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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 10 June 1992

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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 10 June 1992

10 June 1992

Mr. Chairman,

Some 78 million people are on the move in the world today. About seventeen million of them are refugees, of whom almost ninety per cent are to be found in the poorest parts of the globe. Every day, more than 10,000 refugees are being forced to flee their homes, whether in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Yugoslavia, or Myanmar. My Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is involved in their assistance and protection usually when the movements are transnational. But more and more, we are also being called into situations of internal displacement of people who need international protection and assistance mainly due to conflict and violence. At the same time, on a slightly brighter note, we are also helping more than 5,000 refugees every day to return to their homes in South Africa, Cambodia, and Afghanistan, and hopefully in the near future, also to Angola, Eritrea and other parts of Africa.

This mixed landscape of greater displacement, on the one hand and hope for solutions, on the other, is closely related to the issues of development and the environment. Firstly, more and more people are being forced to flee for a complex combination of reasons, linked as much to population growth, poverty, famine and environmental degradation as to mass violations of human rights, social and ethnic tensions and armed conflict. Secondly, refugee movements themselves can lead to environmental destruction when large numbers of refugees and displaced persons seek sanctuary in ecologically fragile areas. Thirdly, environmental degradation is not only a contributory factor to armed conflict, but also an inevitable consequence of it, so that people, who had fled the war, return home often to find their reintegration prospects blighted by the devastation resulting from the violence. Protection and assistance of refugees, as well as the search for solutions to their plight, cannot ignore developmental and environmental issues.

There is thus a fundamental link between displacement, development and the environment. It is for this reason that I consider it not only a particular privilege and honour, but also an important responsibility as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to address this distinguished assembly.

Therefore, Mr. Chairman, allow me to affirm UNHCR's full support for the principles enshrined in the draft Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.

UNHCR is clearly concerned that environmental degradation is increasingly a cause of population movements. This relationship between refugees and the environment has long been overlooked.

Today, as we find ourselves confronted with humanitarian emergencies on a scale unknown before, it becomes ever more important to understand the underlying political, social, economic, demographic and environmental reasons why people are compelled to move. It is only through a greater appreciation of the complexity and inter-relationship of the causes of displacement that we can hope to develop a comprehensive approach to refugee problems, which helps to avert mass movements, as well as adequately respond to, and resolve them when they do occur.

UNHCR therefore fully supports the draft proposal, outlined in chapter 5 of Agenda 21, that more research should be undertaken to investigate the interaction between environmental and socio-economic factors, and the possible implications of this relationship for migration. Clearly, a more informed approach is vital if we are to deal with the refugee and migration issue in a comprehensive, humane and effective manner.

Environmental degradation is not only a cause but also a consequence of refugee movements. It is clear therefore that UNHCR's own activities in assisting refugees cannot be indifferent to environmental considerations. The process of preparing for this Conference has allowed UNHCR to reflect more carefully on these questions with a view to developing policies which are more sensitive to environmental concerns.

UNHCR provides protection and assistance to 17 million refugees worldwide. While the environmental problems faced or created by refugees are similar to those existing in normal communities of a similar size, the effects tend to be more pronounced due to a number of factors specific to refugee situations.

Most refugees are of rural origin, and their camps and settlements are often located in environmentally fragile areas. Southern Africa, for example, which is facing one of the most severe droughts in its history, hosts over 2 million refugees. The Horn of Africa, another scene of environmental disasters, is also a region of chronic displacement.

In addition, the disproportionately high population density in refugee settlements, as well as the lack of incentives for refugees to maintain the environment, can exacerbate existing environmental problems.

Finally and most significantly, the unpredictable nature of refugee emergencies and the urgent need to respond often mean that there is insufficient time for environmental assessment of refugee sites before large-scale influxes materialize. In any case, the options for sites are usually limited. Energy needs in particular tend to go unaddressed.

The primary and most obvious consequence on the environment is deforestation. The insufficient, or often non-existent, supply of household fuel and building materials in and around refugee settlements means that refugees, by collecting firewood, or cutting down trees to build houses or, in the case of long-term settlements, clearing large expanses of land to plant crops, inflict considerable environmental damage through rapid deforestation. The inhospitable environment as well as the degradation, e.g. through soil erosion and "sand and dust storms", can affect the health refugees and the local population. The depletion and pollution of water resources bring additional problems.

Recognising the dual effect of the presence of refugees impacting negatively on the environment, and the hostile environment adversely affecting the well-being of refugees, UNHCR has reinforced its efforts to address environmental problems in a number of ways.

