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Opening Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, thirty-eighth session, Geneva, 5 October 1987

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, thirty-eighth session, Geneva, 5 October 1987

5 October 1987

It is with a profound sense of pleasure and anticipation that I welcome you to the opening of the thirty-eighth session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme. The experience gained since my first opening statement at last year's session has reinforced many of my perceptions of themes and issues I alluded to during that session. I have welcomed the opportunity to share a number of these perceptions and preoccupations with you during the course of this past year in informal settings. Indeed, I remain as convinced as ever that these very informal exchanges with Executive Committee members and other Governments interested in refugee matters serve an extremely useful function, allowing for ongoing dialogue at different levels on a range of issues of common concern. I fully intend to continue these valuable exchanges.

You will recall that, during the past year, I have shared with you four major observations concerning difficulties with which today's refugees are currently being faced:

(a) Refugees are increasingly obliged to reside and wait in first asylum countries for longer periods of time;

(b) Old and new crises continue to multiply the number of refugees;

(c) Refugees and asylum-seekers are knocking at the doors of an increasing number of countries in all continents;

(d) There is a growing tendency for refugees to be confused with economic migrants.

The combination of these four factors has resulted in a "fear" of refugees and increasing hostility and mistrust towards them. This has in turn led to the adoption of restrictive and unilateral measures, and the real danger of a progressive erosion in the principle of asylum, which will paralyse, if unchecked, every possibility of international co-operation and burden-sharing.

To reverse this trend and to undo this stagnation, I have mentioned that UNHCR will attempt, on the one hand, vigorously to pursue the search for durable solutions - voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement - and on the other, to go beyond emergency aid for long-stayers in first asylum countries. We will pursue these goals by promoting co-operation among countries that ought to contribute decisively toward this end.

Where, then, do we stand today and what progress has been achieved?

Concerning voluntary repatriation, 250,000 refugees returned home during 1986 and 1987, either through UNHCR assistance or spontaneously. This includes, particularly, mass returnee movements to Chad, Ethiopia and Uganda which, I am encouraged to note, partly offset new challenges in Africa. Among these challenges is the serious situation in southern Africa, which causes me great concern. It is my hope that the proposed convening of an international conference on this situation, under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity, the Secretary-General of the United Nations and UNHCR, will lead to concrete steps to alleviate the plight of refugees in that region.

Included in the global voluntary repatriation effort has been the return, under UNHCR auspices, of a few thousand refugees to El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. I am pleased to inform you that the number of refugees who have repatriated during the first nine months of this year already exceeds the total for all of 1986. With the recent opening of new and additional UNHCR offices in these three countries, we will be in an even better position to monitor reintegration programmes and ensure the well-being of future repatriates.

These accomplishments are important in that they underline the viability and the reality of voluntary repatriation even after years of temporary residence in countries of first asylum. While the number of repatriates is still modest compared to the total refugee population throughout the world, the success of voluntary repatriation emphasizes above all the need for political will on the part of the Governments concerned to achieve this vital solution.

We should also bear in mind that a peaceful solution to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Kampuchea would allow five to six million refugees to return home under the same conditions of security and dignity. With respect to the Afghan situation, the largest single caseload of refugees in the world has faced an uncertain future for nearly eight years. The hospitality and generosity with which the Governments of Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran have received these refugees during this period remains greatly appreciated. While assistance and self-sufficiency programmes continue satisfactorily, the urgency and necessity of meeting all the needs of Afghan refugees cannot be emphasized enough. These refugees, the majority of whom are women and children, deserve the earliest possible political settlement that would allow them to return home. In this connection, I should reiterate my hope that the ongoing efforts by the Secretary-General of the United Nations will lead to a political resolution of the Afghan conflict.

Another concrete illustration of UNHCR's readiness to assist in voluntary repatriation, assuming the necessary political will by Governments exists, can be cited with respect to refugees from Laos in Thailand, who comprise nearly half of the entire caseload in South-East Asia. While voluntary repatriation ha s not been the exclusive durable solution for this caseload, it is clear that it will have to be a major one in the future. A related issue is that of the so-called screened-out persons from Laos presently in Thailand, which must also be addressed by the two Governments concerned. My Office will nevertheless continue to contribute to efforts in resolving the prevailing impasse. Of course, it is understood that once both Governments have reached an understanding on the return of these persons to their country of origin, the same condition of a dignified and safe return would also apply to them.

