Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

"Refugee Crises in Africa: Challenges and Solutions" - Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, Cape Town, 25 March 1997

Speeches and statements

"Refugee Crises in Africa: Challenges and Solutions" - Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, Cape Town, 25 March 1997

25 March 1997

Madame Speaker of the National Assembly, Honourable Members of Parliament, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me, at the outset, to express my deep appreciation to you, Madame Speaker, and to all your Honourable Members, for the privilege of addressing this august House. The honour bestowed upon me to be in your midst illustrates the keen interest the new South African Parliament is showing in the plight of refugees. I am extremely grateful for the support for my Office and its mandate demonstrated by the Assembly in the short time of its existence. I appreciate in particular, Madame Speaker, that in spite of your demanding schedule you have kindly consented to serve on the Informal Advisory Group that advises me in my work as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

I would like to recall that on June 14 1996, to mark Africa Refugee Day, this House devoted a special session to debate the state of African refugees and the urgent need for solutions to their problems. And again on February 11 this year, a joint session of the Home Affairs' and Foreign Affairs' Portfolio Committees granted my Director for Southern Africa and his staff an opportunity to brief you on the African refugee situation. Let me use this opportunity to thank the Government of South Africa for acceding to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1967 Protocol and the 1969 OAU Convention on Refugees in Africa. I would also like to extend my congratulations to South Africa for its recent election to the Executive Committee of my Office.

Madame Speaker, the birth of the new, non-racial and democratic South Africa has been one of the defining moments of our times. The historic triumph of peaceful change in South Africa has had bountiful dividends. Not only has it paved the way for a just and democratic society in this country, but it has also led the whole of southern Africa into a new era of reconciliation, stability and development.

The transition to peace and democracy has not been an easy one. But on the road to peace and reconciliation, few countries have achieved so much in such a short period. In less than three years, South Africa has made great progress in establishing firm democratic foundations. The rule of law and good governance have been entrenched with the creation of the institutions and instruments necessary to support and consolidate democracy.

Seven years ago, southern Africa was a major source of refugees. Armed conflicts, political violence, discriminatory policies and massive human rights abuses had uprooted large numbers of people. The problems of this troubled region seemed so intractable that few could have imagined that a durable solution could be found for its many refugees in the foreseeable future.

UNHCR has had a long association with the refugees of southern Africa. At first we concentrated on providing international protection and assistance to those fleeing from colonial and white minority rule and from the conflicts aimed at ending this rule. However, already in the mid-seventies, when Portugal withdrew from Angola and Mozambique, my Office assisted in the repatriation of thousands of refugees to these countries. Following the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement, we helped over 70,000 Zimbabweans to return home. In 1989, UNHCR negotiated an amnesty for all Namibian exiles and organized their peaceful repatriation, in time to allow them to participate in the elections that culminated in the independence of Namibia. A major undertaking was our role in reintegrating 1.7 million Mozambican refugees in the years that followed the October 1992 peace agreement between the FRELIMO government and RENAMO.

In your own country, you will recall that my Office became the first UN agency to establish a presence here, after the government had requested us to assist with the return of South African refugees. Our start was not easy. It took a period of 500 days, between April 1990 and September 1991, to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding between the government and UNHCR. But thanks to the patience and determination of both sides we overcame the thorny issues. An amnesty was granted to returnees for political offences committed before October 8 1990, and we were given free access to them to be able to make representations on their behalf. In addition to those returning spontaneously, we helped 7,300 persons go home in time for South Africa's historic, first multiparty elections in 1994.

Many lessons can be drawn from our experience in this region, especially regarding the dialectics of solutions to refugee problems, peace making and reconciliation. When refugee problems are manifestly linked to conflict over the political make-up of society, as they often are, political change is indispensable for solving them. In return refugee repatriation without retribution is an indispensable condition for political solutions. In our view this is demonstrated not only by the participation of returning refugees and exiles in the electoral process, but also by the positive impact which the negotiated arrangements for refugee return had on the process of political negotiations in your country. Thereafter, once a political settlement was reached, South Africa has also visibly demonstrated that the peaceful reintegration of refugees and political opponents is vital for confidence building and national reconciliation. Indeed, our experience teaches us that returning refugees symbolize progress toward reconciliation and reinforce it at the same time. It is a rewarding challenge for my Office to help build bridges between people, for example by assisting returning refugees as well as the communities to which they come back as we did in Mozambique.

