the developing countries to the developed industrialized nations of the West, assisted by the easy availability of air transport, has given rise to new tensions and hostilities towards refugees and asylum seekers hitherto little known in the western world. These asylum seekers either come directly from their countries of origin, or via a country of first asylum in the region of origin. More than anything else in recent years, these movements have severely jolted existing refugee law and admission practices of western countries. Governments have reacted with refugee policies which are of a defensive or even a repressive nature.

Mr. Chairman, in my view the above perspectives provide but a pale reflection of the major problems of today. It is now established that the world population is growing at the rate of over one million every five days and nine-tenths of this increase takes place in the poorer countries of the Third World. The strain this puts on the scarce natural resources, on the economies and social structures of these countries is well-known. Unemployment increases at a fast rate, giving rise first to internal migrations and then to movements abroad. With exhausted economies and accumulating foreign debts, the developing countries continue to struggle with underdevelopment, unable to cope with the rising needs and expectations of their growing populations.

These factors when taken together constitute a perfect breeding ground for social tensions and unrest. The internal conflicts which may result in turn create fertile ground for international tension, armed conflict and sometimes external threat. These then serve as a justification for internal repression leading to infringement of human rights, thus causing an exodus of refugees. This chain reaction is particularly prone to perpetuate itself.

The major problems of the world today are thus intertwined and they have to be tackled in a global way, with joint efforts by all countries, rich and poor, North and South, East and West. The refugee problem can no longer be treated in isolation but must be addressed in the context of an international strategy which addresses all the decisive factors. It would therefore serve no useful purpose to continue to look at today's refugee movements solely in the context of the existing legal framework which may not cover the entire spectrum.

Let me dwell a little on the last point. When the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was set up in 1951, the backdrop was refugee movements from eastern Europe. These refugees were received, integrated and resettled mainly in the western industrialized States. The wave of sympathy and the ancient cultural and ethnic affinities between the populations of the receiving countries and these European refugees made their reception and integration relatively smooth. These circumstances led to the beneficial development and adoption of international standards according to which refugees should be treated. These standards are reflected in the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

In the sixties emphasis shifted to the Third World, to decolonisation and the wars of national liberation. The sense of brotherhood welded through common experience and suffering, particularly in the African continent, and the generous humanitarian assistance from the international community as a whole, generally facilitated the reception and maintenance of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Moreover, upon the attainment of independence of their countries, the High Commissioner had the relatively easy task of helping them return home to rebuild their lives and their newly independent countries. A fine example of a regional approach in developing normative standards for the treatment of refugees in a regional context was established by the adoption of the 1969 OAU Convention governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.

In the seventies refugee movements became increasingly more complex. First, their numbers were much larger than hitherto. Who can forget the mind-boggling 10 million East Pakistani refugees in India in 1971! Secondly, the movements arose mainly from political and armed conflicts in already existing independent nation States. Unlike the decolonisation situation, the prospects for political solutions and removing the root causes for flight became more problematic. The East Pakistani refugee problem ended happily with the creation of Bangladesh and the return of the refugees to their newly independent State, but the problems of other important refugee groups, such as those from the Indo-Chinese countries, continue to fester. After ten years the Indo-Chinese refugee problem is still with us even though about 1.2 million persons were resettled in third countries during this period. Thirdly, the problems giving rise to refugee movements during this decade were further complicated by the socio-economic factors to which I have already referred.

The situation in the present decade has been aggravated not only by the dramatic rise in the number of refugees and asylum seekers in the developing world but also by the growing movement of asylum seekers from the Third World to the developed industrialized States in the West. Liberal asylum traditions have been jolted by the new reality of asylum seekers coming directly from far-away lands through the development and proliferation of air transportation systems. These are the 'jet people' of the 80s who have succeeded the 'boat people' of the 70s. There is a growing perception in western countries that their generosity in providing homes not only to refugees emanating from their own region, but also to large numbers of refugees from other regions is being overstrained and in some cases abused by ordinary fortune seekers.

While such a deterioration of attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers may sometimes be understandable, it is nevertheless a matter of serious concern for all those who believe in the values which underpin our democratic system. If such values are applied selectively, this may greatly undermine our humanitarian traditions.

I am particularly concerned about the growing negative public opinion in the West vis-à-vis refugees and asylum seekers from the Third World. Many governments in the West have used this development to adopt restrictive practices which have a tendency to spread like a contagion. Humanitarian principles so carefully nurtured in the West over the past several decades stand threatened. Basic standards are being lowered. The plight of refugees is being used as a political tool in domestic party politics. In this process, the fundamental considerations of humanity which serve as the basis for all humanitarian activities are being devalued. This erosion of values must be checked, and I am sure this can be done, provided States exercise their political will to do so, bearing in mind the immeasurably serious consequences of acting otherwise. The first requirement, in my view, is to recognize that the circumstances of most of today's refugee problems require a fresh look.