A slightly varying shade of UNHCR's assistance and contribution towards voluntary repatriation can also be witnessed in a nearby region, namely, South Asia. You will recall that, following the signing of an accord between Sri Lanka and India in July, a memorandum of understanding was signed in Colombo between UNHCR and the Government of Sri Lanka on 31 August. Under the terms of this memorandum, UNHCR would provide an initial $2 million for emergency assistance to Sri Lankan Tamils who have returned home from India, as well as some internally displaced persons. While it may be premature to predict what effect current events may have on Sri Lankan Tamil asylum-seekers in other countries, UNHCR is ready to play a constructive role, within the terms of its mandate, whenever invited to do so.

My comments on local integration will be very brief, though this should not be seen as a reduced commitment to pursue this durable solution when and where feasible. The reality is, nevertheless, that except in a number of African countries, China and Mexico, where it has been applied in an exemplary manner, local integration has been the least utilized durable solution when seen against the background of our recent achievements in finding lasting solutions. I am aware of the political, economic and social difficulties that confront host countries and refugees alike when considering this option. I will refer to this durable solution later, when we consider the question of refugee aid and development.

I should now like to say a few words on resettlement. When one speaks of this durable solution, one almost automatically associates it with the 13-year refugee legacy in South-East Asia. Resettlement has undeniably been the "success story" of the international community's commitment to find a lasting solution to the plight of Indochinese fleeing war, conflict and persecution. A remarkable 1.4 million Indochinese have found new homes through resettlement, an almost unparalleled achievement by the international community.

On the other hand, and most unfortunately, the situation also represents unfulfilled hopes for thousands of others still languishing in harsh camps, many for nearly a decade. Today, some 130,000 Indochinese refugees under UNHCR care are still waiting in countries of transit in South-East Asia, with a steady stream of new arrivals continuing to join them.

All of this points to the pressing need to exert renewed and decisive efforts to address the root causes of the continued outflow of refugees and to explore other solutions. Otherwise, resettlement opportunities will continue to diminish and perhaps at one stage no longer exist.

My recent mission to South-East Asia reinforced my conviction that countries of resettlement, transit and origin must urgently agree on a "package" of understanding in which each would shoulder its proper responsibilities towards the attainment of a durable solution. UNHCR has conducted, during the course of the past year, extensive consultations with countries belonging to each of these three groups. We must now reach a global consensus of views and strategies if we intend to pursue our achievements and, indeed, to go beyond them.

In the course of my recent visit to the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, I had the opportunity to raise such matters with the highest authorities of that country. I noted with satisfaction the commitment to the orderly Departure Programme and the resolution of procedural problems, which should allow this recently troubled programme to regain its desired momentum in the coming months. More important, I view this programme not merely as a channel for legal departures but as a context for dialogue for broader humanitarian issues. It is this latter potential that needs to be further explored in order to address the wider implications of the continued outflow.

I should now like to turn to the subject of our informal consultations with European Governments, which have been under way for some time. These consultations encompass issues concerning the granting of asylum, resettlement and voluntary repatriation: the granting of asylum for those who have arrived directly in Europe and North America; resettlement from countries of transit for those who are considered to be eligible; and finally the study of the modalities for possible repatriation, when the time comes.

UNHCR's preoccupations in this domain can be summarized as follows. First, Governments should not attempt to solve the problem of refugees through the promulgation of measures and laws designed to control immigration. Second, it is essential to identify clearly those who flee persecution and violence and to distinguish them from other migrants. Third, the rules and procedures applicable to asylum-seekers must be maintained intact. Fourth, all measures taken to deal with immigration issues should have the necessary built-in flexibility to safeguard the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees in search of protection and their access to the exercise of these right. Fifth, what is the relationship between the path being pursued within the context of these consultations and other efforts being made to control immigration and to implement common immigration standards?

