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Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Meeting of Permanent Representatives in Geneva of States Members of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), 11 July 1977

Speeches and statements

Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Meeting of Permanent Representatives in Geneva of States Members of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (ExCom), 11 July 1977

11 July 1977

Mr. Chairman,

May I first of all welcome the distinguished Representatives of States Members of the Executive Committee who have chosen to attend this informal meeting. Their attendance this afternoon is a sign of their interest in our work and is a source of encouragement to my colleagues and myself.

It has become a practice since some years to hold such informal meetings whose usefulness is clear in view of the fast pace of developments in the situations of refugees and displaced persons of concern to UNHCR and, consequently, the need for governments to be kept currently informed.

As has been the case in similar meetings in the past, I intend to concentrate exclusively on important developments since the last session of the Executive Committee and to draw your attention to areas where new efforts are required on the part of UNHCR and of the international community. Likewise, the Information Note which has been made available to the Representatives by the Secretariat deals only with those subjects which are of direct relevance to the purpose of this ad hoc meeting. It is not my intention to give you a detailed account of the on-going activities but rather to highlight briefly a few selected aspects of my Office's present preoccupations.


May I begin with Africa. Unfortunately, once again, UNHCR is faced with the highest number of refugee situations in all parts of the continent. I have myself just returned from Africa where I was invited to the Summit Conference of the Organisation of African Unity, held at Libreville.

In terms of attendance of Heads of State and Government, it was perhaps the most successful meeting of OAU. For me personally, it was a very useful occasion to meet with a number of leaders of the countries facing problems of concern to my Office and to have an exchange of views on subjects of mutual interest. In particular, I was able to discuss some of the situations where my Office is expected to initiate new action.

In this connexion, I would like to mention the request received by my Office from the newly independent Republic of Djibouti. A mission of UNHCR is expected to proceed to that country very shortly to assess the needs of refugees.

Similarly, new and more intensified action is required on behalf of refugees from Equatorial Guinea. The highest number of these refugees is at present in the Republic of Gabon. I had useful talks with President Bongo and high officials of the Government and it is expected that UNHCR would, in the near future, have to ensure a presence in Libreville and intensify its efforts for permanent settlement of thousands of refugees at present in the country. Likewise, we are aware that there are groups of refugees from Equatorial Guinea in other neighbouring areas and for whom assistance would eventually be required.

The influx of refugees from Zaire into Angola is another problem that I had occasion to discuss. New projects of assistance will have to be elaborated for this group.

However, the most important aspect of our work in Africa, at present, concerns Southern Africa and, in particular, the assistance required by the so-called front-line countries, namely, Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zambia.

Since the mission sent by the Secretary-General to Southern Africa in which my Office participated, new and important projects, involving an expenditure of some $16 million on the par of UNHCR, have been elaborated. The details were provided to the Governments in the Note attached to the appeal that I launched on 8 June. As for the present status of our involvement under the annual programme, details have been provided in the Information Note made available to this meeting.

I need hardly stress the importance and urgency of the response of the international community to this appeal. We must start full-scale implementation in all the countries concerned and I urge the Governments which have not yet done so, to come forward with their traditional generosity. I realize that the holiday season makes it difficult for a number of Governments to obtain parliamentary approval for additional major contributions. I do hope, however, that interim contributions can be made in the immediate future so that the implementation of projects is not unduly delayed.


Turning now to Asia, may I say that besides the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons being helped by UNHCR in Asia, the most tragic problem now facing us is that of the so-called "boat people". I am not going to tell you the appalling stories in all their sinister details since yon have, I am sure, read them in the newspapers. I must restrict myself to basic facts, although it is difficult not to feel emotional about this human tragedy.

Boat people continue to arrive in Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, etc. Persons awaiting resettlement now number over 5,500. Often travelling hundreds of miles on unseaworthy boats or, if they are lucky, being rescued on the high seas by passing ships, their situation is a living nightmare.

