Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Organization of African Unity, 7 May 1979

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Organization of African Unity, 7 May 1979

7 May 1979

Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour to be her with you today. An honour greatly enhanced by the presence of His Excellency President Nyerere, to whom we are deeply grateful for opening this Conference and enabling us to meet in Arusha. May I also say how happy I am to be here with the many distinguished representatives of African governments and liberation movements, with the Executive Secretary of the ECA and the representative of the Secretary-General of the OAU.

No gathering could signify more clearly the gravity with which the leaders of this continent view the refugee problem, or the serious thought that this subject receives in the highest councils of Africa.

In their concern, or lack of concern for the refugees, nations reveal their sense of fellowship, or the lack of it. This Conference is clear and continuing testimony to the profound spirit of fellowship that infuses Africa's attitudes.

In no continent is the number of refugees so great. But in non continent are refugees received with greater generosity of spirit, or understanding of their predicament. In no other continent has such a Conference been organized; or a greater or more dedicated effort been made - by the Governments and peoples of the Continent - to assist their uprooted.

We cannot adequately express our admiration for this, or sufficiently underline this for the attention of the rest of the world.

We are well aware that the governments of Africa are engaged in the arduous tasks of development and nation-building. We know that all available resources should, ideally, be concentrated for these tasks.

It follows that everything possible must be done to reduce and resolve the refugee problem in this continent - this is, first and foremost, a challenge to the leaders of Africa.

It also follows, no less truly, that the international community must be of every help and support, in a manner thoroughly consistent with the needs, aspirations and sensibilities of this continent - this is a challenge which must be met by the rest of the world.

There is much that the international community can learn from Africa's spirit of fellowship and the example that this sets. It is therefore appropriate that, amongst us today, there are observer delegations from a number of non-African governments, United Nations programmes and agencies, and also representatives from dedicated non-governmental organizations who share our practical concerns and wish to be of continuing help. I warmly welcome their attendance.

Mr. Chairman, it is entirely logical that my Office should be associated with this Conference as a co-sponsor. In a sense, this is a successor to the Conference on the Legal, Economic and Social Aspects of African Refugee Problems, held in Addis Ababa in October 1967, which we also co-sponsored and which set the stage for many of our joint efforts in the intervening years. It may be instructive, as we meet today, to see in perspective what has been accomplished and where we now stand, for this will point to what must still be accomplished.

What has been achieved? In brief, a great deal. What must be achieved? Regrettably, much more.

The recollection of past refugee crises is not without pain. We know too well that refugee problems point to racial and colonial arrogance; we know that they can also point to deep and sad tensions within our societies, to conflicts between nations and to the violation of human rights. Sometimes these tensions are better forgotten, or they live to haunt us. Sometimes, however, to face the truth and to have a sense of perspective, can free us of needless fears and give us hope and assurance for the future.

For if the origins of refugee crises evoke memories of pain, the solutions achieved often constitute a victory for justice; tolerance and human solidarity. So let us recall some accomplishments since the 1967 Addis Ababa Conference.

A decade ago, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau had - in the face of colonial intransigence - left their homes. We recall that the refugees were granted generous asylum in many neighbouring countries, land was provided for them and the refugees themselves worked industriously. We were privileged to help the host countries and the refugees in the years of adversity and expatriation. We then helped in their return home. We recall that UNHCR's humanitarian programmes for these groups, attending the months after independence, were targeted at over $40 million, and food was provided in addition. Throughout the years of exile, we urged the international community to help, stressing that the refugees were no burden, but a valuable and constructive human resource, a group that deserved every encouragement and facility to prepare them for their return home. Our act of faith in the future was justified. Yesterday's exiles are today's free citizens and leaders. It is important we remember this, as we seek today to lessen the anguish of those who have had to leave their homes in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

We recall that at the start of this decade, the Sudan had known 15 years of civil strife. We know that peace and understanding were restored. At the request of the governments concerned, and in consultation with the OAU, this Office brought back 150,000 Sudanese refugees from four adjoining countries and worked to nurse that was then described as "a miracle". We remember the $20 million programme that UNHCR launched in the southern Sudan. Those were moments of history and abiding emotion.

The examples of Africa resolving refugee problems are too many to list individually today. In the United Republic of Tanzania itself, you have also received many refugees from Burundi and Rwanda. They are being successfully and peacefully integrated, as are thousands of other refugees, from various countries, who have found new lives in other African countries.

If I have mentioned these accomplishments, as illustrations, it is with a purpose.

First, we must not despair - problems exist to be resolved, and many that appeared insoluble, were proven otherwise. We all know that the colonial inheritance was not an easy one and that the formidable challenges of nation-building inevitably pose their own strains. Second, experience has shown that the supposed might of colonial or minority regimes is more fragile than their rulers might suspect. The refugees from such territories have gone home, and will go home, with their ideals vindicated. Third, throughout the past decade, African countries have shown enormous generosity in granting refuge and in sharing their resources with those in need. The international community has responded in good measure - but to those who would divide the world between donor and recipient countries, let me say there can be no gift more valuable than refuge itself and the land, or employment, to enable refugees to support themselves. It is these that African governments have always sought to provide. We must never err in under-estimating this. Fourth, through all the strains of refugee crises - and we are well aware of the delicacy of the considerations that arise between independent countries - African governments have kept in mind that the granting of asylum to refugees is a peaceful and humanitarian act and shall not be regarded as an unfriendly act by any Member State. This principle, written into the 1969 OAU Convention in Article II (2), could well be remembered by governments elsewhere in the world. It is the them of this Conference.

