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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the 1998 Substantive Session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), New York, 28 July 1998

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the 1998 Substantive Session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), New York, 28 July 1998

28 July 1998

Mr President, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is indeed a pleasure and honour to present the report of my Office to ECOSOC.

Today I should like to focus my introductory remarks on the main developments in UNHCR operations around the world. I shall particularly concentrate on the situation in Africa, in response to the call for an oral report on the situation of refugees, returnees and displaced persons in Africa by the General Assembly in Resolution 52/101. I should also like to share with you a few thoughts on some pressing issues and challenges my Office is facing.

The nature of displacement is undergoing significant changes. In recent years, UNHCR has dealt with different and increasingly complex groups of displaced people. One remarkable feature is that, in addition to refugees - people who have fled across borders - these groups have increasingly included internally displaced persons and other victims of conflict: the case of the former Yugoslavia is an example. Close links have always existed between conflicts and forced human displacement. In recent years, however, conflicts have been mostly of an internal nature, involving deeply divided communities sometimes at war with each other. This has caused outflows of population in which people of concern to my Office are mixed with armed persons, criminals, and others who are normally excluded from international protection. The crisis in the former Zaire is a dramatic example, but so may soon become the situation in Northern Albania. This - as well as other insecure scenarios abounding in refugee contexts - calls for enhanced security measures. My Office is therefore in the process of identifying options - a " ladder of options " - to address insecure refugee situations. It is clear that host governments bear primary responsibility for the maintenance of law and order in and around refugee camps. Everything possible must be done to encourage and assist states to assume this responsibility. Local capacity-building, with an emphasis on preventive approaches, is an essential element of such support.

In more extreme situations, we would like to establish - together with governments - stand-by arrangements to mobilize security support. This may not always require the deployment of multinational forces, although that might be the ultimate option. At times, for example the dispatch of police supervisors and trainers may be as useful, and more appropriate. I have agreed with the Secretary-General to make special efforts in close coordination with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in this process.

Insecurity in the context of humanitarian operations obviously has an impact on the safety of staff as well. I wish to emphasize how deeply distressed we are by the fact that more than six months after his abduction, a UNHCR staff member, Vincent Cochetel, Head of our office in Vladikavkaz, in the Northern Caucasus, remains in captivity. We continue to make every effort, in collaboration with the Russian authorities, to secure his freedom. This case is not an isolated one. Unfortunately it is part of an alarming pattern witnessed in recent years: since 1992, 140 UN civilian staff have been killed and at least as many taken hostage or imprisoned. Last week alone, in a particularly cruel series of brutal killings, several UN staff and other humanitarian workers associated with UN programmes lost their lives in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Burundi. Despite our appeals and efforts, I regret to report that humanitarian staff are not working in a more secure environment. I am worried and anguished by these developments.

The issue of staff safety needs to be addressed with vigour and determination. I have initiated practical measures to improve staff security, not only within UNHCR, but also in the context of the United Nations Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC). I was pleased that the Conference of Plenipotentiaries which adopted the statute of the International Criminal Court in Rome on 17 July included violent acts against humanitarian personnel as one of the war crimes.

Another issue of current concern to my Office is the sustainability of refugee return. This is a problem which has existed for a long time, but has recently been brought to the fore in more dramatic fashion by massive repatriation movements to countries where communities remain deeply divided after conflicts - Rwanda or Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example. When refugees return home to situations which I would define as a " fragile peace ", it is important that comprehensive approaches be developed in order to ensure the sustainability of their return. Bridging the gap between humanitarian assistance and longer-term development is essential not only to achieve proper returnee reintegration, but also to help prevent causes for further displacement. Such approaches should include the early involvement of development actors to promote stability and to ensure that the long-term needs of returnees can be addressed. They also require that the immediate needs of returnees be met satisfactorily, and that those elements among returnees and their communities who have the most at stake in peace and reconciliation - particularly women and children - be given the opportunities to play an active, conciliatory role in post-conflict societies.