Mr. Chairman, so far I have tried mainly to set the context of today's refugee problem. The first basic premise that I have tried to establish is that the refugee problem is a world-wide phenomenon and that it is inextricably linked with the other major international problems of the present times. Hence the need for a common global approach. Also it can no longer be seen as a problem of a country or a region - it affects the entire world. The refugee problem should therefore be of political concern to governments and peoples everywhere. Their solutions should be considered as being in the best interest of all States.

My second premise is that the law relating to the contemporary refugee situation must be more than a law relating to the legal status and protection of refugees - it must be a law encompassing the refugee problem as a whole. The primary concern of this law should be the refugee or asylum seeker - the victim of persecution or violence. I call this a victim-oriented approach. The need of the victim should guide the search for appropriate solutions.

My third premise is that the refugee problem concerns not only individuals in their relations with States but also States in their relations with one another. So long as the emphasis is placed exclusively on the former, the refugee problem is bound to remain marginal and without a solution worthy of the name. Today's refugee problem demands that it be brought into the mainstream of international concern so that more attention is given to solutions whether they are to be found in the country of final destination, intermediate countries, or in the country of origin. Such an approach will enable countries of origin to be associated with efforts to find comprehensive solutions more especially as regards establishing conditions favourable to voluntary repatriation and attenuating causes of refugee movements. Humanitarian interventions with governments on behalf of refugees are no longer enough, if made without reference to the political situations which gave rise to their flight. The humanitarian objectives and the political will of governments to seek out the root causes of refugee movements must converge. States must be ready to take a collective and responsible approach to all refugee problems. The Office of the High Commissioner, which is a creation of States, can only fulfil its mandate with the full co-operation of States. UNHCR can only be as effective as States are willing to make it. Gone is the time when States could feel good by contributing financially to the High Commissioner's humanitarian activities on behalf of refugees. Today's High Commissioner needs more than the humanitarian support of governments - he also needs their collective political will to explore solutions to refugee situations. While the High Commissioner undertakes the necessary humanitarian action, States should also explore all possible political initiatives.

Let me now elaborate on the above premises. What do we mean by a global approach? As I have stated earlier, today's refugee problem affects all regions. The same refugee groups are found throughout the world. For example, Afghans, Iranians and Sri Lankan Tamils have sought asylum not only in the countries neighbouring their region of origin, but also in various countries in the West. Responses based on purely national interest and domestic considerations only deflect the problem from one country to another. These may serve short term political goals but are no solution to the underlying humanitarian problem. What is needed is a co-ordinated global approach which addresses the problem in all its aspects. In the short run, such a coordinated policy would mean that when faced with similar refugee problems States should consult with each other and UNHCR and adopt an approach which takes full account of all the aspects of a given refugee situation - political, economic and socio-cultural - their implications for the various States affected and the extent to which they can be met by combined action. I was particularly heartened by the co-operation shown by a number of western governments in participating in a number of such consultations which were organized by my Office in Geneva in recent months regarding the problems of Sri Lankan Tamils and Iranians. Such a co-ordinated global approach should also address the root causes of refugee movements to which I shall return later.

Now, what do I mean by a victim-oriented approach? I believe that the basic principle which should guide all humanitarian activities is the principle of humanity. In refugee affairs this means that the interest of the refugee or asylum seeker as a human being should take precedence over the possible conflicting interests of States. In so doing, States will discover that it is in this way that they can also safeguard their true political interests. The humanitarian need must therefore be addressed before all others. Given the complexity of circumstances giving rise to refugee movements today, it is not possible for governments to deny humanitarian treatment just because a person or group of persons are unable to meet the qualification set in the 1951 Refugee Convention. This would be a legalistic and static approach, a doctrinaire rather than a doctrinal approach. If the persons concerned are unable to show 'a well-founded fear of persecution' as required by the 1951 Convention to qualify as refugees but nevertheless have a justified fear of returning home, they must at least receive temporary asylum and humane treatment. Governments must continue to assume responsibility for them till they can return home. In my view there are today large numbers of asylum seekers who fall into the grey-zone - those who do not fully qualify under the international legal instruments - but who nevertheless are obviously in need of international protection. I call them the 'extra-Convention' refugees who may not be entitled to receive the status provided for under the 1951 Convention but who must nevertheless receive humanitarian treatment - and be given the necessary time - until a co-ordinated international effort may lead to a humane solution to their problems, including the possibility, eventually, of returning home in safety and dignity.

