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Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Parliament of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Skopje, 28 March 2000

Speeches and statements

Address by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Parliament of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Skopje, 28 March 2000

28 March 2000

Mr President,
Honourable Members of Parliament,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a privilege and an honour to address this Assembly today. Thank you for inviting me.

It is also a pleasure to be in Macedonia again, and I am happy that the dramatic refugee emergency which brought me here last year is now over. I have held useful discussions with the President, the Prime Minister and Government Ministers, as well as with a representative of the opposition.

These meetings have allowed me to appreciate the co-operative working relations that exist between your country and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They have also allowed me to express UNHCR's gratitude to the Macedonian government, and to the Macedonian people, for hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees during the Kosovo crisis last year, and for the support they continue to provide for the refugees remaining in the country, and to the humanitarian operation in Kosovo.

Mr President, Honourable Members of Parliament,

Civilian populations are increasingly targeted in today's wars. Refugee movements have acquired new political and security dimensions, as refugees have moved from the periphery to the centre of conflicts. In many parts of the world, forcing people to abandon their homes, and flee, has become an objective of war. In this context, international humanitarian law and the refugee protection regime are more challenged than ever before.

However, they have never been so necessary.

Nowhere has this been more dramatically true than in this region. Since 1991, four wars have brought destruction and unspeakable human suffering to the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Forced human displacement has been, constantly, a dramatic feature of these wars. At the peak of the Bosnian conflict, violence and ethnic cleansing produced four million refugees, displaced and war affected people - one of the biggest humanitarian crises of modern times. Hundreds of thousands continue to wait for a solution to their displacement.

Although your country remained outside of the successive conflicts, the proximity of war meant that it had to pay a very high price in terms of economic development. In spite of this, starting in 1992, it generously shared the burden of human displacement by hosting thousands of Bosnian refugees. Fortunately, almost all of them have now returned to their country - 200 of them a few weeks ago.

But the most dramatic time for Macedonia came last year. This followed the worsening of the Kosovo conflict, the withdrawal of the Kosovo Verification Mission and humanitarian organisations from the province, the NATO air intervention, and the massive exodus of refugees - 360,000 of them fled to Macedonia alone.

It was a very critical juncture - we went through many, very difficult moments. We faced serious problems and - I should add - there were some misunderstandings. In the end, however, we prevailed by working together. I am glad to have this opportunity to personally assure you that throughout the crisis my Office and myself were acutely aware of the grave problems that the refugee influx posed to your country - in terms of resources, of environment, of overall stability. This was of great concern to me personally, and I kept in close and constant touch with my hard working colleagues on the ground, and with your authorities in Skopje.

I am glad, one year later, to be able to say that together, and in cooperation with the civilian and military personnel of other governments and organisations, we managed to respond to one of the worst refugee crises of the last few years. The loss of lives in refugee camps was minimal. Under the circumstances, it was a considerable achievement.

Substantial material assistance was provided to refugees. Families and communities hosting them were also assisted. And in a further effort to alleviate Macedonia's burden, 32 governments temporarily hosted nearly 100,000 evacuated refugees. The Humanitarian Evacuation Programme was an unprecedented burden-sharing project, made in response to a refugee crisis which the international community recognized as exceptional in size, speed, and impact.

The efforts made between April and July 1999 by your people and your country, with the support of the international community, represent an important example of addressing a major crisis through international cooperation. Macedonia played its role in avoiding a humanitarian disaster.

Mr President, Honourable Members of Parliament,

For the past ten days, I have toured various countries in this region - Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, where I visited both Serbia and Montenegro, and spent two days in Kosovo. Some important changes have taken place in the crucial area of refugee return and reintegration, which is at the core of UNHCR's work in the region. First and foremost among these changes is the very open attitude of the new Croatian government, which has declared its intention to welcome, and not just to accept, the return of Croatian refugees of Serbian ethnic origin from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and from Bosnia and Herzegovina - particularly Republika Srpska. If implemented swiftly and effectively, this policy will be an essential step towards stability in South-Eastern Europe, which will undoubtedly have profound and positive effects on the region as a whole. Also, thanks to improved security conditions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the number of minority returns in the past few months, especially to Republika Srpska, has been higher than in previous years - I hope that this will be a lasting trend.

I draw from these positive signs a sense of cautious optimism. I say "cautious" because many obstacles must be overcome to resolve refugee problems and reverse the tragic consequences of ethnic cleansing. Economic conditions remain dire throughout the region - if refugee returns are to be not only possible, but also sustainable, many more jobs have to be created and economic institutions supported. And political tensions continue to be high in several flashpoints, not least with respect to the unresolved problem of Kosovo. More specifically with respect to the return of refugees and displaced people, there are unresolved problems of institutions, of law, of security; and, at the crucial grassroots level, the deep wounds of communities that remain divided must be healed.

From the observations I made during my tour of the region let me draw two major conclusions, that I would like to share with you.

My first point is very close to the heart of UNHCR's mission, and is related in particular to the situation in Kosovo: it is essential that we continue to protect and assist those forced to flee their homes.

