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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa, 3 April 1981

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa, 3 April 1981

3 April 1981

Mr. Secretary-General,

Thank you for giving me the floor. May I, first of all join you in welcoming the distinguished delegates to this Conference. The presence of His Excellency President Siaka Stevens Current Chairman of the Organization of African Unity, is for us a particular honour. May I also say how happy I am to be with you, Mr. Secretary-General, and with his Excellency Mr. Edem Kodjo, Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity. High level Delegations have come from all parts of the world and this demonstration of universal interest toward the refugee cause in Africa is most encouraging.

Africa has indeed more refugees than any other continent. They have been received with the greatest generosity and understanding. The African countries have granted them refuge and shared their resources with those in need. They have given land and employment to enable refugees to support themselves. They have also given hospitality and human kindness. I remember how forcefully His Excellency President Nyerere expressed this commitment, almost two years ago. At the Conference on the Situation of Refugees in Africa, held at Arusha in May 1979, he said in his introductory statement: 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 million inhabitants.

Since then, the number of refugees has become even more immense, and so have the needs. There seems to be no respite. The problem, in many aspects, has grown more complex. The refugees have, in most cases, sought asylum in countries where development problems are the most pressing. Traditional African hospitality is being strained to the extreme as large numbers of refugees draw on limited resources. The efforts of the African countries must evoke a vigorous response from the international community and, these days, we are given a unique opportunity to bind our efforts together.

The situation, critical as it is, is by no means hopeless. Situations are seldom hopeless if they are not perceived as such. Solutions brought to problems of the past give us hope for the future.

Indeed, throughout twenty tears of close co-operation between the African governments and the UNHCR, large numbers of refugees have found a solution to their plight, after an initial period of relief assistance.

Over one and a half million have returned of their own free will to their home countries. They all ceased to be refugees: they are today's free citizens and leaders. Voluntary repatriation is deeply gratifying for the refugee, and a most rewarding task for m office.

When repatriation has proved impossible, durable solutions in the form of local integration have been pursued. Programmes have been set up for refugees of urban background, who have been assisted with education, training and search for employment opportunities. Also, rural settlements have been successfully created in many countries for large groups of refugees, enabling them to become self-supporting.

These are the patterns which have developed in the past. The international Community has invested in a network of effort which has been gaining a promising momentum. The support of the member countries of the OAU, and the excellent co-operation received from the OAU - including its Bureau for Placement and Education of African refugees - have been a cornerstone for the work of my Office. In our approach we have been guided by the 1969 OAU Convention governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in African the regional complement to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. In our work, we have been drawing upon the technical expertise available within an increasing number of specialized United Nations agencies, as well as on the dynamism and operational know-how of numerous non-governmental organizations. We now have a strategy for our work in Africa, mapped out at the successful Arusha Conference, and implemented under the joint responsibility of the OAU and UNHCR.

Many activities launched over the years must be pursued and amplified. Large scale relief operations are necessary - and indeed imperative. They simply point to the difference between life and death, hope and despair. But relief is not a dignified solution for a refugee, whose individual aspirations go far beyond this situation of dependency. The basic objective is the satisfactory integration of the refugee. This is not easy to attain and requires efforts of considerable magnitude. As a solution oriented organization, by its Statute, UNHCR has an important role to play in promoting self-sufficiency of the refugees. Further measures on their behalf, harmonized with national development programmes are for other appropriate agencies.

In bringing short and longer term solutions to refugee problems time is a most precious factor. Rapid solutions to refugee problems strengthen the forces for peace. Failure to provide them can only lead to increased unrest. Peace, and the possibility of unimpeded progress, are paramount factors to Africa's plans for the future. We are all hare to join forces, to focus world attention, to mobilize resources. The terms of the plea addressed to the world is strong in its simplicity: give the refugees a new life and a new dignity; give the countries of asylum - in support and acknowledgement of their efforts the resources commensurate with the considerable burden they have to bear.

In closing, I should like to pledge the dedication of my Office to carry out its eminently humanitarian task on behalf of refugees who, with anxiety expect a better future for themselves and their children. Also, I wish to emphasize once more my full understanding of the additional problems found by the countries of asylum as a result of the large-scale presence of refugees. While paving a warm tribute to all those governments and organizations which have generously contributed to meet refugee needs in Africa. I wish to appeal for an intensified effort by all concerned. With experience, imagination and adequate resources this battle must be won.

Thank you, Mr. Secretary-General.