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Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the Programme of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, thirtieth session, Geneva, 8 October 1979

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the Programme of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, thirtieth session, Geneva, 8 October 1979

8 October 1979

Mr. Chairman, on behalf of all my colleagues and myself, I would like to congratulate you most warmly on your election as Chairman of this session of the Executive Committee. I look forward to co-operating closely with you and am sure that, under your guidance, this will be a most constructive and interesting session. My congratulations also go to our distinguished Vice-President and Rapporteur.

May I also extend my deep appreciation to the outgoing office bearers - Ambassador Jay, Chairman, whose guidance has been so precious to the deliberations of this Committee and Mr. Mohammed and Mr. Griffin, who so ably served as Vice-President and Rapporteur.

Allow me, Mr. Chairman, to join you in welcoming the distinguished delegates of the nine new member countries, and to assure them in advance of the great value I attach to the contribution which they will undoubtedly make to the humanitarian tasks in which we are all involved.

In today's world, refugees and displaced persons occupy a prominent place. Even though considerable efforts have been mobilized to assist them, indeed often with success, their numbers are increasing, their tragedies burst upon the everyday scene and their sufferings reach new dimensions. However, though I am bound to voice a certain anxiety at the outset of this session of the Executive Committee, it is certainly not my wish to set a pessimistic tone for our discussions, but rather to stress their full importance. From time to time my colleagues and I have to step back from our daily tasks, review our past and current activities, and determine our policy and objectives for the long term. The role of the Executive Committee is fundamental in this respect. Its experience and capacity to apprehend the problems in all their complexity, and its aptitude in assisting my Office to look for ways to solve them, need no further demonstration.

To relieve human suffering, to find truly lasting and appropriate solutions for the problems of refugees, we would all like to take short cuts. Experience shows that this is rarely possible, but at least the tireless search for solutions, in a world persistently threatened and unstable, sometimes reaches a stage where skills, energy and resources come together to lift the humanitarian cause a great step forward. I should like to dwell for a moment on two of these important stages.

First, the Conference on the Situation of Refugees in Africa, held at Arusha in the United Republic of Tanzania, from 7 to 17 May last, under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity, the Economic Commission for Africa and my Office.

The Conference was of very great significance, as regards both the deliberations and the practical conclusions. I shall not summarize the contents of the far-reaching report that was submitted to and adopted by the OAU Council of Ministers, during their meeting at Monrovia from 6 to 15 July, and part of which has been distributed as an information document at this session of the Executive Committee. I should like, however, to underline a few particularly significant points.

In his introductory statement, His Excellency President Nyerere recalled that refugees in Africa, whether they be victims of racism, colonialism or social change, reflect a great diversity from all points of view and do not relinquish their individual attitudes or aspirations. He went on to say, and I quote: "All refugees are individuals with a right to life in Africa". He outlined the major principles and difficulties of the task, both in protection and assistance, stressed the right to asylum and non-refoulement, pointed out the setbacks experienced, and concluded: "I do not believe that dealing with the problems of 3.5 million people, and giving them a chance to rebuild their dignity and their lives, is an impossible task for 46 nations and their 350 Billion inhabitants". This statement was a great source of inspiration throughout the Conference, and still is for us all.

Receiving nations have their own problems to face and it is only after a certain period that refugees can stand on their own and contribute to the development of their countries of refuge. At Arusha, and also at Monrovia, during the OAU Council of Ministers and the summit conference of Heads of State and Government that followed, the African leaders strongly demonstrated that they appreciate the gravity of the problem and their responsibility to do all in their power to assist refugees. The peoples of the continent are offering their support, generously and with understanding. However, the number of refugees is immense. So are the needs. And international aid on a significant scale continues to be essential.

I would like to make one more remark on Arusha. This relates to refugees in rural areas. While considerable attention, and rightly so, was given to organized rural settlement, at no point did the Conference lose sight of individual refugees outside the settlements. Indeed, they are very numerous, and while a number succeed in integrating harmoniously with the local population, others live in extreme poverty and insecurity, striving for a minimum subsistence level. This is a fundamental human problem and one recommendation of the Arusha Conference says that studies of their situation should be undertaken with a view to formulating assistance programmes for them and securing the maximum necessary support. In general, efforts to solve the question of isolated refugees wherever they are in the world have received a valuable boost. The Arusha Conference is destined to evoke a vigorous response, and will contribute substantially to shaping my Office's work in Africa.

