Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata on the occasion of Africa Refugee Day

Press releases

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata on the occasion of Africa Refugee Day

20 June 1998

The 20th of June each year is an opportunity to pause in our efforts on behalf of refugees and displaced people in Africa and to reflect on the past 12 months. It is also an occasion to look ahead - to the challenge of building peace on a continent which has seen more than its share of the tragedy of refugees.

Africa Refugee Day marks the date, 24 years ago, when the Organization of African Unity's Refugee Convention entered into force. I continue to be struck by the foresight of the authors of that Convention. They saw very clearly the need to balance the humanitarian imperative of solidarity with measures to ensure that refugee problems do not become a source of friction among States.

It was precisely in an effort to restore this delicate balance that UNHCR, the OAU, and representatives of 8 Central African nations gathered last month in Kampala. The meeting was an important step toward replacing the language of confrontation with that of consultation, in an effort to identify solutions to refugee problems. More than three years had passed since governments of the region last met to discuss refugee issues, at the Bujumbura Conference in February 1995, and there have been many dramatic changes in the Great Lakes region, and elsewhere in Africa, since then.

Rwanda is struggling to reintegrate nearly 2 million former refugees. The challenge of building stability in the aftermath of genocide and when 25% of the population have recently returned from exile is daunting, and there are still many Rwandans outside their country. From neighbouring Tanzania UNHCR has been ferrying refugees home across Lake Tanganyika to what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But Tanzania continues to host a quarter of a million Burundi refugees, and a stable peace in the region will in part depend on their successful return and reintegration.

Elsewhere on the continent we have seen many other examples over the past year of the States and people of Africa shouldering the responsibility of solidarity, in an effort to build lasting peace. The repatriation of Malian refugees from Mauritania and Burkina Faso has been completed, and with only a few thousand exiles from Mali remaining in Algeria and the Niger we are very near to bringing this complex, 3-year operation to a close.

Late 1997 also saw the end of UNHCR's programme for Togolese refugees, and the beginning of an immense operation in West Africa to resolve one of the continent's biggest refugee crises: the return of nearly half-a-million Liberians. The mobilization of resources for this important operation is one of my top priorities for this year, as building peace in Liberia will depend on the reintegration of the refugees, the demobilization of combatants and a return to productive activity after so many years of brutal warfare.

It is my hope that stability will also finally take root this year in Angola, allowing the momentum of repatriation to accelerate so that around 250,000 refugees will be able to return from neighbouring countries.

On the other side of the continent there are still over 400,000 Somali refugees outside their country. I am pleased to note that there has been progress in repatriation to north-west Somalia, bringing hope to the more than 200,000 refugees still in eastern Ethiopia. Yet the refugee populations in Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda continue to be among the world's largest.

Tragically, fighting and human rights abuses in Sierra Leone have led to a dramatic new refugee emergency. More than 500,000 Sierra Leoneans are now refugees in Guinea and Liberia. Some have been victims of shocking atrocities. All require, once again, extraordinary displays of solidarity from these neighbours and from the international community.

The images of this recent refugee exodus remind us that refugees by definition are people who have been excluded from their own societies, and in exclusion lies the seed of division and conflict which will erode societies from within and destroy the work of peace makers. Refugees are people who have been forced by persecution and violence to leave their homes. Sometimes, when a conflict has its roots in inter-ethnic strife, displacement is one of the very objectives of the conflict. It is in especially such cases that refugees can become a factor of regional instability.

There are two overlapping layers of responsibility for helping refugees. On one level, states are responsible for implementing the principles of protection contained in the OAU Convention. This includes ensuring that asylum is granted to those fleeing persecution and violence, while at the same time taking practical measures to make sure that giving asylum does not create security problems for countries hosting refugees or for their countries of origin.

On another level there are the responsibilities of people. The process of building peace can only succeed if it is rooted in a sense of solidarity among all its members - including refugees and returnees.

UNHCR has worked in Africa for 40 years. We have field offices close to those for whom we work: the refugees, the returnees, and the communities where they live. We know that solidarity is easy to talk about but difficult to put into practice, especially where there are wide economic disparities. But we also know that Africa's hospitality is legendary, and it is on the foundation of this hospitality that a continent of peace and prosperity can be built.