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Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, thirty-third session, Geneva, 11 October 1982

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, thirty-third session, Geneva, 11 October 1982

11 October 1982

Mr. Chairman, allow me first of all to congratulate you most warmly on your election as Chairman of this session of the Executive Committee. I am sure that under your guidance we shall have a constructive session, and I look forward to co-operating closely with you, as well as with our distinguished Vice-Chairman and Rapporteur, to whom my congratulations also go. May I also express my deep appreciation to the outgoing Chairman and outgoing Bureau for their valuable contributions throughout the year.

On the occasion of our annual sessions, the main part of my introductory statement is usually aimed at bringing you up to date in some detail with the would refugee situation. Today, I shall do otherwise. Indeed, I think that these aspects are covered by the documents put at the disposal of the members of the Executive Committee for the session and throughout the year. In the report on UNHCR Assistance Activities, which we sometimes call "the book", you will find more detail than in previous years - both global and country by country by country - as well as tables and figures. We have also had informal meetings and have distributed documents at regular intervals within the flow of information arrangements.

Since I believe that a "tour d'horizon" would be repetitious, I feel I should rather share with you some of our thoughts and concerns - as it were, to think aloud - and then to ask you in the ensuing debate to help us with your comments, analysis and conclusions.

Mr. Chairman, while we try to be faithful to our mandate, as well as to the recommendations and decisions formulated by the Executive Committee and the General Assembly, it is our task to transform the principles and concepts into practice and day-to-day action. In so doing, we face a number of problems.

Thus, let me touch on some of the issues that have been discussed in the office week after week, and which indeed have also often been discussed with members of the Executive Committee.

It is obvious that the refugee situation in the world today is different from what it was 20 or 30 years ago.

It is different geographically, as refugees in the years after the Second World War were mainly European refugees, while today the refugee problem spreads over all continents.

It is different in the approach required by the "caseload" - an ugly word we often use. The concern, years ago, was directed much more to individuals or small groups of refugees. Today, in many cases, refugees arrive in a country in large numbers, of the groups numbering tens or hundreds of thousands.

The refugee situation is different in that European countries of asylum were usually able to take care of the asylum seekers with only comparatively small-scale material assistance from the international community. Today, the majority of refugees are in developing countries, often the least developed. The receiving countries simply cannot carry the heavy burden without substantial international assistance. Hence a set of complex issues.

Thirty years ago, the refugee office's duty - apart from its more general task of promoting refugee rights - was to afford protection to individuals or single families and, to a limited extent, to assist them to overcome economic and social difficulties. Today, while the protection task remains fundamental, the assistance function has reached considerable magnitude: we assist large numbers of refugees throughout the world, first of all to survive, but also to reach self-sufficiency.

When you look into the evolution of refugee work, you often fined yourself caught in a set of borderline situations. Where is the dividing line between a refugee and a non-refugee? What is the distinction between the social and economic problems posed by a refugee situation, and the social and economic problems of the receiving country as a whole? Where is the frontier between humanitarian assistance to refugees, and development? Between political and humanitarian work? In some situations, the answer is clear-cut. In others, we are on the borderline, and this is where most of the problems arise. It is well known: when you are in your own territory, you can handle the problems, following established principles and guidelines; when you approach the edge of the territory, complications arise.

The situation we face today evokes a number of questions, which we have examined with the members of the Executive Committee - I have in mind especially our informal exchange of views in May.

First, a question we often hear: who is a refugee? Or, more broadly, who is a "person of concern to UNHCR"? Answers are given in the UNHCR Statute, the 1951 Convention and other international legal instruments, as well as in the resolutions on refugee matters in the United Nations General Assembly. If I follow the thread, it is clear to me that, in principle a person of concern of UNHCR is outside his own country. Only in special cases may internally displaced persons fall within our scope, usually in conjunction with a genuine refugee problem or a repatriation operation, when UNHCR is specifically requested to act accordingly. But not all persons outside their country can be considered as being of concern to UNHCR. Economic migrants and alien workers are, of course, not refugees as such. They are outside their country, but they can seek the protection of their diplomatic and consular authorities, and they can go back. However, in a large number of instances, the distinction is not easy to make. Borderline cases have always existed, but the situation has grown in complexity. Today, more than ever, people leave their countries for a combination of reasons very often so intimately linked that the dominating factors are not always easy to discern.

To comply with these evolving realities, the General Assembly introduced, in refugee resolutions as from 1975, the concept of "displaced persons" - which had been applied in other circumstances connected with the Second World War. Thus, in addition to refugees within the terms of its Statute, UNHCR concerns itself with uprooted persons in refugee-like situations.

