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Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, seventeenth session, 22 May 1967

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, seventeenth session, 22 May 1967

22 May 1967

One of the most important developments in the international work for refugees, since the Executive Committee met at its sixteenth session, is no doubt the fact that the Secretary-General of the United Nations has transmitted the Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees to States for accession. I very much hope that as great a number of States as possible will accede to the Protocol so that it may come into force, possibly before the end of 1967.

The Members of the Committee will note that no special document has been prepared on the subject of international protection of refugees for this session. This is in conformity with the policy to issue a document on protection at the autumn session. It is perhaps an additional reason to stress again here that protection is the primary function of the Office.

While the Office has been faced since the last session of the Committee with a series of local problems, sometimes of a serious and very acute character, there have been no dramatic developments which would change the over-all picture as it was given to the Committee in November 1966.

The impression to be gained by looking at the world map is rather a considerable diversification of the refugee situations in the various countries. I refer here to the great variety of refugee groups as they emerged over the years and to the various stages in which each refugee group finds itself, particularly as regards their assimilation and integration from an economic and social point of view.

It may be useful therefore to analyse briefly the refugee situation in each geographical area. I propose to do so in alphabetical order, which does not necessarily reflect the importance of the various areas from the point of view of our work.

The Committee will note that the documents submitted do not refer to any new category of refugees in Africa. I should like to mention, however, that my Office has been informed by Governments of certain population movements which might have a distinct refugee character and which might, therefore, ultimately become the concern of my Office.

There has been, on the other hand, a further increase of existing refugee groups. As of 1 January 1967, there were an estimated 740,000 refugees in Africa, as compared with 630,000 on 1 January 1966. Of course, as a result of earlier activities, only a part of this total number still requires active material assistance under the auspices of UNHCR.

The actual number takes into consideration both the new arrivals on the one hand and the reduction in the number of certain refugee groups through voluntary repatriation on the other hand. This phenomenon has been particularly significant for the Congolese groups, where both influx and voluntary repatriation reached the thousands. For this group, we have reason to believe that voluntary repatriation will in fact be the predominant solution.

I should also like to mention the voluntary repatriation of several hundreds of Rwandese refugees. A few thousand Angolans and Mozambicans returned from Zambia to their respective countries. In the early part of this year detailed information was received on the voluntary repatriation of Sudanese refugees from Uganda which reached a total of 1,094 (including 713 by road and 381 by air). There has been a further number, not precisely known as yet, of individual repatriants.

I am sure that the Members of the Committee will welcome, with me, these voluntary repatriation movements which clearly indicate that, in a number of situations in Africa, as soon as the refugees are convinced that they can return to their country of origin, voluntary repatriation is a real solution for at least part of the refugee problem.

Increasing attention is being given by the African Governments to the Necessity of solving the refugee problems in a spirit of understanding between States. Further evidence of this is given by the conference held at the end of March 1967 in Goma, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Between the Presidents of Burundi and Rwanda. In the statement issued, the Heads of State recognized the generally accepted principles governing refugee status, including the principle of voluntary repatriation, and declared their intention to co-operate in the elimination of subversive activities.

I indicated earlier that the total number of refugees in Africa was estimated, early in 1967, at 740,000. Of this total, some 450,000 refugees can be considered as settled. Among this category, some 350,000 refugees are settled largely through spontaneous integration with initial assistance from local authorities, UNHCR and other bodies. I refer here mainly to two groups of refugees, the Angolans in the Congo and the refugees from Portuguese Guinea in Senegal.

I had occasion, in the early part of March 1967, to see for myself the situation in the Casamance, the southern province of Senegal, at the invitation of President Senghor. I should like to express my gratitude to President Senghor and the Government of Senegal for the warm reception I received there and also for the opportunity of seeing the results in the Casamance of the combined action of a series of local factors and of the assistance provided by the Government, the voluntary agencies and UNHCR. The strong ethnic links between the refugees and the local population (which makes it in fact impossible in many instances to distinguish between the two groups), the availability of land and the measures of assistance taken have facilitated the rather smooth process of integration to which I just referred.

