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Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the presentation of the "State of the World's Refugees," Geneva, 8 December 1997

Speeches and statements

Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the presentation of the "State of the World's Refugees," Geneva, 8 December 1997

8 December 1997

It is a great pleasure for me to be here today to present the 1997-1998 edition of UNHCR's biennial publication, the "State of the World's Refugees". This new edition of our report offers a comprehensive look at the situation of refugees and displaced people worldwide. It also sets out a constructive agenda for action, identifying the measures which must be taken to address the problem of human displacement.

In 1997, 22 million refugees, returnees and displaced people looked to UNHCR for protection. That is nearly double the number who depended on help from my office ten years ago. And it is estimated that there are perhaps another 25 million people who have also been forced to abandon their homes, few of whom are being cared for by any international agency.

The story behind these statistics is a complex one. While the number of refugees fleeing across international borders has decreased in the past few years, and the number of refugees who have returned home has increased, the number of people displaced within their own countries continues to rise. This is because their security is threatened by an explosive mix of factors. They are affected by armed conflict, by human rights abuses, by economic decline and by increasing difficulty in escaping from situations of danger.

The changing nature of war has certainly contributed to an increase in displacement. While there are fewer wars between states, civilians are being targeted as never before in around 35 ethnic or communal conflicts around the globe. In the post cold-war years, forced population displacement has become both an objective and a tactic of war. In the former Yugoslavia, the Caucasus and the Great Lakes region of Africa, warring parties have forced huge numbers of men, women and children to abandon their homes.

The rise in statelessness is also a major cause for concern. Since the beginning of the 1990s, a large number of people have been deprived of citizenship rights in the country they consider to be their home. Some are affected by the setting up of new states, others by ethnic conflicts or changes in citizenship laws. Whatever the reason, recent events in areas ranging from the former Soviet Union to Central Africa and South Asia have demonstrated how vulnerable the stateless are to harassment, persecution and expulsion.

As the twenty-first century approaches, it appears inevitable that people will continue to be driven from their homes, with all the trauma that entails. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to find safe refuge.

Rich and poor nations alike are closing their doors to refugees and forcing them to return to situations where their lives and liberty are at risk.

Meanwhile the world's great powers are retreating from the idea of political or military involvement to solve conflicts. Increasingly, they look to humanitarian agencies to fill the gaps. As a result, we have been obliged to work in the heart of conflict zones, amid genocide and crimes against humanity, in places where basic humanitarian principles are flouted.

Whether in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Congo, Liberia or Somalia, aid agencies have seen their relief supplies plundered, their vehicles hijacked and refugees and displaced people robbed of aid or even massacred. Sadly, humanitarian workers have also been increasingly targeted. In the last twelve months, aid workers have been killed in Chechnya, Rwanda and, most recently, last week, in Tajikistan.

Humanitarian aid continues to play an important part in safeguarding the security of people threatened by armed conflict. But it does have limitations. It cannot end wars. It cannot oblige governments to respect human rights. It cannot prevent the deliberate displacement of civilians. Ultimately, the state of the world's refugees depends on combining aid with effective political and economic action.

Action should be taken to reduce poverty, to curtail the arms trade and to promote human rights in societies which have experienced long periods of conflict.

Political settlements must be followed by longer term action to consolidate peace and security. And perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity must be brought to justice.

Last, but not least, the right to asylum must be preserved. States must recognise the importance of asylum as a means of safeguarding human security and dignity. The need for asylum did not disappear with the end of the cold war. Asylum is as necessary now as it ever was, and it will continue to be needed as long as people's lives and liberty are at risk at home.