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"Challenges of Refugee Protection" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the University of Havana, Cuba, 11 May 2000

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"Challenges of Refugee Protection" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the University of Havana, Cuba, 11 May 2000

11 May 2000
War and refugeesGlobalisation and refugeesThe way forwardCuba's commitment to the refugee cause

Distinguished Rector,
Dear Students,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased and honoured to be with you today. It is a great privilege to be at the University of Havana - the second oldest institution of higher learning established in Latin America - where many prominent Cubans and other Latin American professionals and intellectuals (some of them refugees), have been educated.

Let me also add that this is my first visit to Havana, and the first visit of a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I am happy to have this opportunity because Cuba has a very important tradition of giving asylum and protection to refugees from many parts of the world. The relationship between your country and my Office has grown over the years. I hope that my visit will contribute to making it closer, and will strengthen Cuba's commitment to protect refugees, and to help find solutions to their plight.

If you listen - as we do - to the stories told by refugees, you will know that they reflect, dramatically, our own current history. Unfortunately, refugee crises are often the main subject of prime time TV news. This is why I would like to address the "challenges of refugee protection" from a broader perspective, and look at them from the standpoint of two crucial phenomena in today's world - conflict, and globalisation.

War and refugees

Our work - the work of UNHCR - is essentially about people: our core mission is to protect refugees, and find solutions to their problems. The complex moral and legal framework developed after the Second World War forms the basis of humanitarian and refugee protection work in its modern sense. The body of international law developed half a century ago to protect what, with a contemporary term, we could call "human security", was a wise combination of universal values and operational tools. This has allowed us - the humanitarian agencies of the United Nations, the Red Cross movement, the NGOs - to work effectively on behalf of people. It has allowed us to try to ensure the protection of the lives and rights of the disadvantaged in times of peace and in times of war.

Refugee movements are indicative of a world in turmoil - rife with humanitarian crises. Indeed, the first High Commissioner for Refugees was appointed more than seventy years ago by the League of Nations at a time when Europe was still reeling from the destruction of the First World War, the disintegration of empires and the effects of the Russian revolution. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations was confronted with a similar tragedy of uprootedness and exile in a Europe divided by the iron curtain. This led to the creation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1951. During those years, most refugees were fleeing persecution on an individual basis. The task of developing adequate legal structures for the protection and integration of refugees in countries of asylum was relatively easy.

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

The situation worsened dramatically in the following two decades. Wars in Mozambique, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Angola, Indochina, and Afghanistan, produced displacement on an unprecedented scale. The refugee population which was around eight million at the end of the 1970s had reached 17 million by 1991. Most of the refugees were not fleeing political persecution as much as violence, conflict and insecurity, fuelled by political repression, poverty, recurrent famine and environmental degradation. The international community, with little scope for pursuing either repatriation or integration of refugees, at best provided humanitarian assistance to meet basic needs.

Latin America was also gravely affected by refugee crises during those years. Thousands of refugees fled the persecution of military regimes throughout the continent, and many were received by Cuba. Conflict and the violent repression of some social and ethnic groups engulfed most of Central America, causing massive population displacement in this region. Thousands of Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, Salvadoreans and Haitians - just to mention the largest groups - fled for safety to neighbouring countries, or further afield. UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies were involved in difficult refugee operations, in a complex political environment, and often in dangerous situations. The generous contribution given by Cuba in providing asylum to refugees, especially from Haiti, in spite of its limited resources, should not be forgotten.

There were some hopes, in the early 90s, that international tensions would ease, thus reducing the catastrophic consequences of conflicts on so many people's lives. The reality was different. As if a lid had been taken off the simmering tensions of the previous decades, countless internal conflicts, confused and violent, erupted in many parts of the world, causing huge forced population movements - from the Kurdish exodus in Northern Iraq to the displacement of millions of civilians in the former Yugoslavia to many refugee crises in Africa. True, these situations may have been exceptional. However, they indicated in a dramatic manner that humanitarian action alone could not resolve fundamental social, economic and political problems. The crux of the matter is that conflict resolution mechanisms are eminently political processes, and that the humanitarian response is meant to cure the symptoms of conflicts, but cannot alone remove their root causes.

To prove this point, let me turn to some more positive examples - to large refugee crises which in those same years were addressed in the context of broad, comprehensive and often regional conflict resolution mechanisms, and were thus resolved: think of Mozambique, for example, where 1.7 million refugees returned in the early 90s; or of the plight of the Vietnamese refugees, which was addressed and resolved through a regional mechanism engaging all concerned states.

Latin America, which - as I said - had been the theatre of grave refugee crises in the 80s, became the region where some of the boldest and most comprehensive solutions to refugee problems were implemented - inevitably, this was linked to positive developments in the political field. The progress of democracy and of the rule of law in South America prompted most refugees to return to their countries; and in Central America, through the CIREFCA mechanism - combining humanitarian and developmental aspects, and closely linked to peace processes in the various countries - most refugee situations were resolved. Last year, I had the privilege of participating with the Presidents of Guatemala and Mexico in the closure of the Guatemalan repatriation programme - which put an end, through a variety of solutions, to one of the gravest refugee situations in this region.

