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"Fortress Europe? Refugees and migrants: their human rights and dignity" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Akademie Graz International Conference, Graz, Austria, 23 May 1992

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"Fortress Europe? Refugees and migrants: their human rights and dignity" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Akademie Graz International Conference, Graz, Austria, 23 May 1992

23 May 1992

The dilemma of displacement appears to have come a full circle in the forty-one years of UNHCR's history. Having started as a European problem and spread globally, it has come back to haunt Europe.

Unbelievable as it may be, a few hundred kilometres from here, war is raging. In what used to be Yugoslavia, resurgent nationalism is rearing its head with a vengeance. Bitter ethnic conflict, senseless killing, violence and evictions have led to the displacement thus far of more than one million people within the Republics of former Yugoslavia. In addition, several hundreds of thousands Yugoslavians are in other parts of Europe. Several years of often heated debate on asylum issues in Europe have been given a new dimension. The continent of Europe today has its own clear refugee problems, as in Asia and Africa.

For forty years, refugee policies and practices were affected by the predominant power struggle for global dominance, that was the Cold War. It was international support for victims of communist persecution and repression, which led to the creation of the UNHCR in 1951 to protect and assist individuals who sought refugee in the free and democratic countries of the West.

The problem appeared relatively simple in those days. Flight from ostracized regimes in the East made the granting of asylum in the West an act of benevolence, and protection against refoulement self-evident. Likewise, as voluntary repatriation was inconceivable, integration in countries of asylum or resettlement appeared as the only real solution. The 1951 Convention was adopted, acceded to and respected by many States. A unique addition to the international system of human rights law emerged:protecting the individual against the follies and outrages of the state and designating an international organization, UNHCR, as responsible for its supervision.

Europe and specifically Austria may indeed be proud of the record of generous humanitarian achievement in implementing the 1951 Convention.

When, during the sixties, the refugee problem moved south to the new and emerging States of Africa, new responses had to be sought. Liberation wars and ethnic strife caused mass flights; but one could hope for their end and so also for voluntary repatriation; in the meanwhile, local settlement across the border was organized. Africa demonstrated generosity in the way it received refugees, and vision in the way it dealt with the problem. In 1969, the OAU Convention on Refugees was adopted, accepting violence as a cause of flight, asylum as the way of protection and voluntary repatriation as the ideal solution. A giant step forward on the road started by Europeans almost 20 years earlier with the 1951 convention.

Other regions in the South demonstrated a similar combination of pragmatism and vision in the way they chose to tackle the problem of displacement. In Central America, instability imposed from outside and violence fuelled from inside had, for decades, caused major and complex displacement. In the second half of the eighties, the region's leaders decided to chart their own course - linking political settlement with solutions to displacement and ambitious plans for economic and social development. Out of this political commitment to improve regional stability grew the International Conference on Central American Refugees (CIREFCA) which has contributed to the solution of the refugee problems in the region and served as an important springboard for a durable plan for peace and development.

In Asia, the phenomenon of the boat people from Vietnam generated an outpouring of compassion - at least in its early stages. But as the memory of the wars receded and as within the region and beyond, the political and economic priorities shifted, the approach had to change - both in terms of protection and solutions. The Comprehensive Plan of Action adopted at an International Conference in 1989, was devised by the need to tackle a mixed movement of migrants and refugees, within a very complex political context. Through the combination of harmonized, rapid asylum procedures, resettlement as a solution for those granted refugee status, return to Vietnam for those screened out as refugees, economic aid to communities in Vietnam from which people come and to which people return, orderly immigration for those wishing to leave and general information about conditions abroad and possibilities of resettlement, the CPA has played a major role as a multilateral effort in resolving the Vietnamese refugee problem. For example, during the first four months of 1992, only a few Vietnamese were received as asylum-seekers in the region while at the same time considerable numbers returned to Vietnam. There is no doubt that we are writing the final chapter of the Vietnamese boat drama.

Africa, Central America and Asia have been - are indeed, today, - the scenes of the major refugees problems. These are the regions where some 95 percent of the world's more than 17 million refugees and an equal number of internally displaced persons are found. But, it is also these regions which have shown the way in coming to grips with their refugee problems. What then, are the lessons we have learned, and the conclusions we can draw, when trying to come to grips with the situation of asylum-seekers in Europe who represent only four percent of the world's refugees.

It is important to recall that only two years ago, it was the urge to move - and the hunger for freedom - that brought the wall of fences down - in Berlin and along Austria's borders. It is the same freedom of movement that has now unleashed some of the tensions that the community of nations seem to have difficulties in managing. Indeed, people on the move from former East Germany into Hungary contributed significantly to finally bringing the 40 year cold war to an end. How we deal with the movement of people today will greatly determine how the post cold war era will evolve. The risks are obvious. The opportunities are evident.

Super-power rivalry and proxy wars have been replaced by conflicts within nations. Oppression of speech has been replaced by what is sometimes an anarchy of expressions for independence, autonomy and self-rule. The disappearance of ideological enemies and of the threats, perceived or real, have made major nations turn inward - leaving behind the majority of our fellow human beings in the vicious cycle of deprivation and poverty. Hence, all the obvious risks of multiplication of points of tension - and the increased potential for dramatic displacement. The outflow of boat people from Haiti and Albania give us a forecast of what could happen on an even larger scale.

