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Introductory Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Colloquium on "The Global Refugee Crisis - A Challenge for the 21st Century," Brussels, 20 May 1999

Speeches and statements

Introductory Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Colloquium on "The Global Refugee Crisis - A Challenge for the 21st Century," Brussels, 20 May 1999

20 May 1999

Thank you, Count Lambsdorff - through you, I would also like to thank all European members of my Informal Advisory Group for proposing this event, and supporting Giles Merritt and Forum Europe, the organizers, in making it a reality. My sincere thanks to the Government of Belgium, for hosting the event in the heart of Europe. I would also like to thank those who co-financed it with UNHCR, especially some members of the European group of the Trilateral Commission, that you chair, Count Lambsdorff. And last but not least, I wish to warmly thank the European Commission - Commissioners Bonino and Gradin in particular - for their support. Let me say how especially glad I am that ECHO accepted to co-sponsor the event. The cooperation between ECHO and UNHCR has become essential in addressing refugee situations around the world. It is important that if we talk about the "global refugee crisis" from a European perspective, as we shall do today, our two Offices be here together.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Almost forty years ago, one of my predecessors, High Commissioner Lindt, launched a campaign to close the last centres still hosting refugees who had fled Hungary in 1956. Most refugees had by then been integrated or resettled. There should be no more such an undignified place as a refugee camp in Europe, said Mr Lindt. And when the Berlin Wall came down, many years later, we thought that there would soon be no more mass movements of refugees in Europe - and perhaps in the world - ever again.

It is sad that as the century comes to an end, our wishes and hopes should be so tragically denied. Our optimism of 1989 had already been shaken - just to mention a few examples - by the Kurdish exodus in 1991; by the Yugoslav wars and the tragic, forced human displacement which they caused in the first half of our decade; by the Rwandan genocide and the successive refugee crises in the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa; by the violent civil wars in West Africa, symbolized by one of the cruellest episodes of the last few years, the mutilation of civilians in Sierra Leone; by the unending strife in Afghanistan, which to this day keeps over two and a half million refugees from that country in Pakistan and Iran...

But not even the Bosnian war, which forced millions to flee, had compelled us to set up large refugee camps once more in the heart of Europe. This has now happened. There are simply too many refugees from Kosovo - more than 900,000, at the latest count, which will have to be updated by tonight - and they have been forced to flee too fast, and in too large numbers, for us to find better accommodation for all of them. Many have been generously hosted by families - in Montenegro, Albania and The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Well over 50,000 have been evacuated to third countries. But more than half are in camps. In refugee camps, something we did not want to see happen again. One has the sad feeling that after half a century of dealing with refugees, we have come back, full circle, to where UNHCR started - to Europe.

But in spite of all the difficulties, I do not want to sound pessimistic. The fact that all of you have accepted to be here with us today is a sign that together we can do something to address this terrible problem. This is encouraging.

I am also glad that we are reflecting on refugees from a European perspective. Europe has essential responsibilities in this area. Europe is where the ideals, in the name of which we strive to protect refugees, were born, and where they grew and developed. Europe is the cradle of human rights, of humanitarian law, and of refugee law. Europe hosts some 2.7 million refugees, plus over three million other people of concern to my Office. At the same time it has historical responsibilities in helping protect and assist another 15 million people of concern to UNHCR on other continents, including a substantial number of internally displaced persons. As Kosovo has abundantly shown, the refugee issue is very central to European history, now as it has been throughout this century.

It would be too long to examine the complex and vast relationship between Europe and refugee issues. To simplify, I shall summarize my ideas and proposals in six points. Please take them for what they are meant to be - some food for thought to help you in your discussions today.

First, uphold the right to asylum. Sure enough, people knock on Europe's door today for a variety of motives. Some are indeed seeking economic opportunities, even if they claim to be refugees. But generalizations are dangerous. Situations of conflict and violence, of group and individual persecution, which compel people to flee and become refugees as their only safe choice, continue to exist. To eliminate refugees as a category deserving specific protection based on internationally agreed norms would expose many men and women to life-threatening situations. As such, the distinction must be maintained. The perhaps inevitable confusion between refugees and migrants can result in some of the latter being admitted as refugees. But isn't it preferable to err on the side of generosity, than to send people back to situations - think of Kosovo, for example - of extreme gravity and danger? The entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty has given new impetus to the harmonization of asylum legislation and policies in the European Union. I wish to commend the European Commission, Anita Gradin in particular, for their key role in this respect. I hope that in this process, the respect of the right to asylum will not be sacrificed to other considerations. I hope that fair and expeditious asylum procedures will be accessible to all those in need of protection, and based on a proper application of the 1951 Convention. The significance of future EU asylum instruments goes beyond Europe - they will influence the attitude and practices of countries around the world.

Second, fight xenophobia. It is often said that developed societies, especially in Europe, are undergoing "identity crises". In this situation, people's fears of being threatened can easily be manipulated, and turned into hostile feelings towards "intruders": foreign workers, immigrants and refugees. I believe that xenophobia, the "fear of foreigners", is one of the most dangerous trends in modern society, and one that has to be countered by governments and civil society most vigorously. It is a world-wide phenomenon, flourishing in the North, but also spreading in the developing South. While xenophobia is by definition anti-democratic, it often uses, paradoxically, the conduit of democratic institutions. Politicized xenophobia is particularly dangerous, and I would like to ask all of you - including the media - to help us marginalize it.