Mr. President,

Turning to major operational developments, I should like to begin with Africa, where I have travelled extensively in the last few months, three times this year alone.

As a result of my mission to Central Africa in February, a regional ministerial meeting on refugee issues, co-chaired by the Secretary-General of the Organization for African Unity, Dr Salim, and myself, took place in Kampala on 8 and 9 May 1998. This was the first time states in the region met under the aegis of an international organization after the conflict in the former Zaire. The key issue on the agenda was the need to reconcile refugee protection principles with the legitimate security concerns of states. Reintegration of refugees and rehabilitation in refugee-impacted areas were also discussed. The exchanges were both frank and useful.

Follow-up efforts are focusing on three areas: first, how to ensure more effective protection for refugees, and in particular the implementation of the principles embodied in the 1969 OAU refugee Convention. This matter will be pursued with the OAU at the working level and be debated at a ministerial conference on refugees to be held later this year. Second, we discussed security mechanisms to ensure the civilian and neutral character of camps, which I already mentioned. The recent report on Africa of the UN Secretary-General contains a specific recommendation on the need for such mechanisms. Third, we spoke of how to bridge the "gap" between relief activities and reconstruction in post-conflict situations. My Office will engage in a substantive dialogue on this matter, which I also mentioned earlier, with the United Nations and other development agencies, such as the Bretton Woods institutions, as well as with donors.

I am extremely concerned about the critical financial situation of UNHCR's operations in the Great Lakes Region where the humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of refugees and returnees are particularly pressing. Sufficient resources have not been forthcoming to allow us to complete the tasks still remaining. The funding appeal for the Great Lakes operation and for the refugee and returnee operation in Rwanda has so far met with a most discouraging response.

Our activities in Rwanda are at stake. Shelter projects are being brought to a virtual standstill. As a result, many of the returnees will have no choice but to rely on plastic sheeting for cover. All income generation programmes under the Rwandan Women's Initiative have been put on hold. Assistance to unaccompanied minors is threatened. We have also had to decrease our field presence significantly. The fact that crucial activities in the areas of reintegration and reconciliation are currently not being implemented as planned, carries the risk of a lapse back into instability and recurrence of displacement.

In West Africa, the hostilities in Sierra Leone have had devastating humanitarian consequences. Civilians have been subjected to the most horrific atrocities. Large numbers of people have been displaced within the country. Since February 1998 close to 200,000 have crossed into Guinea-Conakry and another 55,000 into Liberia. These new refugees joined those who had fled in previous years. There are now well over half a million Sierra Leoneans living as refugees in neighbouring countries. UNHCR, together with other partners, has mounted an emergency operation to assist the victims. Most of them, particularly women and children, arrive in these countries in an alarmingly bad condition. The initial mortality rate of children under five years of age has reached very high levels. Now the humanitarian operation has ameliorated the situation. If the response to our funding needs is adequate, and no more substantial influxes take place, we should be able to cope with the needs until repatriation becomes possible, although further outflows can clearly not be ruled out. Meanwhile, UNHCR - while carrying out its mandated protection and assistance activities to refugees in neighbouring countries - is already planning for their return, once conditions in Sierra Leone are secure enough to make it possible. Given the size of the outflow and the circumstances of flight, the return of refugees will be an indispensable element of peace and reconstruction in Sierra Leone, and one which must be taken into careful consideration when planning for the post-conflict phase in that country. On its side, my Office is prepared to play its role in leading the repatriation and contributing to the reintegration of refugees, and if necessary of internally displaced persons, in their communities.

As for repatriation to Liberia, the main constraints are the limited absorption capacity inside the country - given the scale of destruction and the minimal reconstruction efforts so far - and inadequate transport capacity outside the country. However, up to 53,000 refugees have gone back home under the UNHCR-assisted voluntary repatriation programme launched in December 1997. In addition, a census recently carried out by the Government indicates that an additional 180,000 persons have returned spontaneously. If these figures are correct, they are rather encouraging. At the same time, the fact that such a large number of people may have returned to a country devastated by conflict is also a matter of concern. Resource constraints have forced UNHCR to scale down its repatriation programme. This is having a serious adverse effect on our ability to adequately assist those willing to return.

