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Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Economic and Social Council (39th Session), 1 May 1966

Speeches and statements

Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Economic and Social Council (39th Session), 1 May 1966

1 May 1966

Mr. President, I am very glad to be here again today to submit to the Council, as I do each year, my report to the General Assembly on the activities of the High Commissioner's Office (luring the past year. As this report gives, I think, a reasonably complete and detailed account of the efforts which the Office has made in the various areas in which it is called upon to act, I shall endeavour, as usual, to point out what seem to me to be the most significant developments and facts.

It should be remembered that the primary function of the Office is the protection of refugees. It was with a view to removing the special handicap from which the refugee suffers in his daily life and which is clue to the absence of effective national protection that the General Assembly, almost fifteen years ago, entrusted the Office with the task of persuading Governments to grant refugees a status which ensures that they enjoy reasonable living conditions and can take steps to acquire a new nationality as speedily as possible, unless they have, in the meantime, voluntarily opted for repatriation. As experience showed, however, that protection was not in itself always sufficient to solve all the problems, and that it might in some cases be necessary and suitable to help countries of reception to overcome the social and financial difficulties caused by the influx of refugees into their territory and by their liberal attitude towards the granting of asylum, the Assembly authorized the Office some years later to collect voluntary contributions to assist in the solution of these problems. It was on this basis, and with due regard for the primary responsibility of the countries of reception, that a highly diversified form of action took shape, which s founded on the spirit of international solidarity and the machinery for bringing it into play. While UNHCR is one of the driving forces of this machinery, it receives support from many other sources in particular, governments, international organizations and the many voluntary agencies which devote themselves to the cause of the refugees. It has since been the concern of the Office to keep this machinery constantly ready for action by providing the framework, support and the climate of human understanding which it needs.

Viewed in this light, the work of international cooperation on behalf of refugees obviously goes far beyond the limited assistance which the High Commissioner's Office itself can provide. Moreover, its programme of assistance, far from being an and in itself, is only an instrument for providing protection in the broadest sense of he term, in other words, for carrying out a task which, leaving voluntary repatriation aside, consists first and foremost in facilitating the integration of refugees in the countries of asylum or their emigration to another country where they have an opportunity to resettle.

As refugee problems are continuously changing, like the events of which they are but the tragic reflection, the action of the Office must obviously be continuously adapted to the requirements of changing circumstances, which it must constantly follow. It is significant and encouraging in this connexion, Mr. President, to note that, while suddenly confronted with the many and distressing problems caused by the appearance of hundreds of thousands of uprooted people, particularly in Africa, the Office was nonetheless able to round off the vast activities undertaken on behalf of the "old" European refugees and at the same time to initiate the new current programme of assistance. In 1904 it attempted to strengthen the foundations of this current programme, which now occupies the foreground, and which was growing rapidly in scope owing to the appearance of new and unexpected problems. It is the actual concept of the current programme, as much as the procedure and the methods employed to assist governments to solve these problems, which has undergone, seemingly successfully, the arduous test of events during the past year. UNHCR was undoubtedly assisted by earlier General Assembly resolutions - I am thinking more particularly of resolution 1673 (XVI) of 18 December 1961 - which enabled the High Commissioner, in meeting the mass problems of the new groups of refugees, to use the very flexible good offices procedure, which had hitherto been reserved for refugees not coming within his mandate.

A review of the various problem with which the Office has concerned itself during the intervening period shows that the problem of the refugees from Rwanda overshadows all others both because of its scope and complexity and because of the further complications caused by events in some of the countries of reception. The disturbances which have marked internal developments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo inevitably affected the refugees who had found asylum in that country. The implementation of the plans drawn up for the settlement of these refugees has had to be at least partially suspended in the areas of the Kivu Province most directly affected by these events, which also led the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to issue an order for the expulsion of the Rwandese refugees. Although this order has not been carried out in practice, it has nonetheless seriously disturbed the mass of these refugees by emphasizing and increasing the precariousness of their position. We hope that this order mill shortly be rescinded so that it will be possible to resume the normal implementation of the programme for the local settlement of these refugees, drawn up with the agreement and assistance of the Government, and in co-operation with the International Labour Office.

In Burundi, where the settlement of more than 35,000 refugees was proving difficult because of the country's small size and limited resources, arrangements were made, at the urgent request of the Government, to transfer 10,000 of the refugees to Tanzania. Thanks to the sympathetic attitude of the Tanzanian Government, a plan was drawn up for their settlement in the Mwesi area aid the World Lutheran Federation had assumed responsibility for its execution. But when the time came to transfer the refugees, it was found that their tribal chiefs were opposed to the move. All the preparations made in Tanzania with the generous and efficient assistance of the Tanzanian Organization for Assistance to Refugees, which is affiliated to the World Lutheran Federation, would thus have been in vain, had the Tanzanian authorities not agreed to accept, in place of these refugees, a group of 3,000 other refugees of the same origin, but coming from the Congo. In view of the events I have mentioned and of the resulting state of uneasiness between the authorities in the Kivu Province and the Rwandese refugees, it was essential to remove some of the refugees from the Province in order to alleviate the situation in that area and thus to facilitate the settlement of the refugees who are to remain there. As circumstances preclude any crossing of the adjacent frontier s by land, an air lift was arranged, not without difficulty, and the last of the 3,000 refugees concerned have now reached their destination.

