Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 29 January 1998

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 29 January 1998

29 January 1998

Madame President,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is for me a pleasure and a privilege to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I am all the more honoured because this is a unique political forum - the only gathering of parliamentarians from both eastern and western Europe.

At the outset, I wish to pay tribute to the firm and often courageous stand taken by this Assembly on matters concerning refugees, and to the support it has provided to my Office. I wish to thank the Parliamentary Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography for its work on refugee issues. I am particularly grateful to its Rapporteurs, whose reports on UNHCR and on repatriation to Bosnia and Herzegovina are before this Assembly today.

The Council of Europe and the United Nations were both created in the aftermath of the Second World War. They were established so that the atrocities of the war would not occur again. Those who proposed them, clearly saw that in order to guarantee peace, an international system to safeguard human rights was also needed.

European nations, which had seen the worst horrors of the war, decided to set up the Council of Europe, and it was thanks to the determination of this Assembly that the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms was drawn up in Rome in 1950. No other international human rights instrument has such a strong supervisory machinery.

At the same time, the newly created United Nations was faced with a dramatic refugee problem in Europe. For millions of people who could not return to their former homes because of the political and military upheavals of the war and post-war periods, the only solution was a programme of resettlement to new countries of asylum. The right to seek and enjoy asylum was included in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The international refugee protection regime was reinforced by the Convention of 1951 and the creation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. The principle that no one shall be returned to a country where his or her life or freedom is threatened is enshrined in the Convention.

Since the founding of both organisations, the political situation in Europe has changed dramatically, especially in the years following the end of the Cold War. These changes are reflected in the Council's membership. There were 10 member States in 1949. This number has now grown to 40. The most positive development is the establishment of democratic systems throughout most of Europe. From the perspective of a humanitarian organisation whose mandate is the international protection of refugees, the obligation of member States to grant all persons within their jurisdiction the assurance to enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms is of major importance.

But the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall has also been a time of political transition, and often of painful social adjustments to a rapidly changing world. Europe - and western Europe in particular - observed with apprehension the end of communist rule in the eastern part of the continent. And the conflicts which followed - the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the split of Czechoslovakia, the implosion of Albania, and above all the war in former Yugoslavia - created, for the first time since the Second World War, and in various forms and degrees, mass movements of people, including hundreds of thousands of refugees, across Europe.

Refugee movements within Europe have been made more complex by other factors. The widening wealth gap between North and South has made western Europe a pole of attraction for economic migrants, including illegal migrants, particularly from the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, and further afield. Governments of industrialized countries are increasingly unable to sustain costly welfare systems: the weakening of social safety nets exposes more citizens to poverty. It is easy, under these circumstances, to manipulate the issue of foreign workers, depicting them as competitors for scarce jobs and thus creating a politically convenient outlet for social resentment. In this distorted, but unfortunately common perspective, refugees are often associated with other migrants, and perceived negatively.

As a result, European Governments have begun narrowing their asylum policies. The emphasis has shifted from protection to exclusion and control. I am very worried by the frequent denial to asylum seekers - by immigration authorities - of the access to procedures for refugee status determination; by an overly broad interpretation of exclusion clauses in some countries, and a restrictive interpretation of the refugee definition - which does not include, for example, non-state entities as agents of persecution; by the detention of asylum seekers; by the expansion of visa regimes; by the sanctions imposed on carriers transporting asylum seekers.

We would be naive, of course, if we did not understand the difficulty and complexity of the challenge facing European Governments. But the introduction and implementation of strict measures should be aimed not only at countering abuses, but also at protecting genuine asylum seekers. Some of the emphasis, however - as some recent reactions to the arrivals of Kurdish and other boat people in southern Italy have shown - is on exclusion and control: stem the flow, make borders water tight, send people back to their country. There is a widespread feeling that by pushing back the people knocking at the doors of Europe, the problem will go away, or will be dealt with by others. Not only does this attitude betray a good amount of wishful thinking: but by penalizing without discrimination those who flee persecution, it also negates the fundamental premises of the refugee protection regime which democratic Europe upheld during the Cold War - the right to asylum and non-refoulement.

There are other, equally worrying aspects of this European trend towards control. The problem of asylum seekers is increasingly seen from what I would call the "return" angle - from the perspective, that is, of finding the best way to send rejected cases back to their country of origin. I fully agree that the integrity of the asylum system is compromised if those excluded from refugee status do not go back. In some circumstances, UNHCR is even prepared to assist with the return of rejected cases, and certainly to be vocal on the question of return of people who are not in need of international protection. But to simply control the flow is a very insufficient response. In fact, emphasis on control measures has led to a dramatic increase in human trafficking, which in turn prompts States to further tighten control in a worsening spiral which does not resolve the problem. The victims are those who are seeking refuge for genuine reasons, and who are either sent back to an uncertain future, or who fall prey to unscrupulous traffickers.