The background to such situations, attributable to man-made disasters, may be an international conflict, a civil strife, various forms of instability within the country of origin. Here again, we tread the borderline of concepts and definitions. In these humanitarian problems, full of nuances, if is difficult to give a definitive overall answer. Situations are never exactly alike. Experience has shown that, within our mandate, a pragmatic approach is called for. In order to act, we are guided by such factors as the existence of a refugee-like situation, of a genuine humanitarian need, of a request from Governments.

Another group of questions might be given the headline: Where is the frontier between humanitarian work for refugees and development assistance to a country?

It is absolutely clear that UNHCR should not participate in the development efforts of a developing country. These efforts are necessary, indeed indispensable, but they are not the task of UNHCR. Just as the High Commissioner is no the world's minister for social affairs, for education, for health, he is not the minister for development. He is the High Commissioner for Refugees. This is why, when refugees arrive in a developing country in large numbers, he must react. Our people in the field see it as an immediate necessity. How is it possible not to try to help? It is not a question of rules, of definitions or paragraphs, but of doing what you can - and must - in an emergency.

In the emergency phase, refugees must be helped in the best possible way. As a practical guide, the UNHCR Emergency Unit has prepared an Emergency Handbook, which has been distributed to all our field offices and also to many organizations, governmental and non-governmental, who join in the efforts deployed during the emergency phase. This phase is full of obstacles. Refugees often come to regions, or for different valid reasons must be placed in regions, where resources are scarce or, in fact, non-existent. Over the years there have been many examples of refugee sites or settlements where there was no drinking water. Wells had to be dug, or water brought to the settlement by tanker or by barge. It is easy to examine what this means in terms of practical difficulties, of logistical problems, and in financial requirements. Foods had to be provided with the help of the World Food Programme, the European Economic Community or by bilateral assistance. Having arrived at the nearest port, it often had to be transported long distances, sometimes exceeding 2,000 kilometres. The same, of course, goes for tents, medicines and other necessities. So, emergency relief: yes. But, already in the emergency phase, some indispensable measures may have a developmental connotation. Let me cite some examples.

A group of refugees is placed in an area where the river is the only source of drinking water. The river-water is contaminated and polluted, and it would be unthinkable not to try to establish a purifying plant, a generator for the pumps, water tanks and a distribution system, either by water-tanker or by pipe-line from which the water can be tapped. Apart from the great benefit and relief that such an installation brings to the individuals concerned, which is of course the major consideration, we could maintain - in somewhat cynical terms - that the running costs of the system are negligible compared with the cost of medicaments and treatment necessary to cope with the diseases resulting from drinking polluted water. The initial investment will, of course, require funds. Everyone would agree that the funds are well spent. But is such an installation " development assistance "? - as it goes without saying that the local population may also benefit from the purification plant.

Another example: to serve a refugee population, we need to construct one or more dispensaries with some basic, day-to-day medicaments. Often very simple - a hut, with a thatched roof, a cupboard and some shelves. Also useful for the local population. It is necessary, and provides a bare minimum component of relief aid. But are such dispensaries to be regarded as development assistance?

The question becomes even more significant when we consider measures towards the self-sufficiency of refugees. Indeed, we see our task as not only to help people to survive, but also (as mentioned in the Statute of the Office) to help them to reach a durable solution. Form the very first minute of a new refugee situation, we have to ensure that the refugees overcome the emergency and then aim towards achieving a durable solution. Is it possible for the refugees to go back of their own free will? Or can we help them to settle where they are and, in that way, become self-supporting? If we withdrew immediately after an emergency phase, the refugees would, in many cases, slide back into a critical - perhaps even an emergency-situation.

Thus, in planning our programmes, we try to give increasing weight in each situation to those components aimed at bringing the refugees to a level where they can take care of themselves. In this endeavour, is it possible for the High Commissioner to ask other agencies to assume responsibility for what is bordering on development? Much as we would like to, in practice this is not so easy. Of course, whenever possible, we work closely with the United Nations agencies, and the non-governmental agencies that are so indispensable to us in our work. In the assistance document, you will find many examples of such co-operation. The usual situation, however, is that other agencies that give us their valuable help encounter difficulties when it comes to taking over entire operations. They already have their plates full. They have their own mandates to fulfil, or have established procedures that are not always compatible with the urgency of a refugee situation. So, if UNHCR does not assist the refugees - or mobilize assistance to them - in many cases they will not be assisted at all.

