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"Refugees: A comprehensive European strategy" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the German United Nations Association and the German Association for Foreign Policy, Bonn, 21 June 1994

Speeches and statements

"Refugees: A comprehensive European strategy" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the German United Nations Association and the German Association for Foreign Policy, Bonn, 21 June 1994

21 June 1994

Thirty two years after UNHCR closed the last of the post-Second World War refugee camps in Europe, this continent has once again become the scene of tumultuous population movements. Europe has long been a refugee-receiving region, it has now become a major producer of refugees. Today Europe has more than 6 million refugees and internally displaced persons, outnumbered only by Africa with 7.5 million.

A murderous ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia has forced over 1.5 million refugees to flee to Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia, almost 3 million persons to be displaced or live in besieged cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and several hundred thousand people to seek refuge in western Europe. Further east, in the former Soviet Union, ethnic and national tensions are endangering the architecture of a whole region, uprooting people and rousing fears of large-scale population displacement.

Thanks to mass communications and easy international travel, the world has become a smaller place. However, as distances shrink, the pressures to move from the poor South to the rich North have grown, both for refugees fleeing persecution and war as well as economic migrants escaping poverty and want. Although the number of asylum-seekers arriving in Europe has recently declined, there is deep concern and great unease among policy-makers and the public alike on the issue of population movements.

It was different in the past. When the United Nations High Commissioner was established by the UN General Assembly in 1951 to protect and assist refugees, the numbers more manageable. The refugees were mainly from eastern Europe and were more easily integrated. There was a strong coincidence of political interests and humanitarian concerns in western countries. Today, the political and strategic value of granting asylum has diminished. Unemployment and economic recession have deepened. The cost of processing asylum applications has skyrocketed. With channels of regular immigration to western Europe largely closed, would-be immigrants have tended to use asylum procedures as means to circumvent immigration controls. The procedures are thus overburdened, as well as discredited in the public mind. Public acceptance of refugees have declined, and racist attacks against refugees and asylum-seekers have grown. Deeply troubled governments have resorted to legal and administrative measures to discourage illegal immigrants and asylum seekers.

It was in Europe that the institution of refugee protection was born, it is in Europe today that the adequacy of that system is being tested.

Europe is confronted with a major dilemma. It is a dilemma between preserving humanitarian principles and traditions, and resisting real or perceived threats to the stability and security of our societies.

The dilemma cannot be overcome by traditional approaches. It requires a new strategy, which recognises the changing imperatives of the post-Cold War world. For too long refugee policies and practices, conditioned by the Cold War, have concentrated on the countries of asylum. Today the growing scale and complexity of the refugee problem, as well as the changed international context, make clear the need to focus on the country from which refugees originate, on the causes of flight as much as on the consequences of it.

In my statement this evening I would like to advocate a comprehensive and concerted strategy to address the European refugee problem. A strategy which seeks to preserve the fundamental principles of human rights and humanitarianism, while addressing the causes which force people to move.

Such a European refugee strategy must be two-fold. It must, on the one hand, address Europe's responsibility for its own refugee problems, just as other regions have done for theirs. But it must also reaffirm Europe's leadership role and solidarity with the global refugee problem. Northern Iraq and former Yugoslavia have shown that population movements can have implications far beyond their own region, because of the threat which mass movements of people can pose to international peace and security. Proximity should not be equated with priority. In the context of population movements, distant problems can rapidly become domestic ones.

A European strategy must therefore take account of the larger global context of population movements today. More people are on the move than ever before, in an uncertain and unstable world marked by internal conflicts and ethnic tensions, and exacerbated by poverty, population pressures and environmental degradation.

Africa has long been the scene of major refugee problems, but the tragedy in Rwanda has reached a level of brutality and bloodshed rarely seen before. My Office is grappling with more than one million refugees from Rwanda and Burundi who have fled to neighbouring countries. UNHCR's operation in former Yugoslavia is well-known. In addition, in the past few years my Office has responded to emergencies in Kenya when 400,000 refugees flowed out of Somalia, in Bangladesh when a quarter million Myanmar refugees sought asylum there, in Tajikistan when half a million people were displaced by civil strife, in Armenia and Azerbaijan where conflicts have uprooted several hundred thousand people. Not surprisingly, the number of refugees, internally displaced and other persons of concern to my Office have increased from 11 million in 1984 to over 20 million today.

A European refugee strategy, if it is to be effective, needs to recognize the inter-linkage of causes which force people to move today and the inter-dependence of our world. While seeking a regional response, it needs, at the same time, to be outward looking. Let me outline the five main elements of such a strategy, as I see it.

The first element is protection for those who need it. Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda remind us daily that persecution is still very much a reality in our world. There are still too many who are forced to flee in order to escape persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a social group. For them, asylum remains the only means of safety.

European governments must continue to apply the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees - and apply it liberally. This Convention and its 1967 Protocol remain the clearest legal basis for protection against refoulement or return to danger, and the strongest symbol of international solidarity.

At the same time we need to recognize that the 1951 Convention may not be an appropriate or adequate response in the face of large-scale refugee flows of the kind we are witnessing today. In such situations new concepts of protection must be devised to allow for temporary sanctuary, followed by voluntary return in safety and dignity. UNHCR has advocated the concept of temporary protection in the context of refugees fleeing from former Yugoslavia, and it has been widely accepted by European governments. I believe the time has come to give temporary protection a broader, more concerted and coherent recognition as a legitimate tool of international protection. The basic principles of temporary protection must include admission, respect for non-refoulement or non-return to danger, humanitarian treatment, and repatriation when conditions so allow in the country of origin. The provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights could help in building an internationally recognized, common framework for the concept in Europe. Through such a concept, victims of war and violence can find the sanctuary they badly need, while governments can afford to be more generous in the expectation of the temporary nature of their burden.