Third, assist other countries in upholding refugee asylum. The brunt of migratory and refugee movements is born by countries with insufficient resources to even support their own population - even in Europe: Albania, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro are a case in point. From their perspective, it is intolerable to be told by developed countries that they have to respect the right to asylum for enormous masses of refugees, without an adequate provision of resources to help them do so. This is too often the case. My Office, other UN operational agencies, the Red Cross movement, and many NGOs, are all working together to assist the governments - and, very importantly, the people - of countries hosting refugees. European countries, and the European Commission, provide generous support to humanitarian agencies - indeed, they are their main financers. This must continue, and must be made as effective as possible. It is essential that European taxpayers continue to understand the importance of providing quick and flexible help where refugees arrive, even if this is in far away places. It is also essential for Europe to contribute substantively to other programmes aimed at sharing the burden of affected countries: resettlement of particularly vulnerable cases, for example; or, in the context of the Kosovo crisis, the humanitarian evacuation of refugees from The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to safeguard the stability of that country.

Fourth, support multilateral humanitarian aid. This is linked to my previous point. Aid - European aid in particular - is usually provided readily, and generously. I am worried, however, by a trend which I consider dangerous towards the "nationalisation" of assistance. Governments speak about "their own" NGOs, and tend to fund them exclusively. The Kosovo crisis has also seen some governments intervene directly. I maintain the conviction - which the Red Cross movement has done so much to promote - that humanitarian assistance must remain as apolitical, civilian and neutral as possible, especially in situations of conflict. Supporting multilateral actors improves the coordination of relief programmes. Multilateral aid is - still - a guarantee of effectiveness and impartiality. Multilateral aid is aimed at people, and is not based on the interest of states. I would therefore like to request that member States of the Union, the European Commission, and other European governments, while usefully helping NGOs, also continue to provide support to multilateral organizations such as my Office, other UN agencies and the Red Cross institutions.

Fifth, help us avoid the increasing gap between humanitarian and long-term development assistance. The international community must pay much closer attention, and much more coherent support to societies emerging from conflict. Peace-building in the period immediately following the end of conflicts is a very weak link in the international cooperation system, although it is a vital one, since it connects conflict resolution with development efforts. We are particularly worried about this gap because very often recently returned refugees are among those who suffer most from the lack of resources available to build peace. This in turn does not help prevent the recurrence of conflict and of refugee flows. We see this in the former Yugoslavia, where more than one and a half million people remain uprooted, and where minority returns continue to face serious political, administrative and security obstacles. We see it in Rwanda and Liberia, where a large proportion of the population are recent returnees, and where - while humanitarian assistance dries up for lack of funds - development activities do not start given the precarious political and security situation, and the limited capacity of the government. We may see it in Kosovo in the near future - it is very important that current planning efforts, such as those related to reconstruction and, in the longer term, the proposed Stability Pact for South-East Europe, be implemented as soon as possible. The allocation of resources and the implementation of programmes in post-conflict situations are urgently needed if we are serious about enhancing the security of people in a comprehensive, far reaching and durable fashion. There are - already - some concrete initiatives. I would like to mention, and welcome the creation of a Human Security Fund of 100 million USD by the Government of Japan; a similar project has been launched by Denmark. These are important precedents and examples. I hope it will be followed by others.

My sixth and final point is perhaps the most important: multiply comprehensive political efforts to address crises producing refugees. Humanitarian action alone - how many times Emma Bonino and myself have said this? but I think it does no harm to repeat it here once more! - humanitarian efforts alone cannot resolve the crises that force people to flee. To be effective - and, in some cases, not to be counterproductive - they must be part of broader, political efforts aimed at addressing every step and aspect of the conflict: stop the fighting, negotiate peace, organize the return of refugees, make peace durable, and thus, eventually, prevent fresh conflict and fresh displacement from occurring again.

By creating ECHO and by substantially increasing its share of emergency assistance in the last few years, the European Union has become - and very remarkably so - an indispensable actor on the humanitarian scene. I hope you will not consider me as stepping beyond the limits of my mandate when I say that Europe must now muster the same will to speak with one voice in the political arena. With the Kosovo crisis, it has a crucial opportunity to exert its leadership in resolving a tragic conflict through political means, and in the name of its fundamental values. I hope Europe will not miss this opportunity, on which - much more than on humanitarian support - depend the lives and welfare of hundreds of thousands of refugees. And let me conclude, from a United Nations and humanitarian perspective, by asking Europe to exert the same political and moral leadership to resolve other conflicts and other crises in the world.

There is only one outcome that we must wish for the global refugee crisis in the 21st century: its end. Refugee camps are not a fitting place for any person, anywhere. We must firmly hope that they become unnecessary. I count on Europe's leadership and support to create the conditions for this to happen.

Thank you.