Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the opening of the Conference on the Legal, Economic and Social aspects of African Refugee Problems, Addis Ababa, 9 October 1967

Speeches and statements

Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the opening of the Conference on the Legal, Economic and Social aspects of African Refugee Problems, Addis Ababa, 9 October 1967

9 October 1967
Scope of the ConferenceLegal problemsInternational legal instrumentsSocial and economic aspectsEducation, employment, resettlementConclusions

Monsieur le Président,
Monsieur le Ministre de l'Intérieur,
Monsieur le Secrétaire général de l'Organisation de l'Unité Africaine
Monsieur le Représentant de la Commission économique pour l'Afrique,
Messieurs les Délégués,
Mesdames, Messieurs,

Je voudrais tout d'abord exprimer au nom du Haut Commissariat et personnellement, notre reconnaissance au Gouvernement Impérial de l'Ethiopie pour l'hospitalité qui nous a été accordée ici aujourd'hui, et aussi bien entendu à l'Organisation de l'Unité Africaine et à la Commission économique pour l'Afrique qui ont si énergiquement participé, conjointement avec le Haut Commissariat, à la préparation de cette réunion.

May I also be permitted, Ladies and Gentlemen, to extend my deep personal gratitude and at the same time a very warm tribute to His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Ethiopia, who has played such a key rôle not only to maintain the independence of his people but also who has devoted himself so selflessly for so many years to the African cause.

I should like to extend also the gratitude of my Office not only to the two co-sponsors which I referred to, but also to a very important co-sponsor, namely the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. I think it is extremely important that this Foundation which is, as you know, a Foundation which has its Headquarters in Sweden, a country which has done so much to promote solutions to the refugee problem, should be with us here today as a co-sponsor of our meeting.

The problem of refugees is universal and not confined, therefore, to the African continent. It has existed in fact long before the international community started to organize itself and to be concerned, as an international community, in the refugee problem. But we must recognize that one of the most acute refugee problems today is, in fact, on the continent of Africa and this is, I believe, the very reason that prompted this gathering.

Whilst it is clear that phenomena of a political nature are always at the root and at the origin of any refugee situation, it should be emphasized from the outset that my Office, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, does not deal with refugee problems in a political perspective. On the contrary, it has been expressly stated in the mandate which was granted to us by the General Assembly of the United Nations, when the Assembly created my Office in 1950, that "the work of the High Commissioner shall be of an entirely non-political character; it shall be humanitarian and social ... ". I am very glad therefore that - as has been underlined already by previous speakers - it is in this particular perspective that a Conference on the legal, economic and social aspects of African refugee problems is meeting today in Africa Hall.

Scope of the Conference

What is the purpose of this Conference in Addis Ababa? I believe that the reply to this question was already given to a very great extent through the statements made by H.E. the Minister of Interior of Ethiopia, Dedjazmatch Kifle Ergetu, and also by H.E. Diallo Telli, my very good friend, the Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity.

I should like to say, for my part, that this meeting is essentially meant to provide an occasion for a free and frank exchange of views between the representatives of African countries particularly interested in refugee problems, with the assistance of representatives and observers of those organizations who have co-operated very actively in recent years in trying to provide solutions to the various aspects of African refugee problems. I believe that this particularly contact, the personal contact which is going to result through this Conference, will be indeed most instrumental to promote an improvement of the methods which we have been applying and of the solutions which we have been seeking.

The recommendations which this Conference might wish to make in conclusion of its debates could and, I believe, should have a most determining influence on the discussions which are currently taking place in the bodies which have the necessary power of decision, whether they are of a universal character, like the United Nations, or of a regional character, such as, for instance, the Organization of African Unity.

Legal problems

Mr. Chairman, the Conference is called upon to devote considerable time to the legal aspects of the refugee problem. This is a development which I would like to welcome most heartily. It has been thought, and it has even been stated in the initial period of these new African refugee situations, not so long ago, that the African refugee problems could be solved by appropriate measures of assistance. The solutions allegedly depended, therefore, in the final analysis, on the availability of funds - sufficient means in other words - and the application of appropriate techniques. I believe that the documents dealing with legal and protection problems which are before you and which have been prepared for this meeting, make it abundantly clear at this point that, certainly in respect of the African refugees of urban background, those who are concentrated in the cities - and we should not hesitate to say in respect of the elite, in a way, of the African refugees - the legal problems are certainly as important as they are in any other part of the world. The African State of today - and I think those delegates who are here today understand this problem fully - is developing into a modern State with an increasingly complex legislation in respect to immigration, aliens' control, social and economic rights etc. it is against this background that the legal problem of refugees in Africa must be seen and should be solved.