Nevertheless, I should like to underline some of the encouraging progress that has already been made in the context of the European consultations. First and foremost, there has been a general recognition of the complexities of the present situation. In addition, a greater awareness has developed that a collective approach will create the necessary conditions for solutions, and that unilateral action is creating a bottleneck or merely passing the problem to a neighbour. This point is further reflected in related deliberations taking place in other European forums, which is of course a most positive development. Moreover, it is widely accepted that the delicate situation of countries of transit, whose burden continues to increase, must be taken into consideration.

All this work must now rapidly lead to concrete action, which will underline the principle of burden-sharing with the first asylum countries and which will allow the transit countries of South-East Asia and the Middle East to continue to do their part. Again, concerted action by all concerned will be required to negotiate further progress beyond that already attained by the European consultations. UNHCR will continue energetically to play its proper role. The accord concluded in Sri Lanka in July demonstrates once again, as was the case with South American refugees in the early 1980s, that any asylum being sought could very well be of a temporary nature.

This problem raises the larger issue of international protection, which as you know, is the primordial task entrusted to the Office. While we recognize that the character of the present-day protection problem is increasingly fluid and complex, UNHCR remains vigilant to the need to respond to any undermining of its international protection responsibilities. Our consultations with Governments and other partners have been predicated on the humanitarian and universal nature of my Office's competence and the body of relevant international law that provides the legal underpinnings of UNHCR's competence.

Last week, during the meetings of the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection, we witnessed some vivid and indeed memorable examples of the international community's ability to reach consensus on a number of significant protection concerns, notably on the vital item of military and armed attacks on refugee camps and settlements. The international community had been waiting in anticipation of this event for a long time. I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate all those who have, through their efforts over the years and particularly during the past few weeks, helped bring this to fruition. I am confident that, with the endorsement of these conclusions during the Plenary, we will have taken a giant step in the vital task of protecting refugees who find themselves in zones of conflict or in situations of great vulnerability.

In fact, the agenda of the Sub-Committee and its related documentation, including the note on international protection, provide a comprehensive indication of the protection issues confronting the Office. It is, of course, my intention to work closely with Governments to enhance their protection capacities, without losing sight of the High Commissioner's unique responsibility to look beyond narrow considerations to global humanitarian ones. The consensus reached by the Sub-Committee last week on refugee children is one example of our ability to work successfully towards such goals.

An illustration of UNHCR's willingness to assume the physical protection of refugees in areas of conflict through active consultations with Governments and timely solutions-oriented assistance can be cited in Central America. Our efforts in this region received a significant boost with the renewed willingness on the part of Governments to take humanitarian considerations into account, which was already evident last year. This has now culminated in the signing of the Peace Agreement of Guatemala by the Heads of State of five countries in the region on 7 August. It was most gratifying to note the accord's numerous references to the fate and well-being of refugees, including their protection, and the specific recognition of UNHCR's necessary role in this process. It was only five months ago that I convened a Consultative Group of six personalities in Geneva to discuss solutions to the problems of refugees in Central America. I am pleased to note that their recommendations, which include a regional conference in 1988 to formulate concrete solutions, have been well received by Governments of the area. While I am aware of the obstacles before us, I have every reason to believe that the present openness to humanitarian problems expressed by the Governments concerned will be taken advantage of to further the cause of refugees in the region.

In describing the range of the Office's current protection concerns and actions, I am aware that questions have been raised over the years, both within and outside the Office, regarding the scope, nature, extent and means of carrying out UNHCR's international protection function for refugees. That this should be the case is only natural, since answers to these questions relate to the specific needs of persons seeking asylum or refugee status. As these needs vary, so must the solutions. The content of international protection thus cannot be static. It changes with time, circumstances and the needs of its beneficiaries.

I need hardly reiterate that international protection provides the basic raison d'être for my Office. All our other functions, including the search for solutions must, therefore, relate to this basic objective. In fact, the Statute of the Office specifically states that one means of protecting refugees is through providing solutions for them. Therefore, our constant endeavours to attain solutions for refugees are integral to our overall protection effort.

