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Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the University of Auckland, New Zealand, 19 July 1996

Speeches and statements

Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the University of Auckland, New Zealand, 19 July 1996

19 July 1996

Let me start by saying how deeply honoured I am that the University of Auckland has bestowed an Honorary Degree of Doctors of Law upon me and has invited me to address you. The University of Auckland is well know for its academic excellence, thanks to its distinguished faculty, and students. Several of the Law School's graduates are working in my Office, among whom is my Director of International Protection, Mr Dennis McNamara. Your University is also associated with Sophia University in Tokyo where I was Dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Studies before I became High Commissioner for Refugees.

By bestowing this recognition on me today, you are paying a tribute to the more than 5,000 UNHCR staff members who work under often difficult and dangerous conditions. You are also expressing solidarity with the millions of destitute victims of war, conflict and human rights violations around the world. You are recognizing the plight of refugee children scarred by war, the innate strength of refugee women in adversity and exile, and the hope of refugees resettled in New Zealand to start a new life. I thank you for that.

Refugees are of major international concern today, for policy makers and the public alike. We are all aware of the dire humanitarian dimension of refugee movements. But especially during the last few years, there has been an increasing recognition that refugee crises pose formidable political and security challenges to states and the international community. I am therefore grateful for this opportunity during my first visit to New Zealand as High Commissioner to share with you my views on the refugee problem in general and in Asia in particular.

When I became High Commissioner in 1991, UNHCR was responsible for 17 million people in the world. Today, UNHCR takes responsibility for some 26 million people uprooted by war, violence and gross violations of human rights. This number includes refugees who have been forced to flee abroad, returnees who have returned home but require our assistance to reintegrate into their communities, and people who find themselves displaced inside their own countries or otherwise affected by war and violence. After Africa, Asia still hosts the second largest number of refugees, 4.5 million, whereas some 1.6 million internally displaced persons are assisted by my Office. Afghans constitute the largest refugee population in the world. On the whole, however, Asia has witnessed a steady decline in refugee numbers, just when they are spiralling in Africa and Europe.

Today, we live in a rapidly changing world. On the one hand there is a growing trend toward globalization, through technological advances, commerce and information sharing. The world is becoming a global neighbourhood. On the other hand, there are strong forces of fragmentation, giving rise to insecurity, isolationism and civil conflict.

Today's forced displacement, whether taking place within countries or spilling across borders, is in most instances a product of conflict among communities within the borders. In the past, internal conflicts were often fuelled by ideological and political rivalry among the superpowers, as in Afghanistan, Central Africa and Ethiopia. Today, I believe, as ideological confrontation has receded, group identity along ethnic, religious or linguistic lines has become more of a divisive factor. Still, the roots of the problem are often political and socio-economic inequities. Increasingly, people translate feelings of separateness into political claims, especially when they feel discriminated against or treated unfairly. In the worst instances, this may lead to state fragmentation or collapse, for example in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia. New states also imply new borders. Majorities fear becoming minorities or second class citizens in new states. In reaction, they either oppose the formation of the new state, which happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or they move, often under pressure, to the ethnic or religious mother state.

The conflict in the former Yugoslavia has brought home dramatically the consequences of fragmentation. Forced displacement of minorities is increasingly not only a by-product but also an objective of fighting and human rights violations. De-population or re-population tactics, in support of territorial claims and self-determination, are the abominable characteristic of the conflict in the Balkans and the Caucasus.

Following the break-up of the former Soviet Union, the peaceful transition from authoritarian to democratic societies has been undermined by ethnic conflicts, religious intolerance, and political rivalries. An estimated 9 million people have been uprooted in the former Soviet Union since 1989.

