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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Inter-Governmental Consultations on Asylum, Refugee and Migration Policies in Europe, North America and Australia (IGC), Bern, 23 March 1999

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Inter-Governmental Consultations on Asylum, Refugee and Migration Policies in Europe, North America and Australia (IGC), Bern, 23 March 1999

23 March 1999

Mr. Kellenberger,
Mr. Gerber,
Heads of Delegations,
Invited Guests,

I am very pleased to be with you today to share my concerns as you address policy directions being taken regarding migration, asylum and refugees. First, let me thank Mr. Gerber, director of the Swiss Federal Office for Refugees, for extending the invitation to me. I trust that under your able chairmanship, this morning's meeting proved to be productive and useful.

Throughout history, political and economic trends have affected refugee and migration movements. One need only look at the industrial revolution to see to what degree such trends can affect how and why people move. Today, the ever advancing technological network of globalization is having its own noticeable impact on population movements. While in some ways this current globalization has provided new opportunities, it has also created new problems. The economies of certain countries have greatly benefited from the free circulation of goods and capital, which have in turn created jobs, profits and improved living conditions for many. However, the rapid expansion of these same economies have led, in certain cases, to equally dramatic collapses. The resulting economic and social unrest has created a domino effect of attacks on ethnic and religious minorities, followed by large population movements.

Although globalization may not be the only cause, it is certainly contributing to a general decline in the protection of people by states, and leading to a growing sense of human insecurity. But the very real threats to personal security unleashed within regions in economic or political turmoil can also fuel perceived threats to the security of states who are poised to accept people forced to move by poverty, or by conflict and persecution. People in genuine need of protection end up being greeted by a xenophobic barrier to asylum.

As these trends continue, the priority is to address the root causes of emerging population movements. The issue is of course very complex and it requires that the international community adopt a much more comprehensive approach, combining political (and, if necessary, military) efforts to solve conflicts, with broad reconstruction programmes encompassing urgent humanitarian needs, as well as social and economic reconstruction.

I wish to insist on the comprehensiveness of the approach. This is key. If you analyze many refugee-producing situations, such as Afghanistan, the Kurdish area, and several countries in Africa, you will notice how dispersed and fragmented, if any, are the efforts of the international community to address the problems of conflict and poverty. But even in a situation which has ceased producing refugees, such as Bosnia, the size and complexity of the conflict resolution effort, expressed in the Dayton Peace Accords, and the large resources poured into material reconstruction, have not been matched yet in the field of social reconstruction: this missing element is perhaps the crucial factor behind the failure of so-called "minority returns" so far.

In this context, I would like to turn to the main topic of this morning's meeting - the deteriorating situation in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's province of Kosovo. This is foremost on the International Community's agenda, particularly now with the threat of NATO intervention looming over the country. I know my colleagues briefed you this morning on the situation there so I will limit my remarks to key issues. When the IGC last met in November 1998, the Milosevic-Holbrooke accord had just been reached. A humanitarian disaster had been averted as thousands of displaced persons living under plastic sheeting were able to return to their villages or to seek shelter with host families. The large scale displacement that had occurred up to the beginning of October 1998 had effectively ceased, as police significantly reduced their forces. The presence of OSCE monitors certainly made an impact on the return of displaced people. However, the early indications that the accord might pave the way for political dialogue quickly disintegrated into renewed clashes, brutal attacks against civilians and fresh movements.

Expectations rose again with the Rambouillet and Kleber negotiations. But instead the humanitarian situation on the ground is bad and getting worse, and could quickly be approaching the level of humanitarian catastrophe that was narrowly averted with the international community's interventions in October of last year.

Since the end of the Rambouillet talks on 23 February, well over 80,000 people have been displaced from their homes. For the first time since last summer, we are once again seeing people fleeing out in the open. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has now received over 10,000 refugees, raising concerns that the conflict could expand beyond FRY's borders. Over 260,000 persons are now displaced within Kosovo as a result of the conflict. Several hundred thousands who have not been displaced are nevertheless directly affected by the conflict. During the last week alone, more than 20,000 people were displaced by Government offensives mainly in the Drenica region. Over this last weekend, my Office estimates that 4,000 people have been driven from their homes in Podujevo, while well over 15,000 people in Srbica and some 4,000 in Glogovac have been displaced by fighting.