UNHCR is aware of the fact that, while solutions are found for some refugees, new refugee problems continue to arise across the world. As indicated in my aide mémoire of 10 July 1987 to members of the Executive Committee, over 600,000 new refugees have arrived on the scene during the past 12 to 18 months, joining the existing 12 million or so in first asylum countries.

To tackle these challenges thoroughly, efforts have been made during 1986-1987 to go beyond the provision of emergency aid. I have stated on numerous occasions that UNHCR must react to refugee crises with a strategy that combines effective emergency response, the establishment of basic services and timely action to pursue income-generating activities which will promote self-reliance. This approach, applied rapidly, would address the needs of both the refugees and the host country for whom the prolonged presence of the refugees means additional economic and social strains. Accordingly, my Office has sought to reinforce in action the connection between refugee aid and development schemes. We have maintained close contact with both multilateral and bilateral development agencies active in countries hosting refugees, so as to integrate, wherever possible, the refugee population into the mainstream of national development activities. In this way, a gradual phasing out of UNHCR assistance can take place as the baton is effectively grasped by development agencies.

Our collaboration with the World Bank has continued with the inauguration of the second phase of the successful income-generating project for the refugee areas in Pakistan. A number of new initiatives with the Bank are under way in Somalia and the Sudan. This year, for the first time, we have explored possibilities for collaboration with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Somalia and Uganda. Another recent development has been the evolution of UNHCR's co-operation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). An agreement has been reached on guidelines between the two agencies to cover returnee programmes and an orderly phasing out of relief in favour of development schemes. The process set in motion some three years ago by the Second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA II) remains of high priority to my Office and it is my hope that some of the assistance which, during the last few years has been absorbed by drought and famine-related programmes, will now revert to ICARA II-type projects. You will recall that UNDP was designated by the relevant General Assembly resolution 37/197 of 18 December 1982 as the focal point for development activities in areas affected by the presence of refugees.

It follows then, that an increasing convergence of views will link all those who ought to contribute, first, to assisting host countries to grant asylum and, second, to the simultaneous pursuit of the three durable solutions. It is not because we seek an easy way out that we request the simultaneous contribution of all; but rather because experience has shown that it is only through this effort that we can go forward in the implementation of solutions and avoid the impression of some that they are the only ones shouldering the burden. This is, therefore, a matter of confidence and solidarity.

The generous support of the donor countries bears testimony to the solidarity of the international community in providing UNHCR with the financial means to carry out its tasks. I am indeed indebted to the donor community for the support to our appeals for contributions. At 28 September, General Programmes showed a total income of $297.8 million against a revised target of $348.9 million, thus leaving a shortfall of $51.1 million, or 14 per cent of the budget. As far as the Special Programmes are concerned, almost all 1987 activities have been entirely financed. Since May, we have adjusted the budgets according to the actual rate of implementation and kept you regularly informed of our changing funding requirements. I am aware of some concerns expressed about the level of the 1988 projected General Programmes budget and should like to reiterate that, first, recent efforts undertaken to assess, as accurately as possible, the actual needs of refugees are reflected in these figures and, second, the review mechanisms now in place will enable us to carry out a thorough target review early next year. As you know, the United Nations Auditors have been insisting for years on greater rigour and precision on UNHCR's part in addressing a number of management deficiencies and, as you are also aware, their current report reflects their appreciation of the progress being made. Specifically, our assessment and control capacity has been greatly enhanced and I am pleased to confirm that this year we anticipate a much higher level of obligation compared to budget than has been achieved in recent years. It should, therefore, be possible to reduce by a few million dollars the amount required for the 1988 Programme Reserve. Any attempt to propose further cuts on the basis of dollar figures rather than on the basis of assessed refugee needs would be particularly unfortunate at this time, when the link between our planning and our implementation is so much stronger.

Steps have been taken to discipline our travel activities to ensure the most coordinated and effective use of our travel funds, thus avoiding unnecessary duplication and overlap. As a result, it has already been possible for us to cut an estimated $400,000 from our travel budget for 1987, as reflected in the addendum to out programme support and administration figures (A/AC.96/696/Add. 1). I would nevertheless like to underline that travel to and from the field is vital to UNHCR's ability to protect refugees fully and is an integral part of our ability to be fully responsible and accountable to you, the international community. I should also like to confirm that the mandate of the management consultancy firm will have been fulfilled at the end of this year.