I wish to repeat here what I have already said elsewhere, but which I think is worth saying again. The management of mixed population movements including refugees and economic migrants demands a multi-disciplinary approach, linking immigration and refugee issues with development cooperation and political action. More in-depth analysis needs to be made of the causes of movements, and of the reasons for which countries of origin are reluctant to accept their own citizens when their asylum claims are rejected. There must be solidarity between receiving States and countries of origin, if the problem is to be addressed in its entirety. Any effective strategy must encompass the entire continuum of population flows, from their causes to their eventual solutions.

Let me briefly elaborate on what I mean by adopting an approach which includes "political action" by governments. As the crisis in former Yugoslavia has shown, the largest and most dramatic refugee flows are those caused by conflicts, particularly internal ones. I do not believe that any conflict is too remote not to be of concern to all of us - especially when it forces people to flee their homes. Addressing the causes of forced movements, therefore, will not only help resolve humanitarian problems, but will also contribute to maintaining global peace and security. It is essential that the governments of Europe play a more decisive role in the resolution of such conflicts - through political means, and if necessary by providing effective support, including human and material resources, to peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts.

At the last meeting of the Executive Committee of UNHCR, in October, I spoke very clearly to governments about my deep concern with the diminishing respect - on their part - for humanitarian principles, and for refugee rights in particular. I gave some examples, in particular the very serious protection problems refugees faced last year - and continue to face - in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa - refoulement at borders, humanitarian agencies denied access to refugees and returnees, host Governments unable or unwilling to separate refugees from armed elements, disregard for the civilian character of refugee settlements. The list could continue, with even worse examples. The Great Lakes case is extreme, but unfortunately not isolated.

I have already spoken about the need for European governments to take more active part in conflict resolution. I am concerned, however, that what I would call the "humanitarian role" of Europe is being progressively abandoned in other ways. For decades, humanitarian and human rights standards set by European States have been both a challenge and an example for Governments throughout the world. Lowering such standards, especially with regard to refugee rights, will have an impact not only at European level but also worldwide.

If industrialised States are unable to implement generous asylum policies for the relatively small number of refugees knocking at their doors, how can we expect poorer developing countries to open their borders to huge numbers of refugees? Do rich countries have the moral right to condemn violations of refugee law by governments facing massive influxes, with the social, economic and security problems which they bring along, when a few illegal immigrants at a European border often become a political issue justifying the worst xenophobic excesses?

My Office was created to assist States in addressing these problems. More emphasis needs to be put on preventing forced population movements, and, when they occur, on finding durable solutions to the plight of refugees - voluntary repatriation in particular. The importance of such efforts makes co-operation between international organisations even more necessary than in the past. I am glad to be here today and to share my thoughts with you, because my Office wishes to establish solid, durable and fruitful links with the Council of Europe. In this spirit, UNHCR has set up a Liaison Office in Strasbourg. This initiative has already proved useful and I believe that new areas of collaboration can be explored. I would like to mention at least one important area - the Social Development Fund, which was set up to assist refugees displaced in Europe after the Second World War. Through you, I would like to appeal to European States to make more use of this Fund in meeting the needs of refugees.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This Assembly has consistently played a fundamental role in defining and upholding human rights, and in developing new standards in refugee matters. I wish, once more, to welcome the Parliamentary Assembly's initiatives on refugees, which are firmly grounded on the founding principles of the Council of Europe, and in particular on the respect for human rights - and this, in spite of less positive trends taken by some national parliaments.

You were elected as representatives of your peoples, and you participate in this Assembly also as representatives of democratic values. There is no democracy without respect of human rights. Human rights are not fully respected if the rights of refugees are violated. Thus there is a direct link between true democracy, and a generous refugee protection regime. As Parliamentarians in the Council of Europe, your moral and political duty is to counter the increasingly negative attitude threatening asylum policies. To resist the easy appeal of xenophobia. To depoliticize refugee issues and promote a message of acceptance and tolerance. To create public awareness about the suffering and needs of refugees and to convince your Governments that international peace and stability depend also on the security of people. I would like to ask you to promote the values of this institution in your own constituencies on behalf of those who are fleeing violence and persecution.

In concluding, let me thank you again for giving me the opportunity to address this Assembly, and let me quote Professor Opitz: "Only fools can still believe in our ability to stave this off: for 'one world' is not only our future, but also our destiny".