Let me add that, if we ask a receiving country to include a refugee area or a refugee group in their development programmes, we often get the answer - indeed understandable - that, while the Government is prepared to receive the refugees, to make land available to them, and to allow them to make use of existing administrative facilities and infrastructure, it is not possible to allocate part of their badly-needed development resources to the refugees. "They have come from outsides, we have opened our doors to them and they can stay. " But other countries - the international community - will have to supplement the receiving countries' efforts.

To summarize: the process leading towards refugee integration is not simply a succession of phases - that is, relief, self-sufficiency, development - where UNHCR could just phase out hand over at a given point.

These phases overlap easily, and sometimes measures that may that may be considered as development must be taken in the early stages of a relief operation - as in the case of lack of water at a refugee site. At all stages, consolidation measures also have to be taken so that the progress made is hampered as little as possible by outside events. During the whole process, other organizations - within or outside the United Nations system - must be called upon, according to their mandates, their procedures and their actual possibilities. This is valid from emergency relief - the World Food Programme is an obvious example - all the way to development. Wherever appropriate and feasible, UNHCR does not hesitate to hand over, in an endeavour to confine itself to activities where circumstances make its intervention imperative.

I turn now to one fundamental aspect of our work: its absolutely non-political character. This, too, is like walking a tightrope. Refugee problems are by definition political problems, but it is decisive - indeed, it is our raison d'être - that to help refugees is humanitarian and non-political. We are helping refugees become self-sufficient, but we are supporting them in their political fight if they are involved in such a struggle. Our personal opinion may be that they are 100 per cent right, but as a United Nations organization we cannot, and should not, take sides, nor be party to any political conflict. Often Governments, movements, private organizations try to enlist UNHCR in a political effort or ask us to support them, if only by lending our name to a campaign. The answer must always - and will always - and will always - be "No".

Nor can, or should, UNHCR try to tackle any of the so-called "root causes". It is in many cases clear what the cause of a refugee problem is. It is also important that the international community do its utmost to try to remove such causes. But it is not for UNHCR attempt to solve these problems at their root. Not because we are afraid of protesting against a Government, or of going against rulers. In fact, we sometimes have to do so to protect rights of he refugees. But the High Commissioner must remain outside any political fight. If he were to do otherwise, he would certainly be praised and supported in some quarters - at least momentarily - but at the same time, many doors would be closed to him, and he would be hindered in doing the job he is meant to do.

Mr. Chairman, I have touched upon some of the issues concerning UNHCR and explained some of our thinking to the members of the Executive Committee. It is obvious that the problems and questions, difficulties and achievements I am talking about are problems that we have in common.

The work of UNHCR is not the responsibility of its staff members alone. Indeed, the responsibility is also yours. It is a source of satisfaction to you when the work is successful, it is your concern when we have difficulties. Efforts to help refugees are the work of the United Nations and - very much - that of the nations represented in the Executive Committee. UNHCR was started by nations. They had the vision, the political will, the idealism to put this body on its feet; they had the wisdom to draw up a Convention to which 93 States, from all continents, are now party; they gave it a Statute, a mandate that has proved valid throughout the years, the changes, the turmoils. Many problems have arisen; the whole background has changed in 30 years, as so many countries have become free and independent. Year after year, refugees have needed not only sympathy, but also hospitality, open arms and homes, as well as financial generosity, since needs grew from a few million dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But the needs were always met, the nations were united in their will to maintain and support this humanitarian task. The report of the Commissioner is, year in, year out, approved by the United Nations General Assembly without a vote; the High Commissioner has been elected unanimously; and in the Executive Committee it has been an unfailing rule, carefully observed by its members, that a vote has never been taken. Political dissensions, real and vital as they are, have always given way to the conviction that in the humanitarian task all should agree and decisions be taken by consensus.

Thus, in considering UNHCR and the state of our work, I feel assured that I am also speaking on your behalf, and that we all have the same spirit and determination to overcome the difficulties of the task.

It seems to me that the United Nations - and I mean all the nations of this would Organization - can take pride in the humanitarian work achieved. It is to the credit of all Governments that they do meet, not only to discuss political problems, to examine and seek remedies to economic and social difficulties, to carry out the thankless work of achieving compromises in fields where so much conflict prevails, but that they also meet in a spirit of consensus to engage in humanitarian work, to improve the quality of life and to alleviate the burdens of the peoples of the world. Certainly, much of the suffering in the world is the outcome of conflicts and wars between nations, the result of social and economic injustice - but at the same time there is a will - widespread, even unanimous - to help the victims of war, disease, injustice. The humanitarian work of the United Nations testifies to this will.

