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Mandeville Lecture by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Rotterdam, 9 April 2003

Speeches and statements

Mandeville Lecture by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Rotterdam, 9 April 2003

9 April 2003

(Check against delivery)

Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It was the end of April 1962, and it was my last day at the Netherlandse Economische Hogeschool (NEH). I was about to defend my thesis in front of three professors. The main one was Professor Witteveen, who was later to become the Director of the International Monetary Fund. It was a tense moment. I was aware that I was taking a risk by trying to finish my doctorate in only four and a half years. Not everyone was in favour of this.

Just as the session started, a fourth professor unexpectedly joined us. It was Professor Tinbergen. I was surprised, as I was not one of his regular students. He explained that he was joining out of curiosity about this young student who was rushing through his doctorate so fast. I was surprised, flattered, and even more nervous. It was a great honour that he joined in. The judicium was, after all, cum laude.

More than 40 years have gone by since then, and it is already almost eleven years since the Cold War ended. No, it was not a Tinbergen-style converging of economic systems that brought the Soviet system to an end, but rather a humanist choice by Gorbachev, through "glasnost" and "perestroika". President Bush - not George W., but his father - declared at the end of 1989 that we were about to see the beginning of a New World Order, based on the market economy. At first there was cause for great optimism. People like George Soros invested their money in democracies, in line with the great Open Society tradition, and with the continuing process of globalization, goods and capital started moving around the world with greater speed than ever before.

But it has not all been plain sailing. As we consider the events of September 11th, and as we watch the new war unfolding in Iraq, it is clear that the world is still plagued with extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism and hard-line attitudes - not to mention the hypocrisy amongst many of those who use God's name to justify their actions. All these "-isms" undermine the Open Society concept and prevent it from taking hold globally. On the contrary, we are faced with the paradox that globalization sometimes even makes people more inward-looking. While civilization for humanists like Tinbergen was all about convergence, we now hear people like Samuel Huntingdon telling us about the coming clash of civilizations. All of this merits a Mandeville lecture.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today I am addressing you not as an economist, politician, or professor, but as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I thought I would use this opportunity, therefore, to reflect on the progress that has been made over the last half century in protecting the world's refugees.

UNHCR was established five years after the end of the Second World War. Its creation should be understood in the context of the setting up of the United Nations in 1945, and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly in 1948. Underlying both of these was the aspiration that all peoples should have their own democracies, and that all governments should respect human rights.

The United Nations, which is based on the principle of state sovereignty, understood early on that nations also have a responsibility for those who are the victims of violence, persecution and fear. It was this conviction that led to the founding of UNHCR and the drafting of the 1951 Refugee Convention. It was all about providing international protection to refugees - people who do not have a government of their own to protect them.

UNHCR's origins, however, go back to the League of Nations period between the First and the Second World War. Although no universal system of refugee protection was set up during this period, measures were put in place at the international level to address the problem of specific groups of refugees. Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian polar explorer, was appointed by the League in 1921 as the first high commissioner for refugees. His mandate was initially limited to the problem of Russian refugees in Europe, though it was later extended to include other specific groups of refugees.

During the inter-war years, a body of refugee law began to develop. But progress was limited, and the first international convention on refugees, drawn up in 1933, was only ever ratified by eight countries. A new low point was reached in 1938, when 32 nations gathered at Evian, France, to discuss ways of resettling Jews fleeing Nazism. The Evian Conference was an abysmal failure, merely confirming the general lack of willingness of countries around the world to offer a lifeline to the Jews.

In December 1950 UNHCR was established. Like me, the first High Commissioner for Refugees, Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, was Dutch. It is interesting to look back on his time in office. An important point to mention at the start is that van Heuven Goedhart - unlike any of his successors - had himself once been a refugee. He fled the Netherlands in 1944, having been listed by the Nazis as an enemy because of his role as one of the leaders of the Dutch resistance. He went to England, where he became Minister of Justice in the Dutch Government-in-Exile. His own brother was executed by the Germans, as were many of his friends. This experience not surprisingly had a profound affect on him, and explains the passion with which he subsequently devoted himself to the refugee cause.