We could say that two trends have thus emerged - depending on the commitment of the international community (or lack thereof) to address and resolve conflicts. I hope that in due course, from the turmoil of this transition period, a new balance of forces will arise, resulting in renewed stability and in the establishment of effective conflict resolution mechanisms. In the meantime, I regret to say that we must be realistic, and prepare ourselves for several years of continuous instability. More civilians may be targeted by warring parties. There may be more refugee outflows. After half a century spent on the frontlines, humanitarian agencies will continue to need the indispensable reference provided by international humanitarian law and the international refugee protection regime.

Refugee movements have acquired new dimensions. This is because refugees - and, in general, all those affected by fighting, have moved from the periphery to the centre stage of wars. Forced human displacement is without any doubt one of the factors complicating the outcome of conflicts and the stability of peace. Forcing people to abandon their homes has become one of the objectives of war, with a view to re-engineering the ethnic composition of entire areas, and thus serving long-term political objectives even after conflicts have ended. Internal displacement - as opposed to movements of refugees across borders - is a growing phenomenon: in this region, the case of Colombia, where 800,000 people are currently internally displaced, shows how the complexity of contemporary conflicts is reflected in the increasingly complicated patterns of forced population movements.

Globalisation and refugees

Dear Students, Faculty Members, and Ladies and Gentlemen,

Wars - and their changing nature - are one key factor causing forced population movements. And contemporary wars very often signal the resilience or resurgence of very specific and particular interests - as the Balkans have proved, they represent the struggle of "localised" forces in an increasingly global context. But we should look at the challenges of refugee protection from the opposite angle as well - from the perspective of a phenomenon that more than any other one, today, affects people's lives: I am talking of globalisation. The United Nations Secretary-General, during his recent visit to Havana, spoke very eloquently about globalisation from a broad perspective - I will do so from the viewpoint of the UN refugee agency.

The process of globalisation is first and foremost rich in opportunities. Think of the unprecedented access to reliable news which technology has provided to millions of people previously depending on very limited information. Think of the enormous power of global communications in giving visibility to situations of poverty, violence and persecution, of which the world would have otherwise remained unaware. My Office deals with refugees - a global problem indeed - and its mandate rests on international refugee law - a global "protection" regime: I believe, therefore, that the many positive aspects of globalisation can be of great benefit to our work, and to the life and welfare of those whom we protect and assist.

But there are less positive impacts of recent globalising trends, especially on the most vulnerable strata of society. As we all know, the free circulation of goods and capital has created wealth, opportunities for work, and a better life for many. However, the rapid movement of investment capital in and out of certain regions, depending on the possibilities for quick profit, have certainly contributed, together with other factors, to some of the worst financial crises of the last decade. Social destabilisation frequently leads to political crises, and, especially in developing countries, to the further impoverishment of the poor strata of society, or to the exclusion of minorities or marginal groups. This in turn may cause population movements.

As I said, a large number of people have benefited from globalisation. On the other hand, the range and influence of economic interests that mobilise capital, and are mobilised by it, are so huge and widespread, that the ability of states to control them is seriously beginning to decline. The consequence is that states have less power not only to direct the flows of capital and goods, but also to protect the weakest members of society. Social safety nets break down when people are most exposed to job shortages or job losses. This causes real hardship as well as widespread anxiety and frustration.

Globalisation thus often gives rise to a strong sense of insecurity, which - undefined and vague as it may be - can have very negative consequences, in particular with the increase in the number of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Scholars speak of societies undergoing "identity crises". In this situation, people's fears of being threatened can easily be turned into hostile feelings towards "intruders": not foreign capitals, which are perceived as an abstract, invisible entity, but more immediate targets - foreign workers, immigrants and refugees. I believe that xenophobia, the "fear of foreigners", is one of the most dangerous trends in modern society, and one that has to be countered by governments and civil society most vigorously. And this is not only true in industrialised countries - the same symptoms can be observed in developing areas that are now receiving immigrant workers, such as Southern Africa, or South and Southeast Asia.

In the situation which I have described, people compelled to move by poverty or by conflict and persecution - in short, migrants and refugees - are therefore particularly vulnerable. They are trapped, so to speak, between opposite trends - the contrast between the openness and opportunities of globalisation, and the lack of adequate social safety nets; and the sense of insecurity produced by the xenophobic, nationalistic sentiments fuelled by globalisation itself.

A good example of the contradictions of globalisation is provided by how international borders are used with respect to refugees. The very concept of refugee hinges on the notion of a recognised international border, which marks the limit of state sovereignty - states keep out those threatening their security, but allow into the country, to be protected, refugees - whose own state cannot or does not want to protect any more. On the one hand, however, globalising forces are making borders somehow less relevant; on the other, reactive, localised forces tend to identify all those seeking entry as potential threats, and thus demand that border controls be reinforced, excluding them. People compelled to move, people in flight, although mobile by definition, are thus among those actually excluded from the freedom and benefits of borderless globalisation.