Another landmark this year was the Meeting on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South-East Asia, convened by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, which took place at Geneva on 20 and 21 July. The crisis that prompted the meeting needs no description. The problem itself, unfortunately, was not new; nor, fortunately, were the efforts to solve it. But never before had these efforts been on such a scale.

In December 1978 already, I had convened a Consultative Meeting with Interested Governments on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South-East Asia. At that time, the participants had stressed the urgent need to increase opportunities for resettlement, to accelerate departures, to save those in distress at sea, to offer substantial financial contributions and to devise various kinds of lasting solutions. The granting of asylum, at least temporarily, and the reunification of families were also among the immediate concerns. In July this year the problem had assumed the proportions of an appalling tragedy.

It was absolutely essential that the Meeting of 20 and 21 July should produce tangible results and show the refugees themselves that the idea of an international community capable of tackling a human problem, notwithstanding political and social differences, was not meaningless.

The practical results, both before and during the meeting, were encouraging. Offers for resettlement increased gradually, from 125,000 at the end of May to 260,000 for a 12-month period. After the July Meeting, a further 11,000 offers were received. Governments indicated their intention to offer large contributions in cash and in kind. Contributions, in principle, were also announced for the establishment of a fund to provide durable solutions. The idea of establishing refugee processing centres in the region was welcomed and practical offers were made by two Governments. Proposals were made regarding rescue at sea. This meant numerous and valuable offers that had to be taken up without delay. A momentum had been gained; it had to be maintained.

Thus, since the July Meeting, UNHCR has convened several meetings at Geneva, with governmental and non-governmental participation. The purpose has been to establish the bases for the rapid implementation of the resettlement offers, to study practical rescue measures, and to set up a standing coordinating mechanism for the organization of assistance from various sources, while avoiding duplication of effort. Missions have been sent to the field to organize resettlement on a broader scale, to promote the establishment of the refugee processing centres, and to study a resettlement and assistance programme in the People's Republic of China. Further measures were taken to improve conditions in the refugee camps and centres, and, in this connexion, UNHCR has continued to appeal to experts in fields as varied as social welfare, public health, engineering, sanitation, paediatrics and vocational training. UNHCR field and Headquarters personnel have been strengthened.

In Viet Nam itself, as is well known to the Committee, a Memorandum of Understanding was concluded on 30 May between the Government and this Office regarding a seven-point programme for the orderly departure from Viet Nam of "family reunion and other humanitarian cases". The programme commenced in June, and efforts are being directed towards establishing regularity of movement and accelerating the rate of departures, in co-operation with the Governments of receiving countries and the Vietnamese Government.

Have results been achieved since the Geneva Meeting? The answer is in the affirmative. If we consider resettlement - over 18,000 refugees were resettled in July. In August, over 20,500. In September, the figure was over 25,000. I think we can all agree that this is no mean achievement, especially when we remember that during the first half of the year the average monthly departures were fewer than 9,000.

In respect of refugee processing centres, it is hoped, following intense preparatory work with the two Governments that offered sites - Indonesia and the .Philippines - that the centres will be open, to at least Partial capacity, before the end of the year.

Among other activities, I should mention a sea - lift operation to move some 35,000 marooned on the Anambas Islands in Indonesia. To date, over 5,000 persons have been moved to Galang Island, mainly by the Indonesian Navy, but also by ships provided by voluntary groups.

A highly complex situation has thrown UNHCR into a wide range of new activities. The end of this problem - the end of so much anguish and suffering - is not yet in sight. But the lasting effects of the Geneva Meeting are there.

In his closing remarks at the Meeting, of 20 and 21 July, the Secretary-General of the United Nations emphasized a very important primary factor for success when he said: "There was even the fear that this gathering could stray into a sterile and acrimonious debate which would aggravate even further the political atmosphere surrounding the refugee crisis. I think we can say with gratification that this has not been the case.

We are coming not only to the end of a year but also to the end of a decade, This break in time, though artificial, provides a useful reference point for wider reflection.