International legal instruments

Mr. Chairman, whilst the basis for action by the High Commissioner is the Statute of his Office and all the subsequent resolutions of the General Assembly, it is well known that the basis for protection of refugees on their territory by the various States is, in addition to their own national legislation, the Convention of 1951 relating to the Status of Refugees. I am very glad to note that of the 51 States who have adhered to this Convention, 20 are African States.

This is due, I believe, to the support given to the cause of protection of refugees by the Summit Meetings of the Organization of African Unity who have upheld the principle of adhesion and indeed expressly recommended adhesion to this international instrument on various occasion, of which the most recent one has been the Assembly of Heads of State and Government held in Kinshasa, which the distinguished Secretary-General already referred to. In this connection, I would like also to extend my gratitude for the efforts of the Organization of African Unity's Secretariat itself, and particularly to its Secretary-General and to its Under-Secretary-General, Mohamed Sahnoun, Chairman of this opening meeting, for their personal efforts in promoting this fundamental instrument which determines the basic minimum standard of treatment to be extended to refugees in a country of asylum.

Another fortunate fact is that since the 4th of October, indeed vary recently, just before the opening of this particular meeting, the Protocol of 31 January 1967 relating to the Status of Refugees has come into force with the accession of the sixth State: Sweden, and I am very happy to say, a country which has played such a prominent and useful rôle in promoting the meeting which we are attending today. It is significant that of the six States which have already adhered to the Protocol, thus bringing it into force, four are African States: Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Gambia and Senegal. As you may know, the first State to adhere was the Holy See.

This Protocol, Mr. Chairman, removes the dateline of 1 January 1951 in the Convention of 1951 and makes, in fact, the provisions of this Convention applicable to all refugees, irrespective of the time at which they were compelled to seek asylum. I believe, therefore, that the discrimination which existed between treatment to be extended to refugee who became refugees as a result of events which took place before 1951 and the new refugees, those with whom we are concerned in Africa, this discrimination will now be eliminated. I believe that it is a fitting moment to call once again upon all African States - those represented here and others who are not here today - that they implement the recommendations which the Organization of African Unity made and that they all adhere to this Protocol and do away with the difference in treatment which, I believe, in the course of the historic process of development of international refugee law, has existed so far, as I said, to the detriment of the African refugees.

I have followed with great sympathy the considerable effort of study and research which has been accomplish within the framework of the OAU with a view to supplementing, through a suitable regional instrument which the Secretary-General referred to a moment ago, the this international instruments of protection, in order to take care of specific aspects of the African refugee situation. My position in this respect is inspired by the universal character of my own mandate and of the activities of my Office, which naturally include the refugee situation in Africa. Within this universal framework I would certainly welcome any supplementary regional measures which would be taken in Africa. These should be an improvement of the universal existing instruments and this has, in fact, already been done in regional organizations like to Council of Europe and the Organization of American States.

Social and economic aspects

Mr. Chairman, we have dealt with legal protection. I would like to add that - fundamental and indispensable as it is - protection cannot of course by itself lead to a satisfactory solution of refugee problems on the continent. Measures are required in the economic and social field - I think the very name of this Conference would indicate that. My Office attaches no less importance to this particular part of your efforts and to the debates which are going to be concentrated on this particular matter.

Voluntary repatriation, whenever feasible and practical, is of course the best solution to any refugee problem, as this is no doubt what a refugee ultimately desires. Quite apart from the historic example of the massive repatriation of Algerian refugees from Morocco and Tunisia in March 1962 following the Evian Agreement which brought the Algerian war to an end, I believe that substantial progress has been made in Africa in respect of repatriation, both as to the understanding by governments of countries of asylum and also of countries of origin of the real meaning of voluntary repatriation, and as concerns the actual arrangements to permit such voluntary repatriation to take place.