As we have already seen, the vast majority of today's refugees and asylum seekers who find themselves in the developing countries of the Third World do not always correspond to the formal definition of a refugee provided for in the 1951 Refugee Convention. In other words, they are not all victims of persecution because of race, religion, nationality or political opinion. They belong to the wider category of persons, who leave their countries because of danger to their lives and security emanating from armed conflicts or other grave forms of violence or danger. That such persons are in need of international protection has been recognized by the international community through various resolutions adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and through its assistance to the efforts of my Office on their behalf. If such persons move to other regions they must remain of concern to the international community until appropriate solutions are found for them. There cannot be different sets of standards for different regions. The main criteria to trigger the competence of the High Commissioner as well as those of States should be the existence of a need for international protection.

I will urge, however, that we do not get bogged down in the controversy over the definition as to who is, or who is not, a 'real' refugee under today's circumstances. Let us recognize that the 1951 Convention definition based on the concept of individual 'persecution' is no longer adequate to meet all the facets of today's refugee problem. It was not elaborated in regard to situations of large-scale influx of the particular type we frequently encounter today. It is moreover an instrument intended to facilitate lasting or permanent settlement/asylum within a country outside the country of origin whereas in many of today's large-scale influx situations, where entire communities are involved, there is no alternative but to place the main emphasis on voluntary repatriation under appropriate conditions. In my view, therefore, States should, of course, allow all those who fulfil the criteria to enjoy the treatment provided for in the Convention. But they must also assume responsibility for the 'extra-Convention' category until an appropriate solution is found for their problems with the active support of the community of States.

I do not, however, think that we should talk about a formal legal regime for this category under the present restrictive mood of States. On the other hand, States must also realise that there is no way they can legislate their way out of the present predicament. You cannot prevent people who have compelling reasons for leaving their country from fleeing to another country for refuge. You must address the reasons which prompted their flight. In the meantime there is a need for coordinated efforts of governments and UNHCR and its partners with a view to developing practices which are both humane and socially responsible. Once such practices are applied uniformly they will develop into an agreed doctrine. Over a period of time this doctrine will permit the adjustment of existing law to new needs. This in my view is the most natural way of developing humanitarian law.

Let me now turn to my third premise. What do I mean by political will of States to address the root causes?

As I have said earlier, today's refugee problem can no longer be tackled through humanitarian assistance alone. For such large numbers of persons who belong to the extra-Conventional category, the only solution lies in attending to the root causes, first to remove the incentives for further flows where refugee movements appear likely to continue and then to reverse the flow through the creation of appropriate conditions for the voluntary repatriation of those who have already left. I realize that this is not an easy task and may not succeed in many cases but an effort must be made and initiatives must be taken. For, as in all cases, the causes of a problem and a solution to that problem are integrally linked.

When I talk about addressing the root causes, let me also be clear that it is primarily the community of States which must take initiatives in the matter. UNHCR is willing to play a role that the governments themselves wish it to play in order to facilitate such initiatives.

An analysis of the root causes of the major refugee movements of today would reveal that there are two main contributing factors. They are armed conflicts or serious internal disturbances and human rights violations. These are themselves only too often the result of disparities between rich and poor countries with all their manifold consequences which have existed since 1945.

As regards armed conflicts and serious internal disturbances, I believe a collective approach by the international community can have a decisive impact. Similarly, any international approach towards durable or permanent solution must also encompass action to improve the human rights situation within the country of origin and to secure acceptance of the responsibilities of Statehood. I find the lack of development of the law of State responsibility in the field of refugee law a serious deficiency. This is a particular area to which more attention is called for from the international community. The concept of State responsibility will bring the country of origin more completely into the international system of response.

The root causes approach, however, should apply not only to the country of origin but also to intermediate countries. As I have tried to explain earlier, we are often confronted today with what one could call 'two-step refugee flows'. That is, refugees who first move to a neighbouring country in the region and, thereafter, because of unsatisfactory conditions there move to another country, usually outside the region, where conditions are considered satisfactory. In such situations too, it is of crucial importance that States exercise a political will to look into the 'root causes' of the second movement while at the same time making available appropriate financial and other assistance to the countries of first asylum in order to enable them to continue to provide temporary asylum to refugees in their territories.

As regards UNHCR's role vis-à-vis the root causes of a refugee movement, there are two schools of thought. Some believe that for UNHCR to be effective in the handling of refugee problems and in finding appropriate solutions, it must take an active interest in all major problems of our time which may or do lead to transfrontier refugee flows and must try to contribute to their solution. Others fear that if UNHCR follows this line of action, it may become entangled in political controversies and its humanitarian work may be paralysed.

