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Statement of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the Norwegian Refugee Council, 5 April 1976

Speeches and statements

Statement of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the Norwegian Refugee Council, 5 April 1976

5 April 1976

It gives me great pleasure to add to the tributes so justly being paid to the Norwegian Refugee Council on the completion of the thirty years of service to the cause of refugees.

From the time when UNHCR was itself established, twenty-five years ago, successive High commissioners have had reason to value the support and co-operation of the Norwegian Refugee Council. Not only has it successfully integrated thousands of refugees into Norwegian society, but it has also raised very large sums of money for international work over this period.

As befits a country following in the tradition of Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian Refugee Council sets an example to the world of what can be achieved by a private organizations dedicated to the refugee cause. Moreover, in successfully bringing together under one umbrella several organizations of varying interests and constituencies the Council has established a precedent in nationally co-ordinated aid to refugees which has been followed by other Nordic countries.

The success of the Council over the past thirty years has been due to the efforts of thousands of men and women. I would, however, like to pay a special tribute to Mr. Sigurd Halvorsen, who has given inspiration and leadership to the governing board of the Council over the last twenty-five years. Typifying the dedicated humanitarian, Mr. Halvorsen has not only devoted great time and energy to work at the Council's headquarters, but has also found time to travel widely to see refugee situations for himself at first-hand in all parts of the world. His valuable presence on the Norwegian delegation at many session of the Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commissioner's Programme has, moreover, been widely appreciated.

Already in World Refugee Year, Norway ranked first in terms of per capita contributions among the eighty countries participating, and in subsequent campaigns, most recently that of October 1974, thanks in large part tot he dynamic leadership of Secretary-General Wilhelm S. Boe, the Norwegian Refugee Council has continued to obtain outstanding results, not only on a per capita basis, but indeed also in actual amounts, placing it in a leading position amongst voluntary refugee agencies throughout the world.

For the future, there are many urgent challenges and new and dramatic refugee problems facing the international community. May I therefore express the confident hope that, inspired by its first thirty years of devoted service, the Norwegian Refugee Council will retain its position in the vanguard of non-governmental organizations working for refugees and remain a staunch partner on whom UNHCR can count in our common effort to alleviate the suffering of the world's uprooted.

Madame Chairman,

When I spoke to this Committee earlier, it was the sixth report that I presented to this distinguished forum on the regular work of my Office since my election as High Commissioner for Refugees.

Each year, I have pointed to the changes in the refugee situation and our efforts to deal with them. Whilst new and serious problems have arisen in the course of these years, I have been immensely grateful for the growing support and understanding of the international community. It has helped immeasurably in facing the situation effectively and with courage and in fostering permanent solutions which remain the constant objective of my Office.

Today, unfortunately, I speak with urgency of an overwhelming problem. A problem that has gown in dimension and anguish, almost beyond comprehension and endurance. That this should coincide with the twentieth anniversary of UNHCR, when we had been appealing for, and working towards, an end to the refugee problem, is the starkest commentary on the times in which we live.

Four months ago, on 16 July, I informed the Economic and Social Council of the humanitarian efforts of the UN system to alleviate the suffering of East Pakistani refugees in India. Early in October, I spoke to the Executive Committee of my regular Programme of the situation as it then existed. But this is a situation that has, relentlessly, grown more tragic from day to day. The suffering is not over, but continues; the number has not lessened, but has increased; the gap between needs and resources, which has consistently been adverse, threatens catastrophically to become a chasm. And all this, despite a truly remarkable relief effort being made by the Government and people of India and an unparalleled response by the international community. Where will this deteriorating spiral end?

If I have, at the very outset of my statement, sounded a voice of the deepest concern, it is because that, indeed, is what the situation demands. It is not for me, today, to analyse the complexities of the political, economic and social factors that are responsible for this situation. The analysis of the United Nations is clearly expressed by the Secretary - General in the Introduction to his report on the Work of the Organization (document A/8401/Add.1 of 17 September 1971). What I shall speak of is the purely humanitarian task entrusted to me on behalf of the United Nations. It is a task in which I seek your assistance, as never before, for it touches the life of many millions of refugees - upon the fate of whom depends the restoration of tranquillity in a sub-continent. I could so no less for the refugees. They would expect no less from us, here in the United Nations.

It has been quite evident since 23 April, when the Government of India requested the Secretary - General for assistance from the United Nations, to alleviate the suffering of the refugees and to ease the burden on India that their presence entailed, that this was a problem the magnitude of which required exceptional measures of the UN system. The varied and colossal nature of immediate relief requirements - whether for food, shelter, medical care or logistical support - was far beyond the financial or technical means of UNHCR alone.

