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Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, twenty-first session, 28 September 1970

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Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, twenty-first session, 28 September 1970

28 September 1970

As we gather to review what has been done during the past year and to consider UNHCR's plans for achieving lasting solutions to refugee problems, it is necessary to pause and reflect on the recent tragedy which has struck thousands of refugees in Jordan who do not come within the mandate of UNHCR but who depend for their livelihood on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). If there has been such a heavy toll in human lives inside and outside the refugee camps, if the news media of the world have concentrated so much on the situation in Jordan, this is due to the fact that for this group of refugees, a permanent solution has not been found. Here is, I think, a significant example of the futility of relief without any permanent solution in sight. The lack of a solution and the consequent lack of progress in that part of the world, notwithstanding the tremendous sums that have been made available for relief, should serve to show the importance of carefully planned permanent solutions for refugees who are our own concern. However, the stage has unfortunately not yet been reached at which more permanent rehabilitation can be foreseen. Among the people who have suffered in this terrible upheaval, there are a number of refugees within the mandate of UNHCR. We have therefore decided to earmark a token contribution from our Emergency Fund, as has been done in the past when natural or man-made disasters have struck in areas where refugees under the UNHCR mandate are living. This contribution has been transmitted through the International Committee of the Red Cross. A note on this subject will be submitted to the Committee.

This has been a busy year in the United Nations. The "Study of the capacity of the United nations development system prepared by Sir Robert Jackson has contributed a certain dynamism to the discussions held in the various governing bodies of United Nations agencies. A number of fundamental notions regarding the over-all structure of the United Nations system were discussed and naturally this could not leave UNHCR indifferent. The Executive Committee has repeatedly stressed its desire that co-ordination between UNHCR and the other members of the United Nations system be improved and strengthened, and that co-operations be increased, especially in the field of rural settlement, which may lead to developments in which the other United nations agencies have a big role to play. We believe indeed that what we do in a modest way in the field of settlement of refugees, particularly in Africa, contributes tangibly to the development of the area where the refugees are located. We also believe that rural development schemes carried out by UNDP or the specialized agencies benefit the areas where the refugees within my competence are settled. Most United Nations activities are interrelated and whatever affects the UNDP or the specialized agencies, and has been taken into consideration by Sir Robert Jackson's survey, may also affect UNHCR.

I follow these discussions as someone who is deeply interested in the strengthening and streamlining of the United Nations as a whole. I did not feel it necessary this year to introduce my annual report in the Economic and Social Council before its transmission to the General Assembly, and the Council decided just to take note of it. I intervened during the debate, however, on another point of the agenda connected with assistance to people in areas still under colonial administration, and with the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. I was able to testify again before the Council on what UNHCR has done for refugees in this category in Africa. I was glad to note that the Economic and Social Council, the Fourth Committee and the Special Committee on the Situation with regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples expressed satisfaction with UNHCR's results in the implementation of the resolutions dealing with these categories of peoples for whom still more could and should be done.

It was also in the same spirit that I chaired an ad hoc sub-committee of the Administrative Committee on Co-ordination, which was convened here shortly before the summer session of the Economic and Social Council to discuss how best the United Nations humanitarian agencies might co-ordinate and strengthen assistance to victims of natural disasters. My aim here was to try to develop the role and responsibilities of the United Nations for the victims of natural and possibly quarters of the international community, that if the United Nations is unable to maintain peace, then it has an implicit responsibility to care for the victims of the conflicts which could not be prevented. The ad hoc meeting of the ACC was able to submit a basis for the formulation of the resolution on this question which was subsequently adopted.

We welcome all resolutions adopted on co-ordination as we hope that it will facilitate the handing over of many of our own responsibilities in the field, when the refugees have reached an adequate level of self-sufficiency so that further development of the region, and of the local people in the area in which they are settled.

We have faced certain set-backs during this year. First of all, in some countries, rural settlement schemes were held up for reasons linked with political problems. Sometimes funds requested from the Executive Committee had to be held in abeyance until local conditions would allow the projects to start. We also sometimes had to face difficulties arising from insufficient or inadequate technical advice in rural areas to establish a sound basis for projects involving investments which we could justify before this Committee. We also suffered in some areas from the lack of operational partners, because a number of voluntary agencies still do not have an effective network in Africa. The very close, effective voluntary agency partnerships from which we continue to benefit in Europe must still be strengthened and developed in other areas where our Office is facing tremendous challenges. With regard to rural settlement, we have sometimes over-simplified and tried to be too pragmatic, and we have now come to realize that the sociological element should be taken more fully into account. Thus the smooth progress of rural settlement in certain countries or areas was hampered by living conditions or by sociological differences between the refugees and the local population. We are now trying to remedy this by sending small flexible teams to give the necessary guidance in a specific area as to how integration can best be promoted, and how the refugees may adapt to new circumstances. In this way I believe we will able to avoid similar set-backs in the future.