I would, therefore, like to reiterate my appeal to Governments to grant more places urgently for permanent settlement in view of the unusual humanitarian character of the problem. At the same time, I urge the countries where these unfortunate people first seek asylum to adopt a more humane attitude towards their plight. I say this because although some countries in Asia have shown remarkable understanding and generosity in granting temporary asylum, there are others that are sometimes unduly formalistic and inflexible in their attitude. This has also had a negative effect upon captains of ships rescuing people on high seas - a situation that one cannot but deplore.

On the other hand, the number of Indo-Chinese asylum seekers arriving by land has also continued to increase although the rate of influx is not as high as during the last two years. In Thailand, for instance, despite a large resettlement programme, there are still over 80,000 person requiring food, shelter and other basic necessities.

Last month, a UNHCR mission of senior officers led by the Deputy High Commissioner went to Thailand. The basic agreement negotiated with the authorities foresees the continuation of the programme including, in particular, promotion of durable solutions. I hope it would be possible to change as early as practicable the nature of our programme from relief activities to traditional permanent solutions.

May I recall in this connexion the appeal launched on 25 February for $12.3 million to which the response of the international community is not yet adequate.

A new problem requiring UNHCR's assistance has been brought to our attention in Malaysia. The Government of the State of Sabah has requested assistance for refugees from Southern Philippines numbering up to 90,000. An initial allocation of $400,000 has been made from the Emergency Fund and it is foreseen that 1977 Revised Programme and 1978 Annual Programme would require important allocations for this group.

As for the West Asia region, our efforts on behalf of the displaced persons in the Lebanon continue. I approached governments on 23 June for contributions amounting to some $12 million. The programme of return and rehabilitation in the villages of origin of the displaced persons, victims of events in the Lebanon, has already commenced and is progressing satisfactorily. I would like to stress the urgency and importance of this programme. I hope that a speedy response will be forthcoming from governments, enabling us to continue the implementation of projects.


In Latin America, refugee problems continue to cause us deep concern not only as regards material assistance but also and above all as regards protection and need for resettlement. Since the last session of the Executive Committee, UNHCR's presence in Latin America has had to be further strengthened. It is intended henceforth to cover the continent through three regional offices: one for Southern Latin America, one for the North Western area and a third for Northern Latin America.

In 1977, it is expected that almost $5 million will be required. This is one million dollars more than presently provided for.

While over 15,000 refugees have been resettled mainly from Argentina, Chile and Peru, in over 40 countries, there still remains a registered caseload of some 5,000 persons.

On the other hand, there has been notable success in the field of family reunion. A total of 5,400 family members have been enabled to leave Chile up to now to join the family members in the country of durable asylum.

I would like here again to reiterate my appeal for generosity to offer resettlement places to this particular group of refugees.


Mr. Chairman, after this brief review of activities in various areas, may I now turn to an aspect of UNHCR's functions which has emerged as most urgent recently and which is the cause of great concern to my Office, namely: resettlement. Opportunities for resettlement have not kept pace with the demand for them. The gap has not only persisted but widened since the last meeting of the Executive Committee. The situation requires to be remedied urgently not only because of the effect of excessive waiting and uncertainty on the morale of refugees and on their capacity to be self-supporting but also because, in some areas, the physical safety and welfare of certain groups of refugees are at stake.

As a matter of policy, my Office has always endeavoured to encourage the settlement of refugees in an environment which is socially and culturally akin to their countries of origin but when the choice is between personal safety in a distant land and exposure to danger in a land for which one may have affinity, the refugees have no doubt as to which they should choose.

Another problem which has recently emerged, particularly in Asia, is that of the absorption capacity of the countries of first asylum and their ability to integrate, economically and socially, the refugees that they receive. We have been carrying out an important programme of movement to countries of permanent settlement of vast numbers of Indo-Chinese displaced persons mainly from Thailand and Malaysia.