Elsewhere too, internal conflict and ethnic tensions are causing emergencies. The genocide in Rwanda has shocked the conscience of the world. It is unlikely that the 1.8 million Rwandan refugees in the camps in Zaire, Burundi and Tanzania will return soon. Progress toward reconciliation in Rwanda has been piecemeal. The news, however, is not entirely gloomy. To the contrary. New opportunities to bring longstanding conflicts to a peaceful end have permitted the voluntary repatriation of more than 10 million people over the last six years, to Cambodia, South Africa and Mozambique.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was created in 1951 to deal with the refugee problem. Its mandate is to provide international protection and to promote durable solutions for refugees. These solutions have been interpreted as voluntary repatriation, integration into the host community or resettlement to a third country. The 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, bind the 130 signatory states to internationally agreed standards for the admission, protection and treatment of refugees. As refugee problems are inherently political in nature, developments in international politics have had a significant impact on the work of my Office. The humanitarian management and resolution of refugee problems have been influenced as much by national, regional and global security concerns and foreign policy considerations, as by genuine compassion for refugees.

The responses to the refugee crises in Asia, and in particular Southeast Asia, bear witness to this. When the first boats of Vietnamese began to arrive in Southeast Asia in 1976, the countries in the region feared that they would remain burdened with these unwelcome guests for economic, social and political reasons. Economically, there was no demand for surplus labour in the ASEAN states or Hong Kong. Socially, governments feared that the refugees, mainly ethnic Chinese in the early days and later ethnic Vietnamese, would upset the delicate balance among their own communities and arouse historic animosities. Politically, ASEAN states saw the refugee outflow as a deliberate attempt to destabilize the region. To prevent their arrival, countries began pushing off overloaded boats causing uncountable deaths on the high seas. If Vietnamese refugees were viewed with suspicion, the Cambodian were pawns in the hands of military fractions and powers to further their political and military goals against the Vietnamese backed regime in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge controlled some of the camps accommodating Cambodians on the Thai border, and used the camps as military bases and to recruit soldiers, thus violating their humanitarian and non-political character. Newly arriving refugees from Laos were at times recruited for military activities with the aim of destabilizing their home country.

The responses of Southeast Asian countries to the Indochinese refugee crisis show how geopolitical realities influenced the admission and treatment of refugees. Consequently, humanitarian action was severely constrained, and new ways and policy options had to be examined to respond to the crisis. In Thailand, not UNHCR but an ad hoc body, the Border Relief Operation (UNBRO) was set up to provide relief to the Cambodian border population, but was left without a protection mandate. For the boat people, the first International Conference on Indochinese Refugees in 1979 recognized the principle of admission and refuge, on a temporary basis only, in the region. It was coupled with a commitment to resettle the refugees in third countries. This compromise, which was essentially a burden sharing arrangement, was to survive for a decade, providing temporary protection as well as resettlement to over a million refugees.

Improvements in international and regional political relations created new opportunities to adopt a solutions-oriented approach in the late 1980s. The second International Conference on Indochinese Refugees held in 1989 adopted the Comprehensive Plan of Action, or CPA, and following the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, 370,000 Cambodian refugees repatriated as part of the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia, UNTAC. These two developments mark successful proof of comprehensive approaches to address refugee problems.

The CPA recognized that while conditions in Laos and Vietnam stabilized, many people were no longer fleeing persecution, but poverty. By the late 1980s, the number of new arrivals from Vietnam shot up, originating primarily form the north instead of the south as previously was the case. The automatic link between the granting of refugee status and resettlement, as foreseen in the 1979 agreement, created a pull effect. The lure of resettlement had become part of the problem. The objectives of the CPA were twofold: to protect genuine refugees and to prevent further outflow of non-refugees. The Agreement placed interlocking and mutually reinforcing obligations on the countries of origin and of first asylum, and the major donor and resettlement states. Countries of asylum in the region agreed to admit the boat people and to screen them with the assistance of UNHCR, in order to determine their claim to refugee status. Only those recognized as refugees would be guaranteed resettlement. In turn, the countries of origin acknowledged their responsibility toward their own citizens by agreeing to take back all non-refugees and to scrupulously observe their safety. UNHCR undertook the role of monitoring the returnees in Vietnam and to bring about a climate conductive to return.