I must also stress that the so-called phasing out by UNHCR has been delayed considerably because of the constant influx of new refugees into the same countries of asylum . And I fear that as long as a foreign administration still prevails and while independence has not been achieved in many parts of Africa new influxes of refugees are likely to occur in many countries adjacent to those which are still under colonial administration. There are of course also refugees from independent African countries. But there are indications that the situation is becoming stabilized and that there is no massive influx at present from areas which were deeply troubled immediately or for some years following independence. At any rate, if UNHCR is experiencing difficulty in phasing out its programmes it is because new refugees are arriving in countries where projects have been put into effect for others of the same background.

During the session, we will discuss in greater detail how UNHCR contributes to integration through education. The African Governments and other members of this Committee have stressed the need for universal primary education for nationals of the countries of residence of refugees. However, these African countries are unable to provide education for more than a certain percentage of their own children. When we started primary educational schemes in Africa, we tried to provide for refugees the same opportunities as those enjoyed by the local children. We avoided making of them a privileged community. When we first provided for primary school in some projects, the rate of admission of local children to primary schools was 30 or 50 per cent of the population and we aimed at a similar ratio for refugee children. However, the rate of admission of the local children has now risen in some instances to 75 per cent. As a result, the primary schools which we provided for refugee children can no longer meet the demand so that we may have to request the Committee to authorize funds for new primary schools also in settlement areas where the refugees in the last few years have achieved a level of self-sufficiency which would permit UNHCR to phase out other forms of assistance.

In the field of secondary education, which as you know is funded through the Education Account and not under the Programme, we have also made some improvements among which I would mention the excellent arrangement which we now have with the United Nations Educational and Training Programme for Southern Africa, which is administered through the UNDP Resident Representatives. Under this arrangement, UNHCR, through its Education Account, meets the need for secondary education of refugees up to the first level (more or less equivalent to the Cambridge School Certificate, or "premier cycle"). The United Nations Programme then ensures secondary education and vocational training facilities, up to the higher level (Higher School Certificate or Baccalauréat). I believe that the arrangement that we have concluded with the United Nations Programme is in line with the wishes of the Executive Committee and with the United Nations resolutions on assistance to people from territories under foreign administration.

Since the last session we have received a request from the Government of the republic of Vietnam for assistance to a group of refugees who came from Cambodia in the course of recent events in that in that country. The details of the request will be given later in the session. I should like to say at the outset, however, that we responded very quickly. The request was received in April. In May the Director of the Africa/Asia Division proceeded to the Republic of Vietnam and Cambodia. As this is an obvious humanitarian problem of serious dimensions and a number of refugees who are of concern to UNHCR were involved, it was decided to contribute $50,000 from the Emergency Fund to Vietnam through the Red Cross of that country, and the same amount, through the Cambodian Red Cross, to the Government of Cambodia which had also requested assistance from UNHCR. It was also decided to appoint a Chargé de mission to maintain a UNHCR presence in the area, who will be taking up his functions in Saigon within the next few weeks, and who will also be accredited to Phnom Penh.

We are following closely developments in Latin America, where we may face new problems. We are also following the situation in the Caribbean, and also the problems of some minority groups both in the Middle East and in the eastern part of Africa, who may be in need of assistance or protection in the future.

I should also like to refer to the welcome cessation of the conflict in Nigeria. Following my recent visit to Addis Ababa for the summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity, and also as a result of my talks with the Head of State of Nigeria beginning in January of this year, and other contacts with Gabon and the Ivory Coast, UNHCR was asked by the parties concerned to lend its good offices with a view to facilitating the repatriation of the children who had been evacuated during the war and who must be reunited with their families. I have just received a very encouraging message from the Director of Operations who is now in West Africa and who will report in more detail.

In the field of resettlement, our operations are continuing smoothly, thanks to a particularly fruitful co-operation with the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration and the voluntary agencies. I must mention to the Committee, however, that in some European countries we are running the risk of a backlog in applications for refugee status. Some Governments are finding it difficult to deal with them because of their number and the nature of the cases. Some may thus be left pending for six months or a year. The problem is eased at present by the fact that most of these applicants have found employment. Should there be the slightest recession, however, the refugees would be the first people to feel its effects. I therefore appeal to governments to deal with the applications more quickly. This is particularly important for those refugees who depend on the decision which the Government alone can take and which affects placement, training, and sometimes resettlement.

We have also tried to promote voluntary repatriation in accordance with our Statute and have been successful in a number of cases, both in Africa and in Europe. We believe that in order to facilitate voluntary repatriation, Government should not be too strict with regard to the legal status of refugees they can return home. Of course, repatriation should always be voluntary, and I regret to say that since the last session there have been a number of cases of forcible repatriation, which is a cause of great concern. An individual who has good reasons to fear persecution for political reasons is not fleeing from justice. When a person is a refugee for political reasons, he has no hope of defending himself. To hand him back to the authorities of his country of origin is the most serious infringement of an individual's human rights and is contrary to the principles which UNHCR and this Committee try to uphold - I then realize the limitations of diplomatic action, which means very little to the human being who has already lost all hope.

Coming now to the problem of statelessness, I should like to appeal to all Governments to ratify the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. It is abnormal indeed that the children of refugees, born in countries where their parents have been settled, sometimes for more than a generation, should continue to be born as stateless refugees. So far, the only Governments which have acceded to this instrument are Sweden and the United Kingdom. I hope their example may be followed by many others.

