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Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Public Hearing on "The United Nations at Fifty: the Humanitarian Challenge," European Parliament, 23 May 1995

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Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Public Hearing on "The United Nations at Fifty: the Humanitarian Challenge," European Parliament, 23 May 1995

23 May 1995
Ensuring protectionProtection in conflict situationsPursuing solutionsPromoting preventionBuilding partnershipsConclusion

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to address today the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Security and Defence Policy of the European Parliament. UNHCR has been working very closely with the European Union and its institutions in many areas relating to refugee, asylum and migration issues. Humanitarian questions are at the forefront of the public debate and the refugee issue in particular is at the top of the international political agenda. I am indeed gratified to be given the opportunity to discuss these issues within the context of the European Parliament's hearings on the UN's 50th anniversary.

Wherever I go, I find myself confronted by three types of questions: First, why is the number of refugees increasing? Second, is the number of refugees going to continue to rise? And third, are there any ways to prevent refugee crises from occurring?

My response to the first question is that the number of people fleeing their homes is increasing because of the number of conflicts, especially internal ones, in the world. To the second question, I would reply that the number of people fleeing their homes should not necessarily rise if peace and political agreements prevail over conflicts, if fundamental human rights are respected, and if rehabilitation and reconstruction quickly follow post-conflict situations. To the third question relating to prevention, all I can say at the moment is that we are examining all kinds of measures, but there are no magic formulae.

Let us just review some basic facts. The total number of persons falling within UNHCR's responsibility today has risen from 17 million in 1991 when I assumed office as High Commissioner, to 23 million in 1993 and more than 27 million at the end of last year. It is important to recall however that during the same period, some 9 million people returned to their own countries, such as Afghanistan, Mozambique, Iraq, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Cambodia. I refer to those who went home in order to emphasize that refugee or forced population movements can be solved if the causes of refugee movements are addressed, if peace is restored, and if national reconciliation is sought.

In referring to the increasing number of persons falling under the responsibility of my Office, you may have noticed that I did not use the term refugees. Although my Office is a refugee protection agency, it is increasingly having to deal with a wider range of civilian victims in refugee-like situations and whose plight must be addressed if we are to seek solutions to humanitarian crises. In fact, of the 27 million persons, 14.5 million are considered to be refugees, i.e. those who have crossed an international border in search of protection and who fall within the provisions of the international and regional refugee instruments, or UNHCR's Statute. Furthermore, UNHCR is also responsible today for nearly 5.4 million internally displaced people, i.e. who have fled for reasons similar as refugees but who have not crossed an international border, and 4 million returnees. The latter are refugees who have returned to their countries of origin but still require our care during the early phases of their reintegration in society. In addition, there are approximately 3.5 million persons outside their country of origin who have not been formally recognized as refugees but who are considered of concern to my Office and civilians affected by war, as in the case of former Yugoslavia.

UNHCR's protection and assistance roles have evolved considerably in response to the increasing complex challenges which my Office faces. UNHCR was established by the General Assembly in 1950 and has been mandated to provide international protection and to search for durable solutions for refugees, either local integration or voluntary repatriation. The 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to Refugees bind the 128 States party to them to internationally agreed standards for the admission, protection and treatment of refugees. The principle of non-refoulement prohibits the return of a person to a country where his life could be in danger. In the past, refugees were a product of repressive regimes and inter-state wars to whom UNHCR provided protection and relief in the relative safety of the country of asylum. Now, inter-state wars have been replaced by intra-state conflicts as a major cause of humanitarian emergencies. Today, we are focusing more on unstable and evolving situations in the country of origin of refugees. Ensuring the security of refugees and displaced persons as well as of our staff is much more difficult under those circumstances.

As a consequence of these developments, Europe today is once again both a refugee hosting as well as a refugee producing region. With approximately 8 million persons including the former Soviet Union, Europe is ranked second, after Africa, as the region hosting and producing the largest number of persons falling under UNHCR's responsibility. In addition to the nearly 3.7 million refugees, internally displaced and others requiring protection and humanitarian assistance in former Yugoslavia, the break-up of the former Soviet Union has generated conflicts within and between its former republics totalling a displacement of nearly 2 million persons.

