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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 14 November 1983

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 14 November 1983

14 November 1983

Mr. Chairman,

Once again I have the privilege of reporting to this Committee. I greatly value this annual opportunity of exchanging views on the refugee problems in the world, and I am very much looking forward, Mr. Chairman, to co-operating with you and with the Bureau of the Third Committee during this Debate. At the outset, let me say how deeply I appreciate the support given by Governments to humanitarian task entrusted to my Office. I am sure that this valuable support will continue and will be reaffirmed.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, last year, at the recommendation of this Committee the General Assembly adopted without a vote a resolution[1] in December 1982, continuing the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees "for a further period of five years as from I January 1984." On the one hand this is no cause for rejoicing as the continuing need for an organization to take care of refugees reflects that the tragic problem of the world's uprooted is still with us. Indeed, when UNHCR started its activities in 1951, for an initial period of three years, there were some 1.5 million refugees - today there are some ten million. On the other hand, it is certainly a reason for satisfaction that this purely humanitarian and non-political organization is maintained to alleviate the plight of those fleeing intolerance, injustice or strife. The humanitarian and non-political character, which is fundamental to the effectiveness of the Office, has been maintained by the Governments. For this, I am very grateful.

We have thus an institutional basis given by the General Assembly to look towards the future and the future should be the focus of my remarks today - rather than a tour d'horizon of our activities. How do we lock at the year, or the years, ahead? We see as our great challenge the achievement of durable solutions. Too many refugees on all continents are living in a state of dependency, whether in camps or in towns, and must rely on outside help - sometimes considerable - to cover their basic needs. Others lack documents, or a proper status enabling them to lead a stable life. All that creates hardship for the individuals, difficulties for the asylum countries, and a major problem for the international community.

Refugees have come to occupy a conspicuous place in today's world: they are especially numerous in poor countries which receive them generously but which have their own development problems to face; they are a matter of concern to the public and the media; in some situations their ate may be part of negotiations at global level. I have no doubt that very often an unresolved refugee situation is a cause for tension, sand an unsettling factor on the road to peace. The mere presence of large numbers of refugees in a given country may create social, economic or political difficulties. The problems are compounded if, in addition, there is little prospect of a solution that would enable the refugees to become an asset and not a burden.

Therefore, both in accordance with our mandate and out of necessity, we must, more than ever, try to remain solution-oriented. The United Nations and the Governments can certainly show a positive record of achievements in this respect: since the inception of UNHCR, w estimate that some 25 million refugees have been given a new and independent life. Yet, in the face of the great increase in refugee numbers over the last three decades, of the difficulties encountered in order to reach lasting solutions, we must redouble our efforts.

The key to solutions, however, is not in the hands of UNHCR, it is in your hands. UNHCR is a tool, hopefully a catalytic agent; UNHCR can help mobilize resources, arouse interest, reinforce concern for the plight of millions of human beings. However, it is Governments that must create the conditions to render solutions possible.

The best solution to refugee problems is voluntary repatriation - the free return of refugees to their home country, hopefully to their very places of origin. Voluntary repatriation normally results from accession to independence, change of regime, amnesty, or the end of a conflict. Voluntary repatriation is thus often linked to significant political developments. In the last four years, we have undertaken several repatriation and rehabilitation operations: refugees have thus returned to countries on all continents; Burma, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, Chad, are just a few examples. Repatriation from Djibouti to Ethiopia started recently. Through our participation in tripartite commissions grouping the authorities of the country of refuge, the country of origin, and UNHCR, we help pave the way and create material conditions for repatriation to be a valid option for those refugees who decide to return of their own free will.

In any situation, we explore the possibilities of voluntary repatriation but, it this solution is not possible, we turn to local integration of refugees in their countries of first asylum. The Sudan, Tanzania, Zaire, China, are examples of countries where local integration of refugees has been achieved or is well under way. In general, however, the problems of achieving local integration are numerous. As I said earlier, refugees are sometimes a source of tension between countries. They have a political impact. National concerns may be affected as a result of their presence. Hence, they may simply be undesirable in the countries where they have been received, they may not be allowed to remain and may have to move on to third countries. But more often, the major obstacle to local integration lies in the fact that refugees are, in the majority, in developing countries with a very limited capacity t absorb any sizeable influx. Whatever the generosity of the receiving countries, prevailing technical conditions may be the real stumbling block: strictly limited arable land, shortage of water, lack of work opportunities, insufficient infrastructure in general.

In relation to the efforts of the international community to face the challenge, I would like to mention a meeting of experts on the subject of refugee aid and development which took place near Geneva from 29 to 31 August of this year. In their Report on the meeting, the experts call for a review of refugee assistance policies in low-income countries with a major refugee problem, and for a new approach to the solution of such problems. They emphasize that, while the first priority in the early stages of a refugee influx is to meet urgent needs, the refugees' productivity should at the outset be encouraged as much as possible: this should progressively enable them to become self-supporting, and to contribute to the development of the area. This is a more comprehensive view of what is sometimes called the "refugee affected areas", where refugees are part of a much wider picture also involving the local population. We are studying the experts' report with an open mind and will be contacting other interested organizations of the United Nations system to discuss the experts suggestions and to further our co-operation with them.