In addition to tens of thousands of refugees who have crossed borders in search of safety and a better life, the problem is compounded by the continuing arrival into the ports of South China sea of thousands of the so-called "boat people" to whom I have referred earlier. I have repeatedly urged the governments of the countries which these persons reach on their fragile boats or after being rescued by ships on the high seas, to let them disembark and accommodate them until we can arrange their durable settlement. The alternative means a desperate search for hospitable shores. The story of these boat people is a modern-day odyssey, sometimes assuming tragic proportions. We desperately need a more humane and compassionate attitude from countries of first asylum and more generous and liberal quotas from countries of resettlement.

I would like in particular to address myself to the countries of traditional immigration such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States with the hope that they would find ways and means to accommodate refugees in greater number within their annual immigration targets. The countries which I have just mentioned collectively admitted, during 1967 alone, over half a million immigrants. Compared to this impressive figure the number of refugees admitted for resettlement was infinitely small. It would be helpful if refugees and displaced persons qualifying as normal immigrants could be allowed to enter as such, thus allowing the special quotas to be reserved for those of concern to UNHCR who do not qualify under normal immigration criteria. A liberal attitude based on humanitarian considerations could certainly go a long way towards resolving a good part of the acute problem we presently face in regard to resettlement.

Furthermore, countries which do not have annual immigration programmes can supplement the efforts of those of traditional immigration, by opening their doors to refugees, including those who are difficult to resettle. Countries such as France, Sweden, Switzerland have done so now for a number of years with marked success. New refugee resettlement countries, such as Romania and others, have joined the group of refugee-admitting countries in response to my special appeals for resettlement opportunities for specific groups of refugees. I hope that new countries will continue to join in this international effort as their socio-economic conditions and infrastructure of social services permit.

Finally, there are two groups of refugees for whom I wish to make a special plea: the first is the group of handicapped cases which has been assisted thus far through the "Ten or More" Plan or other special schemes. I would like to see more countries participating in this effort and reiterate my request for prompt reactions to cases we submit for consideration to those countries which have pledged their participation.

The second group of refugees deserving very special consideration are those finding themselves in "emergency situations", because of threat to their life, fear of refoulement, need for imminent departure from countries of temporary stay or other such circumstances beyond their control. Through the close collaboration of a few countries it has been possible thus far to resettle some of these refugees within days, at times even within hours. I hope that arrangements can be expanded to involve a wider range of countries willing to participate in such rescue operations.

I believe that if the network of measures I just referred to could be promoted by governments represented in this meeting and others which are sympathetic to the plight of refugees, we can look forward to an effective resettlement operation whereby refugees, who cannot stay in the countries to which they managed to flee, will be relieved of excessive anxiety and escape demoralization and despair through swift onward movement.


In conclusion, let me say that, in addition to the demands on my Office in the context of special operation, increased needs have arisen in the framework of the Annual Programme. This would involve an upward revision of nearly $4 million from $16.6 million to some $20.4 million. I would therefore urge you to consider additional contributions to the Annual Programme. Since one of the main components is that of refugees in Latin America, you may wish to consider making earmarked contributions for the programme in that continent.

Similarly, it seems unavoidable that the 1978 Annual Programme will call for an extremely drastic increase. Already at this stage I should like to forewarn governments in the hope that they may make budgetary provisions for an important increase in their annual contributions for next years, the size of which is determined by many governments before the October session of he Executive Committee.

I am painfully aware that governments are now saturated with endless appeals. It is not enjoyable for my colleagues and myself to keep pleading for more funds and more places. Should we not remember, however, that it is even less enjoyable to be a refugee, to be uprooted and homeless, to be left with many aspirations but few hopes. I know that governments are faced with economic and financial problems. I am also aware of the problems that you personally face to promote adequate responses to my appeals. Let me end by repeating a motto that you might have seen on a UNHCR poster: "A refugee would like to have your problems".