The relationship between UNHCR and Governments is a subject which is often discussed. This can be explained by the fact that Governments have to act in respect of the rights of refugees, and that they are the only ones who can make possible or impossible UNHCR action in favour of refugees. In turn, UNHCR has a duty to intervene in all cases to remind parties concerned of their obligations to correct any deviation in their path of action, and to search for, in conjunction with the competent authorities, dignified and humane solutions to the dilemma of refugees. Let us not forget that UNHCR's mandate to perform this function comes from the community of States.

While the UNHCR/Government relationship is natural, necessary and ongoing, it is not, however, exclusive. As everyone is aware, the community of non-governmental organizations has for many years played an increasing role in the implementation of UNHCR assistance programmes. These are organizations which have repeatedly translated the courage of their convictions into tangible action. Our recent efforts to enhance the technical capacity of UNHCR aim simply at forging a meaningful partnership with our friends and at enabling us to assume fully our own responsibility for leadership, co-ordination and accountability. It has never been the intention of UNHCR to take over tasks which have traditionally been entrusted to our operational partners. Moreover, in many industrialized countries voluntary agencies actively participate in the search for viable solutions for asylum-seekers in accordance with the principles and procedures of refugee law. Furthermore, non-governmental organizations play an important role, to which UNHCR must pay tribute, in sensitizing public opinion and raising awareness of refugee problems. Their contribution to the constant dialogue that needs to be maintained with national authorities cannot be underestimated.

Non-governmental organizations must, for their part, bear in mind the basic principles of impartiality, independence of action and political neutrality that serve to guide UNHCR in its efforts in favour of refugees. To ensure the safeguarding of refugee rights, these efforts need often to be exerted with discretion and utmost care.

At the same time, UNHCR wishes to state again its commitment to continue to assume the leadership role that has been entrusted to it by the international community. The steps taken during the past 18 months are proof of this commitment. In order to succeed, we must receive the full and generous support of Governments and non-governmental organizations, and we pledge ourselves to earn and to maintain this support.

Since I sought the support of this Committee at its last session, UNHCR has attempted and accomplished a great deal. I should like to emphasize without any ambiguity that all that UNHCR has achieved would not have been possible without the untiring efforts of UNHCR colleagues in the field and Headquarters. On my numerous visits to the field, I have repeatedly been struck by my staff's exemplary dedication to their work and their single-minded commitment to helping refugees. To witness this is indeed a great source of pride and satisfaction for me. The reorganization of UNHCR which started early last year, the management tools with which we are equipping ourselves, and the means we are putting together, have no other aim but to allow this commitment to the refugee cause to be fully expressed and realized with imagination and efficiency.

In this joint effort, there is no place for any conflict between the old and the new. It should be recalled that senior positions of responsibility in UNHCR's new structure have been filled by staff with the considerable experience that only many years of distinguished service with the Office can bring. It has never been envisaged to make a clean sweep and start from scratch. The progress of an organization like UNHCR rests on the continued and patient search for a convergence between constantly changing refugee needs and the capacity to respond instantaneously and effectively with a minimum of human and material resources. One must, therefore, keep and safeguard what has been successful. One must also have the courage to trim and shape. This is the responsibility of everyone who has the privilege to work for UNHCR.

I can, thus, only welcome the statement by the Chairman of the Staff Council a few days ago that - and I quote - "we can reaffirm to you without reservation that UNHCR staff were and remain ready to contribute with enthusiasm to such changes as may be credibly needed to enhance our performance for refugees, thus preserving the unique identity of this institution within the United Nations system. We have never had illusions of perfection, only a commitment to improvement".

Everyone should remember that management colleagues work in exactly the same spirit. The detailed presentation by the Deputy High Commissioner before the Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters on reorganization and staffing levels shows that goals and priorities established last year have been maintained and that in fact they have become clearly defined. In fact, their implementation is conducted in a systematic and planned fashion.

