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Helping Refugees to Reintegrate: the Challenges of Rehabilitation | Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Speeches and statements

Helping Refugees to Reintegrate: the Challenges of Rehabilitation | Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

4 April 1995
14th Workshop on Management of Field Coordination for Senior United Nations System Representatives, Turin.

Dear Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to be with you today. This is my first visit to the International Training Centre of the ILO in Turin.

I would like to congratulate both the organizers and the hosts of the Coordination Workshop. The facilities and the programme are indeed impressive. I believe enhancing coordination at the field level, through training initiatives of this kind, is important. Coordination at the field level is a basic requirement for a comprehensive and integrated system-wide approach to the unprecedented demands that face the United Nations today.

UNHCR would like to contribute to this process by developing a training programme on refugee and related humanitarian issues. I hope the programme can become an institutional feature of UN training activities and benefit all interested UN staff.

Overview of UNHCR activities

The complexity and magnitude of the problems confronting the United Nations in the post-Cold War era have served to underline the urgent need for increased cooperation and coordination both within and beyond the UN system. In no area is the challenge more apparent than in post-conflict rehabilitation. This is the issue on which I would like to focus today, particularly in terms of the implications for the repatriation of refugees.

Forty three years ago, when UNHCR was founded, there was a global total of 1.2 million refugees living in a handful of countries. By the end of the 1980s, when the Cold War came to a close, the world's refugee population was approximately 14 million. They were mainly located in Africa, Asia and Central America.

Today, UNHCR protects and assists some 23 million people in more than 140 countries across the globe. This figure includes over 16 million refugees, of whom nearly half are in Africa, as well as 3 million internally displaced persons and 3 million other victims of war and returnees. The scale and geographical spread of humanitarian crises has reached proportions with few parallels in modern history.

Since April 1994, the United Nations system is grappling with one of the worst humanitarian disasters in Africa: the aftermath of war and genocide in Rwanda. At least half a million victims were savagely murdered, over two million people, or a quarter of the pre-war population, were compelled to flee and hundreds of thousands of others are displaced within Rwanda. In the past twelve months new humanitarian crises have also erupted in West Africa, a region with close to one million refugees, and in the Caucasus where some 400,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in Chechnya. Meanwhile the crises in Afghanistan, Somalia, Liberia and former Yugoslavia still elude solutions.

In the last five years, the nature, number and magnitude of humanitarian crises have changed significantly. With the end of the Cold War, new power struggles have emerged, exploiting ethnic, religious and social differences. Age old conflicts have been unleashed and new hatreds fostered, in a way in which the distinction between combatants and civilians cannot be drawn easily. An abundance of modern weaponry - the legacy of the Cold War era - has allowed conflicts to be pursued with unspeakable savagery and total disrespect for the most basic principles of international humanitarian law.

Repatriation in the Post-Cold War era

UNHCR's mandate includes not only protecting and assisting refugees produced by war and gross violations of human rights, but also "seeking permanent solutions for the problems of refugees". Although the number of refugees and displaced persons has increased dramatically since the end of the Cold War, the changed international climate has improved prospects for solution. With the easing of East-West tensions, several regional conflicts have been resolved, making it possible for illions of refugees to go home, for instance in Indochina, Central America and southern Africa. The return and reintegration of refugees have been essential in bringing about national reconciliation and peace in their home countries. Voluntary repatriation is a basic prerequisite of successful post-conflict rehabilitation.

In recent years, however, it has also become increasingly apparent that the shift from war to peace is neither easy nor clear. Open conflict is replaced often by lingering insecurity and outbursts of renewed violence - endangering prospects for both repatriation and rehabilitation.

Repatriation movements in the Post-Cold war era can be divided into two basic categories according to the circumstances in the country of origin. Under the first category, a peace agreement has been reached under international auspices, incorporating measures foreseen for the return of refugees and displaced persons. A process of national reconciliation, even if fragile, is underway. Major repatriation programmes of this type have occurred in Central America, El Salvador, Namibia, Cambodia and Mozambique. I hope that developments in the coming months will allow us to initiate similar voluntary repatriation activities for the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Western Sahara and Angola.

Under the second category of repatriation movements, despite some fundamental changes, there is no functioning peace agreement nor a process of national reconciliation in the country of origin. Significant areas of the country may still be experiencing conflict. The power of the central Government may not be fully consolidated, as in Rwanda, or limited to certain parts of the territory only, as in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Liberia. Warlords and local commanders may be vying for power. Refugees continue to return under these less than ideal conditions. UNHCR has assisted in the voluntary repatriation of some 2.6 million refugees to Afghanistan, some 400,000 refugees to Somalia and over half a million refugees to Rwanda.

In both cases, to a varying degree, protracted conflict has destroyed political and administrative structures. Social cohesion has been undermined and society is militarized, divided and frequently traumatized. These are circumstances with which many of you are familiar.

The question concealed in the term "post conflict rehabilitation" is how can we meaningfully combine our efforts in such circumstances, to shore up peace and to ensure that return of refugees, rehabilitation and development occur in such a manner as to prevent renewed conflict.