Since the 1967 Conference, therefore, much has been achieved. Sadly, however, the number of refugees and displaced persons in Africa has not decreased, but the contrary. The problems, in many aspects, have grown more complex. At one level, they cannot be resolved without the most judicious statesmanship. At another level, they cannot be resolved without much greater attention to detail and the daily implementation of avowed policies. We need a blend of vision, perseverance and practicality.

Clearly, we face a supreme challenge to our values in southern Africa. Apartheid, an odious and universally despised system, ensures a steady stream of refugees, particularly from among the young. At the same time, in the International Year of the Child, we witness the bombing and killing of school-age refugees. I cannot adequately express my revulsion at the loss of innocent life or the way in which refugees in Angola, Mozambique and Zambia have, time and again, been attacked.

But we can be certain that the will of Africa, of the liberation movements and of the refugees, will not be broken. And I would like to say in the clearest terms that you can count on our every effort in the humanitarian field of our work. We well realize the immense strain on the front-line States. You will not stand alone. It is to this and that we are constantly reviewing the ways in which we can help and adapting our programmes to the needs. We are specially engaged in co-ordinating an international response for the South African refugee students. We are, in addition, on the basis of a series of General Assembly resolutions, closely associated with the various United Nations missions to southern Africa - many of them led by my friend and colleague, Mr. Farah. Likewise, we have participated in recent United Nations missions to Namibia. Africa and the United Nations have a responsibility to the future: it will be met.

Mr. Chairman, the work of UNHCR must - as our Statute requires - be entirely humanitarian and non-political in character. This is a wise in junction, both for us in UNHCR and for all who deal with us - whether those who seek our help, or those who give us the means to help. It is in this spirit that we are, currently, also deeply engaged in other parts of Africa. I think, for instance, of the Horn, where we are helping a vast number of refugees and displaced persons in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia and where the Economic and Social Council has, through a resolution, expressly asked all States to respond generously to the programme I am co-ordinating. I think, too, of our work in Kenya, the Sudan and elsewhere, and the effects of recent developments on it.

Obviously, there can be no more gratifying conclusion to a refugee problem than voluntary repatriation. To create the conditions in which this is feasible is, however, a challenge to statesmanship - each situation requiring the creation of conditions unique to itself. Certainly, in the African context, this challenge has, in the past, been met. It is also being met in the present: witness the large-scale repatriations between Angola and Zaire, which we greatly welcome and which we are facilitating in every possible way. May I express the hope that, in harmony with Africa's unparalleled sense of fellowship, this challenge will also be met in the future, through guidance from the highest levels of government. I need hardly add our clear experience: rapid solutions to refugee problems strengthen the forces for peace. Conversely, failure to provide such solutions - in any part of the world - can lead to the shattering of peace. Peace and the possibility of unimpeded progress is central to Africa's agenda for the future: se also, than, must be the search for solutions to outstanding refugee problems.

Mr. Chairman, I have not, in these opening comments, spoken in detail of the legal and protection problems of our work in Africa, or of the social and economic, institutional and administrative aspects of it. In part, this is because I am well aware of the excellent preparatory work done on these subjects by the eminent experts entrusted the write papers for this Conference. These papers, as participants know, have been considered not only at various sessions of the Planning Committee, but also by the Expert Group and Workshop that met in Arusha in January-February this year. I would like to commend all concerned for the excellent documents that have been prepared; they will now serve as Conference Papers to focus discussion in the coming days.

I must, however, make a few essential points.

Clearly, in the legal field, we need to ensure that refugees are able to invoke the rights articulated for them in the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1969 OAU Convention. the exact nature of arrangements in each country should be in accord with these instruments. This requires the translation of internationally accepted principles into national legislation and a most rigorous care in daily implementation. Above all, we must guard against political expediency or administrative oversight resulting in the refoulement of refugees - for that would strike, as it often sadly has, at the very basis of our efforts. The report of the Expert Group on Legal and Protection Problems deals most thoroughly with those matters. Its recommendations, inter alia, on the question of asylum, problems relating to detention and imprisonment, illegal entry, expulsion and the designation of refugees as prohibited immigrants, all deserve the most careful consideration.

The line between legal issues, on the one hand, and social and economic issues, on the other, is inevitably somewhat arbitrary and unreal. Human rights and needs, whether of refugees or nationals, do not readily fall into watertight compartments. Inevitably, there is a link and inter-relationship between the legal aspects of questions such as employment and freedom of movement, on the one hand, and the social and economic aspects of the situation in which refugees find themselves, on the other hand. Here again, I shall not repeat what is contained in the Conference documents. The major issues relating, inter alia, to education, training and employment, the welfare of urban refugees and their counselling, the problems facing rural refugees and the context in which they must be helped, have all been explored with great care in preparation for this Conference.

Indeed, Mr. Chairman, we have a unique opportunity in the coming days to be creative, to be compassionate, to chart practical measures for those who need our thought and attention. We are here form all the Member States of the OAU, and from many abroad. We bring to this Conference different languages, customs, ideologies and beliefs. We must bind our experience together in the name of human dignity. For that is what it means to assist the refugees.