Despite the complexity of the problems and the scale of displacement, solutions are not necessarily elusive as our experience in some parts of the world - Central America, Cambodia, and South Africa - has proven. To respond effectively to the many humanitarian crises, Europe must contribute to the development of a comprehensive strategy which ensures protection, pursues solutions and promotes prevention of forced population movements. Such a strategy must encompass the whole spectrum of forced population movements from their causes to their eventual solution, and address preventive issues.

Ensuring protection

First, in order to ensure protection, the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol remain the universal legal framework for refugee protection and must be scrupulously respected as such. Many of those fleeing from violence and conflict today do not benefit from the provisions of the Convention. Restrictive and deterrent measures, such as stringent visa policies and air carrier sanctions, have prevented bona fide refugees from seeking protection. Despite the pressures which Europe faces such as xenophobia, illegal immigration and high unemployment, the right of asylum and the principle of non-refoulement must be strongly upheld.

Moreover, the current refugee status determination procedures and legal provisions are not suited to respond to the large-scale movement of people fleeing war and conflict as we have witnessed in Europe in recent years. Within the context of the former Yugoslav crisis, UNHCR has promoted the concept of temporary protection and more than 700,000 Yugoslavs have benefitted from it. Its basic principles include entry, prohibition against return to danger, humanitarian standards of treatment, and eventual repatriation when conditions permit. The key question often raised is: How "temporary" is temporary protection? This relates directly to the causes for protection, and not, as often thought, to a specific time frame. Temporary protection has proven to be a pragmatic and flexible tool which avoids individual screening but ensures protection to a wider group of persons. The challenge now is to develop temporary protection into a more consistent and coherent legal tool, without however undermining the universal refugee instruments.

Protection in conflict situations

Ensuring protection of victims in conflict situations poses its own particular difficulties. In conflict situations, UNHCR is cooperating increasingly with military and peace-keeping operations, human rights monitors, and the ICRC. It remains essential however that the basic principles of impartiality, neutrality and the non-political nature of humanitarian action are fully respected. UNHCR's work should not become a hostage to political exigencies, nor must it be politicized by the parties concerned. In recent weeks, fighting in the former Yugoslavia has escalated and both peace-keepers and humanitarian staff are being threatened or attacked. The basic mission of the United Nations in the former Yugoslavia has been humanitarian. Since the beginning of our operation in November 1991, 12 humanitarian staff have lost their lives along side the 162 UN soldiers. As you are aware, the Secretary-General has asked for an in depth review of the peace-keeping operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina as it is becoming increasingly difficult for UNPROFOR to fulfil its mandate. I know that Europe has an enormous stake in this review. Regardless of the outcome, it will have profound implications upon UNHCR's operation. Up to date, through the close working relationship between UNHCR and UNPROFOR, and many other humanitarian agencies, hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved. UNHCR believes that it should try to continue its protection and assistance of victims to the extent that parties to the conflict fully respect the neutral and impartial nature of our humanitarian mission.

Pursuing solutions

Secondly, in spite of ongoing crisis situations, Europe should seize the new opportunities for peace that have emerged following the break-up of the former Soviet Union and the resulting changes in the international system. The United Nations together with European states have brokered important peace agreements that enabled millions of people to return home notably with regard to Cambodia and Mozambique.

Even when political agreements are forthcoming, however, the rehabilitation and reconstruction of war-torn societies seem to require an urgent policy review. UNHCR, as a humanitarian agency, can bring back refugees and initiate their steps towards reintegration, but to move towards rehabilitation we need closer coordination with the development agencies. The international community is poorly equipped to deal with the gap between humanitarian relief and rehabilitation activities. UNHCR can build schools and clinics but needs longer-term developmental input to make sure that they are sustained and properly run. To bridge the gap, humanitarian operations, such as ours, must take into greater account the potential longer-term implications, while development programmes must integrate humanitarian relief programmes early in its rehabilitation strategy. In this context, the prospective agreement between UNHCR and the European Commission regarding joint programmes in northern Mozambique benefitting returning refugees and the population at large is an innovative attempt and may set the tone for a more integrated approach.