If both voluntary repatriation and local integration appear to be out of reach, one must turn to resettlement in third countries. This sometimes means moving refugees half-way across the globe, to new languages, new traditions, and new values. This solution is sometimes an absolute necessity. Since 1975, approximately one million persons, half of them boat people, have thus been resettled form South-East Asia. A great achievement indeed. Yet arrivals continue, although in much smaller numbers than a few years ago. Today there are almost 180,000 refugees in South-East Asia for whom it is increasingly difficult to find solutions. We have endeavoured to analyse the situation thoroughly, have suggested an integrated overall approach, and have contacted several governments urging the continuation of joint efforts to solve the problem. Resettlement remains a vital aspect of the global approach, and we encourage consideration of maintaining and possibly increasing the present resettlement rate, of speeding up the intake of those accepted, and of relaxing admission criteria.

I am pleased to mention that the Programme of Orderly Departures form the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam has been gaining encouraging momentum. As against 10,057 departures for the whole of 1982, almost 13,00 persons had left during the first nine months of this year. However important, resettlement is not the only answer to refugee problems in South-East Asia: we are also exploring ways and means of stepping up the voluntary repatriation of certain groups, and of studying the possibility of self-sufficiency schemes at a regional level.

In a number of instances, none of the three solutions I have just reviewed is immediately possible: obstacles may be such that, wherever one turns, refugees are left helpless for extended periods. But we are still determined to do all in our power, in co-operation with Governments, to pursue the search for solutions even when at first glance they appear remote. Numerous solutions have been achieved in the past, sometimes where problems initially appeared insurmontable. This can only be a source of encouragement for the future, as millions of refugees are still waiting to rebuild their lives.

Among the large-scale efforts being made to give refugees a new existence while assisting receiving countries in a spirit of burden-sharing, important endeavours are under way to identify new avenues for solutions and to mobilize world support.

Next year, the international community will take one such major step, through the second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa - ICARA II. In this connection, I wish to draw the attention of the Committee to the Report of the Secretary-General, document A/38/526. This Report is submitted in compliance with paragraph 12 of resolution 37/197, adopted by the thirty-seventh session of the General Assembly and gives a detailed account of preparations undertaken so far for convening ICARA II. I shall not repeat what is already covered in the Report.

Allow me, however, to draw your attention to the broad lines therein. Chapter II provides the background for the decision taken by the General Assembly, at its last session, to call on the Secretary-General to convene the second ICARA - as a follow-up to the first International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa, held in April 1981. In Chapter III, the objectives of ICARA II are outlined - as listed in paragraph 5 (a) to (c) of resolution 37/197 - as well as the arrangements made for implementing these objectives. Thus, the Conference must address the needs of the refugees and returnees, and those of the countries receiving them. With the close co-operation of the African countries concerned, my Office will, accordingly, prepare for presentation to the Conference, a report on the assistance needs of refugees and returnees to Africa. In addition, the Office of the Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Questions, assisted by UNDP and a Technical Team, has assumed the responsibility for preparing a report on the infrastructural assistance needs of African countries with large numbers of refugees and returnees. In this connection, the excellent co-operation and support received from the agencies of the United Nations system must be emphasized. In Chapter IV, reference is made to the ICARA Steering Committee, which is responsible for the overall direction of the preparatory work for the Conference; Chapter IV B gives an account of the activities undertaken or planned in the field of public information to sensitize public opinion to the refugee situation in Africa. Finally, Chapter IV C includes a number of proposed Conference Arrangements on which the Secretary-General is seeking the guidance of the General Assembly.

The theme of ICARA II as you might have seen from the photo exhibit displayed in this Conference Room, is: "Time for Solutions". This is fully in line with what my Office is trying to achieve the world over. An ambitious endeavour maybe, but necessary indeed. In our preparations for ICARA II so far, we have been particularly mindful that the Conference should provide an opportunity, and a joint responsibility for all participants, to try to put into practice some basic concepts guiding refugee aid. I am thinking specially of the relationship between relief and developmental aid, and the primacy of durable solutions.

We rely on the support of African Governments, affected by the refugee problem, for the thorough preparations of realistic and credible projects that can generate the resources that the situation deserves. We count on the support of other Governments to consider the submissions for ICARA II in a spirit of goodwill and understanding of the scope and magnitude of the problem.

The composition of the Steering Committee, i.e. representatives of the Secretary-General, the Organization of African Unity, my Office and the United Nations Development Programme, reflects the need for a combined approach - covering political aspects as well as humanitarian and developmental elements and should ensure that all relevant facts are taken into account.