Since 1975, nearly 840,000 Vietnamese left their country to seek refugee status or better opportunities abroad. New Zealand generously accepted a fair share of them. The CPA came to an official conclusion last moth and is a unique example of international cooperation to solve a refugee problem. In recent months, voluntary repatriation has increased and only 24,000 non-refugees remain in camps in Indonesia, the Philippines and Hong Kong.

With regard to Cambodia, the comprehensive approach adopted under the Paris Peace Accords went much further. While the CPA was comprehensive in managing a massive refugee outflow, the Cambodian Peace Accords paved the way for solving the Cambodian refugee problem as an integral part of the operation. In addition to its military component, UNTAC had a strong civilian arm focusing on institution-building, reconstruction and the organization of elections. Humanitarian issues and human rights were an essential part of the political and peaceful solution. My Office was assigned the responsibility for the repatriation of the 370,000 Cambodian refugees from Thailand, which was completed well before the elections in May 1993. The return of the refugees was not only dependent upon but also instrumental to national reconciliation and peace-building.

Twenty years after the exodus of Indochinese refugees, the region has undergone major changes. Yesterday's enemies have become today allies and economic partners. Vietnam has joined ASEAN and Myanmar is seeking membership. Sustained economic growth, improved standards of living, and strengthened civic institutions have brought stability to many countries of Southeast Asia. However, it may be too early to be complacent or totally optimistic. From the perspective of my Office, there are several concerns which may affect relations among and within countries in the region and beyond, and which may contribute to forced population movements in the future.

States in Asia are made up of a rich amalgam of ethnic and minority groups. On occasion, however, minorities have been portrayed as a threat to national security which has led to their exclusion and even expulsion. The multiplicity of ethnic groups seeking autonomy and challenging the central military control is at the heart of the political tension in Myanmar. Although some minority groups may have resided in a country for several generations, they may not be considered habitual residents or citizens, as the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia. The influx of Nepali migrants has prompted the Bhutanese government to enforce a stringent citizenship law and adopt a policy promoting traditional values. In many instances, it may be difficult to establish citizenship. Following a refugee outflow, the country of origin may refuse to take people back, absconding its responsibility toward its own population. Consequently, this may give rise to the problem of de facto statelessness further complicating the already difficult problem of finding a solution.

Another issue of concern relates to internally displaced persons whose plight must be addressed. Governments have viewed this question as falling within the exclusive domain of national sovereignty. The situation of internally displaced persons is often as compelling as that of refugees, or even more so, since many do not benefit from international protection and assistance. Between 25 and 30 million persons are believed to be internally displaced in the world, of which six to seven million are in Asia. For example, in Sri Lanka several hundreds of thousands of people have been in 1995 displaced following renewed heavy fighting in the Jaffna peninsula. Upon request of the General Assembly or the Secretary-General, UNHCR's activities on behalf of internally displaced persons have involved providing life-saving relief, facilitating the evacuation of civilians in life-threatening situations, identifying solutions, and undertaking steps toward reconciliation and rehabilitation through quick impact community-based assistance projects. Given the magnitude of the problem and the fact that internally displaced could quickly spill over into neighbouring countries creating a refugee crisis, the issue must be addressed urgently.

A further issue of concern is migration which is a key policy problem in Asia. Improvements in international travel and communications have made it relative easy to travel from one country or region to another. New Zealand is no longer just a country of resettlement but also one of first asylum. Rising unemployment, population pressures and the uneven distribution of wealth within and among countries in the region will lead to greater migratory pressures. Three out of five countries with the highest population growth are in Asia, namely China, India and Indonesia. Migration has contributed to the economic growth in the region by providing relative cheap labour. It has brought foreign earning and has acted as a safety valve for many of the sending countries. Other countries have sought to restrict immigration and have adopted stringent entry regulations and policies. But their effectiveness may be limited given the porous borders and limited capacity to control them. Moreover, given the absence of national procedures and legislation to grant refugee status in many Asian countries, refugees have been labelled migrants instead.