While the concerns of both the schools may be valid, I think it is possible to take a middle path. UNHCR is, of course, bound by the statutory provision of being a 'humanitarian and non-political' organization. But where does one draw the line between the 'humanitarian' and the 'political'? Sometimes a facile distinction is made by referring to all action addressed to the situation in the country of asylum as 'humanitarian' and any action addressed to the causes of the situation in the country of origin as 'political'. I reject this distinction. To me, any action which is addressed to and motivated by the concern and well-being of human beings is 'humanitarian' whether such actions relate to the country of asylum or the country of origin.

This having been said UNHCR must, of course, avoid any action that could be perceived as being incompatible with its purely non-political and humanitarian mandate. UNHCR must not take sides in hostilities, or engage at any time in controversies whether political, racial, religious or ideological. On the other hand, UNHCR must be concerned with the question of root causes in order to be aware of the exact reasons for refugee flows and thus to be able to identify solutions in a more appropriate manner. Beyond this, UNHCR should, while preserving its non-political and humanitarian mandate, encourage governments to adopt a more active approach in addressing the root cause of refugee flows.

Mr. Chairman, once we recognize that the question of 'root causes' is an essential factor to be taken into account this will necessarily have an impact on our approach to refugee problems at the moment when they arise, while appropriate solutions are being sought and until these solutions are finally implemented.

As I see it, in all refugee situations, particularly those involving large numbers, two parallel and simultaneous actions should be undertaken by the international community right from the beginning. One is humanitarian, addressed primarily to alleviating human suffering and providing protection. The other is political, addressed primarily to attenuating the root causes and providing solutions. While UNHCR should concern itself first and foremost with humanitarian action, it is for the community of states to take the necessary supportive action in the political area. These two types of action must go hand in hand and complement each other.

Mr. Chairman, in many of today's large-scale influxes, where entire communities or groups have fled, voluntary repatriation is the only realistic alternative to indefinite subsistence on charity. It is to this, therefore, that States must turn their attention first. The objective will be to promote a general improvement in the situation in the country of origin in order to create the necessary conditions for the voluntary return of refugees. I am aware that there is no easy formula to achieve this. Large-scale repatriations normally occur in response to clear-cut changes in the refugee's country of origin a change of regime, the end of armed conflicts, the withdrawal of occupying or colonial power etc. I believe, however, that co-ordinated efforts by the community of States may also have a beneficial effect in other types of situations. The collective will of States and the political influence which they may be able to exert are certainly factors which cannot be disregarded. It may be pointed out here that promoting conditions favourable to voluntary repatriation is a dimension which is hardly ever taken into account in current international development aid programmes. There can be no doubt that if part of the impressive amount of some 1 to 3 billion dollars made available annually by the international community for all types of humanitarian activities the world over were to be used for development aid with particular reference to creating conditions conducive to voluntary repatriation this could indeed go a long way to making that solution feasible.

It should also be recognized that efforts to implement voluntary repatriation, even if initially on a more modest scale, may in themselves promote conditions for a more far-reaching solution. If, for example, the country of origin and the country of asylum could agree, despite their political differences, to the voluntary repatriation say, only of the most vulnerable groups such as the elderly, the handicapped, the unaccompanied minors, etc. this would demonstrate in political terms that despite the continuation of the conflict, the two states are willing as it were to insulate the problem. This in turn may help to attenuate the situation, to restore confidence and to pave the way for the eventual voluntary repatriation of the entire group.

This example leads to a further reflection which is relevant not only to voluntary repatriation but also as regards the necessary approach to refugee problems in general. It must be recognized that the longer a refugee problem is allowed to stagnate the more difficult the solutions are going to become. It has been witnessed in many refugee situations that over a period of time, the refugees themselves become a part and parcel of the overall political problem and may thus become an impediment to any solution. If human problems are not solved, there exist real dangers for political tensions to be exacerbated.

From what I have said, it follows that a constructive approach to refugee problems calls for simultaneous efforts to deal with their humanitarian and political aspects. These areas are closely inter-related and the attainment of positive results in one of them cannot but have a favourable impact in the other.

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen.

If the main emphasis of my lecture this evening has been on the causes and comprehensive solutions of refugee movements, it is because I believe that the international protection of refugees, for which my Office was created, can no longer be perceived in isolation from these factors. The humanitarian principles established for the treatment of refugees, together with the mechanisms for their implementation, represent an achievement of which the whole civilized world has reason to be proud. But in order to ensure that this achievement is preserved, we need to look beyond humanitarianism and to find the political will to resolve today's refugee problems.

Thank you.

Joyce Pearce a tribute by


Oxford, 29 October 1986