The second element of such a strategy is to clearly distinguish between refugees fleeing persecution and violence, and migrants fleeing poverty. The plight of both groups are equally deserving of attention. But differing needs require different responses. Many asylum-seekers are in reality would-be immigrants using the asylum channel, because there is not much opportunity for immigration to Europe. Just as protection policies must address those fleeing war and persecution, migration policies should be developed to cope with those moving for economic and social reasons. Western European Governments must be more forthcoming in considering appropriate immigration policies which meet the labour needs of an ageing and affluent Europe as well as the aspirations of the poorer countries of eastern Europe and the Third World. Such a mix of asylum and immigration may give European governments greater flexibility to respond to some population movements, as well as preserve the asylum procedures from abuse.

The third element is greater efforts to implement solutions to refugee problems, whether in Europe or elsewhere. The end of the Cold War has not only brought about greater displacement but also generated new opportunities to resolve refugee-producing conflicts. Last year my Office assisted more than 360,000 Cambodian refugees to return home in time to participate in the national elections. We are very proud of the fact that we helped 15,000 political exiles to return to South Africa, and established the first UN presence in South Africa. Now we are embarked on the largest repatriation operation ever to Mozambique of 1.5 million refugees from five neighbouring countries.

Return, however, is not under ideal conditions. People are going home to areas where security is fragile, mines abundant and infrastructure non-existent. If voluntary repatriation is to be a lasting solution, then proper opportunities must be created for reintegration of returning refugees. A comprehensive programme of social and economic development will not only cement the return of refugees, but also help to sustain political reconciliation, thereby increasing regional stability. Creating a framework for returnee aid and development will require strong support of European governments. We need such support, not only in nearby former Yugoslavia where rehabilitation and reconstruction are on the horizon, but also in Mozambique, Horn of Africa, Guatemala and Vietnam, where the process of return could become a dynamo for political reconciliation, peace and development.

This brings me to my fourth element, which is prevention. By prevention, I do not mean building barriers to stop victims of persecution and violence from entering the country, but tackling the causes which compel people to move. This longer-term goal is difficult to achieve, demanding a profound analysis of root causes, a clear understanding of their inter-linkages and a strong political commitment to address them. It requires a greater commitment to preventive diplomacy and mediation efforts in potential areas of war and ethnic conflict. It calls for a human rights focus in foreign policy matters. The international human rights machinery, which was long paralysed by ideological confrontation, must now be used to greater effect to hold governments responsible for their own citizens. In their bilateral and multilateral relations with states, European governments must seek to use their political influence to counter human rights abuses, and encourage states to set up effective institutions, laws and procedures that enshrine the principles of human rights and minority protection.

In seeking to prevent refugee and migratory movements, western governments must look beyond political and civil rights to the economic and social conditions in which people live. I have already spoken of the link between economic development and solutions to refugee problems. I should like to emphasise that poverty creates, not only migratory pressures, but also unrest and social upheavals which in turn may result in refugee flows. Development assistance, with an emphasis on priority human needs, including job creation, poverty alleviation, education and health could help to reduce some of the pressure. I would urge policy-makers in Europe to take greater account of refugee and migration implications in their development cooperation policies.

Furthermore, as internal displacement resulting from conflict assumes acute proportions, humanitarian assistance and protection to the internally displaced and other victims of internal conflicts becomes a critical element of preventing refugee flows. UNHCR has no general mandate for the internally displaced. However, at the request of the UN Secretary General, and because of the links between the refugee problem and internal displacement, we are increasingly protecting and assisting the internally displaced, notably in former Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. We need the support of European governments to continue these activities.

The fifth and final element of a comprehensive strategy is public information. Information in the largest sense of the word must be an important part of any strategy to manage population movements. Today, television beams the life-style of the West into the homes of the poor, generating expectations and new psychological terms of reference. It must be balanced with accurate information so that such individuals can make an educated decision after weighing the consequences of movement against the possibility to stay at home. A massive UNHCR information campaign in Vietnam and a joint UNHCR/IOM campaign in Albania have played a significant part in reducing the outflow of migrants.

Information can be used also to create a more positive understanding of the plight of refugees in western countries, and to counter xenophobic trends. Public opinion and public policy are shaped by mass media and the statements of policy-makers. They thus have a major role to play in building public support for the refugee cause. UNHCR has launched public awareness campaigns in a number of major European cities.

Let me sum up by saying that the refugee problem cannot be addressed solely through restrictions and border controls. Refugees are in fact symptoms of the deeper social, economic and political problems which plague the world. The challenge is not how to keep people away, but how to manage refugee and migratory movements in a way which upholds basic human rights and humanitarian principles, how to meet the needs of the victims world-wide as well as the concerns of the States and communities which receive them. If the problem is handled successfully, refugees may serve as agents of change, of cultural cross-fertilization, development and eventual growth.

I have outlined several policy steps which can be taken to promote a European strategy. I call upon the government and people of Germany to engage in a dialogue with my Office in order to chart a forward-looking comprehensive strategy on movements of people in Europe.

Rarely before has western civilization faced a greater challenge, rarely before has there been a stronger need for determined leadership on this issue. Refugees are not asking for charity, but for courage, vision and political will to pursue a course which goes beyond national interests or short-term political gains. They are asking for a future in which their protection will be assured, and they will be able to return safely to their own homes or find new ones.

Europe stands at a cross-roads. The risks are evident, but the opportunities are also apparent. The path taken by Europe will determine the kind of world we bestow on future generations.