The situation in Guinea-Bissau is also cause of concern for my office. Most of the 220,000 inhabitants of Bissau are reported to have fled to the countryside. Peace talks between the warring parties must be encouraged and supported, because if the conflict resumes and spreads, we could see a major refugee outflow into neighbouring countries and possible threats to the protection and safety of the 5,000 Senegalese refugees (from Casamance) who have been living in Guinea-Bissau since 1992. In June, I wrote to the Presidents of Guinea-Bissau and Senegal, urging them to make every effort to obtain a peaceful and prompt settlement to the conflict, while at the same time ensuring that urgent humanitarian assistance can be mobilized for the affected population.

The situations in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau show how important it is to have a clear regional strategy on refugee issues and post-conflict situations in West Africa. UNHCR is prepared to play its role in initiating and implementing such a regional approach and we intend to establish closer ties with ECOWAS in this respect.

In the territory of Western Sahara, while my Office, in close cooperation with MINURSO, proceeds with its preparations for the repatriation of Saharawi refugees as provided for in the UN settlement plan, we still face a number of difficulties including the formalization of our presence in the territory.

On a more positive note, the repatriation of some 135,000 refugees to Mali and Niger has recently been completed. This marks the end of a displacement situation which has persisted for the last four years. Our efforts will now focus on ensuring their successful reintegration. I call upon development actors to join in the efforts to bridge the gap between relief assistance and development and to create conditions conducive to stability in these countries.

As concerns the Horn of Africa, I am pleased to report that the repatriation of some 70,000 Ethiopian refugees from the Sudan was finally concluded in June. We also hope to reactivate the repatriation of some 150,000 Eritrean refugees in the Sudan who have already registered for repatriation. Recent episodes of insecurity in the region, however, could negatively affect such plans.

Insecurity is affecting Angola even more. This is especially worrying given the generally encouraging trend towards peace and stability in the southern part of the continent. Since March of this year there has been a steady deterioration of the situation. Our operations have been affected as a result and we have had to relocate staff temporarily. These developments have had a negative effect on the voluntary repatriation programme which we have suspended for the time being.

Recently, over 30,000 Angolans have fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is once again called to fulfil its traditional role of major asylum country in Central Africa. In this respect, I would like to mention that in recent months UNHCR and the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have signed tripartite Memoranda of Understanding with Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi, in order to deal with the assistance to refugee caseloads to and from these countries and, whenever possible, their repatriation. A general Memorandum of Understanding between UNHCR and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been signed this week. I hope its provisions, which define a clearer framework of cooperation with the government, will be implemented as soon as possible on the ground.

Mr. President,

Let me now turn to Europe.

In the former Yugoslavia, the situation in Kosovo is deteriorating. Over 100,000 people have been uprooted. Besides those who have remained in Kosovo as displaced persons, some 13,500 have taken refuge in Albania and some 22,000 have become internally displaced in the neighbouring Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro. UNHCR has strengthened its presence on the ground and, together with its partners, as well as with the ICRC, is providing assistance. The humanitarian response has so far been adequate, although access inside Kosovo and the prevailing grave insecurity in Northern Albania constitute major challenges. I must emphasize that while UNHCR and its partners stand ready to continue to help the victims, firm political action is urgently needed to resolve the crisis.

As to the broader refugee problems in the region, more than 1.8 million people are still displaced and in need of solutions in and outside the former Yugoslavia. The main obstacles to return are security and property issues and political barriers. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, minority returns in the first half of the year have fallen well short of UNHCR's planning figure of 50,000; only 10,000 such returns have taken place. In Croatia, administrative impediments linked to lack of political will have resulted in minimal return of ethnic Serbs so far. It is essential that the Croatian government fully implements its recently approved plan for the return of all refugees.