Reintegration of returnees

One important facet of post-conflict rehabilitation is reintegration of returning refugees. Under UNHCR's traditional approach to repatriation, once it was decided that it was safe to return, returnees were transported back to their places of origin and given a month or two of food rations and a cooking kit. This, it was felt, was all UNHCR could do within its mandate. From thereon other development-oriented agencies were expected to take over.

It has become increasingly clear that for repatriation to be successful, reintegration efforts must become part of broader system-wide post-conflict rehabilitation programmes in the country concerned. One aspect of this is to ensure that the immediate reintegration needs are not left unaddressed until development can occur. Another aspect is to ensure that the reintegration of returnees also takes into account the needs of the community which is expected to absorb them.

A novel approach to repatriation and reintegration was pioneered by UNHCR in Central America with the CIREFCA process. The return of refugees was integrated in the regional peace process. UNHCR, in close cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other agencies, designed and implemented so-called Quick Impact Projects (QIPs). These are intended to bring rapid and tangible benefits to local communities and returnees alike, and enhance reintegration by benefitting both groups. The projects are small and include interventions such as building community health centres or schools, rehabilitating or digging wells, and repairing access roads and small bridges. Last year, as the CIREFCA operation shifted from the reintegration to the development phase, UNHCR handed over full responsibility for its management to UNDP.

In partnership with WFP, UNDP, UNICEF, WHO and UNESCO, UNHCR has pursued variations of the CIREFCA model in Cambodia and more recently in Mozambique. We have also undertaken QIPs in circumstances where there is significant return of refugees, but no comprehensive peace is yet possible, such as in Afghanistan and Somalia.

While QIPs can contribute to bridging the gap between immediate reintegration needs and longer-term development, their sustainability depends on their integration with broader rehabilitation efforts. Where there is no rehabilitation effort nor partners to carry the process forward, the impact of QIPs is limited. The synchronization of our programmes with other rehabilitation efforts is thus crucial to enhance reintegration, to provide opportunities for self-sufficiency and to give returnees and local populations faith in the future and in peace.

The contribution that UNHCR, as a humanitarian agency, can make through its reintegration projects to rehabilitation is limited and dependant on the presence and activities of development programmes. This in turn, often appears to be dependant on the existence of a functioning, comprehensive peace agreement and fully established central Government. But the needs of refugees and local communities are not determined by the level of security prevailing. In fact, quite to the contrary. Ironically, it is in just those situations of insecurity and fragility in which international assistance is most needed, that it is least forthcoming.

Even in those situations where the need for rehabilitation efforts is universally recognized, the planning, programme and funding cycles, which characterize development and reconstruction programmes, are not geared towards the kind of rapid progress which the returnee and local communities require.

It is telling that nearly three months after the 17/18 January Round Table on Rwanda was held in Geneva, only a small portion of the generous pledges made to assist in rehabilitation are available. The response to the first humanitarian appeal has been speedier.

Components of post-conflict rehabilitation

Possibly more than any other crisis, the situation in Rwanda highlights that activities for the reintegration of returnees are only a small, if important, part of the sum of post-conflict rehabilitation needs. The future welfare of returnees and the peace of the country may well depend on how other needs are met.

Post-conflict rehabilitation embraces humanitarian and emergency relief, demilitarization, including demobilization and demining, political, social and economic reconstruction. All these components are interlinked and interdependent. The way one is addressed will inevitably affect the others. They need to be addressed comprehensively, concurrently and with the same sense of urgency.

The variety of tasks that may fall under these headings is illustrated by some of the priority needs identified in Rwanda. These included: assistance in meeting World Bank arrears, the swift deployment of human rights monitors, the establishment of an International Tribunal, emergency assistance for internally displaced and returning refugees, the fostering of democratic institutions including the establishment of a judicial system and of a new police force, basic assistance to establish local administrations, the rehabilitation of the electricity grid, the provision of seed and agricultural implements, the resolution of land tenure issues related to returnees and assistance in paying the salaries of the armed forces....

The need to reestablish from scratch the administrative and economic sections of the civil service, to almost recreate a viable and credible judicial system and most critically to provide salaries to the armed forces, turned out to be as pressing as any physical reconstruction or development needs. Likewise, resolving land tenure issues and inspiring confidence and reconciliation at a local level through international human rights monitors were as urgent as the restoration of the electricity grid.

By Security Council resolution 965, UNAMIR's mandate was extended to include assistance in the establishment and training of a new, integrated police force. In Haiti, the transformation of the armed forces and the training of the police were identified as major priorities and were included under the mandate of UNIMIH in Security Council resolution 940. The United Nations has called for similar projects in El Salvador, Somalia and Mozambique.