During this decade, UNHCR developed and expanded as never before. Solutions were found to many problems. And when one looks back over the last 10 years, there is one headline that might be put over our work, and that is: not in vain. The problems were big, often overwhelming, but many refugees were helped, New problems appeared, new solutions had to be found, and again: it was not in vain. We are often posed the question: how many refugees are there in the world? Sometimes it is worth while asking: how many refugees have been helped?

Year after year, under UNHCR auspices, large numbers of refugees have been settled in rural areas and in towns, and have thus been enabled to start a new life and build up an existence, where they can rely upon themselves.

The very nature of UNHCR responsibilities has undergone a substantial change under the pressure of world events and at the request of the international community. Already in 1971, the Secretary-General asked the High Commissioner to co-ordinate the humanitarian task undertaken by the United Nations for the benefit of millions of Bengali refugees in India. Later, Governments concerned, as well as the Secretary-General and the General Assembly, called upon the High Commissioner to act on behalf of displaced persons who, in many respects, found themselves in situations analogous to those of refugees. This was not altogether a novelty: the concept of good offices, introduced by the General Assembly in its resolutions from 1957 onwards, had already permitted UNHCR to help alleviate the plight of uprooted and displaced persons not strictly within the mandate. But the diversity and magnitude of special tasks entrusted to the High Commissioner during the 1970s has been unprecedented.

For instance, UNHCR had a major and constructive role to play in areas where peace had been restored after internal or international conflict. In the wake of peace agreements, UNHCR was called on to assist in the voluntary repatriation of refugees to their home countries and in their rehabilitation after their return. Also, UNHCR was requested to assist persons who had been displaced within their countries during conflicts, and who were enabled to return to their areas of origin. These were rewarding tasks, which, in the first half of the decade, enabled millions of persons to resume a normal existence in the Sudan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Lao People's Democratic Republic and Viet Nam. Then, UNHCR was called upon to set up programmes for the return home of refugees whose countries had become independent: I refer to Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. More recently, when circumstances permitted, UNHCR engaged in large voluntary repatriation movements to Zaire and Burma. These activities have been performed with the constant support of Governments, non-governmental organizations, and the United Nations system. Here again, the work has not been in vain and results have been substantial. And yet, the end of the refugee problem as such recedes like the horizon as we try to reach it. Refugees and displaced persons are on all continents. Indeed, the root of the problem has, sadly, become more universal than ever.

Today, refugees arrive in great numbers in many countries and the predicament of large groups of displaced persons continues to demand large-scale assistance. In Somalia, the refugee population in camps was estimated at 220,000 three months ago - today it exceeds 300,000. In Djibouti, 10 per cent of the population are refugees. In Ethiopia, UNHCR is providing assistance to people displaced within the country as a result of the Ogaden conflict. In the Sudan, which has one of the largest refugee populations in the world, 30,000 Ugandan refugees have arrived in the south since May. Newly-arrived Ugandan refugees in Zaire - another country with a very large refugee population - total approximately 40,000 In Uganda, humanitarian assistance is in its initial stages and extends to refugees who had been displaced as a result of the events, to displaced nationals and to returnees. In Mozambique, the number of refugees has increased from 80,000 a year ago to 150,000 today. Following the change of circumstances in the country, the Government of Equatorial Guinea has just approached UNHCR to request assistance for the voluntary repatriation of refugees. Some 250,000 refugees crossed the Vietnamese border into China during 1978 and 1979. Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have received tens of thousands of refugees this year. In Pakistan, where some 80,000 refugees were reported in April 1979, the Government now estimates the number at nearly 200,000. In Nicaragua, UNHCR is participating in the vast immediate relief and longer-term efforts: an estimated 100,000 refugees are returning, while some 500,000 persons may now go back to the homes they had abandoned. In Europe, the surge of refugees, including those from other countries, is also on the increase.

New activities begin before existing ones end, and the focus of UNHCR efforts in favour of refugees and displaced persons is ever-changing.

In its search for durable solutions, UNHCR meets great obstacles. Refugees are not always welcome. They may be at the cross-roads of conflicting interests. They may be causes for embarrassment or tension between States. They may be victims of violence: in the southern part of Africa, military incursions brutally frustrate efforts to find lasting solutions.