UNHCR began as a small organization with only a three-year mandate. It was set up to help find solutions for some 400,000 refugees who were still homeless in the aftermath of the Second World War. From the start, the organization was severely under-funded. It started its work with an annual budget of no more than US$ 300,000. As a result, the first High Commissioner was forced to put most of his energy into fundraising.

Over the next few years, van Heuven Goedhart managed to put UNHCR on a much sounder financial footing than when it started, and his achievements on behalf of refugees were acknowledged in 1954, when UNHCR was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. However, he himself remained deeply dissatisfied by the limited resources that were put at his disposal. In all his speeches he stressed that his office had not been set up simply for the administration of misery, but rather to find solutions.

At the end of 1955, there were still over 100,000 refugees in camps, and many of these people still found themselves living in the most appalling conditions. Van Heuven Goedhart described these camps as "black spots on the map of Europe". He said that they should "burn holes in the consciences of all those privileged to live in better conditions".

He died suddenly in 1956, just before the Hungarian refugee crisis, which was to produce another 200,000 refugees. Had he lived, he would have been disappointed to see the slow progress in closing the Second World War refugee camps. In fact, it took another ten years after his death until all of these camps were finally emptied.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have come a long way since then. Over the course of the last fifty years, refugee protection has been globalized. A network of institutions, norms and laws has been developed to deal with refugee problems wherever they manifest themselves. The 1951 Refugee Convention, together with its 1967 Protocol, has in effect become a universal charter of refugee law. UNHCR now works in countries throughout the world and has an annual budget of around one billion dollars - of which some US$ 800 million is for ongoing operations and some US$ 200 million is for new emergencies.

The number of people of concern to my Office now amounts to some 20 million. This includes about 12 million refugees, over 5 million internally displaced people, as well as asylum seekers, stateless persons and other war-affected and vulnerable civilians. All of these are people who are not able to benefit from the protection of their own governments. All of them are products of political failure.

The international political environment today is very different from what it was like when UNHCR started its work, and we find ourselves faced with many new challenges. But some of the obstacles that UNHCR had to deal with in its early days are still being confronted today. A key obstacle remains that of inadequate funding, and insufficient commitment by the international community to finding permanent solutions for refugees.

Millions of refugees in the world today still live in the most degrading conditions of abject poverty. They are often accommodated in remote, economically marginalized and insecure areas, where they are given few opportunities for self-sufficiency. Many of the children do not have access to education, and many of the adults have no employment opportunities. Many of these refugees have been in camps for years and years, and have been all but forgotten by the international community. In Africa alone, there are over three million people in protracted refugee situations, including refugees from Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Burundi, Liberia, Western Sahara, Sierra Leone, Somalia and the Sudan.

These forgotten refugees, like the camps in Europe that remained in existence for up to twenty years after the end of the Second World War, are a scar on the map of the world. They, too, should burn holes in our consciences. For how can we live in a world without crime, and how can we live in a world without terrorism, if we do not find ways to give new hope to those whose lives have been torn apart by violence, conflict, and persecution? We live in a globalized world, and we cannot afford to turn our backs on these people. On the contrary, we have a collective responsibility to address the conditions that lead to despair, and breed hatred and violence.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In my own time as High Commissioner, I have constantly stressed the importance not only of protecting refugee rights and handing out short term relief, but of providing refugees with permanent, sustainable solutions. This is a humanitarian imperative; but it is also an investment in international peace and stability.

Let us look at the example of Afghanistan, where UNHCR has worked for more than 20 years. For much of the past decade, UNHCR struggled to find solutions for millions of Afghans, largely out of sight and out of mind of the rest of the world. At one point in the early 1990s, there were over six million Afghan refugees in neighbouring countries, making them by far the largest refugee population in the world. After many years of conflict and deprivation in Afghanistan, we saw five years of disastrous Taliban rule. At the same time, we saw the international community lose interest, funding for refugee programmes plummet, local economies decline, a prolonged drought settle over the region, and the welcome mat wear thin in neighbouring asylum countries. In desperation, many Afghans left the region in search of a future in other parts of the world. They had made a simple choice. Since they could not find adequate protection, assistance and solutions in the region, they set off to find help elsewhere.

