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Presentation by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 13 November 2000

Speeches and statements

Presentation by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 13 November 2000

13 November 2000
The State of the World's RefugeesUNHCR 50th anniversary

Dean Destro,
Students and Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to be here today with Archbishop Hamao, and all of you, at the Catholic University of America. I would like to thank the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for inviting me to this convocation, and especially Bishop DiMarzio for his kind introduction.

UNHCR will mark its 50th anniversary in December. Also, at the end of the year, I will conclude my tenure as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I have often said that I do not wish to leave a legacy, so much as a future for my Office. But responding effectively to the challenges that lie ahead imposes upon us a collective responsibility to learn from the past.

Earlier today, at the National Press Club in Washington, I launched UNHCR's latest publication, entitled The State of the World's Refugees: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action. This special edition surveys international humanitarian action on behalf of refugees and other uprooted people over the past half century. The book also analyses the problems they face today and the dilemmas confronting governments and the institutions - such as my Office - charged with their protection.

This afternoon, I would like to speak about UNHCR's fifty years on the humanitarian frontlines, and then highlight three areas where the Catholic Church, Catholic NGOs and the lay community can - and do - make an important difference for refugees.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Refugee movements are indicative of a world in turmoil - rife with humanitarian crises. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations was confronted with a tragedy of massive displacement in a Europe divided by the iron curtain. This led to the creation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on December 14th, 1950.

Most refugees at that time were fleeing from totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. Viewed as victims of persecution, they were readily accepted and integrated into the Western democracies. This comfortable convergence between humanitarian commitments and political objectives also eased UNHCR's task of developing legal structures for the protection and integration of refugees in countries of asylum.

By the early 1960s, the prevailing pattern of refugee movements had become the large-scale exodus, as the de-colonisation process took its human toll, mainly on the African continent. There was strong solidarity for those fleeing the effects of national liberation wars. The refugees who poured out of Algeria, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Zaire, Zambia and Zimbabwe, for instance, were hospitably received in neighbouring countries. UNHCR provided assistance and, eventually, helped refugees return home when their countries gained independence.

The situation worsened dramatically in the following two decades as Cold War rivalries were played out in a polarised and heavily armed Third World, exacerbating tensions and leading to regional or internal conflicts. These wars produced displaced persons on an unprecedented scale in and out of Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, as well as other parts of Africa, in Indochina and in Central America. The refugee population, which had been around eight million at the end of the 1970s, reached 17 million by 1991.

Most of the refugees were not fleeing political persecution so much as violence, conflict and insecurity; fuelled by political repression, poverty, recurrent famine and environmental degradation. The paralysis of inter-state relations that marked the Cold War period impeded any resolution of these conflicts. Millions of refugees stagnated in over-crowded camps in countries that had no capacity to absorb them. With little scope for repatriating refugees or integrating them locally, the best that UNHCR could do in most cases was to meet basic humanitarian needs.

Then the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, opening up new opportunities for peace in many areas of the world. In Namibia, Cambodia and Mozambique, as well as in Central America, UNHCR helped millions of refugees to return home. Many others started new lives through resettlement. By the mid-1990s, the United States had resettled more than a million refugees from Vietnam, with this country's Catholic community playing a leading role in their reception and integration.

The end of the Cold War, however, also brought new and more complex patterns of conflict. Wars increasingly became internal struggles between the religious, ethnic, social, political groupings of the same state. In humanitarian terms, this new era opened with the Kurdish refugee emergency in Northern Iraq. The conflicts that followed in the Balkans and the Great Lakes region of Central Africa were not only violent and destructive, but also so complex that traditional conflict resolution mechanisms were inadequate to address their root causes.

The graver the conflict, the more dramatic have been the humanitarian tragedies that resulted. Think of the over four million people uprooted at the peak of the Bosnian war, for example; or the more than one million Rwandans pouring across the Zairian border in just four days in 1994; or the 850,000 ethnic Albanian refugees who streamed out of Kosovo in just a few weeks last year. The Kosovo Albanians flooded back home with equal speed only a few months later when Serbia withdrew its forces.

These are the types of conflicts and refugee situations for which we must be prepared today. While exceptional, such crises indicate in a dramatic manner that humanitarian action alone cannot resolve fundamental social, economic and political problems. UNHCR and its humanitarian partners can treat the symptoms of conflicts, but we cannot tackle the root causes.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Looking to the future, I believe that UNHCR will remain necessary in a troubled world. War, gross human rights abuses and persecution seem set to force still greater numbers of people from their homes. Our work will only grow more complex and challenging. I would like to highlight three areas where the Catholic Church, Catholic NGOs and the lay community have a crucial role to play.