It is thus in the midst of a very demanding situation that we reach a new decade. What lessons, useful for the 1980s') can we draw from the 1970s? Essentially, UNHCR has had to adapt to an extraordinary variety of situations, each requiring different approaches and techniques. Its terms of reference have been considerably enlarged. International protection has become an increasingly delicate function, to which I shall revert. Material assistance programmes have reached extremely high levels. Resettlement in third countries, as a durable solution to refugee problems, has regained a considerable importance.

But can we know exactly what to expect in the next decade? Where will the new groups of refugees be? How many will there be? Shall we, at last, witness a decrease in the refugee problem? Will it disappear,? To these questions I can give you no answers - they belong to the history of tomorrow.

For UNHCR in the 1980s, as long as there are refugee problems, we shall need a great capacity for response and innovation. UNHCR must be constantly prepared to adapt to circumstances, and I do not underestimate the difficulty of tile task. UNHCR, however, must also be given the means to act. Governments and the international community will have to give the most tangible support No doubt, with the progress of communications, awareness of refugee problems will continue to increase throughout the world, and this will help. The response must be equal to the challenge.

I should now like to address a number of considerations in the fundamental field of protection. The first requirement for the Protection of refugees is to ensure that they receive permanent, or at least temporary, asylum and that the principle of non-refoulement is scrupulously observed. No refugee must be forced back to a country where he fears persecution. One hopes that this principle, which has repeatedly been breached during this decade, will no longer be subject to any derogations and will simply become an obvious necessity and a self-evident truth.

The international community has created a framework for the protection of refugee rights. It has done so in order to respond to a need. In exercising its international protection function, UNHCR draws its strength not only from its Statute, but also from universally recognized humanitarian principles.

Turning to accessions to international instruments. In 1969, 55 States were parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This number is 76 today. Most of them are also parties to the 1967 Protocol. Eighteen States are parties to the OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. Although there are large areas in the world still not covered by these instruments, these figures are encouraging, and indications are that further States are actively considering accession.

Protection also covers the all-important promotion of voluntary repatriation and family reunion. In the latter field, humanitarian par excellence, UNHCR has been instrumental, in co-operation with Governments concerned, in the departure of families from Eastern European countries, Southern Latin America and now Viet Nam to join relatives abroad.

The Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection, through its debates and conclusions, which are subject to endorsement by the Executive Committee, provides excellent guidance to the authorities of asylum countries. Since the creation of the Sub-Committee, the subjects selected for in-depth discussion have been asylum, non-refoulement, expulsion of refugees, determination of refugee status and travel documents. This year, the Sub-Committee has been discussing the question of refugees without an asylum country. Much ground has already been covered and the Sub-Committee has increasingly proved to be an instrument for strengthening refugee rights and promoting their ever-wider acceptance.

The ideal solution for a refugee is voluntary repatriation. When this is not feasible, durable settlement in countries of first asylum is the best alternative course of action. But when refugees are granted temporary asylum only, or when, for any reason, settlement in the countries where they first arrived is not possible or desirable, they still have a long journey ahead of them until they can start rebuilding their future. Resettlement in third countries becomes the only solution and, until it is achieved, refugees live in uncertainty. In camps, or outside, their life is full of difficulties, of frustrations, but also of hope.

Never in the history of this Office has the need for resettlement, in terms of numbers, been so pressing as it is today. For years during the decade, resettlement opportunities were vitally needed for Latin American refugees. This is no longer the case: the residual problem on that continent has been solved since we last met. The current needs are of limited scope and are met as they emerge. In Africa, where most refugees settle in their countries of first asylum, resettlement is sought for limited numbers. But, in the search for a global solution to the refugee problem in South-East Asia, resettlement is still at present one of the key answers.

Resettlement may play a fundamental role in emergency situations. On a number of occasions immediate resettlement proved to be the only way of saving refugees whose security was endangered. As regards rescue at sea, some States are only prepared to allow disembarkation against immediate guarantees of resettlement. Some flag States are not able to give such guarantees. Special offers by Governments to bridge this gap would meet an urgent humanitarian need and serve to avoid unnecessary hardship and human suffering.