It was not until last year that the international community was finally forced to turn its attention to Afghanistan, and today the country is on the mend. More than two million Afghans, including some 1.8 million refugees, have gone home since the UNHCR-assisted repatriation operation began in March 2002. We are planning to assist some 1.5 million more returnees in 2003, provided that donors come forward with the necessary funding. The challenge now is to ensure the security and effective reintegration of these people. It is vital now that the international community continues to invest in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country, if those who have gone home are to stay, and if more are to follow. It is a worthwhile investment.

The effects of this return operation are being felt in many parts of the world, including Europe. Statistics for 2002 show a sharp plunge in Afghan asylum seekers. In Europe, they were down by 50 percent.

In the case of the war which is now unfolding in Iraq, we in the United Nations deeply regret the fact that the crisis could not be resolved peacefully through diplomacy and the inspections process, as called for by the Secretary-General. I regret also that during the lead-up to the war when there was so much mistrust, members of the Security Council did not look sufficiently into the possibility of backing up the weapons inspectors with a United Nations military presence. This - instead of a war - may have helped to ensure the effective surveillance of all sites known to be used for the production and storage of weapons of mass destruction or related activities. The United Nations should have been at the very centre of any solution. A world without an effective United Nations cannot be a secure world.

I hope that the current war will not lead to another major refugee crisis, as did the 1991 Gulf war. On that occasion, more than two million people fled their homes. Amongst others, this included 1.3 million refugees who fled to Iran and half a million others who fled to the Turkish border. Many more left over the last twelve years, and there are now some 400,000 recognized Iraqi refugees in more than 90 countries around the world. In the last three years alone, more than 100,000 Iraqis have applied for asylum in other countries. Indeed, Iraqis today represent the largest group of asylum seekers in the industrialized world - a sad testimony to the state their country is in.

So far, during the current war in Iraq, there have not been many refugees, but experience has told us that they may still come. If there is a large-scale refugee crisis, we are ready to respond. Our current emergency preparedness level, together with our partners, is for up to 600,000 refugees. At the same time, we have to prepare ourselves for the day when all those Iraqis who fled their country over the last two decades will be able to return to a country at peace, where they are able to live in safety and dignity, and with full respect for their human rights. I only hope that they will not have to wait too long for this day.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A major challenge today is the management of mixed flows of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants. Here in Europe, as in many countries in the industrialized world, we have witnessed growing concerns about uncontrolled immigration. Indeed, this has become a dominant theme during election campaigns. To address this, governments have adopted a range of new measures to control and restrict access to their territory.

These measures, however, have not always had the desired effect. On the contrary, despite the enormous resources devoted to border control measures, the enforcement approach to migration and asylum has not solved the problem of large numbers of migrants entering these countries in an irregular manner. Instead, it has tended to drive both economic migrants and asylum seekers into the hands of human smugglers and traffickers. This has compounded the problems for governments, while at the same time putting the individuals concerned at great risk. These smugglers and traffickers are specialists at misusing asylum systems, and they are part of the reason that asylum systems have been given such a bad name.

To be effective, we need strict and workable policies to help sort the economic migrants from those people who are in need of international protection. One measure sought by EU countries is better policing, especially on their periphery. I see no objection to strengthening Europe's outer borders, provided that arriving refugees still have access to a fair and fast asylum procedure. The last thing any of us want to see is a refugee sent back to persecution, imprisonment, torture or death under a dictatorial regime.

Along with stricter controls, Europe needs legal channels of entry, including refugee resettlement schemes. Currently, only illegal channels exist for economic migrants. What is needed is a system which is controlled by governments under a set of EU-wide immigration policies. This makes sense in a lot of ways. With its ageing population, Europe's labour needs are growing. Managed migration is a logical way to help satisfy those needs, while providing a safe and legal channel that can help break the grip of smuggling networks. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that the lack of legal channels has the perverse effect of encouraging human smuggling.

In the case of the asylum channel, there are already complex national systems, but they are in need of harmonization. The current EU harmonization process, if well carried out, would solve a lot of our problems. With harmonized reception standards, procedures and definitions across Europe, many of the reasons for people to keep shifting from one country to the next in search of better treatment would be removed.