Confronted with an upsurge of people knocking at their doors, whom they have less capacity to absorb than in the past, and intimidated by xenophobic calls, governments build barriers to keep people out. The focus has shifted from the protection of refugees to the control of all those seeking entry, refugees and migrants. To overcome these obstacles, many migrants declare themselves refugees. So, are these people refugees or migrants? Does this distinction mean anything any more?

I think it is very relevant, and it matters very much. Each category of "people on the move" has its needs and requires not only humane treatment but also specific solutions to their problems, and specific legal framework for their rights. Refugees need international protection. Migrants need their labour and social rights to be recognised and respected.

The way forward

Ladies and Gentlemen,

You may therefore ask what is to be done: how can refugees be protected, in a context of growing conflicts - in which they are often the very target of war - and of woefully inadequate conflict resolution mechanisms? How can they be protected, in the narrow opening between powerful transnational forces, and equally strong localised trends? What is the response of the United Nations refugee agency to these seemingly intractable situations? There are no ready answers to these difficult questions, but I can perhaps indicate directions in which to move.

The priority is to address the root causes of large population movements. The issue is of course very complex. Let me just highlight that in addressing the problems of countries producing refugee (and migratory) flows, the international community must adopt a much more comprehensive approach, combining efforts to solve conflicts, with broad reconstruction programmes encompassing urgent humanitarian needs, as well as social and economic reconstruction.

People, however, will continue to move, and also continue to be compelled to move. As we strive to address the causes of flight, we must therefore also keep improving the management of refugee flows, adapting it to new situations, but safeguarding basic principles upon which it has been designed - chiefly the rights to asylum and not to be returned. Much has been achieved to improve the speed, volume and techniques of material assistance in case of mass influxes. Much less progress, however, has been made in determining who deserves international protection, and who does not, among those crossing borders in very large numbers.

It is inevitable that the weaknesses of the global system will continue to exist, and perhaps even worsen, as globalisation expands further, eroding the ability of states to provide social and economic protection to people - and this, very often, against a background of violence and conflict. Whatever the progress of the global economy in the next few decades, the so-called "digital divide" is bound to widen, and there will be a growing number of people who will not benefit and will fall between the cracks of the system. People that I have defined "on the move", refugees and migrants, will be among the losers.

Solidarity must be as ambitious and widespread as the scope and range of the global economy. To fill the cracks of globalisation, we must promote what I like to call global solidarity. It is of foremost importance that we convince political leaders worldwide to integrate global solidarity into the system of values on which their action is based. It may sound abstract, and you may also ask why it is necessary. I have two answers. First, because it responds to the compelling moral imperative of sharing with those who are less fortunate. Second, because the larger the number of people living a relatively secure life, the more secure everybody will be: global solidarity contributes to overall human security. The efforts made by Cuba to maintain adequate public services in the key areas of education and health - and, I should add, to provide protection to refugees - are, in this sense, exemplary. I look forward to the opportunity to see this first hand later today at the Latin American School of Medicine.

Cuba's commitment to the refugee cause

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Later this year, UNHCR will observe its 50th anniversary. We do not plan to hold large celebrations, but we would like to take that opportunity to insist on the importance of maintaining and strengthening the international refugee protection regime. People fleeing persecution and war will continue to seek protection away from their homes - and we shall have to stand by them. To underline this issue, in 1998 I have launched a campaign for the universal accession of all states to the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, and to its 1967 Protocol. I hope governments - including the government of Cuba - will respond favourably to this campaign.

Cuba has been an important part of the process of providing protection and finding durable solutions for refugees from South and Central America - a region once plagued by forced population movements, which has subsequently provided some of the most far-sighted examples of how to address and resolve refugee problems. Now Cuba is doing the same for refugees coming from other continents - I would like to acknowledge and praise its openness and generosity. I am particularly impressed by the opportunities provided to refugees to have access to public services, including support for those needing social care because of the severe physical scars left by war.

Given this context, I hope that Cuba will formalize the favourable treatment it affords to refugees by acceding to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees. The system established by these international treaties would be greatly strengthened by the full participation of Cuba - the last major country in the Americas not to have acceded to these treaties. I have been informed that the government is seriously considering this possibility. Cuba's accession would be a milestone in the history of refugee protection in this region and in the world - and it would be a significant example to other countries that have not yet acceded to these key instruments of refugee protection.

On the occasion of our 50th anniversary, we do not want to pay tribute to UNHCR, but to the refugees. By allowing so many of them to stay in their country, Cubans have given the world a powerful message of solidarity and understanding. There will be no better way to honour their generosity than to announce that Cuba has matched it with a formal commitment to the internationally recognised and shared principles of refugee protection.

I thank you for this opportunity to address you today.