Turning to the financial aspects of our activities, it has been gratifying to see that the contributions we have received have succeeded in keeping pace with our expenditures, despite the most dramatic and unforeseeable increase in requirements with which we have been faced in the course of this year, not only in South-East Asia but also in other parts of the world. So far, we have not had to diminish essential assistance under the General Programmes due to lack of funds, and I feel confident that this positive trend will continue for the remaining part of the year. However, I must voice my deep concern for the full financing of the 1980 requirements, which, under the General Programmes alone, will amount to some $233 million, a figure of considerable magnitude, specifically if compared with the $88 million target set a year ago for 1979. Never before has it been so important that Governments pledge their contributions as early as possible, hopefully at the annual Pledging Conference in New York, to be held this year on 16 November. Only through very substantial advance pledging can we start the 1980 assistance in an organized manner throughout the world. And, in this context, I wish to appeal to all Governments to announce as few earmarkings as legislatively possible, in order to ensure maximum flexibility in implementation, so that one programme of specific international attention does not benefit at the cost of less well-known but equally deserving refugee situations elsewhere in the world.

In our constant search for solutions, whether relating to voluntary repatriation, local settlement, or resettlement in third countries, new prospects have to be opened, new methods have to be tried. On this issue, I very much look forward to the guidance of the Committee when, during this meeting, we discuss the item of the creation of a fund for durable solutions, the concept of which is precisely to create new and additional possibilities for providing lasting solutions to refugee problems.

Before concluding, I would like to refer briefly to the staffing and administrative implications of the great increase in demands on this Office. Over the last five years we have had to double our staff. Even without the pressing needs in Asia, the expansion would have been considerable. Many more offices or missions have been opened than we have been able to close. Our involvement in the implementation of the programmes has of necessity become more operational and this in itself has required more staff. New and responsible positions have needed to be filled, sometimes at very short notice. In such circumstances, flexibility is essential if we are to discharge our responsibilities. With regard to UNHCR administrative costs, whatever their level, they should be carefully apportioned between the regular budget of the United Nations and voluntary funds. Herein lies a problem, for the level of the regular budget is determined by budgetary constraints unrelated to the needs of refugees. We shall be returning to this question later in the session.

I have sought to present to you what I might call a fleeting survey of our preoccupations. I would now like to add a few remarks before concluding.

First, we would never have achieved the results we have without the participation and support of the non-governmental organizations represented here today. These organizations, day after day and year after year, have made their contribution throughout all continents to the long-term work on behalf of refugees. The unfailing collaboration of the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration is also essential and highly valued. I Also wish to express deep gratitude to the various members of the United Nations system who have reacted so positively in their respective fields to immediate and longer-term demands, both as regards material assistance and expert advice. This partnership, which has developed over the years, has become a fundamental element of efforts to meet the challenges with which we are continually faced.

I should also like to place on record my appreciation to the secretariats of the International Year of the Child in Geneva and New York, to UNICEF and the non-governmental organizations concerned, with which we have worked so closely in our common task of helping refugee children. The International Year of the Child is a very important event, which presents a unique opportunity to draw the attention of the international community to the plight of refugee children.

If UNHCR is at the hub of generous actions, it is also faced with daily human suffering. Its task is not to resolve the international problems that provoke the exodus of refugees. But we must do all within our power and competence to see that those who become refugees cease to be refugees within a reasonable period. It is for this reason that UNHCR must maintain its response capability at a high level, react dynamically and tread new paths.

During the last decade, as I recalled earlier, UNHCR has undergone great changes and I wish to assure you that I do not underestimate the necessity of adapting its structures as appropriate, both at Headquarters and in the field, and to look at our actions with a critical eye. The problems that are our responsibility are too important for us to allow ourselves to be overtaken by false complacency and I will be very receptive to any guidance and advice from the distinguished delegates present at this session. For we must find a solution to all problems of our concern. No situation must be allowed to sink into routine.

There are on all continents refugees who, caught up in the whirlwind of world events, are thrown into the foreground of publicity, where they make the headlines. There are others who remain mostly outside media coverage, but who are looked after adequately in the urban or rural community, Others again, who are very numerous and whose circumstances are just as deserving, are left in the background, beyond the reach of publicity, to such an extent that sometimes they are spoken of as, "forgotten refugees".

It is unfortunately possible that a refugee may feel forgotten, that he may even lose all hope. But it is inconceivable that those who help refugees should become discouraged, or should overlook individual problems. Assistance to refugees calls for a profession of faith. As I have already stressed, the results obtained prove that the efforts made so far have not been in vain.