We need to find more effective ways of ensuring that people in need of international protection find it, people who wish to migrate have appropriate opportunities to do so, and abusive manipulation of entry possibilities is curtailed. There is also a need for increased efforts to assist both immigrants and refugees to integrate into their new societies, and to become citizens who are proud of their new countries. Asylum procedures should also be made faster and fairer, and better mechanisms should be put in place to return those asylum seekers who are found not to be in need of international protection.

More also needs to be done to provide solutions for refugees in their regions of origin, and to build up the reception, protection and integration capacities of countries of first asylum. These countries often face serious financial, political and security problems associated with the presence of large refugee populations. More support to these countries will help to avoid the need for further irregular movements, and the phenomenon known as "asylum shopping". All of this requires resources: resources that - thus far - countries in the industrialized world, including Europe, have not been prepared to make available at the necessary levels.

The UNHCR-led Global Consultations on International Protection, which ended last year, provided a forum for constructive discussion of these issues and dilemmas. I hope that they will lead to an improved system of global governance of refugees. The "Agenda for Protection" that resulted from this process makes wide ranging recommendations as to how they may best be tackled. Two of the main themes of the Agenda are the need for durable solutions for refugees and the need for improved burden sharing. I have given the ideas contained in the Agenda further shape by launching a new initiative which I call "Convention Plus". This involves building on the framework established by the 1951 Refugee Convention by drawing up new special agreements with and between States. These agreements will help to more effectively address the specific challenges that we face today.

International migration can no longer be addressed solely from the limited perspective of national sovereignty. A multilateral approach is required, which addresses migration and forced displacement in a concerted, comprehensive and forward-looking manner.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Refugee problems in countries in the industrialized world cannot be addressed solely by a readjustment of their own asylum systems. It is in refugees' regions of origin that real solutions and the proper governance of refugees begins. Here UNHCR plays an important role. With over 5,000 staff in 120 countries across the world, we have a wealth of experience to draw on. If UNHCR's fieldwork gets the support it needs, there is no doubt that we will see fewer people on the move. Without it, desperate people will continue to take desperate measures, including resorting to human smugglers to get to where they want to go.

Unfortunately, governments often fail to recognize the important role that UNHCR can play in helping them to address refugee issues. As a former Prime Minister, I know that taxpayers want rational, cost-effective programmes. So I really wonder how governments can justify spending millions on reinforcing borders, on all kinds of deterrence measures, on custody and detention centres, and on so many other costly domestic approaches, while refusing to invest in tackling the problem at source, where solutions should begin. It seems quite irrational. UNHCR is working with refugees and the internally displaced in their regions of origin. Governments should see it in their interests to fund us, strengthen us and use us. Helping refugees in their regions of origin - through UNHCR - is a lot cheaper than it is to help them only when they get here. I may be biased, but I think every European taxpayer should insist on a well-funded UNHCR, because we can offer real solutions. These solutions include enabling people to go home, or at least to stay as close to home as possible.

The truth, however, is that UNHCR is not getting the support that it needs. Instead, governments are increasingly focusing on bilateral aid and support to their own NGOs, which can be effective but which operate on a far smaller scale. If more resources were being channelled through multilateral organizations like UNHCR - which has a global mandate given to it by governments - the problems being faced by countries in the industrialized world today, including the Netherlands, might well be on a much smaller scale.

UNHCR is not simply a charity. With so much talk today about security concerns and terrorism, there is even more reason for us to invest in finding permanent solutions for refugees, for desperation can easily breed extremism. Solutions include both sustainable repatriation to countries of origin, and "assimilation in new national communities", to use the words of UNHCR's Statute - in other words, local integration in first countries of asylum or organized resettlement to third countries. If development assistance were used more effectively to assist in providing solutions for refugees in regions of origin, this would also help to reduce the number of people moving on to countries further afield. All of this would help to create a more secure world.

UNHCR has a global mandate, given to it by governments, to assist and protect the world's refugees, and to search for durable solutions to their plight. It must be supported and adequately funded, so that it can do its work, in the interests of refugees, in the interests of governments, and in the interests of international peace and stability. If not, to repeat the words of the first High Commissioner for Refugees, Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, it risks being reduced to a largely irrelevant humanitarian organization which simply administers human misery.

Thank you.