In other parts of Africa circumstances have required a substantial and prolonged aid from my Office and other agencies, governmental and non-governmental, to enable refugees to settle on the land. At this stage, we consider that some 100,000 refugees (particularly Rwandese in Burundi, the Congo, Uganda and Tanzania and a number of Sudanese in Uganda) are settled, at least at subsistence level, through these efforts.

These groups of refugees, totalling some 450,000 may still require some assistance in the years to come for the consolidation of the social and economic infrastructure of the new communities. But if each refugee group is considered by itself, there is actual evidence that the problem of refugees, whether in Africa or elsewhere, is not endless. We can therefore dispel the unjustified fears which have been, and sometimes are still voiced in this respect.

Meanwhile, over 250,000 refugees in Africa still rely on active assistance measures from the Governments of the countries of asylum and through multilateral channels, particularly UNHCR, before they reach a certain degree of self-reliance, although about half of this number no longer require food rations.

Considerable progress has been made, particularly in respect of rural settlement in Africa, in the field of inter-agency co-operation, which I know is of special interest to this Committee. Following the recommendations made by the Executive Committee at its sixteenth session, a very positive attitude was taken on this matter by the General Assembly in its resolution 2197 (XXI), the text of which is being submitted for information in the documents of this session. I also had conversations on the subject with the Administrator and Co-Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, as well as with leaders of other United Nations programmes and United Nations specialized agencies. More details on this subject are given to the Committee in document A/AC.96/367.

I should like to emphasize here that, within the framework of this inter-agency co-operation, a new common approach to refugee problems in Africa is evolving which should make it possible to complement the initial assistance activities, sponsored and largely financed by UNHCR, by the more general economic and social assistance of the United Nations system as a whole.

As tangible evidence of inter-agency co-operation I would mention:

(1) The continuation of the ILO project in the Kivu;

(2) The 1967 interim project in East Burundi involving the World Food Programme, UNDP, ILO and FAO.

(3) The continued co-operation with the World Food Programme in a number of other countries, such as the Central African Republic, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

(4) The participation of UNDP and specialized agencies in the planning stage of settlement projects, for example in the Central African Republic and in the Congo.

The take-over of refugee settlement areas by the United Nations technical assistance system and their integration into over-all development programmes depends to a very large extent upon the interest shown by the countries of asylum and upon specific requests made by the governments of these countries to UNDP. The earlier such a request is made and corresponding action is actually taken, the sooner UNHCR can withdraw its active support from existing projects.

I mentioned already at earlier sessions the increasing importance of legal problems and individual assistance measures for small groups of refugees falling outside the scope of these rural settlement activities to which I have referred. A typical situation in this respect is that which has existed for some time now in a number of southern African areas, inter alia Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.

I was invited by the President of Botswana to visit his country, but being unable to respond to his invitation because of my heavy schedule, I requested two members of my Office to proceed to Gaberones in March and April of this year. One of my representatives had the opportunity of visiting Swaziland also, in agreement with the United Kingdom authorities. I am at present studying the report on this mission with a view to helping the Governments in that area in finding appropriate solutions to a refugee problem which, although small in numbers belongs precisely, as I have said, to the category of problems where no collective measures can be contemplated.

Turning to the northern part of the continent, I had the occasion, early in March, to examine the situation in the United Arab Republic, where I had the privilege of discussing problems of common interest with President Nasser and members of the Government. As a result of my visit I am happy to report that the Government of the United Arab Republic has decided, for the first time, to make a contribution of Egyptian 3,000 to the voluntary funds programmes of UNHCR.

Turning now to the Americas, Mr. Chairman, I should like to recall the existence, among the refugees in Latin America, of a relatively small number of particularly difficult individual cases. We continue to try to seek simple and practical solutions for these cases in accordance with local possibilities, taking also into account the recommendations made by the UNHCR mental health adviser.

