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Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fifth Meeting of the Steering Committee of the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees, Geneva, 14 February 1994

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Fifth Meeting of the Steering Committee of the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees, Geneva, 14 February 1994

14 February 1994

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to welcome the members of the Steering Committee of the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees at this important stage in the history of the Comprehensive Plan of Action.

It was in this region that, some fifteen years, I was first exposed to the plight of refugees. Therefore, it gives me great pleasure to observe the decline of the Indochinese refugee problem in Southeast Asia. Last year, the Cambodian refugees went home and the last camps were closed. In the course of this year and the next, I hope we will be able to capitalise on the generally positive trends in Vietnam and bring a similar end to the Vietnamese refugee problem. I hope that our discussions today will make a significant contribution to that end.

In a world of turmoil and ever-growing humanitarian crises, the Comprehensive Plan of Action stands out as a remarkable achievement of a concerted effort to resolve a long-standing refugee problem. It is a striking example of international solidarity and cooperation among the countries of origin, first asylum and resettlement and donors. The commitments that were made at the time of the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees were not easy. Nevertheless, over the past four years, each of the parties to the CPA has lived up to its obligations. This, I believe, has been a fundamental strength of the CPA and the main reason for its success to date.

The achievements of the CPA have been impressive. They are reflected in the fact that, for the very first time we have a situation where more people have returned to Viet Nam than remain in camps in the first asylum countries. It is an important milestone and, also a great credit to all participants in the Comprehensive Plan of Action. It is particularly a tribute to the first asylum countries which have carried out refugee status determination under generally fair procedures and in accordance with internationally recognised criteria. It is also a credit to the authorities of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam who have fully respected the terms of the 1988 Memorandum of Understanding with UNHCR. The resulting atmosphere of openness and confidence has helped to encourage almost 60,000 persons to return voluntarily to their home country. I would like to thank the Vietnamese authorities for cooperating fully with my Office in our monitoring responsibilities under the CPA and for allowing our staff to have full access to returnees throughout the country.

Another remarkable achievement has been the dramatic drop in the number of persons leaving Viet Nam by boat. This is not only due to the successful implementation of the various components of the CPA but is also testimony to the growing sense of optimism and confidence which the Vietnamese people now have in the future of their country.

One aspect on which I am particularly heartened to report is the considerable progress in resolving the situation of unaccompanied minors. Those of you who have followed developments under the CPA since its inception will recall the long deliberations we have had in seeking an early solution for these children and young adolescents. Since the Steering Committee last met, special procedures have been established in all first asylum countries and the situation of each unaccompanied minor has been reviewed in detail. Over 700 home assessments have been carried out by UNHCR staff in the towns and villages of origin to assess the family's ability to provide suitable care should the minor return. As a result of this work, more than 4,000 unaccompanied minors have now returned home. The Nordic Aid to Repatriated Vietnamese (NARV) has played an essential role in making this possible. More work remains to be done, however, and it is our intention to resolve the situation of the remaining unaccompanied minors as early as possible during the course of 1994.

But if we are gathered here today, it is not so much to contemplate on the achievements to date but to consider together what remains to be done. Despite all the impressive achievements, the fact of the matter is that after four and a half years of intensive work, there are still some 60,000 Vietnamese in first asylum camps. Of this number, some 8,000 persons will eventually be "screened in", leaving approximately 52,000 persons to return home.

Clearly the international community cannot be asked to fund the CPA indefinitely. Nor should the first asylum countries be expected to maintain camps for years on end. The CPA was established to address an acute human tragedy. The situation which prevailed at the time is fortunately no longer with us. In the meantime, new humanitarian emergencies have arisen, placing new demands and straining existing resources of the international community.

The Steering Committee last convened in a formal session on 30 April and 1 May 1991, almost three years ago. Although Steering Committee members have met periodically and informally since that time, I feel the time has now come to meet again in order to take concrete steps to bring the CPA finally to a conclusion.

The preparatory meeting which met in December 1993 recommended the establishment of a target date of end 1995 or, earlier as the case may be, for completion of the programmes in the first asylum countries. I am confident that this objective is well within our reach, but I am equally convinced that, given the various aspirations of the remaining camp population, we will all need to make a strong and concerted effort to meet this time-frame.

Let me say that we should be under no illusion with regard to the magnitude of task which lies ahead of us. As we approach the end of the CPA, our collective endeavours will require perseverance and clarity of purpose. We are dealing with individuals whose hopes and aspirations have been shaped by years of history and often coloured by false expectations. Many individuals still believe that life in the camps is better than what lies ahead should they return home. Many still dream of resettlement. Others are content to live off of the income which they may earn while awaiting indefinitely in the camps.

I would hope that the recent announcement with regard to the restoration of United States' trading links with the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam will be a strong inducement for the remaining camp population to return home and participate in the economic reconstruction of their country. I would also hope that this meeting will send a very clear message that the CPA, which has long embodied the international community's goodwill towards this group, will not be sustained indefinitely. The Vietnamese cannot be treated any differently from other groups of asylum seekers.

For my part, let me confirm today that my Office stands ready to do everything it can within its mandate to assist in resolving the outstanding issues so that this goal can be attained.

Turning briefly to the Laotian refugee situation, I am sorry to have to say that efforts to resolve the situation of some 26,000 Lao refugees and asylum seekers in Thailand have been less productive than one would have hoped. Resettlement continues to be desired by many applicants and I trust that resettlement countries will pay special attention to this group. In addition, UNHCR encourages voluntary repatriation whenever possible. Since 1980, 16,000 persons have returned from Thailand. Close to 4,000 persons returned in 1993, many of whom were ethnic Hmong. I very much hope that with the cooperation of the authorities of the Lao People's Democratic Republic and the Royal Thai Government, further progress will be made in the months ahead.

Let me express my gratitude to the many donor governments whose continued financial support has made the achievements under the CPA possible. However, as you probably realize, further financial support will be necessary over the next two years if we are to bring the programme to a conclusion by the end of 1995. An appeal for funds is before you for 93.383 million US dollars to finance UNHCR activities during the 1994 calendar year. This is some 17 million dollars less than the previous year. I earnestly hope that now that we are entering the home stretch of the CPA, there will be an added encouragement to donors to support the programme to its conclusion. I hope I can count on your continued generosity.

To conclude my remarks, a chapter is coming to an end in Indochina and Southeast Asia, as the refugee population and programmes decline. However, I hope that the same humanitarian spirit which has guided first asylum countries in their response to the Indochinese refugee problem will continue to be applied to all groups of asylum seekers in the region, regardless of their country of origin.

Let me also express my profound hope that as we approach the end of CPA, the international community will promote the beginning of a new chapter in the region. A chapter which seeks to bring about a truly comprehensive solution to large-scale population movements through economic and social development. If return is to be a lasting solution for Indochina, then returnees must be reintegrated properly. Here I would like to add a word of appreciation to the European Union. Not only has it supported the work of UNHCR under the CPA but it has also established and financed the European Community International Programme which has been instrumental in facilitating the reintegration of returning Vietnamese. More initiatives are needed to link solution to prevention.

Opportunities for economic and social development must be created to sustain returns and stabilise communities in the longer term, so that people are not induced to flee again.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to make these brief remarks. My colleagues and I look forward to working with you to address the remaining issues and bring to an end one of the most tragic and protracted population outflows in Asia.