I am gratified that the voluntary principle in repatriation, which is indeed a most fundamental one, has been stressed repeatedly in a series of statements and resolutions of Africans governments, including the various resolutions of the OAU, as is clearly reflected in Conference Document No. 4 and is now embodied in a series of bilateral agreements concluded between African States with respect to refugees on their territories. No massive return may have taken place on the part of refugees to their countries of origin in recent years, but there have been both individual returns and voluntary repatriation of some groups of not negligible size. My Office has assisted in facilitating this voluntary repatriation, and we will continue to do so.

Progress has also been made as to the comprehension of the conditions required to enable voluntary repatriation to take place on either side of the borders concerned. On the one hand, the country of origin should see to it that conditions are created on its own territory which will persuade refugees that they can return without fear; that not only legal guarantees be available, such as for instance an amnesty, but also that the economic and social conditions in the country of origin be such that the return and the resettlement of the refugees is actually possible. On the other side, it is realized more and more that a durable solution in the country of asylum, for example in the form of land settlement, which I will be dealing with briefly, is not incompatible with the principle of voluntary repatriation. Durable solutions are in fact indispensable to eliminate the tensions created by the presence, often in border areas, of massive group of refugees and to enable the refugees really to determine of their own free-will whether they wish to return or not.

Mr. Chairman, in may personal opinion, the rôle of the High Commissioner in this connection cannot and should not be a passive one. It is implied in the mandate given to the High Commissioner by the General Assembly of the United Nations that he should be available to help solve any kind of problem affecting refugees. The High Commissioner can therefore lend his good offices as an intermediary to facilitate contact between States in respect of voluntary repatriation as well as other aspects of the refugee problem.

The Land settlement of refugees, Mr. Chairman, which I referred to, is perhaps the most original aspect of refugee work in Africa and one which this Conference will indeed devote quite a lot of attention. This method of settling the refugees in the countries of asylum is the logical consequence of the circumstances in which the massive influx of refugees takes place in Africa and is dictated therefore by the very nature of the problem.

I have stated before other audiences previously that, out of 800,000 refugees with whom we deal on the continent of African and whom we have directly or indirectly assisted, a great many of them, over 450,000, already are well under way to being settled, at least at subsistence level, both through the spontaneous land settlement and through the systematic land settlement policy which are analysed at length in the documents prepared for the consideration of this Conference. I believe, Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, that these results speak for themselves. To my mind, there is no further demonstration needed to justify that the policy adopted by the African governments and the OAU and carried out with the close co-operation of my Office, has indeed produced some spectacular results. I would like to stress in this connection that if these results have been so spectacular, it has been very largely thanks also to the co-operation received from other members of the United Nations family, agencies which are represented here today to a great extend and which have been providing the governments of countries of asylum with invaluable assistance. May I be permitted to single out in that connection the UN/FAO World Food Programme which provides millions of dollars worth of food stuffs to given assistance to refugees in land settlements until the time that they can become self-supporting.

The significance of land settlement, however, resides not only in its present achievements, but much more perhaps in the perspective it opens on the future. It is now an accepted principle that the initial land settlement of refugees requires a continuation in the form of area development plans or projects, but also that this initial project may be a cause for more global development which will benefit the country as a whole and the people of the country as a whole, so that the local population is also given a chance to benefit from these development plans together with the refugees.

The fact that so many other members of the United Nations system concerned with overall economic and social development are here with us today is another evidence of the close inter-agency co-operation which started to develop a few years ago, but which has considerably increased in scope since the later part of 1966. It is appropriate to recall in this respect the discussion which took place at the eighth session of the Economic Commission for Africa in Lagos in February 1967, and which resulted in the adoption of ECA resolution 183 (VIII) on co-operation between UNHCR and the Economic Commission for Africa.

The significance of land settlement and of the subsequent development which it may and should cause, must be valued also in terms of the utilization of human resources, an aspect of economic and social development to which increasing attention is being paid not only in the United Nations, but generally. The experience made in providing durable solutions for refugees shows that uprooted people can, and must be converted into active elements of economic and social development. The objective of the programmes encouraged and supported by my Office is finally to contribute to this better utilization of human resources, seen in a broad perspective. We must transform the presence of refugees in the various countries, which is often felt to be a liability, into assets of the economic and social balance of the countries' development.