My Office has co-operated for a number of years already with the Organization of American States, particularly in the field of international protection of refugees. The OAS Human Rights Commission has been particularly helpful to my Office in assisting in a problem of forced repatriation of refugees from Haiti. I hope that a representative of OAS will have the opportunity, with your agreement, Mr. Chairman, of addressing the Committee at a later stage.

With regard to Asia, the Members of the Executive Committee are certainly aware of the events which occurred a few months ago in Macao where the authorities agreed under considerable pressure to send back new illegal entrants to the mainland of China. My office is extremely concerned about this development and has repeatedly drawn the attention of the Portuguese Government to the necessity of maintaining the generally accepted principle of «non-refoulement» of refugees to their country of origin.

The assistance activities in Nepal are developing satisfactorily. There are still in this country groups of Tibetan refugees who have been for some time in remote and very inaccessible parts of the country, and therefore were not assisted. There are, therefore, indications that the UNHCR presence in Nepal will continue to be necessary for a further period.

The Government of India has continued uninterruptedly its efforts of assistance to Tibetan refugees and I should like to pay a warm tribute to the magnitude of this effort which is, I believe, insufficiently known outside India. The European Refugee Campaign, to which I should like to revert later, has yielded considerable results and, following the decisions made by a number of national campaign committees to devote sizeable funds to the problem of Tibetan refugees, there is now a well-founded hope that in agreement with the Indian government, a durable solution can be found in the years to come for a large part of those Tibetan refugees whose situation in India has still not been settled.

As to the Near East, there are still in that area small groups of refugees of various origins for whom durable solutions continue to be sought both through resettlement and through small integration projects. I may single out here the recent resettlement of a small group of Assyrian refugees from the Lebanon to Sweden and I should like to thank the two governments for their co-operation in this project.

Turning to Europe, Mr. Chairman, and distinguished delegates, as I have stated on earlier occasions, the problem of refugees in Europe is now well under control, thanks to the general stability in this area and to the economic prosperity which - despite recent small fluctuations - continues to characterize the European situation. While my Office should remain aware of the needs of the limited number of refugees who still require assistance, the developments in Europe have made it possible to entrust the responsibility for material assistance activities in an increasing measure to Governments and voluntary agencies, as was explained when the 1967 programme was submitted to the Committee at its last session.

This transfer of tasks has enable UNHCR to readjust the administrative set-up of the UNHCR branch offices in Europe, making staff available for other areas of activities, particularly in Africa, a wish which has been repeatedly expressed by the General Assembly in New York.

Without neglecting the co-operation with Governments and voluntary bodies in respect of material assistance, the branch offices in Europe will concentrate even more than hitherto on their task of international protection. In this respect it should be noted that the naturalization of refugees in Europe is still hampered in certain countries by legal obstacles. I welcome therefore a recent recommendation by the Consultative Assembly of the Council of the Europe which paves the way for a new systematic approach to this question.

The two official visits which I made during the last six months in Europe were to Italy and to the Holy See. In Italy, I was able to convince myself of the very genuine interest of the Government in the efforts to which I have already referred of transferring the administrative responsibility for material assistance to local bodies. A few technical difficulties are however still being encountered in the actual enactment of this process and we are following this up.

I was very honoured to be received by His Holiness Pope Paul VI and I was again very much impressed by the profound interest shown by His Holiness in the work of my Office, an interest inspired by his constant concern for the world's problems, more particularly in their humanitarian aspect.

I should like to pay tribute here to those who took the initiative in the European Refugee Campaign 1966 particularly to H.R.H. Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, who was the Chairman of the Working Group, and to all those - Governments, non-governmental bodies, and the millions of individuals - who participated in the campaign which has finally collected a sizeable fund, although the final results are not yet known as of today.