Yugoslavia provides daily reminders of the inability to deal with these new sources of turmoil. In all its tragedy - in all the horror - Yugoslavia must surely also serve as a timely - an hopefully not too late - warning to politicians that the profound aspiration of peoples and the population movements they provoke - if not addressed effectively and constructively - carry with them a potential risk for disorder. There are many lessons yet to be learnt. One of them must now be a clear realization that movements of people are likely to become both a major political and security issue in the near future. An issue that cannot be dealt with through charity. An issue that requires political vision, leadership and statesmanship. It was thanks to the political will and leadership that refugee problems found their solutions in other parts of the world. I call upon political leaders in Europe to seize the opportunities that exist today to chart a course that can address and resolve the refugee and migration issues facing Europe today.

I believe a European strategy would have to evolve around some of the following elements. Indeed, our approach should be multidimensional, encompassing at least the following five elements:

Firstly, Europe must reaffirm its commitment to provide protection to those in need.

A majority of those seeking asylum on this continent today - while they may not always be able to prove individual persecution as the cause of their flight - are indeed persons whose life and liberty would be in danger if they were forced back to their own countries. The 1951 Convention - article 33 - prohibits their refoulement for those very reasons. They are in fact in the same situation as those several millions protected in Third World nations and whom the Europeans, as donors, have supported in those countries. It seems to me that there is a clear need to establish the principle to provide protection to those it is prohibited to refoule, at a minimum temporarily, until they can return home in safety and dignity. The modalities for solving refugee problems would range from temporary stay to integration in countries of asylum, or resettlement in third countries.

Second, European countries must examine the possible adoption of immigration policies. A significant number of those coming to Europe today enter as asylum seekers even though they may not be in need of asylum. They come as job seekers, seekers of a better future but in the absence of a migration window, they try to get in through the asylum door. The response to their dilemma needs to be based on a careful and well informed analysis of the situations they have left behind. A judicious mixture of asylum and migration opportunities would be important. It is interesting to note that countries such as US and Canada have experienced a similar dramatic increase in the number of asylum seekers as Europe; the fact that they have important migration programmes and policies would appear to permit them to respond with greater flexibility.

It is clear that the rationalization and harmonization of status determination processes attempted by Europe are desirable and necessary; alone however they do not address the fundamental need to deal with migratory pressures. These will not be met without the adoption of appropriate immigration policies which would take into account both the need for foreign labour of an ageing European population and the aspiration of the poorer and younger populations of the South.

Third, information in the largest sense of the word must be an essential element of any strategy to manage population movements. On the one hand, advice and training on migration, asylum and minority rights laws are needed. On the other hand, individual and mass information to those with a propensity to move is required. Information of this kind will allow the individual to make an educated decision after weighing the consequences of movement against the possibility to stay at home. A massive UNHCR information campaign in Vietnam has played a significant part in directing those wanting to move towards orderly migration programmes rather than risking their lives in perilous boat journeys. It has likewise prompted many to return home rather than spending years in desolate camps without any hope of ever being accepted by a third country. Similar campaigns are presently underway in Romania and Albania, the latter jointly managed by the IOM and UNHCR.

Clearly for these information campaigns to achieve their purpose, real options for potential migrants must exist.

And this brings me to the fourth component: the problem of migratory pressure can be solved only when adequate resources are invested into the countries from which many migrants originate. Needless to say, development assistance targeted to creation of employment opportunities, in areas of actual or potential exodus might go some way in preventing massive departure. It is important to indicate that similar assistance may also facilitate return of migrants, as UNHCR has found in the context, for example, of the CPA. A policy of extending assistance to Vietnamese returnees as well as to the communities of their return seem to have some impact in inducing return. ILO is currently exploring such projects in the Maghreb countries. But we should have no illusions: short of a mammoth injection of resources over a considerable period, any significant impact is unlikely to come.

I see as a fifth and essential element of this possible strategy, the concerted and purposeful promotion of Human Rights. The respect of Human Rights in general, the protection of the rights of minorities in particular are fundamental to the establishment and continued development of democratic states. Without that respect and protection, in today's unfriendly reality, people may increasingly feel themselves to be cheated and exploited, held in contempt in a hostile world, and provoked to seek escape and relief in virulent nationalisms and other forms of sectarianism. Almost inevitably, I am afraid, these will lead to the displacement of populations, to refugee movements, to the breakdown of stability and peace.

Finally, we need to bring together all those with the competence and experience in the areas outlined above, in a truly coherent and coordinated response. Today the response seems fragmented, the actors compartmentalized. On the bilateral side, the sectors dealing with asylum, migration, human rights and economic and development aid need to be brought together. On the multilateral side, universal and regional organizations such as ILO, IOM, UNHCR, the Council for Europe, the CSCE and the European Community have similar and at times overlapping concerns. We need to join hands.

We have to look beyond parochial national interest. We have to look beyond narrow organizational interests. Both have proved inadequate, have failed in the past. The new climate of antilogarithm offers the hope for the way forward. The opportunity is there to seize. I would like in the coming weeks and months to engage my own Office in a dialogue with European governments, political leaders, international and regional organizations in order to chart a comprehensive strategy on movement of people in Europe. If we had not grasped the importance of this issue before, I believe that the consequences of the drama unfolding in Yugoslavia have brought home to us the urgency and importance of embarking immediately on such a strategy.

As we move into the nineties there is no doubt that Europe is at a crossroads. Will Europe turn its back on those who are forced to move, or will it strengthen its long tradition of safeguarding the rights of the oppressed and the uprooted? Will Europe build new walls, knowing that walls did not stop those who were fleeing totalitarian persecution in the past? Or will Europe help to bridge the abyss which now separates East from West and North from South? Will Europe and the rest of the industrialized world have the courage to commit themselves politically and economically to attack severe poverty, underdevelopment and social injustice which leads to oppression, violence and displacement?

The path which we follow will create the kind of world we bestow on future generations.

Thank you.