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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), New York, 26 July 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), New York, 26 July 1993

26 July 1993

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to present the annual report of my Office to the Substantive Session of the Economic and Social Council. I am grateful for this opportunity to draw your attention to the challenges and opportunities which confront UNHCR and some of our key concerns in the protection and assistance of refugees.

As is evident from the Report, the last year has been a difficult and demanding one for UNHCR. In an evolving and turbulent world, ethnic and religious tensions, often aggravated by poverty, demographic pressure and environmental degradation, have led to a multiplication of conflicts. These have in turn produced a spiral of humanitarian crises and massive displacement of people. UNHCR is finding itself more and more having to provide protection and assistance to refugees and displaced persons in situations of acute crisis or open conflict, whether in Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, or parts of Asia. In Africa, in particular, drought, war, violence and the consequent disruption of agricultural activity over the years have endangered the lives of millions of refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons. Needless to say, the most vulnerable victims of the tragedies have been women and children.

At the same time, the radically changed environment of the post-Cold War world has opened new prospects for conflict resolution. Political solutions are paving the way - even if weak and wavering at times - for solutions to refugee problems. Thus, simultaneously with new emergencies, my Office has been confronted with the prospects and demands of massive repatriation movements to Cambodia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mozambique and elsewhere. In almost every case, the refugees are returning or expected to return to countries which have been devastated by war, areas which are heavily mined or situations where the national reconciliation process is precarious and security fragile.

In situations of such uncertainty and insecurity, how can voluntary repatriation be made a truly lasting solution? In the face of new and large-scale refugee movements, how can the refugees be assured protection and assistance until they can return home in safety and dignity? It is this juxtaposition of opportunities and risks which has led UNHCR to adopt a three-pronged strategy of prevention, preparedness and solutions. The basic focus of this strategy has been to combine the traditional activities of protection and assistance with a more innovative approach to the prevention and resolution of refugee problems.

Seeking to prevent refugee problems from arising, responding to emergencies when they occur, and finding solutions to them raise manifold concerns and challenges.

Let me turn to the case of Somalia. UNHCR is assisting almost one million Somali refugees in the neighbouring countries. When I visited Somalia at the end of February this year, I saw for myself the positive effects of our efforts to launch a cross-border operation from Kenya, so that people would not be forced to leave their country only for lack of international assistance. I was impressed by the signs of hope. A modest, though significant, number of quick impact projects in the water, health and agricultural sectors are now under way in the area. Thanks to the joint efforts of the humanitarian organizations and UNOSOM II, the outflow of refugees from Somalia has virtually stopped, even creating the environment for the voluntary return of a small number of refugees, and thus underlining the link between prevention and solutions. However, a more sustained level of stability will be necessary before we can initiate a large-scale organized repatriation. I am concerned that the recent events in Mogadishu could affect our hopes and plans for embarking on a major repatriation for the Somali refugees in northern Kenya.

In Europe, the tragedy in former Yugoslavia has yet again illustrated the importance of prevention. If we are to prevent the kind of displacement and despair we are witnessing in the Balkans, then the human rights machinery of the United Nations must be made more effective. Safeguarding human rights, including those of minority groups, is one of the best ways to prevent displacement and to permit safe return. Thus, UNHCR continues to seek to strengthen its cooperation with human rights bodies.

A preventive strategy must also recognise the broader issues of migration and statelessness. Throughout Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States, we are seeking closer cooperation with many partners, including IOM and the Council of Europe, in order to intensify efforts in the areas of training, legal advice and institution-building, focusing on refugee law, nationality and migration-related issues.

However, the continued displacement and exodus of refugees, whether in the Balkans, the Transcaucasus, Central Asia or in other parts of the world bear testimony to the limits of prevention. Therefore, it is essential that the right to seek and enjoy asylum be upheld more strongly than ever. I am conscious of the burden on receiving countries. I am deeply aware of the migratory pressures on the industrialized countries. I am very grateful for the generosity of many host countries around the world. At the same time, it is disturbing to see measures adopted by some States to prevent potential refugees from seeking asylum or to reject and return them, without a proper hearing. As long as persecution, violence and strife remain an every day reality, refugees must continue to receive protection through asylum, at least on a temporary basis. Preventive protection in areas of origin can support, but not replace international protection abroad.

Prevention and protection must be matched by preparedness and capacity to respond quickly and effectively when a crisis erupts. As you know, my Office has invested a lot of time and effort to strengthen its capacity to respond to emergencies. We have forged partnerships with non-governmental, intergovernmental and governmental organizations. We have drawn on new sources, such as the military, for logistical support. We continue to build on the lessons learnt from our diverse experiences.

In the past eighteen months, our emergency response teams have been deployed in some ten countries. We have grappled with the influx of about 400,000 refugees in Kenya, mainly from Somalia. We have responded to the needs of 80,000 Bhutanese who fled to Nepal and of 250,000 refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Last December we sent emergency teams to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. Earlier this year we had to cope with the exodus of some 200,000 refugees from Togo into Benin and Ghana. We have responded to a fresh influx of refugees into Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea as a result of renewed strife in Liberia. Today, one of our emergency response teams is leaving for the Lofa County in Liberia, which has been cut off from international access until now by the civil war and where conditions are reported to be dire. I am encouraged by this weekend's events in Benin, and we are looking into contingency plans for repatriation.