Only a truly international effort - in which asylum and donor countries, as well as international organizations, join hands - can ensure the success of ICARA II. A success we owe to those African countries which so generously receive the refugees - and a success we need in order to restore Africa's refugees to a dignified life.

Mr. Chairman, I have tried to explain how imperative we consider the search for durable solutions to be. But what creates the demand for all material assistance to needy refugees is the simple fact that the refugee is there, that he reaches the country where he intends to seek asylum safely, and that he is indeed received and not rejected. Here, we are at the heart of a wider range of problems related to our International Protection function.

In this context, I would like to pay tribute to countries that have received refugees in a positive way. I wish to mention, however, that we have witnessed a deterioration in the situation of asylum-seekers in various areas of the world. The world economic crisis, and the high number of economic immigrants in certain countries, are important reasons which account for deplorable hardening of attitudes towards genuine refugees. Xenophobia, which is a spreading danger, compassion fatigue, are other factors also leading to restrictions. Barriers are raised, deterrents are sought to discourage the arrival of refugees. Although I would not like to draw a gloomier picture than necessary - since many countries on all continents do continue to receive refugees and do treat them according to internationally-accepted standards - it is true that restrictive measures are either there, or are looming on the horizon. It could be said that, in many countries refugee rights are at a crossroads.

We all know that the reason for flows of people are not exclusively political. People may move for economic reasons, or to flee natural catastrophes. However, today, when negative reactions towards immigration occur all over the world, when economic migrants pose as asylum-seekers in the hope that this will help solve their immigration problem, it is vitally important to prevent restrictive attitudes from having negative consequences for persons making a bona fide request for asylum. Above all, we must strive for the scrupulous observance of the principle of non-refoulement, that is not well-founded reasons to fear persecution.

Another cause for grave concern is the physical safety of refugees and asylum-seekers, wherever they are, in camps and settlements, on land or on the sea. Pirate attacks continue on asylum-seekers in boats. UNHCR is co-operating closely with the Royal Thai Government on an anti-piracy programme, launched over a year ago. Rape, abduction, murder, are too often the fate of boat people. More must be done to curb these persistent acts of barbarity which can only be considered with utmost revulsion. The programme, initially for twelve months, has now been extended - and intensified - for another year.

Concerning rescue at sea, an unfortunate trend has become clear: fewer ships meeting boat people come to their rescue. Of all the asylum-seekers arriving in South-East Asia, the proportion of those rescued at sea has dropped significantly. Thin might indicate that higher proportion of asylum-seekers are left in distress, facing the increasing danger of perishing at sea. We have tried to address the problem in many ways, through contacts with maritime circles and active co-operation with the International Maritime Organization (IMC). Also, we are consulting with Governments on a resettlement scheme whose aim is to provide additional incentives to shipmasters and ship-owners to rescue asylum seekers at sea.

Mr. Chairman, these were the introductory remarks I wished to make today. As I said earlier, I have refrained from giving a tour d'horizon: our report on past activities, and concrete examples of our action in terms of International Protection and Material Assistance, are in the documents before you. There two poles of our activities, Protection and Assistance, are intimately linked. If durable solutions are not forthcoming, if a refugee group is restless because of inadequate assistance, the receiving countries may be inclined to take more restrictive measures in the protection field. Governmental action, in keeping with their possibilities, is required. The spirit of burden-sharing must be implemented and must not just be empty words. We certainly would not like to minimize the difficulties experienced by Governments in facing refugee problems, and the response of so many Governments, and peoples, is highly commendable.

It is not easy for me to appear as always asking for more efforts. But the refugee problem remains with us. The world produces solutions but seems unable to keep pace with the global increase of refugees, or even to catch up with the backlog. In a given situation, it is not always so difficult to start helping, especially when the problem is in the headlines. But, as developments evolve, it gradually becomes more difficult to see a problem through to its conclusion.

I am sure that we shall have a constructive debate. I am sure that Governments will continue to assist us in our humanitarian work, and strive for humane solutions to the many problems of refugees in today's troubled world. All too often, the attainment of durable solutions is impeded by complex political considerations. Meanwhile, the individual refugee, even though he may apparently be lost in a large group of refugees - or accounted for as a number in statistical tables - is waiting his turn for a new life, with his own difficulties, his own hopes, his own aspirations. President Nyerere of Tanzania, who this year was awarded the Nansen Medal for distinguished services to the cause of refugees, reminded us on the occasion of the award that "every refugee is an individual human being whose particular collection of problems is unique. He, or she, knows this, and it is essential that the rest of us should always remember it". Let us hope that all concerned, the governments, the United Nations agencies, the non-governmental organizations, the people who can give the refugees so much help and human warmth, can succeed in the pursuit of our common humanitarian goals on behalf of the uprooted individual beings.

[1] A/RES/37/196