Most of the refugees who came last year to your country have now left. In Kosovo, I have seen the people - those same people that we helped survive - busy rebuilding their houses and their lives. In this context, let me remind you that your country provides an important contribution to the reconstruction effort, by allowing the transit of goods and personnel towards the province - I trust that you will continue to play the key function of "humanitarian gateway" to Kosovo.

All this is encouraging, but the problems of Kosovo - and particularly of its non-Albanian communities - are far from resolved, and continue to be of great concern to my Office and to the international community. Macedonia itself now hosts only a fraction of the large number of refugees that were present in the country last year. This, however, does not mean that its contribution, or its needs, have been forgotten. UNHCR, in particular, continues to make efforts to alleviate the consequences of the 1999 refugee influx, and to help the country protect and assist the refugees who have remained, or who have arrived, after the massive repatriation of Kosovo Albanians last summer - particularly those of Serb, Roma or other non-Albanian ethnicity, who are still being forced to leave their homes.

Tensions in this region persist, although they cannot be compared to the situation of last year. UNHCR will continue to closely monitor the situation in the various areas of potential crisis. I trust that there will not be another massive refugee outflow, but, in any event, I want you to know that we stand ready to cooperate with Macedonia, just as we have done since the beginning of the Bosnian war.

In this respect, let me summarize UNHCR's most recent contributions to refugee and post-refugee programmes in this country. In 1999, we spent 36 million US dollars - of which 11 million US dollars went directly to government departments in the form of both financial contributions and technical support. This year, we have budgeted 10 million US dollars for a variety of projects. Former refugee sites have been dismantled, cleaned and sanitized. We are currently funding activities ranging from school reconstruction and installation of water and sanitation systems, to the provision of health services, and to social and community welfare programmes. These projects are being implemented throughout the country - in Skopje, Kumanovo, Probistip, Tetovo, Veles, Ohrid, and other areas. We also continue to support various government departments, with particular focus on the Ministries of the Interior, Labour, Justice, and Foreign Affairs. In addition to these direct contributions, since the emergency last year, UNHCR alone has spent over 12 million US dollars to purchase humanitarian goods on the Macedonian market, and has encouraged other UN organisations to do likewise.

The second conclusion drawn from observations made during my tour is more general: I believe that our attempts to resolve refugee problems in this part of the world must be part of broader, comprehensive, international integration and collaboration efforts in the region.

European initiatives of great importance for the future of Macedonia - and of the region as a whole - have been recently launched: the negotiation of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement between Macedonia and the European Union, and the implementation of the South-Eastern Europe Stability Pact. For this reason, it is essential that Macedonia's laws in the key areas of citizenship and refugee asylum - which are extremely important in relation to European integration - be drafted and implemented according to international and especially European standards. My Office, which has acquired considerable experience in this field in various countries of Central and Eastern Europe, is committed to advising and assisting your government, and this Parliament, with the drafting of legislation related to these issues.

In this respect, I understand that the draft law on asylum is soon to be submitted to the relevant government commissions and later to Parliament. UNHCR has offered its advice to the drafting working group on asylum and will be pleased to hold informative sessions for parliamentarians on refugee law and international refugee protection standards. Let me take this opportunity to say that I attach the greatest importance to this process. The asylum law will provide a legislative framework for the concrete implementation of the principles enshrined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 Protocol, to both of which Macedonia is a state party. It is crucial that this important law be passed with the full support of Parliament. Let me add that this would be the most fitting manner to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of my Office, and of the ratification of the refugee Convention, which we shall observe in December 2000 and July 2001 respectively.

Mr President, Honourable Members of Parliament,

Having dealt with millions of refugees and displaced people throughout this region for almost ten years, my Office knows that the greatest challenge for South-Eastern Europe today is to promote the peaceful coexistence of communities that have often fought fiercely with each other in bitter wars. This is true in all the countries I have visited in the past few days - in Croatia, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Very close to Skopje, in Kosovo, enormous efforts are being made to restore peace among all the communities of an ethnically diverse province - and as I said, these efforts will have to continue for some time before we see positive results. Although much remains to be done, and not only in Kosovo, we must not be discouraged by the difficulties and setbacks that will be, inevitably, on our way, but we must continue to promote coexistence, and ultimately reconciliation.

Before concluding, let me therefore turn once more to your country. Macedonia has continued to be a multi-ethnic society, at the same time avoiding conflict. I know how complex and difficult this endeavour has been, especially during the Kosovo crisis.

The situation in Macedonia shows that it is possible for communities of different ethnic origin to live together; and that ethnic diversity is not inevitably an element of division, but on the contrary, can be mutually enriching. And as High Commissioner for Refugees, let me say that I particularly appreciate that during a time of crisis, you were able to reconcile the imperative of respecting the principles of refugee asylum, with the necessity to preserve stability in a complex, diverse society.

It is crucial that this effort continues in the future, and I would like to ask you to do even more in this direction, and to commit yourselves to promoting the coexistence of diverse communities - because by doing so, not only will you achieve greater stability in your country, but also set a positive example for other countries in this troubled region.

On our side, we shall continue to support you, and be your advocates with the international community.

Thank you.