Firstly, we acknowledge that assistance to meet the physical and social needs of refugees must avoid a negative environmental impact in refugee-hosting areas. To this end, UNHCR is adopting an ecological approach, with the specific inclusion of environmental concerns, in the planning and implementation of its programmes. For instance, whenever food is provided, the supply of adequate energy should become a part of the assistance programme in the same way as the transportation of food. Obviously this will have an implication in terms of resources, but economising on refugee assistance in the short term may be prohibitively costly on the environment in the long run. We are now looking into the organizational and budgetary arrangements that will be needed for the further elaboration of our strategy.

Secondly, we are already undertaking a number of measures, in the area of energy, shelter, water and sanitation sectors of our assistance programmes to minimise the impact on the surroundings and improve the conditions of refugee camps and settlements in an ecologically sound way.

Thirdly, refugees themselves must be seen as an important force of positive change. Through "people-oriented planning" and greater refugee participation in the development and implementation of our programmes, we are seeking, not only to improve the effectiveness of our own programmes but also to help refugees to become the agents for preserving and rehabilitating the environment of their host countries. To give one obvious example, refugees provide much of the labour for reforestation in Pakistan.

This brings me to my fourth point. In an attempt to minimize the scale of deforestation, UNHCR has for some years now provided for reforestation projects, implemented by government departments and NGOs. The largest of such operations is in Pakistan where dwindling forest areas were devastated by the influx of more than 3 million Afghan refugees. A joint World Bank/UNHCR project with a total budget of over 86 million U. S. dollars, implemented in collaboration with the Government of Pakistan, has, since 1984, reforested more than 130,000 acres of land in refugee-hosting areas, while providing labour opportunities for refugees and the local population. I myself recently visited one of several ongoing reforestation projects in Malawi. Other examples of UNHCR reforestation programmes can be found in the Sudan, Guinea, Somalia, Rwanda, Mexico, Honduras, and Iran.

Beyond these efforts, UNHCR also has an important catalytic role to play in encouraging other agencies and institutions to address environmental rehabilitation problems in refugee hosting areas.

Mr. Chairman, so far I have concentrated on the impact of refugees on the environment in their country of asylum. Let me now turn to the very important issue of the environment as a factor in the search for solutions to refugee problems.

It is now widely accepted that the voluntary return of refugees, in safety and dignity to their homes, is not only the most feasible but also the most preferable solution to a refugee problem. Indeed, the improved climate of international cooperation is helping to resolve many refugee-producing conflicts in countries as far apart as Afghanistan, Angola, El Salvador, Cambodia and South Africa. As I said earlier, more than 5000 refugees are returning home every day. Through their return, the refugees are also contributing to the consolidation of the peace process in their own countries. But even as I am encouraged by their return I am deeply concerned about the kind of life which awaits them. Many of the areas to which they are returning are not only still prone to insecurity and heavily mined, they have been devastated by decades of war. The impact on the environment has been horrendous, particularly in arid and semi-arid areas. If we take parts of the Horn of Africa as just one example - and let me emphasise there are many more - how can we expect those who return to be reabsorbed on land which has little or no capacity left to sustain those who are still there? Are we not simply creating new and more tragic emergencies? And at what cost to the peace process in these countries?

I believe that refugee problems can be solved through large-scale repatriation only if there is a concerted and comprehensive effort to create proper conditions of return - economically and socially as well as politically. The search for solutions to refugee problems shows yet again that sustainable development is the path to durable peace - nationally, regionally and globally.

It is evident that this ambitious goal calls for close partnership of multiple actors, including governments, international and regional development organisations, lending institutions, humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organisations. UNHCR has its own small part to play in this much larger drama. UNHCR has the responsibility to ensure that environmental damage, in and around refugee sites, is kept to a minimum, and is repaired if, and when, it occurs. To this end, we will be seeking the active support of our donors, whose sponsorship is vital to the success of our environmental policy. I also believe UNHCR has a larger advocacy role in pressing for greater action to conserve and repair the environment and promote sustainable development, where there is a clear link between such activities and the prevention and solution of refugee problems.

Mr. Chairman, this "Earth Summit" marks the high point, thus far, in the efforts of the international community to address the issue of environmental protection. The search for, and implementation of, environmental safeguards is a process which I hope will be sustained by appropriate follow-up mechanisms, and, above all, by allocation of adequate resources. That will be the touchstone of political commitment to environmental protection.

For my part, Mr. Chairman, I fully commit UNHCR, within its mandate and means, to join this noble cause of protecting our global legacy for generations yet to come.

Thank you.