First, we need your help in upholding the principle of asylum for refugees. People in flight need protection, and the institution of asylum is the most important refugee protection instrument at our disposal.

The globalisation of migration and forced displacement poses an extraordinary challenge to asylum. Today, asylum seekers fleeing persecution and violence tend to travel with people seeking better economic opportunities and those uprooted by environmental and other disasters. Often, they even resort to the same criminal smuggling and trafficking networks. As a consequence, asylum and irregular migration have become seriously confused in the public mind.

In response, governments have made it more difficult for asylum seekers to reach their territory, interdicting them at sea, detaining them upon arrival, interpreting protection obligations restrictively and creating new and lesser forms of legal status. Many of these measures impact indiscriminately upon people who need protection and those who do not. The inevitable consequence is that some people are sent back to places where they have a real fear of being jailed or killed. We must keep the asylum door open to save lives.

We see the Catholic Church and Catholic NGOs as strong advocates for the fair and humane treatment of refugees. The CLINIC network helps ensure that asylum seekers across the United States have access to legal services. We also look to the Church for leadership in sending a message of compassion and understanding for the plight of refugees and other uprooted and vulnerable people in the United States and around the world.

Second, the Catholic community's continued support and engagement with refugee resettlement is essential. Each year, the United States welcomes - by far - the largest number of resettled refugees in the world. The United States Catholic Conference's Migration and Refugee Service and its many affiliate agencies are among our most constant and reliable partners in this important endeavour.

Today, UNHCR resettles fewer refugees than at the height of the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Vietnamese refugees. But resettlement is now a more sophisticated tool of international protection and solutions. We have shifted decisively away from the mechanical processing of large groups to a highly diversified and individualised approach. As recently as 1997, Somali refugees in Kenya accounted for three-quarters of resettlement from Africa. Today, refugees of more than thirty nationalities are resettled from some forty African countries. And the same pattern holds worldwide.

The integration of newly resettled refugees is difficult. But it is enormously important. I know that the diversification of resettlement has only made this task more complex, and I wish to salute the settlement agencies for the manner in which they have risen to the challenge. After many years of talking about partnership in resettlement, I believe now we have true partnership in action. UNHCR field offices in countries of first asylum are linking up with settlement agencies in the United States for joint training and the identification of protection problems.

The destinations for resettlement have diversified too. UNHCR now has resettlement agreements with eighteen countries, compared with only ten in 1996. Starting up a new resettlement programme is enormously challenging. I hope that some of you will share your expertise and good practices with counterparts from Africa and South America next April at the international conference on the reception and integration of resettled refugees in Sweden. I am sure that the exchange will be mutually beneficial.

From a global perspective, the third area I see for closer cooperation with the Catholic Church is to help reconstruct communities affected and divided by conflict. Reconstruction following refugee return means more than just rebuilding houses, roads and factories. It must include rebuilding communities and restoring the complex web of social, economic and psychological relations destroyed by war and exile.

Refugees often return to live with the very people they had fought against - from Bosnia to Rwanda and from Liberia to East Timor. Kosovo is perhaps the starkest example today. Unless a degree of coexistence is attained, no amount of material reconstruction will be sufficient to eliminate the causes of conflict.

In conflict situations where religion was abused and exploited to foster hatred and division - as was the case in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina - religious leaders and their congregations must take the lead in the healing process. In other war-torn parts of the world - such as Colombia and in many parts of Africa - the Catholic Church provides the only grassroots social network that crosses all frontlines. In both cases, Church is a crucial partner in efforts to foster tolerance and co-existence.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have seen with my own eyes the despair in the eyes of people who have lost everything, whose loved ones have been killed, whose houses and livelihoods have been destroyed, and who have been forced to flee in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on their backs. But I have also witnessed the courage and resilience of so many people who have lost everything but hope. Refugees are the great survivors of our times and they deserve our respect and our solidarity.

UNHCR reflects our human society's will to protect, sustain and give hope to some of the world's most vulnerable and disadvantaged among us. It has been a privilege and a great honour to serve this cause as High Commissioner.

Your continued interest and involvement with my Office is indispensable. Your understanding and compassion for the refugees is ultimately the foundation for our work - both here in the United States and globally, around the world.

Thank you.