Promoting prevention

Last but not least, I count on Europe to play a greater role in the prevention of man-made humanitarian emergencies. It is an ambitious undertaking, that would encompass preventive diplomacy, institution building, promotion of human rights, ethnic and religious tolerance, economic development and the adoption of an accountable political system.

Within this context, I welcome the initiative of the European Union to negotiate stability pacts in Europe. They will serve to underpin UNHCR's own modest efforts to develop regional responses to the problems of refugees, returnees, displaced persons and migrants in the Commonwealth of Independent States and other neighbouring countries. Following General Assembly resolution 49/173 (1994), UNHCR in cooperation with IOM and the OSCE is engaged in a process of preparing a regional conference. Preparations are underway to formulate a programme of action for the region, which would include measures to prevent disorderly movements and address the consequences of past, present and future displacements. We hope that such a programme, based on a broad declaration of principles, would be adopted at the regional conference in early 1996. I am very pleased that member states of the European Union and the European Commission are actively involved and supportive of this process.

Building partnerships

A comprehensive approach to humanitarian crises requires the close and effective cooperation and coordination of a multitude of diverse actors. Within the UN system, UNHCR believes that the Department of Humanitarian Affairs has the important task of allocating responsibilities to the various humanitarian agencies and designating a lead agency at the outset of complex emergencies. The UN system's capacity has been greatly strengthened by the Central Emergency Revolving Fund and its transparency enhanced through the consolidated joint appeals. Furthermore, DHA can also play an important role by identifying gaps in humanitarian responses and by promoting awareness on issues which do not fall specifically within the mandate of any single agency, such as demining, the humanitarian impact of sanctions, the spread of small weapons in conflicts, and the demobilization of soldiers.UNHCR has also strengthened its links with other inter-governmental agencies, and we are working together closely with UNDP to develop our partnership in the field. With WFP we have signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the delivery of food supplies to refugees, and with UNICEF we share a common concern for refugee children. In the same spirit, we signed in 1993 with ECHO the Framework Partnership Agreement regarding joint cooperation in humanitarian operations, and held high level discussions recently to further strengthen policy planning.

As UNHCR is increasingly involved in conflict areas, we are working closely with the ICRC taking into account our respective protection mandates. In the field, non-governmental agencies are the operational arm of UNHCR managing health care, water, sanitation, shelter, education, and distribution systems for example. Their commitment, speed and community-based approach makes them ideal implementing partners. In 1994, UNHCR organized the Partnership in Action process to strengthen our mutual cooperation. Agreements have been signed with more than 250 NGOs, and in refugee emergencies UNHCR can depend upon qualified staff and equipment through stand-by agreements.

Effective coordination and cooperation among this multitude of actors is an essential but difficult task. Respective responsibilities, capacities and commitments must be clear from the outset to enable an effective response. If not, gaps in the humanitarian response can not be identified and filled and scarce resources may be used inappropriately. It remains essential however that the respective mandates and roles of the different actors are explicit and respected.


As I said in the beginning, although the number of persons falling under the responsibility of my Office has increased significantly in recent years, there is hope for solutions as illustrated by the millions of people who have returned home and the growing range of partners mobilized for the humanitarian cause. Forced mass population movements do affect national and regional security interests. Europe must adopt an integrated and comprehensive response toward the many humanitarian crises facing it and the world. This requires the necessary political and financial commitment of the leaders. In 1994, more than half of the US $ 1,2 billion budget of UNHCR was funded by the European Union and its member States. This is for me a clear indication of Europe's commitment toward humanitarian action and for which I am very thankful. At the same time, however, today we must be politically audacious and innovative so that yesterday's tools are reviewed and refined to meet tomorrow's needs.

Thank you.