Accordingly, following consultations in a meeting of the Administrative Committee on Coordination, the Secretary - General decided, on 29 April, that the coordination of assistance from the UN system. This decision was also in line with the thinking of the government of India which, in its request, addressed itself to the whole UN system.

Immediately after assuming these additional functions, I sent to India a team headed by the Deputy High Commissioner to study and assess the situation. A succinct report of the team's findings was made available to Governments. An analysis of the situation and of the view of the two Governments principally concerned, namely India and Pakistan, made it clear that United Nations action had to concentrate on two objectives: first, urgent relief measures for the refugees in India, second, the promotion of their voluntary repatriation - it was generally agreed that only this could provide a lasting solution to the problem. Consequently, on 19 May 1971, the Secretary - General, whilst expressing deep concern for the plight of the refugees, expressed the hope that they would be "voluntarily repatriated at the earliest possible time". He further indicated that, "pending such repatriation, massive external assistance will be required on an emergency basis" and be appealed "to governments, inter - governmental and non-governmental organizations, as well as private sources, to help meet the urgent needs". At that time, it was estimated by the Government of India that some $175 million would be required to meet the minimum needs of three million refugees for a period of six months.

Neither needs, nor numbers have stood still since, and our efforts have had to race against them and time. On 26 June 1971, the Government of India indicated that the requirements would be $400 million for six million refugees for six months. Subsequently, on 1 October 1971, and essentially as an illustration of the broad order of magnitude, we received from the Government on India a calculation estimating that $558 million would be required in expenditure to care for eight million refugees for six months. More recently, a special meeting of the Consortium of governments and institutions interested in India's economic development was held in Paris on 26 October 1971 under the chairmanship of the World Bank. According to the announcement issued, the meeting "discussed the impact on the economy of the recent large and continuing influx of refugees from East Pakistan and assessed the cost of relief at $700 million in the financial year ending March 1972." The Consortium had before it a report on the cost of refugee relief prepared by the World Bank, which worked on an estimated 9 million refugees in camps by 31 December 1971. The precise costs will naturally be proportionate to the caseload of the refugees who are in camps by that date.

The direct costs of refugee relief are governed, broadly, by three considerations: first, the number of refugees involved; second, the length of time over which relief is provided; and third the norms of assistance.

As regards the first and second on these factors, we have been kept informed continuously by the Government of India of the position as they have registered it over the past seven months. As of 12 November the Indian authorities indicated that the number of refugees is 9,744,40 Members of this Committee are also aware that the Government of Pakistan has informed the Secretary - General on 2 September 1971 that it estimates the number of persons displaced from East Pakistan to be 2,002,623. I shall not endeavour an independent projection of numbers into the future, since far too many conjectural elements wold be involved. In particular, I would not do so because of the ever present hope that the uprooted people may soon be able to return to their homes. Nevertheless there can be no preparedness without working hypotheses, and I wish to assure this Committee that we are conscious of the contingent.

Turning to the third factor, i.e. the norms of assistance, these are well known to us. They comprise the base and the common element in each of the calculations that have been made of anticipated costs, calculations to which I have referred earlier. Broadly, these norms dra a distinction between recurring costs (such as food, medicines, salaries for relief personnel, maintenance of facilities etc.) and non-recurring costs (such as shelter, medical and other equipment, vehicles etc.).

For the purpose of all the calculations made so far, the non-recurring costs have, naturally, been treated as one-time expenditure. However, should the problem continue for any length of time, certain of these costs would need to be repeated - for example, on some of the polyethylene flown out as shelter material.

As regards the norms themselves, they are modest indeed. They have been worked out in close consultation with the focal point and the staff of the other UN agencies associated with this effort. Treating, as already indicated, non-recurring costs as one - time, it has been calculated that average relief expenditure amounts at present to Rs. 2.74 per capita per day (or less that 37 US cents).

Such, briefly, are the direct costs of the relief programme with which we in the focal point are concerned. There are other, indirect costs, that have a widespread effect on the Indian economy. These have been discussed, inter alia, in the recent meeting of the India Consortium, at which my Office was represented. I wish to make clear, however, that consideration of these indirect costs and the long-term economic repercussions of the refugee influx go beyond the concern of the focal point. Here, I wish to address myself strictly to the direct costs of the emergency relief operation. And these direct costs, based on the three criteria I mentioned earlier, namely the numbers reported, the period for which assistance is provided and the norms of assistance, lead to the staggering requirement that I have referred to earlier.

It is not hard to conclude from this that the expenditure involved in sheltering, feeding and treating this mass of several million refugees is already far in excess of the international assistance pledged or delivered.