New plans therefore had to be prepared in Burundi for the settlement of the refugees who had remained in the country, and of the further refugees who had taken refuge there from the disorders in the Congo. These plans provide for the settlement of 25,000 refugees in the Mugera region. The plans were drawn up after consultation with experts from the various competent international organizations and mill be put into effect under the general supervision of a Government body, the King Mwambutsa IV Fund, with operational assistance from the Belgian non-profit-making organization, the Association international du développement rural outre-mer (AIDR).

The Zonal Development Plan already established in co-operation with the International Labour Office is making satisfactory progress. Joint teams composed of refugees and members of the local population are now at work, clearing and bringing into use hitherto uncultivated land and undertaking various operations designed to equip the settlement for community centre use.

The refugees from Rwanda in the Congo and in Burundi are certainly not the only ones to have benefited from the attention of the High Commissioner's Office during the past months. As perusal of the Report shows, other governments faced with similar problems also appealed for its assistance. I will simply mention Uganda, which is at present sheltering some 50,000 refugees from Rwanda as well as several thousand refugees from Sudan and about 30,000 refugees from the Congo; Tanzania, where there are 10,000 refugees from Mozambique in addition to 15,000 from Rwanda; Senegal, with 50,000 refugees from Portuguese Guinea; the Central African Republic, which also has several hundred refugees from Sudan and from the Congo.

At the same time, of course, the Office continued to show an unflagging interest in the situation of European refugees, our aim being to prevent any accumulation in camps, while we continued the implementation of the last Major Aid programme on behalf of those whom we describe as "old" refugees to distinguish them from the new arrivals; this involved constantly renewed efforts to ensure the completion of the work by the date laid down and to overcome the latest difficulties which arose, more especially in Greece. The Report before you, Mr. President, provides detailed information on all these problems and on the action taken for their solution and there is no need for me to go over the same ground again.

I have dwelt on the special problems raised by the refugees from Rwanda in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Burundi because they are important, urgent and have implications for the programme as a whole, and also because I wanted to bring the Council up to date on the latest developments. But I also did so because they furnish a particularly striking example of the complexity and fluidity of refugee problems as they arise today in various parts of the African continent. And finally, Mr. President) I did so because they provide an excellent illustration of the aims we have set ourselves and the methods we use in order to achieve them. The first of these aims is obviously to encourage the African countries in the liberal and generous policy of asylum which they have adopted from the outset, despite the innumerable difficulties which beset them. The nature of our action is determined by the kind of solution that the African countries themselves have in mind or which they are in a position to apply to the problems facing them. This solution, generally speaking, lies in the integration of the refugees in the local - population and in their settlement on the land. This, together with the fact that we are here concerned with developing countries, explains why the High Commissioner's Office, in its efforts to help governments to establish rural settlement programmes for refugees, has had to seek to a far greater extent than in the past, the co-operation of the specialized agencies and subsidiary organs of the United Nations family which are already in the field and whose activities are directed towards the economic and social advancement of the countries concerned. Those to which we most usually turn are the Bureau of Technical Assistance, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the International Labour Office and where appropriate, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the World Health Organization. Furthermore, the considerable aid received from the World Food Program, which thus makes a substantial and direct contribution to the relief work of the Office, is worthy of special mention. Quite apart from the fact that the experts of the organizations are asked for their opinions and can assist in the preparation of programmes for refugees, steps are taken to ensure that these programmes can eventually be incorporated in the more general framework of the plans affecting the entire population of the areas where the refugees are living. A steadily increasing degree of co-ordination is thus automatically developing at the various levels, a co-ordination which, I need hardly emphasize, is fully in accordance with the - wishes of the Economic and Social Council.