For me, the most important and encouraging lesson from southern Africa as a whole is indeed that vicious conflict and intergroup violence resulting in widespread suffering do not preclude reconciliation and living together, however rocky - and sometimes stormy - the road towards reconciliation may be. This lesson should inspire African nations still engulfed in conflict and the international community at large when it tries to help make peace and to rebuild wartorn societies. For out of the 26 million people of concern to my Office in early 1996, there were more than 9 million to be found in Africa. Of these, 5.6 million were refugees, 2 million were returnees in the initial stages of their reintegration and 1.3 million were internally displaced assisted by UNHCR. The overall figure of internally displaced persons, in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan and now also in Zaire, is much, much higher.

Today's refugees are mostly victims of internal conflict. Human rights abuses, poverty and social inequities, political and economic restructuring, population pressures and environmental degradation are often mutually reinforcing factors leading to political tension and conflict. In the post-cold war era, group identity along ethnic, religious or communal lines has become more clearly than in the past the rallying point pitching one community against the other. We are also extremely worried about new patterns of violence in countries where state structures have unravelled and violence seems to become an end in itself, as it profits warlords and their factions.

In intergroup conflicts, which are by far not exclusively an African problem, we have seen how the distinction between civilians and soldiers is becoming blurred. Not only does this blurring cause vast complications and agonizing dilemmas for humanitarian actors, it also increases the risk of violence and insecurity being exported to neighbouring countries and of domestic conflict being internationalized. In many cases the distinction between internal and international conflicts is indeed fading. This brings me to the crisis in the Great Lakes region which is a dramatic case in point. The failure of asylum countries and the international community to separate the former military and people who committed genocide from the innocent refugees in the Rwandan refugee camps has contributed considerably to the spreading of conflict in Zaire. I would therefore like to use this opportunity to appeal to you to support the creation of an African rapid reaction capability which would also have the functions of demobilization and separation of armed elements. Such a force would serve both international and human security.

In this context let me not hide my disappointment about the cancellation of the Multinational Force that had been authorized by the Security Council to come to the rescue of refugees in Zaire. Although immensely relieved when some 700,000 Rwandans returned home towards the end of last year, we knew that hundreds of thousands were still dispersed in the bushes of eastern Zaire. In the last few weeks we have witnessed the terrible ordeal of those who survived and re-emerged, being caught in between the moving confrontation lines. While there are still many militants among them, I saw with my own eyes, some weeks ago in the Tingi Tingi camp, their suffering. Together with our humanitarian agency partners, we want to ensure their survival and help them repatriate via secure humanitarian corridors. However, insecurity, politics and enormous logistical constraints are making our work virtually impossible. The absence of a convergence of interests and views among the major powers also results in preventing this drama from receiving the international attention and determination it deserves for solution. The agony of refugees and of the Zairean victims must come to an end. In the absence of intervention, only a cease fire will give the possibility to remove the refugees from the battlefield and help solve their ultimate plight. I therefore immensely appreciate the initiatives taken by the South African government to bring about such a cease fire.

Another area of concern in Africa has been the escalating violence in Sudan, accompanied by rising tension between that country and some of its neighbours. Let me emphasize however, that the African refugee situation is not wholly negative. On the contrary, with the remarkable process of reconciliation in Mali, we have helped more than 110,000 Tuareg refugees to repatriate. We have began to assist more refugees to go home to Somalia, in addition to the 500,000 Somalis who already repatriated in the last few years. We are intensively preparing for the voluntary return of 750,000 Liberians following the political breakthrough in their country. In Angola, my Office has established a strong field presence and has started implementing the rehabilitation of roads, clinics, schools and water projects in anticipation of the return of some 300,000 Angolan citizens. We very much hope that the delayed Government of National Unity and Reconciliation will soon be formed.

Madame Speaker, following my analysis of the refugee situation on the African continent, let me now turn to two important challenges for the future, which directly concern your country as well as my Office.

The first is to ensure adequate refugee protection. The traditional African hospitality towards refugees is waning in several parts of the continent. Genuine refugees have been rejected at borders, which in some cases has resulted in immediate violent death. Boat arrivals have been pushed off. In addition, attacks on refugee camps, sexual abuse of refugee women and children, forcible conscription and abusive detention have seriously undermined safety during asylum.