Turning now to the response of the international community, may I say, once again, that it is unparalleled in UN experience and I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude for it. Till 16 November 1971, the focal point had received pledges totalling $161,412,986.82. Of this amount, $89,261,753.35 were pledged in cash and $72,151,233.49 in kind. Lists of these contributions are annexed to an information paper that I have made available to this Committee. The paper, in essence, recapitulates and brings up-to-date information that I provided to my Executive Committee in Geneva last month. Also contained in this paper is a breakdown of the actual and prospective deliveries by the UN system to India, as of 31 October 1971. I wish to thank most sincerely all those governments, non-governmental organizations and private individuals who have channelled their help through the UN system. I would also like to mention our deep appreciation to those who have contributed bilaterally or directly. This is clearly a situation that calls for universal response and the greater the universal effort the better. Taken together, all pledges from external sources now total an estimated $247.6 million. Need I amplify on the gap?

Seeing how patent it is, and after a summer of following up on the Secretary - General's 19 May appeal, I addressed a comprehensive aide-mémoire to governments again on 11 October and appealed on television and radio for further generosity. In particular, I stressed the need for unearmarked cash contributions to allow the greatest flexibility. I further pointed out that whilst some of the requirement could be met expeditiously in kind (e.g. rice, pulses, sugar), the focal point, in line with the express wishes of the Government of India, would welcome contributions in cash to enable the purchase of as many commodity in India as possible. By mid - October practically all the aid, whether in cash or kind, that had been pledged to the UN system had either been transmitted to the Government of India or was in the pipeline for deliver before the end of this year. It had been committed for the purchase and movement of shelter/material, medicines, food supplies, blankets and clothing and for the provision of logistical support. In consequence, the flow of material and financial resources was in imminent danger of interruption. Since this latest appeal, there have been further generous contributions, but the position remains exceedingly grave.

Without wishing to belabour this Committee with the details of the operation, which can be gleaned from the information paper, permit me to illustrate the dimensions of the effort, with a few vivid examples of the response through the UN system:

  • Food: nearly 142,000 mt of rice have been pledged and 62,671 tons delivered;
  • Transport: over 2,200 vehicles have been ordered of which over two-thirds have been delivered;
  • Shelter: polyethylene sheeting, providing roofing for over 3 million refugees, has reached from abroad;
  • Blankets: about three million have so far been located and are being transported after a world-wide search;
  • Medicines: in one of the longest humanitarian airlifts ever, over 700 tons of medicines and medical supplies have been flown to India;
  • Health: provision is being made to combat malnutrition in its early stages and to cure it when it exists in camps scattered along the length of the border.

None of this would have been possible without the excellent co-operation and co-ordination that has grown between my Office and the other members of the UN system principally concerned. Which leads me to the actual mechanism of the focal point. immediately after assuming this responsibility, I set up in Geneva a Standing Inter-Agency Consultation Unit. Its task is, first to mobilize and secure international support and contributions; second to arrange for the procurement of supplies in a co-ordinated manner and to deliver the supplies to India; third to maintain close liaison with the Government of India. Parallel to this Consultation Unit, the Government of India has set up in Delhi a Co-ordinating Committee where all the ministries concerned of the central government as well as the UN focal point and the UN agencies directly interested are represented. This double mechanism, in Geneva and in Delhi, is yielding positive results to the satisfaction of all concerned. I wish here to extend my warmest appreciation to the specialized agencies of the United Nations for their immediate response and effective co-operation.

It is important, too, that I should clarity for a better understanding of he combined efforts in this situation, that the role of the United Nations is not an operational one. Subscribing to the express wishes of the Government of India we have left the operational responsibility to the authorities. My Representative and his focal point team act essentially as a liaison and co-ordinating link and their duty station is Delhi. From there, they frequently travel to the states where the refugees are concentrated and they have visited numerous camps in each of the states. Additionally, staff members of UNICEF, WFP and WHO have undertaken missions to the refugee areas, UNICEF also having an office in Calcutta and liaison officers in the states of West Bengal, Assam/Meghalaya and Tripura. The responsibility of the United Nations system is essentially to take action at the international level to raise contributions; to channel these to the Government of India and to coordinate activities in regard to their use in order that the focal point may be able, with the help of the Government of India, to give a satisfactory, the team in Delhi is associated with the planning of needs and priorities, particularly in regard to items that have to be obtained from abroad of for which financing from the focal point is feasible.

