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"Together, in the Search for Solutions" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on Africa Refugee Day, 20 June 1997

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"Together, in the Search for Solutions" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on Africa Refugee Day, 20 June 1997

20 June 1997

Twenty three years ago today, when the OAU Convention governing the special aspects of refugees in Africa entered into force, African leaders solemnly committed themselves to open their doors to refugees, to people fleeing persecution and war. They agreed further to work together to solve refugee problems. With almost six million refugees in Africa and millions of others forcibly displaced within their own countries, these pledges remain as relevant now as they were in 1974.

Every day, every year my staff work together with Governments, the OAU, other humanitarian agencies and African citizens across the continent for the refugee cause. So, for us and our partners, every day is Africa Refugee Day. But 20 June is unique. It is the day my Office tries to focus world attention on refugee problems in Africa. It is a special occasion to speak out on behalf of the many women, men and children who are uprooted.

The plight of refugees and of people who have to flee within their own countries is an extremely dire one. Not only have they gone through the trauma of leaving everything behind, they also find more and more obstacles in their way to safety abroad. Asylum is weakening. Refugees have been turned back at borders and then killed. Others have become pawns in the hands of rogue political and military leaders in exile, as we have seen so dramatically in the Rwandan refugee camps in the Great Lakes region. If refugees are caught up in a war zone, their condition becomes even worse. The ordeal of exhausted Rwandans and Burundians in forests in the heart of Africa is one of the worst dramas of our times.

I therefore appeal to you, the people of Africa and to your leaders, to preserve the institution of asylum and to continue to offer refugees a truly safe haven as long as they cannot return home in peace. Africa has a tradition of hospitality and generosity of which we are all proud. Don't let this tradition slip away, even when you are trying to cope with your own problems. Don't use refugees as scapegoats for the ills of society. Show solidarity with the victims of war and persecution. Yes, refugees often represent an economic, environmental and sometimes even political, burden. That is why I also appeal to the international community, as I do constantly, to increase its assistance to countries receiving refugees. The burden must be shared. My message today is, however, not only a message of worry. On the contrary, it is also a message of promise and hope. As I see it, Africa is undergoing a period of change with many positive developments. I wish to salute the progress toward respect for human rights and democratic forms of governance in many parts of the continent. I salute the battle of governments against poverty. I salute the growth of civil society, of the increasing number of men and women working for the common good. And I salute in particular the unmistaken, albeit sometimes still fragile, movements towards peace and reconciliation in many African countries over the past few years.

South Africa, Mozambique and Mali are prominent examples. Now we are witnessing breakthroughs to peace in countries such as Angola and Liberia. I am enormously heartened by these developments, because they mean that more refugees will be able to return home. For us, when refugees and other displaced persons go home, they symbolize the process of peace and reinforce it at the same time.

A simple but crucial lesson behind these movements toward peace is that refugee problems may often seem intractable but they are not insoluble. In our experience there are two basic prerequisites for solution: the political will of leaders to tackle the causes and to settle for peace, and international determination to push for peace and then to consolidate it. Consolidating peace means helping societies emerging from war to reintegrate refugees in safety and dignity, to rebuild their institutions - including in the field of justice and human rights - and to resume their economic development.

We all know how enormous these challenges can be. Think only of Rwanda after the genocide. But refugee problems can be overcome, provided we all join hands. That is why the theme of this year's Africa Refugee Day is "Together in the Search of Solutions". Together means African governments, African civil society and the OAU, but also international donors, NGOs, humanitarian organizations like UNHCR, development organizations and of course the refugees themselves. When we join hands, peace, refugee repatriation and reconciliation have a chance. We should not continue with the ad hoc and band-aid treatment of the past. Let us work together. Only then can the underlying problems be addressed and future conflict be prevented.

Let me conclude with a wish. Together in the Search of Solutions should turn 1997 into a year of repatriation in peace and dignity in as many parts of Africa as possible. I hope for an end to the terrible suffering in the Great Lakes region. I hope for peace to take root in countries such as Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone. We in UNHCR stand ready to continue to help and to help you help the refugees of Africa.