The fear of insecurity among Kosovo's population is now at least at the level of the worst period last year. The cease-fire under the Milosevic-Holbrooke accord has unravelled, and UN Security Council resolutions have been ignored on the ground. Terrified civilians have fled the shelling of villages by forces that had been required to withdraw. Government security forces reportedly continue to build in the province under the renewed threat of NATO intervention, while international observers have evacuated and humanitarian workers have reduced their presence due to insecurity.

I have made another personal appeal to President Milosevic as I did last September, for violence against civilians in Kosovo to be stopped. I have also pointed out the plight of ethnic Serbs in the province, who are - to a much more limited extent - targeted by violence and intimidation by the Kosovo Liberation Army.

While I welcome the efforts made by the international community in trying to bring about a political solution to the Kosovo crisis, the total absence of any cease-fire, the growing and real danger to civilians by the intensifying clashes, and the alarming increase in fresh displacement requires that countries practice the utmost flexibility and tolerance in their asylum policies.

The ongoing atrocities committed against civilians and the systematic violation of human rights in the Kosovo conflict demand that the door to asylum remain open. During 1998, some 98,000 citizens from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia applied for asylum in 26 European countries for which we have statistics. My Office estimates that some 88 percent were Kosovo Albanians. With the ongoing conflict in Kosovo, it is no surprise that asylum seekers from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia comprised the single largest nationality seeking asylum in Europe during 1998 - 25 percent.

Here I should like to recognize the important role of Germany and Switzerland, who received the bulk of these asylum seekers. During 1998, Germany received 36 percent - while Switzerland received 22 percent - of all applications coming from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Last month both countries together received 70 percent of the over 7,000 applications coming from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This is particularly noteworthy for Switzerland given its total population of 7 million. I encourage that this open attitude continue and be shared by others.

In addition, as the conflict continues, I would reiterate UNHCR's appeal for a temporary ban on deportations to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Also, I would re-emphasize that repatriation movements from abroad should not be encouraged or promoted.

Let me commend EU member States and the European Commission, as well as the Government of Sweden for efforts to focus on the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Kosovo in the event of peace. UNHCR does not see itself leading a reconstruction effort, but can play a useful role in guiding the selection of priorities, on the basis of its shelter survey and substantial knowledge of the situation on the ground. I would encourage that similar plans be made for social and economic reconstruction.

I also welcome the efforts of the Governments of Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Germany, Slovenia and Switzerland for early discussions on the methods to facilitate transit for the purposes of return home similarly to the Transit Agreement for refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

* * *

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Although your meeting this morning focused on the situation in Kosovo, I would like to take the opportunity to make a few, more general remarks on the need to improve the management of refugee flows. While it is essential to adopt to new situations, I would strongly urge that every country continue to steadfastly uphold the fundamental rights of asylum and non-refoulement. Particularly in Europe, where the number of asylum applications has increased by 29 percent from 1997 to 1998, we have seen a trend to restrict asylum. In Europe some 288,000 applications were submitted in 1997, while some 372,000 applications were lodged in 1998, which is the highest number recorded in the past five years.

Sadly, however, this rise in asylum seekers throughout Europe has not been matched with increased tolerance. Instead asylum has been greatly politicized, having been boxed in with immigration control and national security. Xenophobic groups and economic downturns have led politicians to build barriers to keep people out. Restrictive measures to asylum have surfaced, such as reduced social benefits, detention at the point of entry, and narrow legal interpretations of refugee status. A disturbing recent example is the Netherlands' decision of last October to house new arrivals in tents and put them on a "waiting list" for proper accommodations. Measures such as these have shifted the focus from protecting refugees to controlling any foreigner seeking entry, including refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.

Here, I would emphasize that states do have legitimate concerns to manage the arrival of foreigners. Governments must increasingly grapple with mixed populations crossing their borders, which include genuine asylum seekers mingled with economic migrants, and others who attempt to enter clandestinely, or as would-be asylum seekers. In this context, there is growing confusion between refugees, who flee persecution and violence, and migrants, who leave their country seeking better economic opportunities. In many situations, both poverty, and persecution or conflict, are pushing people to leave, making it difficult to determine the status of individual asylum seekers. This is the case for example in Algeria, Sri Lanka, areas of Iraq and Turkey inhabited by Kurds, Afghanistan, and, increasingly, large regions of Africa.