Our largest emergency programme right now is for some 3.6 million refugees, internally displaced and besieged populations in the former Yugoslavia. Since November 1991, when UNHCR was designated to lead the UN's humanitarian effort, we have been engaged, alongside UNICEF, WHO, WFP and ICRC, in providing life-sustaining assistance to over 3.6 million people and monitoring the treatment of the displaced and besieged population in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We are also undertaking our more traditional responsibilities of protection and assistance for Bosnian refugees in Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Our efforts in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been repeatedly thwarted by the total disregard of humanitarian principles, obstacles to humanitarian access and manipulation of humanitarian action for political ends of the parties. As I said only last Friday at a high-level meeting which I convened with Mr. Stoltenberg and Lord Owen, we will not be easily dissuaded from our mission. What counts for me is the plight of women, men, the elderly and children on all sides of the conflict. We will continue to work as long as we can, where we can. But we need the full cooperation of all parties on the ground and the ongoing commitment and support of the international community. Nor must we lose sight of the fact that humanitarian action is no substitute for political action. What is needed most of all is peace. Peace that will bring an end to the shelling and killing, the senseless bloodshed and massive suffering, the relentless persecution and odious "ethnic cleansing".

As the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina shows, our effectiveness in emergencies is being determined not only by our readiness and capacity to act but also by the prevailing security situation. International presence is essential for us to carry out our work. Yet, volatile and hazardous conditions in many parts of the world have jeopardized the safety of our humanitarian operations as well as that of our staff and our partners. Many of them are risking their lives daily - some have indeed sacrificed their lives - in the humanitarian endeavour to save the lives of others. The courage and commitment of these brave women and men deserve the widest recognition. We have strengthened our internal resources on security training, coordination and equipment. We are also working closely with the United Nations system for further improvements.

An effective emergency response, Mr. President, must be followed by a determined search for solutions. Let me say that, for all the magnitude of ongoing crises around the world, there has been some encouraging progress towards solutions. In the course of the past year, we have helped more than a million refugees to return from Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran to Afghanistan. At the end of March, I closed the last of the Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand. Over 360,000 refugees went back to Cambodia in time to participate in the elections and the building of a democratic society. Over 60,000 Ethiopian refugees have also returned from Kenya, and we have just embarked on the return of Ethiopian refugees from the Sudan. Already over a hundred thousand refugees have returned to Mozambique, where we are trying to organise their reception and reintegration, with the cooperation of NGOs. We are preparing also for large-scale repatriation of some 1.5 million Mozambican refugees.

Impressive though the statistics may be, repatriation is not simply about the movement of people. It is about ensuring their security on return. It is about helping them to reintegrate in their home communities. Attaining these ambitious goals requires, on the one hand, close coordination between the political and humanitarian arms of the United Nations and, on the other, the close cooperation of the UN agencies and NGOs. Much has been said about the continuum from relief to development and the need to bridge the gap between returnee aid and development. If refugee emergencies are not to become returnee crises, then the rhetoric must be replaced by concrete and practical measures. I hope that the agreed conclusions of the Coordination Segment of ECOSOC will lay the foundations for such concrete action.

If continued insecurity and the gap between relief and development in Afghanistan arouses our worst fears of failure, then Cambodia must be counted as our success of the year, allowing us not only to close down the camps in Thailand but also to withdraw most of our staff from Cambodia last month. It is a good example of active collaboration among the humanitarian, peace-keeping and development components of the United Nations. With the close cooperation of UNTAC, we brought the refugees back in the short time span of thirteen months. From the very beginning of the operation, we worked closely with UNDP in jointly assessing, planning and implementing the reintegration phase. As we phase out, UNDP is thus able to phase in, ensuring the longer term development needs of the returning refugees as well as the communities to which they have come back. This is the kind of coordination and collaboration which I hope can be further expanded in other operations, such as repatriation to Mozambique.

Coordination and cooperation is essential in rationalising and streamlining the activities of the United Nations, in identifying gaps and eliminating overlaps. The combination of finite resources and infinite demands makes it not simply desirable but a daily reality in our relations with WFP, UNICEF, UNDP, DHA, ICRC and non-governmental agencies. We have recently streamlined and strengthened our cooperative arrangements with WFP. I also attach the greatest importance to a truly meaningful partnership with the NGOs. Earlier this month UNHCR organised a regional meeting with NGOs in Caracas, which will be followed by other regional meetings, eventually culminating in a global conference at Oslo to adopt an action plan to concretise our partnership.

In concluding, let me stress that the protection and assistance of refugees, as much as the prevention and solution of refugee problems, depend on the ability of the United Nations to develop a comprehensive and coordinated response. Given the interrelated causes and consequences of displacement and flight, humanitarian action cannot be effective unless it is situated within a global strategy for international peace and security, human rights and economic and social development. Never has the concerted action of the international community been so critical for the resolution of conflicts. Never has the support of the international community been so necessary for forging a humanitarian response. Mr. President, my Office stands ready, with its unique mandate, its experience and capacity to continue to meet the challenges of the refugee problem in the post-Cold War era.

Thank you, Mr. President.