In response to a request made by the Peace Implementation Council of the Dayton Peace Accords, my Office has developed a regional strategy for the return of refugees and displaced persons. This was presented at the Council's meeting in Luxembourg on 9 June 1998. It received broad support, and was subsequently endorsed by the Humanitarian Issues Working Group in Geneva on 26 June 1998.

A country which has recently witnessed troubling developments is Georgia. The fighting which broke out in the Gali region of Abkhazia in May 1998 has forced up to 40,000 out of an original population of over 50,000 returnees to again become displaced. They are currently located in Zugdidi, where UNHCR and other agencies are delivering emergency assistance.

In South-East Asia, civil unrest linked to the continuing financial problems and political instability has, fortunately, not led to any significant forced displacement thus far. We remain alert, however. In Malaysia my Office is collaborating with the government to find third country solutions for a limited number of Acehnese from Indonesia. In Cambodia, continuing political and military instability means that the majority of the refugees in Thailand have not been able to return home in time for the national elections.

In Afghanistan, the on-going internal conflict deeply affects our programmes and the fighting in some areas is an obstacle to repatriation. We are also extremely concerned about recent setbacks related to the Memorandum of Understanding concluded between the UN and the Taliban administration in May. I am very concerned by the departure of NGOs from Kabul. It will inevitably have serious consequences on the living conditions of the population in the Afghan capital and may create more displacements and arrivals of new refugees in Pakistan. Despite these concerns, we welcome the recent joint United Nations efforts and initiatives which will allow our comparative strengths and responsibilities to be channelled together in pursuit of common objectives.

In Central America, the Guatemalan special programme has entered its final year and is due to conclude in June 1999, signalling the positive end of an important chapter in UNHCR's involvement in this region. Funding, however, is a major concern. Unless this situation improves, the final phase of the programme will be affected. In Mexico, we are pleased that, in spite of the situation prevailing in Chiapas, the government is committed to facilitate the local integration of those Guatemalan refugees who do not opt for repatriation. Furthermore, we are reinforcing our activities on behalf of Colombian asylum-seekers and refugees in Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela and we have established a small-scale presence in Colombia itself.

In conclusion, while no major refugee outflow has occurred in the last year, with the exception perhaps of the Sierra Leonean tragedy, UNHCR has had to face a very large number of smaller emergencies. During the last 12 months, over 50 emergency missions were dispatched to at least 11 different operations around the world. Of the current emergency roster members, 65% have been deployed, as opposed to only 20% in the previous two years.

It is therefore of paramount importance that - on the one hand - we maintain the preparedness capacity we have developed in the early 90s. On the other hand, the resolution of many refugee situations means that UNHCR is increasingly involved in repatriation and reintegration activities.

In both cases, it is essential that we are given the resources to enable us to carry out our responsibilities - it is also essential that such resources be as timely and predictable as possible. As I speak, crucial repatriation and reintegration programmes in Angola, Rwanda and Liberia, as well as programmes in the Great Lakes region of Africa and CIS countries, are being seriously affected by underfunding. There is also great concern about declining support for our general programmes.

I am convinced, however, that in spite of the seriousness of our funding problems, UNHCR continues to be an organization which donors consider worth supporting. In this regard, we appreciate the need to streamline our activities wherever possible and we have undertaken a very thorough and painful cost-saving exercise in terms of staffing and programmes. We are also conducting intensive consultations with governments to improve our budgetary structure so that it can better suit the requirements of our mandate and the exigencies of donors. I hope that - if we are able to adjust our size to needs which have objectively decreased, and if we remain qualitatively competitive - we will continue to receive adequate resources to carry out our work.

Mr President,

My Office is committed to continuously examine ways and means to improve its effectiveness in carrying out its mandate. I must, however, stress that our commitment needs to be supplemented by the commitment of states, on the one hand, to uphold the basic tenets of refugee law, and, on the other, to politically and financially support us in assisting and protecting the people placed under my mandate by the international community.

It is for states to find the political impetus necessary to forge solutions to refugee problems. Over 22 million of the world's refugees and other dispossessed people are counting on your support.

Thank you, Mr President.