As was expected, this fund will be devoted by the national campaign committees in the various countries to a great variety of refugee programmes, mainly in Africa and Asia, the majority of which, however, fall outside the frame of the UNHCR programme and therefore also of the UNHCR financial target for voluntary funds. My essential preoccupation is that refugee needs be met and I have full understanding for the free choice of the national campaign committees in channelling and putting to good use the funds they have been able to collect. I also welcome, of course - and should like to express here again my very sincere gratitude to those national campaign committees who so decided - the channelling of some of the funds through UNHCR, whether for projects included in our programme or in the form of special trust funds to meet other needs of refugees.

Following in the tradition of my predecessors, I was very glad to accept the invitation of the Governments of Australia and New Zealand to visit these countries during April 1967. I wish to express my sincere thanks, also to you, Mr. Chairman, for the very warm reception indeed which I was given by the Governments and the people of Australia and New Zealand.

I was able to see the impetus given to the economies of these countries by the post-war immigrants, who include hundreds of thousands of refugees, and also the manifold arrangements made by the authorities to welcome the immigrants to their new country.

I want to emphasize here particularly the interest shown by the two countries in specific groups of refugees in recent years who were not easy to resettle and the very liberal arrangements made for the admission and reception of handicapped refugees. The Australian Government in particular has agreed to reconsider, for admission, the dossiers of handicapped refugees who could not be accepted in the past on account of the criteria then prevailing.

There are a few special problems, to which I should draw the Executive Committee's attention. The Committee is aware that 1968 has been proclaimed Human Rights Year by the General Assembly. The measures contemplated in this respect, both at international and national levels, are being closely followed by my Office, as we believe that it is essential to include the cause of the refugees in these arrangements at the early planning stage. I am convinced that this policy will have the support of the Executive Committee and would be grateful if the Governments here represented could give attention to the refugee problem when making arrangements in their respective countries for Human Rights Year.

A review of the achievements under the refugee education account is contained in document A/AC.96/364. I should point out here that there have been so far only a very limited number of donors for the refugee education account. My particular gratitude goes in this respect to the Scandinavian Governments. However cautious our policy and our approach, there is no doubt that, quite apart from primary education, for which arrangements are included, where needed, in the UNHCR programme, there is a distinct need for technical training, secondary and higher education among the refugees, which must somehow be satisfied. In conformity with the policy approved by the Committee, my Office is strengthening its co-operation in this respect with UNESCO, with whom an agreement is being concluded. I may point out that this co-operation in this respect with UNESCO, with whom an agreement is being concluded. I may point out that this co-operation is of a technical nature and does not make available funds for the education of refugees.

The Committee is aware that the over-all aspects of refugee problems have changed considerably in recent years. This has now led to a readjustment of the internal structure of UNHCR headquarters. The particular objectives of this reorganization have been chiefly the strengthening of liaison with outside bodies, especially within the United Nations family, and the achieving of a better internal co-ordination on a geographical basis, also reflecting the universal character of refugee problems.

The financial position of UNHCR programmes remains preoccupying. These programmes rely chiefly on governmental contributions and I may draw attention to the fact that many contributions have remained unchanged over the years, with no relation to the considerable changes in price levels throughout the world since the programme started and furthermore, without relation to the scope of the refugee problem itself. I believe that there is a need for an active and flexible approach to this matter of voluntary contributions. A limited number of Governments have seen their way to increasing their annual contribution to UNHCR programmes and I should like to renew my thanks to these governments.

In conclusion, I would repeat that refugee problems are more than ever widely diversified, both geographically and as to the nature of each refugee problem.

The Office is deeply engaged, very often in a very inconspicuous way, in tackling and trying to solve each problem in its specific context, with an open mind as to the ways and means fitting each situation.

We are all aware, Mr. Chairman, of the events surrounding us, of the tensions and conflicts affecting security and stability in various parts of the world. The refugee problems may appear to be less preoccupying when we compare them with these other situations. However, my colleagues and I, and I believe also this Committee, are vividly aware of the fact that the refugee is a product of the world's social, economic and political problems. It has been said before that the solution of each specific refugee situation contributes towards stability in the relevant area of the world. We should keep this in mind at the moment when the Executive Committee starts on its seventeenth session.