Often however, in post-conflict situations some politically delicate or unaccustomed tasks, even if essential to the rehabilitation of the country, remain uncovered or only partially addressed by the United Nations system. UN efforts, through its Departments, Funds, Programmes and Specialized Agencies will address, in accordance with their respective mandates, sectoral needs or those of specific target groups. Many of the priority needs fall between the gaps. They can not be found in the traditional blueprints for either humanitarian emergency assistance or development assistance. Rehabilitation of the judicial system and of basic administrative infrastructure, although recognized by all as a priority in Rwanda, did not fit neatly within the mandate of any agency.

In the face of the magnitude and diversity of the needs in a country, like Rwanda, which has all but disintegrated, our individual mandates and working procedures often prove woefully inadequate.

The concept of the relief to development continuum only partially addresses this problem. I believe that the concept of the continuum will have to be reviewed in the context of the rehabilitation of post-conflict situations that the UN agencies face today. There may be no universal model for post-conflict rehabilitation. The particular needs and priorities will vary greatly from one situation to the next. The needs of Haiti can hardly be compared to those of Somalia, which in turn differ from those of Angola. A comprehensive evaluation of needs and their prioritization for post-conflict rehabilitation have to be undertaken in the field by all involved agencies. Meetings in New York or Geneva serve little purpose to this end.

Approaches to post-conflict rehabilitation

I believe a new approach to post-conflict rehabilitation entails several aspects:

First and foremost, a fundamental reexamination of current planning assumptions, methods and funding procedures is necessary. Yesterday's tools are not suitable for today's problems. They need to be readjusted to the new realities of war-torn societies, in which central state power appears to be in decline, and programmes must be implemented in uncertain and insecure conditions. They must take account of the diverse, yet urgent requirements of the various sectors of population, those who have moved as well as those who have remained at home, of refugees as well as returnees, the displaced as well as the demobilized.

Secondly, it is in this context of variable conditions and varied needs that complementarity and coordination should be promoted. The objective should be to fill the gaps but avoid overlaps, taking into account the differing competence and expertise required for emergency response and rehabilitation, humanitarian action and development. The planning process should take account of the totality of a country's needs and establish a coherent, global hierarchy of priorities. In the absence of such a blueprint, the impact of individual parts of the system is likely to remain limited, and some investments may even be lost or prove futile.

The establishment of clear priorities is particularly important to attract scarce resources. The presentation of what have been termed "agency shopping lists", with little or no indication of which demands are the most pressing, tends to undermine donor credibility in the system.

A third ingredient is the need for flexibility. In responding to the priorities which do not fall clearly within the mandates and capacities of agencies, pragmatism is important. A few weeks ago UNAMIR undertook the distribution of test papers across Rwanda for all primary and secondary school students, a function which the Security Council had obviously not foreseen in its mandate. In the face of pressing needs, the question of what we can do with the resources we have at hand should take precedence over the question of what we should do within a narrow interpretation of our respective mandates and procedures.

A fourth crucial ingredient is partnership. Forging new partnerships is important to meet those needs which go beyond the mandates and capacities of the system. Where we cannot meet the priority needs identified, it is important that we seek out and work with those agencies who can. Non-governmental organizations, bilateral donors and the Bretton Woods institutions are key partners in this respect.

UNHCR has a long history of partnership with NGOs. Currently we have formal agreements with some 250 NGOs. Two years ago, UNHCR embarked on a process of discussion with NGOs, called Partnership in Action or PARinAC, to redefine and strengthen this partnership. The commitment, speed, flexibility and community-based approach which is the particular strength of NGOs, makes them ideal partners in meeting the variety of needs that are characteristic of post-conflict situations. It is also noteworthy that increasingly more funds are being channelled by donors through NGOs.


The end of armed conflict rarely entails the immediate resolution of the divisions that led to the conflict. Post-conflict rehabilitation helps to heal the wounds of a divided society. It is in essence what the Secretary-General in "An Agenda for Peace" has termed peace building. It should be predicated on what the Secretary-General, in the same document, referred to as "an integrated approach to human security." It is a major undertaking. We should have no delusions that even with our combined efforts, the role the UN system can play in countering years or decades of war and destruction is always going to be minimal. The ultimate responsibility lies with the peoples of the country concerned. Our efforts must build on their will for reconciliation and help to nurture their strength for rehabilitation. We must aim to create the "enabling environment", which encourages individual, local and national efforts.

Today, the challenges facing the international community in post-conflict rehabilitation are greater than at any other time since the end of World War II. Rehabilitation efforts after World War II were inspired by the objective of ensuring that former enemy states became viable and valuable strategic and economic partners. The countries concerned, although destroyed, were rich in human resources and expertise. Capital was abundantly available. Now it is frequently the most impoverished states that are in need of rehabilitation. There is no comparable strategic or economic interest and capital is no longer abundant. The role that was once spearheaded by the major powers now falls to the United Nations system and other multilateral bodies.

The grim reality that confronts us on the ground makes the prospect of peace and rehabilitation often seem very remote. However, in my visits to the field I am often struck by how, in the worst situations, on the fringes of raging conflict, individual refugees or displaced persons who yesterday were left with nothing, today recreate their lives bit by bit. These encounters, which I am sure many of you have had, should serve as our guide and inspiration.

Thank you.