I need not remind the Council that the High Commissioner's Office is bound by certain imperatives, which are inherent in the nature of its task. Thus, when it is faced with the need to keep thousands and thousands of uprooted people alive and to make them self-supporting as soon as possible, the time factor is crucial. But even so, and even if it is understood that the activities of the Office and its sphere of competence are limited to refugees and to their problems, that does not mean that it can close its eyes to the surrounding realities. When the fate of the refugees appears to be closely bound up with that of the local population, as happens frequently in Africa, it is naturally concerned to foresee how the refugees will fare after the rather rough and ready measures, intended to provide them with tools to work with and limited resources to meet their immediate needs, have taken effect. And here Again we turn to the specialized agencies of the United Nations, asking them, as appropriate, to help Governments to continue the work which we have begun, so that the integration of the refugees may be completed and consolidated and the refugees themselves, far from being a burden an the country of asylum, can participate in the development of its economy, and provide a valuable addition to its human potential. These are the principles underlying the programmes I have mentioned for the rural development of those regions of the Congo and Burundi where most of the refugees to be settled in those countries are concentrated, programmes which were prepared with the assistance of the ILO and FAO. In thus handing on the torch as soon as possible to an agency qualified to complete the - work with which it has been associated, the High Commissioner's Office is acting strictly in accordance with its consistent policy, as determined by its terms of reference and by the directives it receives from the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme. The programme itself, which is the principal instrument of that policy, retains its essentially complementary character and continues to serve as a stimulus, as a catalyst a role which, in the nature of things, must always be assigned to it. The considerable supporting contributions mentioned in the, report, contributions over and above the funds raised by the Office itself, clearly illustrate this complementary character of the programme. This is still more striking if account is also taken of the often considerable aid furnished under bilateral agreements, for instance, food aid from the United States, not to mention, of course, the basic co-operation which is offered in all circumstances and in all fields, by the voluntary agencies in international activities on behalf of refugees.

Despite the efforts of the Office to obtain assistance from the most varied sources, the increase in needs resulting from the multiplication of problems and from the widening scope of some problems has necessitated a further increase in the target for the current programme of assistance in 1965. The Executive Committee recently had to raise that target to $3.5 million from the original figure of $3.2 million. This increase in needs has inevitably raised a very serious financial problem, to which I should like to dram the attention of the governments represented here. If they can be assured that we are doing our utmost to limit the financial effort which is being asked of them, I think it is permissible to request them in return to raise their contributions to the level necessary to finance in full this minimum programme, which has received the preliminary approval of the Executive Committee. It is certainly comforting to see, in this connexion, that the number of countries contributing to the financing of the programme has increased considerably, having risen from thirty-five in 1963 to fifty-two in 1964; it is hoped that, by the end of this year, the number mill be in the sixties. But we have to face the fact that many of the new contributions can only be regarded as token contributions. So it is important that countries which are in a position to give the programme the substantial aid it needs in order to remain in existence, should agree to make the additional effort which present circumstances require.

So far, Mr. President, I have confined myself to what may properly be called the social function of the High Commissioner's Office, a function which is based, at least in part, on the financial assistance which it can provide to refugees and to the governments of the countries of asylum. But, as the Council is aware, such assistance has from the outset been conceived as an adjunct to protection, which, as I have reminded the Council, was the primary function of the Office. Assistance in fact stems from protection, even though it is desirable to make a distinction in the interests of a clearer classification of activities which may be either legal or social in character. I need only say that the High Commissioner's Office cannot, without denying its own nature, forget for a moment the mission which has been entrusted to it in this respect and which is in fact its main reason for existence. It thus continues to give its full attention to this activity, to follow step by step the development of legislation concerning refugees, intervening here, making claims there, and suggesting any changes and improvements which seem to it both necessary and compatible with the general facts of the situation, as it presents itself in the various countries where the refugees under his mandate are living. In this connexion, it is a pleasure to be able to announce the recent accession of two countries, Liberia and Peru, to the 1951 Convention, which, applying as it now does to forty-seven countries, is indeed the refugees' charter. Also, we have just been informed, and I am happy that the Council should be the first to hear this news, that the Democratic Republic of the Congo has also decided to accede to the Convention. There can be no doubt that some slight changes would be desirable in the Convention; in particular, it would be desirable to confirm its universal character, by eliminating the dateline of 1 January 1951 which prevents its immediate and automatic application to new groups of refugees. This question has been considered by a colloquium of eminent jurists from a wide variety of regions, which met at Bellagio last April and drew up recommendations on the subject. Those recommendations will, I am sure, facilitate the search for the best means of bringing the text up to date and adapting it to changing situations.

I hope, Mr. President, that the Council will not hold it against me that, in making this brief statement, I have given undue weight to the most disquieting, the most recent developments in our everyday activities. After Europe, it is in fact Africa that is today the principal scene of those events which have, alas, become almost endemic and which give rise to refugee problems in different areas. So it is towards Africa that our gaze is directed; it is Africa which we would like to see benefit from the lessons drawn from our past experience. Among these lessons, there is one we consider specially important - that is, the obvious, the absolute need to deal with refugee problems without any political bias, and as the terms of reference of the High Commissioner's Office put it, at a purely humanitarian level. We therefore welcome the fact that the Organisation of African Unity, with which we are now in constant contact, is engaged in drawing up certain provisions concerning the implications of refugee problems for relations between African States. The desire expressed in this connexion that those problems should be prevented from becoming a source of disputes and friction between those countries, is fully in keeping, I need hardly say, with the efforts which the High Commissioner's Office has long been making. It is, in fact, one of the points which we have constantly in mind, - when, at the request of countries of asylum, we join with them in seeking to find, as speedily as possible, the best solutions to the refugee problems with which they are faced.