We are facing a new refugee problem in Europe, and this new problem does not concern European refugees but refugees from Africa who looking increasingly for assistance from UNHCR and from the government of the country in which they find themselves. These are Africans who left their countries, became refugees in Africa, and then obtained scholarships abroad. They finished their studies but could not find work, some wanted to continue their education. In many European capitals, they turn to UNHCR branch offices or to the competent government authorities. I am sure the Committee will agree that most of these people should be given an opportunity to return to Africa to help in the development of their continent, until such time as they can return to their home countries. We are therefore seeking ways, with the Governments concerned and with the OAU Bureau for the placement and Education of Refugees, of helping these people to return to Africa.

I feel that while we have succeeded in the rural areas in Africa we may be failing in the cities. The new problem of non-European refugees in Europe is nothing compared to the difficulties facing us today in Africa itself. The great challenge of 1971 for this Committee and for UNHCR will be to find solutions to the problems of individual cases in the cities of Africa.

They belong to three categories. First, among the many people who leave the rural settlements and drift into the cities are many refugees looking for a better future and some kind of change. This is not only a refugee problem, for the rural exodus is one of the great problems of our time. There are also the refugee students in search of education or vocational training. Then there is a small group of persons who come to the branch offices of UNHCR and expect to receive assistance but who try to take advantage of their refugee status.

Qualitatively, this is a very difficult problem which has imposed a considerable burden on my office. We must find some opportunities for these individuals for if we simply give them relief, their numbers will grow very quickly and we shall be confronted in Africa by a group of socially handicapped refugees very careful education policy and in increased vocational training to enable them to find employment. We are grateful to the Organization of African Unity for the attention it is giving the problem and place great hope and confidence in the Bureau for the Placement and Education of Refugees. In the final analysis, only the African Governments can make it possible to solve this problem. Our thanks go also to the International University Exchange Fund and other interested agencies which are geared to the provision of better educational and vocational training opportunities in Africa. I believe that if UNHCR can provide small, effective teams to study this problem, and perhaps to establish in some of the African capitals a kind of counselling service suitable to African needs, we can avoid the development of an insoluble problem.

The problems of individual refugees are further aggravated by the laws of some of the countries of residence, such as local refugee control acts or immigration acts, which are not always in accordance with the provisions of the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol. Sometimes, too, local legislation is applied to some of the refugees whom we are trying to assist. These refugees are thus declared to be prohibited immigrants although the Governments may have acceded to the relevant international instruments and although we appeal on their behalf, they are sometimes nevertheless extradited. While Governments have the sovereign right to apply legislation in force, I feel that the special situation of refugees should be taken fully into account. Detention or extradition does not solve the problem but only postpones it. The answer lies in speedier and more effective action on the part of UNHCR and the international community, and, at the same time, in a more co-operative attitude on the part of the country of asylum.

Turning now to the financial situation of the office, I am happy to report an improvement. Whereas 50 Government contributed to our material assistance programme in 1966 and 75 in 1969, by the end of this year we hope that approximately 30 Governments will be contributing regularly. The total of governmental contributions has increased by 15 per cent since 1969, from $4 million to $4.6 million. Further, a growing number of Governments have increased their regular contribution to our programme. Twenty-two Governments this year announced higher regular contributions than in 1969. I think this proves that it is not always the same few Governments which carry the burden. This broadens the base of our support and creates a spirit of international solidarity in assistance to refugees. Governments have also contributed very generously to our Education Account and other projects outside the programme, increasing from $800,000 in 1969 to $1.1 million in 1970. All of this would not have been possible without the continuing generous support of the Scandinavian Governments and people.

For 1971, I am submitting a programme target of $6,572,000 which represents an increase of some $542,000 over the revised programme for 1970. There are several reasons for the increase: one, accidental, is that frequently the implementation of a large rural settlement scheme already submitted to the Executive Committee has been delayed until the host Government agreed that it be put into effect. This year, this has occurred in the Congo. The fundamental reason, apart from the constant increase in the cost of living, is that we have to pay much more attention to infrastructure, to the needs of education and health, without which no permanent solution can be achieved. We want to avoid past mistakes and find that a limited amount of additional funds for education or health will ensure a lasting settlement. Also, some of the settlement schemes which we have initiated in recent years, are in very remote parts of Africa, so that transportation costs and logistical difficulties weigh heavily on our finances. I believe, however, that the increase is a small price to pay for the results which I know we can obtain. In conclusion, we must not forget the challenges of the rapid economic and technological changes of the world in which we live, and the political consequences that these have on contemporary society. Refugees are affected by this also, as are our methods of work. What was very revolutionary yesterday - for example, rural settlement - has now become a routine. Now we face the challenge of the individual cases.

I believe that because we have succeeded in some sectors, such as the rural settlement schemes, we should not accept that the Office will simply carry on as before. We must try new ideas, and I rely more than ever on your guidance and on the help that we can receive from the members of the Committee, as well as from the other members of the United Nations system, on all of whom we rely so much to achieve a concerted and productive approach to the solution of the refugee problems in an ever-shrinking world.