Education, employment, resettlement

I referred earlier to the so-called elite of African refugees. It is obvious to all those concerned with refugees in Africa that a crisis, a very serious crisis, is developing in respect of refugees who have received higher education. I refer not only to those who were educated in their country of origin, but also to refugees who have benefited, and still benefit from scholarships and fellowships either in their country of asylum or in other countries, thanks to the generosity of various governments, of non-governmental agencies and, last but not least, thanks to United Nations programmes. I believe that my distinguished colleague, Ambassador Kironde, understands this problem fully since he is in charge of the United Nations educational and training programmes, and would agree with me that a crisis is indeed developing.

There are many more refugees in this category than was expected a few years ago and, in the existing circumstances, there is no reasonable outlet for them; that is, employment where full use can be made of their skills and professions. I appreciate the difficulties which stand in the way to a solution of this problem. But I think we all realize in this hall that the manpower needs of Africa - and I mean the needs for skilled manpower - are far from being satisfied. I believe therefore that the present paradoxical situation cannot be allowed to continue. I am also convinced that this Conference should be able to come forward with a recommendation which will enable a machinery - an adequate machinery - to be established, permitting these refugees to travel with adequate documents to those countries where their capabilities can be used, and to resettle in these countries for the benefit of Africa as a whole. This will not only be a humanitarian gesture, but also a reasonable and realistic policy of inter-African solidarity with beneficial effects on both the economic and intellectual spheres.


Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen, I should not like to finish these few remarks without saying a sincere and warm tribute to the peoples and the Governments of Africa who have shown an exceptional example to other countries in practising a generous policy of asylum towards refugees. I sincerely hope that it is this spirit of hospitality and humanitarian purpose which will inspire and guide the participants in this Conference across the many technical considerations and even technical obstacles which are inherent in any human problem but which can be overcome if there is a fundamental desire to solve it.

My colleagues in my Office and I are most anxious to listen to the views which will be put forward during the following days by the representatives of the African countries who came to Addis Ababa for this meeting. As in the past, my Office is available to assist not only with advice, based on its long experience of refugee problems and their solutions, but also with practical support to enable the African countries to solve the many refugees problems across the continent.

I believe sincerely that quick solutions will be in the interest of peace and stability in Africa. We have seen in other parts of the world what stagnation has brought to refugee problems; the unrest, the political, social and economic instability which have been created through the existing camps which had not been closed. This is something which should not happen on the continent of African and, therefore, these solutions which we have gathered here to discuss should be quick, should be effective and should ultimately be considered in a non-political and humanitarian spirit.

I realize, of course, that the assistance which has been provided by my Office has been in many cases of a marginal character. This is a complaint which we have heard and which I fully appreciate. I would stress, however, that we can given only what we receive. The function of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees is to mobilize resources from various quarters and to make them available on a multilateral basis for refugee work in an impartial and neutral way. We would certainly like to do more, and I can assure you that my Office is engaged in a daily effort to increase the contributions which we receive. We depend, however, on voluntary contributions and, primarily, on the voluntary efforts of governments. I sincerely hope, therefore, that this Conference will be another means of convincing the various governments that they must live up to their responsibilities also in this particular field of international assistance to refugees.

We do not know as yet what results this conference will achieve. For my part, I would hope that I will result at least in the following:

(a) A better understanding of the importance of international protection and legal status of refugees in Africa.

(b) A consensus on the part to be played, both in the legal field and in the economic and social field of refugee work, by the governments, the intergovernmental organizations (including my Office, of course) and the non-governmental agencies respectively.

(c) A positive recommendation with a view to establishing an appropriate and effective machinery for the resettlement and employment of African refugees in the higher education brackets, as well as of other individual refugees stranded in the various capital cities in Africa and outside of this continent.

What I should like to say finally, Mr. Chairman, is that in my opinion the Conference is not meeting to deal primarily with statistics and legal or technical problems. It is assembled to face the great challenge of the refugee problems in Africa. This challenge is made fundamentally by the human beings who are behind the facts and the figures. Therefore I wish and hope that the Conference will have constantly before it the image of the many men, women and children who are suffering because they are refugees.

Thank you Mr. Chairman.