Which are the causes of this worrying trend? How to contain it? The refugee burden for some countries is extremely high, taxing the national budget and the environment and at times even causing serious security problems. The latter are compounded in unstable countries of asylum being unable to guarantee law and order in refugee areas. The increasing politicization of refugee populations causes additional problems. Clearly, with growing democratization and press freedom, refugees have also in Africa become a domestic political issue on which governments are more vulnerable in times of economic difficulties. In these debates restrictive admission policies in the industrialized world are not always setting the right example, I am afraid.

Faced with these factors, I believe first that it is vital to emphasize the principle of burden-sharing and to expand international support to asylum countries. Second, we must build a new consensus on the need to ensure the civilian and humanitarian character of asylum and to counter political abuse. Third, we need to invest much more in advocating the refugee cause.

It is against this background that I appeal to this Parliament to help preserve and expand refugee protection standards in Africa. The protection of victims of persecution and war is a core component of the human rights system, the promotion of which is of great importance for the peaceful future of Africa.

Your country has been transformed from a refugee producing to a refugee receiving country. I am extremely grateful that in a relatively short time, you have put into practice the concept of international solidarity and burden-sharing, by opening your borders to the victims of conflict and human rights violations. It is my hope that your progressive refugee policies will soon be translated into a national refugee legislation.

At the same time you are faced with a high influx of people trying to escape from poverty, which, at a time of high unemployment, has led to tension and disturbing signs of xenophobia. I therefore wish to appeal to those bearing political responsibility to combat the negative perceptions surrounding asylum seekers and refugees in the larger context of migration. Although asylum requests have increased considerably since 1994, the number of those granted refugee status in South Africa is small. The swift processing of asylum applications will go a long way toward reducing the current backlog and also cut down manifestly unfounded and abusive asylum requests. Here as elsewhere, it is essential that asylum problems are de-dramatized in political rhetoric and the public mind, and that all concerned continue to differentiate between those seeking protection and those seeking better opportunities.

My Office stands ready to help and is therefore forging links with the southern African Development Community (SADC). In July 1996, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with SADC to address the question of refugees and migratory movements into and within the southern Africa region, and to develop mechanisms for tackling the causes of such movements. We are convinced that an important way to combat the growing problem of irregular population movement, is to adopt a comprehensive regional approach that harmonizes the conditions and modalities for protection, assistance and durable solutions.

As the refugees finding their way into southern Africa are mostly urban and are from countries to which their repatriation is not foreseeable, some forms of local integration are unavoidable. Given the high rate of unemployment and the heavy demand of social and educational services, my Office intends to continue our programme of helping these refugees to help themselves through income-generating activities and vocational and language training.

The second challenge that I should like to mention today is to make progress towards the prevention of refugee problems. Madame Speaker, today's refugee problems cannot be treated in isolation from the political, social and economic causes which give rise to them. Refugee policies and strategies must therefore address the problem in both countries of origin and asylum, thus balancing protection to those who need it with action aimed at solving existing problems and preventing new ones from arising.

The laudable progress in many African countries towards democratic forms of government and respect for human rights must be consolidated and expanded, in tandem with efforts to enhance economic development. It is distressing to realize that while large parts of Africa are making genuine efforts to embrace political liberties, it is also the same continent that has many countries where poverty has not declined but increased. The potential of your country to stimulate good governance and development will, I hope, be put to its full use. We are heartened by your humane foreign policy with its strong commitment to human rights and the promotion of democracy and peace. Your active stance under the rubric of SADC and the OAU has already yielded positive results in reducing tensions and resolving problems in parts of your own region. This is the political leadership we need to avert refugee problems. Since you have established internal peace, you are uniquely equipped to promote external peace.

Madame Speaker, I have come to the end of my statement. Let me say again how pleased I am to be in South Africa and how privileged I feel to address this House. With the help of courageous and forward looking leaders, your people are setting an example for the rest of the world in healing the wounds of the past. You have found your own courageous formula in balancing the demands of peace and justice, because none of you wanted to see this beautiful country destroyed. I am deeply impressed by all those who opt for truth and remorse instead of revenge. I wish the South African people and you who represent them perseverance in building a just, open and prosperous South Africa. Thank you.