Conscious of the deep concern about staffing levels expressed by most donor Governments, I should like to make a few comments on this issue. First, the 149 project posts were created in accordance with established practice before we received instructions from the Secretary-General of the United Nations on the number of regular budget cuts required by the Group of High-level Intergovernmental Experts to Review the Efficiency of the Administrative and Financial Functioning of the United Nations (Group of 18). Second, I should like to recall that it has always been, and will be, our policy to follow the recommendations of the Group of 18 as well as the relevant directives and guidelines issued by the Secretary-General. UNHCR has never sought special exemption in this regard. UNHCR was requested by the Secretary-General to abolish 46 posts, which we have identified. Furthermore, in the spirit of the recommendations of the Group of 18, the recently-created Post Review Group has identified additional posts for discontinuation and will make further recommendations to me with a view to reaching by early 1990 the staffing level that existed on 1 January 1986. I wish, however, to underline that only a combination of the temporary reinforcement of human resources and a systematic search for post reductions will allow UNHCR to succeed in its mission, while overhauling the organization and reducing staff within the three-year period available to us. In addition, minimum investments are required to complement this effort. This is the only way to ensure that the reform measures will yield their expected benefits. To spread the reorganization over a longer time frame would eventually rob it of its effectiveness.

All elements of this major undertaking will continue to be shared with the staff and with the Staff Council, as appropriate. I deeply believe that much of the blueprint for change at UNHCR emerged in essence from the ideas of UNHCR staff and from the thoughts and hopes expressed in this very forum by the Staff Council. There is no question, therefore, but that I see the staff as indispensable partners in my efforts to lead UNHCR with courage and success. Proof of this partnership is to be found in the achievements of the past year which I have just outlined. I had at one point thought that most of the objectives we had set, the timetable and the methods we had adopted to attain them, had been properly understood by my staff. It seems that this has not entirely been the case. I will, therefore, continue all the more to listen to the staff at large while reinforcing the process of consultations with the Staff Council, so that I may count on the full engagement of the staff in the vital challenges facing us together. At the same time, it goes without saying that this dialogue must take place in the spirit of the code and ethics of the international civil service and with full respect for the basic principles of institutional loyalty.

I should like to say a final word on the subject of staff dedication and commitment. As you may know, during the past two years, a number of UNHCR staff members have lost their lives while performing their duties. While words can not compensate for the debt we owe to these noble men and women, I should nevertheless wish to pay a heartfelt tribute to them and to say that their memory will always remain with us.

Before I conclude, allow me to express my deepest gratitude to the Balzan Foundation for awarding its 1986 Prize for Humanity, Peace and Fraternity among Peoples to UNHCR. This award invites everyone to do their utmost to bring the plight of refugees to an end.

It is customary at this point for the High Commissioner to thank the outgoing Chairman for his efforts during the preceding year. But, Mr. Chairman, my expression of appreciation for all that Ambassador Charry-Samper has done for our work and our goals goes beyond the requirements of custom or tradition. It was evident from the outset that his chairmanship was going to be an energetic, dynamic and productive one, and indeed it has been. His tireless contribution to the consensus on military and armed attacks on refugee camps and settlements was just one example of his skills and commitment to the cause of refugees.

At the same time, we are fortunate to know that this leadership and competence will be carried on by the new Chairman, Ambassador Robertson, whose qualities and talents are well known to us.

Looking at the problems of refugees across the world, the year 1986 has, in many respects, seemed very difficult, if not bleak. I believe that since the beginning of this year some progress has occurred. These indications of progress are still very fragile and it is vital and urgent to reinforce them.

The efforts currently being made in many regions of the world to promote the peaceful settlement of disputes should help UNHCR to identify and fulfil humanitarian opportunities, however limited they may initially be, which will allow refugees to find a solution to their plight.

I can assure you that the results achieved these last few months, while in some respects still modest, have triggered among us at UNHCR - as many colleagues have confirmed to me - a renewed will to persevere and amplify our efforts. This drive should meet and engage with the commitment of those States which, in one way or another, are able to help alleviate the refugees' plight throughout the world. The most important thing is to accelerate the momentum which has begun to gather force during the past year. One cannot wait any longer. What is at stake is the future of men, women and a multitude of children who only ask to take their destinies back into their own hands.