This is true not only for the work on behalf of refugees. There are many other humanitarian areas to think of, but here we concentrate upon the international work done to protect and assist the uprooted and - if at all possible - to help them to settle and start a new life in safety and dignity.

This humanitarian activity is one of the most rewarding activities in the international community. Why?

First of all, because we deal with people, individuals, human beings. Of course, we also deal with figures, statistics, abstract problems, concepts, paragraphs, definitions, etc.; all this is necessary - a part of life that could sometimes be seen as lifeless, sterile and theoretical, if it were not for the ever-present knowledge that the real object inspiring the entire activity is the individual. In our work for refugees, it is a privilege to be close to the individual, to see persons protected against refoulement and often saved from prison, torture and possible execution, to see a family reunited. It is worth all the effort when you see spouses, parents, children reunited and thus able to take up life again together; to see a group of people in distress and in dire need revive; to see starving children with big bellies and limbs like matchsticks recover - and all this because the so-called international community, which encompasses United Nations bodies, individual states, voluntary organizations, has come to their aid and sent food, milk, medicine, tents, blankets and other commodities.

Secondly, because humanitarian work does show concrete results. I do not for one minute underestimate the work done in the political fora. Without it, would the world not suffer even more? Indeed, results are achieved in the political field. But, in the more specific humanitarian sphere - closely linked to the political and economic situation in the world, and often a reflection of the political side of the coin - you have the privilege of seeing quicker - and, as it were, palpable - results. In numerous situations, refugees are satisfactorily settled outside their homeland before the political problem that caused their departure is solved. On other occasions, however, a political settlement will be a capital element in the solution of refugee problem. Some situations that seemed hopeless thus come to a quick solution. We have many examples. In 1978, almost 200,000 refugees went to Bangladesh from Burma, and we thought that we would be confronted with a long - and perhaps insoluble - problem. But the two Governments reached an understanding, the way back home opened up for the refugees and UNHCR was asked to arrange this voluntary repatriation. Today they are all back in their own countries, the camps we set up in Bangladesh are all dismantled, and the office in Dacca is closed.

When I took up my assignment as High Commissioner in January 1978, my first journey was to Africa. I especially wanted to visit the refugee camps and meet the authorities in the countries surrounding Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. I visited Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Zambia and the United Republic of Tanzania. At that time, we estimated that there were some 250,000 refugees from Rhodesia. It was therefore a great experience for me to attend the independence celebrations of Zimbabwe in April 1980. Today, all the refugees have been repatriated.

Four weeks ago I visited the united Republic of Cameroon. I met several hundred refugees - some were students from Namibia, and there was still a small group from Chad. Yet, less than a year ago, more than 100,000 people from Chad - who have now returned to their homeland - had sought refuge in Cameroon, a country that had received them with hospitality and warm-hearted friendship and fraternity. Some remaining groups have returned to Chad more recently, and will be assisted there to resume a dignified existence in their homeland.

In the third place, it is also rewarding to notice that the non-political, humanitarian role of the High Commissioner's Office is accepted and recognized in all quarters. When it comes to the humanitarian task of the United Nations, then the nations are united, or at least agree to minimize their political differences for the sake of the humanitarian cause. There is indeed a political will to protect individuals. If you look for a glimmer of hope in a gloomy situation, you may find one here.

Mr. Chairman, I have been asked what I expect from this session of the Executive Committee. In answer, let me say two things; in the first place, I hope and expect that the deliberations of this meeting will lead to a clear recommendation that the mandate of UNHCR remain unchanged. In my opinion, it would be disastrous for refugee work if the mandate were to be changed. The mandate has proved good, useful and flexible in so many situations throughout the years; it has been a solid foundation on which to build. The general Assembly has been adapting the construction to fit in with the changing situations, but the foundation has remained untouched. The mandate has never been an obstacle to us, nor a hindrance in serving the cause of the refugees. On the contrary, it has been a strength on which to stand, a basis recognized by so many States for so many years.

Secondly, I hope that it will be clear after session, as has been the case do many times in preceding years, that we - we in the Executive Committee, we in the Office - do not get tired. Tired. We are not " fatigued in our compassion ". We on the humanitarian front are still ready to fulfil our obligations. We are committed to the cause of refugees, to protect them, to come to their rescue, to help them regain their dignity. For many refugees in the world, the work of the United Nations - of UNHCR - is literally the only hope. Let us not let them down.