I would like to make one point absolutely clear. The end of the Cold War has not eliminated situations of conflict and violence, of group and individual persecution, which compel people to flee and become refugees as their only safe choice. In the last two decades, the number of refugees and internally displaced people has increased dramatically. My Office considered around five million people to be of its "concern" in 1980. There are 23 million today. Although this is more difficult to estimate, the number of migrants also appears to be increasing. Conflicts, ethnic tensions, violations of human rights by states and armed groups, poverty and lack of opportunities, and more often a combination of some of these factors, contribute to the increase in the number of people compelled, rather than choosing, to be on the move, taking advantage of faster and cheaper travel opportunities.

To eliminate refugees as a category deserving specific protection based on internationally agreed norms would therefore expose many men, women and children to life-threatening situations. As such, the distinction must be maintained. The perhaps inevitable confusion between refugees and migrants may result in some of the latter being admitted as refugees in the country. This confusion is not useful to refugees, and has undoubtedly contributed to the growing perception that they are no longer a humanitarian cause to be defended, but a problem to be controlled. On the other hand, it is preferable to err on the side of generosity than to return people to situations of extreme gravity and danger. My earlier remarks regarding the situation in Kosovo today are just one stark reminder of this.

What I would encourage is that a comprehensive - rather than restrictive - approach be implemented to improve the management of refugee flows. Procedures must be established that adapt to new situations, but safeguard fundamental principles - namely asylum and non-refoulement. The European Union's efforts, through its High Level Working Group on Asylum and Migration initiative, which is developing a comprehensive strategy for asylum, are commendable. UNHCR strongly supports this initiative and has actively participated by providing documentation and experts. Through efforts such as these the EU and its member states can maintain its established tradition of respect for asylum and other human rights.

In further developing this strategy, new approaches are needed. For example, UNHCR was successful in promoting the concept of "temporary protection" for people fleeing Bosnia during the war. Basically, we asked states to open their borders to those seeking asylum, without undue delays and procedures, but we also committed ourselves to advise them when such temporary protection was not needed any longer. Asylum is of course temporary by nature. Explicitly declaring a group as deserving "temporary protection", however, and ceasing to request international protection when it is not required, can help states manage larger numbers of asylum seekers in a humane manner without resorting to cumbersome and ineffectual individual determination.

Governments, international agencies including my Office, and NGOs managing refugee flows, must also cooperate much more closely with those dealing with migration matters. Here I am not only referring to states: I am also thinking of the private sector, which employs most migrants and is therefore responsible for granting them adequate working conditions. Compared to the rights of refugees, who - at least theoretically - are protected by an international regime, the safeguard of the rights of migrants is much less structured. I believe that there is a need to establish solid, internationally agreed instruments providing a normative foundation to migratory movements, and to ensure that they are observed.

In addition, the problem of transnational, criminal human trafficking must be urgently addressed, not to block safe routes for those fleeing persecution and violence, but rather to control and prevent life-threatening exploitation of innocent people. Illicit traffickers charge exorbitant fees to smuggle people across borders in overcrowded boats or other dangerous means. A popular point of entry into Schengen group countries has been through Italy from Albania. This trend has led the Italian Government to examine ways to control further influxes. UNHCR is lending its support to assisting the Italian Government in examining ways to control illegal traffickers without jeopardising access to safe asylum.

In conclusion, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would say that, as globalization continues to create a growing sense of human insecurity, the international community must take a dual approach to population movements: addressing the root causes, while simultaneously improving the management of refugee flows. It is through such an approach that we can put a stop to the growing threat we are seeing to asylum and non-refoulement.

In Kosovo, while I am sure you all join me in hoping that a political solution to the crisis will materialize - and quickly - I urge that you make every effort to leave the asylum door open to those fleeing the conflict. UNHCR remains ready and eager to assist all states as you continue evaluating ways such as those I have highlighted to improve the management of displacement flows without jeopardizing protection of those who so desperately need it.

Thank you