In addition, the are man other concerns such as the lingering conflict on the Korean peninsula and the growing arms race. Despite the relative regional stability, conflict between and within states resulting in large-scale population flows cannot be excluded. I would like to take this opportunity today to share with you some of my ideas about UNHCR's three-pronged strategy of protection, solutions and prevention for the region in the years to come.

Strengthening the refugee protection regime in Asia is the first priority. While Japan, South Korea, China, Cambodia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand are Convention signatories, the Indian subcontinent and most ASEAN members have not shown inclination to follow suit. Within the context of the CPA, however, states in the region have gained considerable experience in the determination of refugee status. We must build on this experience and undertake efforts to develop domestic legislation and legal structures enhancing the protection of refugees. The principle of asylum, even temporary, should be reaffirmed in the region since refugees on too many occasions are prevented from seeking safety, are detained or forcibly returned. Resettlement should remain an important tool of international protection, even though region-specific needs have decreased following the end of the CPA. New Zealand continues to play an important role by providing annual quotas for refugee resettlement. In particular, I would like to recognize the contributions made by the special programmes for women-at-risk and medical cases. These programmes have created opportunities for numerous persons to start new lives.

Second, the capacity of governments to ensure emergency assistance in cases of massive internal or external displacement must be enhanced. Many lives can be saved by ensuring a prompt and efficient response to humanitarian crises. Following the lessons learned from the 1991 Iraqi crisis, I established several emergency teams within my Office which can be fully operational within 72 hours anywhere in the world. To achieve this, we rely on the support and expertise of governments and NGOs, with some of whom we have signed standby agreements.

Third, greater emphasis must be placed on solving existing refugee problems and preventing new ones from arising. Countries of origin must create the necessary conditions for the safe return of refugees and of internally displaced persons and tackle the causes which force people to flee. This responsibility must be matched, through an integrated approach, by the commitment of the international community to help them solve their problems. As in Cambodia, the problem of forced displacement must be solved within a larger context of peace-making and peace-building in conflict-torn states. The return of refugees and internally displaced persons is vital to achieve national reconciliation, which, in turn, is an important element for reconstruction and development. At the same time, rehabilitation, or the lack thereof, has a direct impact on the chances for repatriation. These are no easy objectives, but essential, if we wish to solve and prevent refugee flows. Fourth, to achieve an integrated strategy based upon protection, solutions and prevention, effective partnerships must be forged among all actors. UNHCR must strengthen its relationship with regional and national partners.

At the national level, UNHCR partnerships have been more with governments. These must be expanded wider to include non-governmental organizations, opinion leaders, parliamentarians, etc. In New Zealand we have developed an excellent working relationship with several agencies, such as Refugee and Migrant Services, the Auckland Refugee Council and Amnesty International. These partners play a crucial role in promoting community awareness of the special needs of particularly vulnerable refugees, such as unaccompanied minors, the elderly and victims of torture. We must make concerted efforts to strengthen emerging non-governmental organizations in other countries as an integral part of a capacity building strategy to deal with forced displacement in the region.

With respect to public opinion, I believe that greater efforts must be made to inform people about the needs and circumstances of refugees. On many occasions, public opinion in favour of humanitarian action has had a major impact on political decisions and the release of funds. The public's attention span, however, is often centered on one or two crises and is of short duration. Refugees are much more than images of despair crying out for charity. Like immigrants, they are agents of change, of cultural cross-fertilization, of development and innovation. Had it not been for the talents and the enterprise of the immigrants and refugees, would New Zealand have achieved its richness today? With your support and your country's leadership we can achieve a lot toward protecting refugees, solving and preventing humanitarian crises from recurring. You can contribute to the stability and solidarity of the region and of the world at large.

Thank you.