The utility of the focal point mechanism is being proven by the results obtained. A centre exists within the United Nations system to coordinate information and activity. This facilitates contacts both with governments and non-governmental organizations and is convenient for all concerned. Additionally, the United Nations system has been especially suited to off-shore procurement of items such as shelter material, vehicles, blankets, etc. I believe this has been of real assistance in the emergency. The mechanism has also enabled flexibility in seeking commodities at the most economic world prices and has thereby assured an optimum use of aid for the cash pledged. With all these advantages, I think it is important to stress that the United Nations does not have the means to operate itself a relief programme of such magnitude for an indefinite period of time. This is all to the good, for to try to do so would be to run the risk of institutionalizing and perpetuating a situation that no one desires, least of all the host country. It would also expose the international community to an economic and political burden without end, erode the morale of the refugees and become a confession of hopelessness. The principal objective must therefore categorically remain the promoting of conditions leading rapidly to voluntary repatriation. On the other hand, being non-operational it is relatively less easy to report on and have readily available all details relevant to the assistance measures taken. For obvious reasons, it is essential not to neglect this aspect of the work in view of the natural desire of donors to receive full satisfaction that their contributions have been used to the maximum benefit of recipients. In this regard, I am sure I can count on the full cooperation of the Government of India. I cannot express sufficient admiration for the countless men and women of India who are joining together against frightening odds to bring succour to the refugees.

You have heard at length of the relief operation, of the funds needed and contributed and of our efforts to be of assistance. Critically important as this is - and it is clear we need to more than double our efforts - the only viable and lasting solution lies, as obviously, in another direction. This is the terrible paradox of the situation. We all know and agree that this cruel and gigantic problem can only be resolved by the repatriation of the refugees; the question is, how can this best be achieved, particularly since it is the expressed wish of both the governments principally concerned that the refugees be repatriated.

The life of the uprooted refugee is a tragic one. Undoubtedly, the best solution for a refugee lies, whenever it is possible, in voluntary repatriation back to his home, where he can live again a normal life among his own people. This has been the experience of my Office throughout its twenty years of work all over the world.

In out past experience, if and when a settlement had occurred in the country of origin, a system of mutual cooperation was established with the active participation of UNHCR which facilitated repatriation. Until this stage is reached, substantial and well organized repatriation cannot be a success and the trend is difficult to reverse. I should point out additionally, that UNHCR has achieved results only when there has been a consensus of opinion between the host country and the country of origin leading to voluntary repatriation. This consensus must apply not only to the solution, but also to the timing and modalities.

It has been with this in mind, and to further the two objectives of our effort to which I referred earlier, that I have travelled twice to India and to Pakistan in the last six months, my latter journey just being completed last week. In India, I had an opportunity of seeing for myself refugee camps in northern West Bengal and in the State of Meghalaya. In the latter, I particularly saw the way in which refugees are methodically registered and issued ration cards and I witnessed the distribution of rations. I then proceeded to Delhi for useful and productive talks with the Foreign Minister an his colleagues. I also held detailed technical discussions with senior officials of the Government in regard to the assistance programme. I wish to thank the Indian authorities for the full cooperation they have extended to my representatives in India and to me personally.

In Pakistan, I called on the President and met once again with the senior officials concerned. As you know, the Government extended full cooperation in the stationing of my representative in Dacca. He is now working there with a small team of field assistants. During my latest visit I was informed by my representative that returnees who are seen coming back are sent to forward reception centres some miles inland where they are registered and innoculated. After a day or two, they are given a bus ticket to their village, clothing if need be, food for fifteen days and five rupees each.

I was also informed that they are given a note for the village authorities, asking that every help be given to them for their rehabilitation. The Government of Pakistan has informed us that so far 200,000 refugees, of whom 30 per cent belong to the minority community, have returned to East Pakistan, some 64,000 through the reception centres and the rest on their own.

When considering my annual report, this Committee reacted once again with understanding of and support for the functions of my Office. It was with good reason that the General Assembly, in drafting the statute of my Office, called upon the work of the High Commissioner to be purely humanitarian. I must respect this obligation as you would wish me to.

Till such time as the refugees return, and they will only repatriate in significant number when here, as elsewhere in the world, they are convince that real peace and security prevail, I would appeal to governments and the people of the world to assist them generously. Away from their homes, living in an accumulation of despair that can destroy the fibre of the strongest, these people have suffered many times more than is inherent in normal human fate. Words without generosity and generosity without a permanent solution that would apply to all of them will make a mockery of their hopes. Need I add that the challenge if immense, and that we must pursue every worthwhile lead to meet it.

I wish I could say today that a solution to this vexed problem is imminent and that we are moving with certainty in the right direction. But I cannot say so as yet. This does not mean that there shall be no change. Peace and the suffering of millions demand it. "For peace", as Auden has written in his Hymn to the United Nations, "means to change/At the right time". I would hope that this change comes soon, for it would be calamitous if it came too late.