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Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, thirty-second session, Geneva, 12 October 1981

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, thirty-second session, Geneva, 12 October 1981

12 October 1981

Mr. Chairman, I would like, first of all, to extend to you and your distinguished colleagues, the Vice President and the Rapporteur, my hearty congratulations on your election. Your experience, ability and commitment will be of great value to the deliberations of this Committee.

May I also introduce my new Deputy, Mr. William Richard Smyser, who joins us after a distinguished career as diplomat and scholar. Most recently, Mr. Smyser directed the Refugee Programme of the United States Department of State. We are glad to give him a warm welcome.

Mr. Chairman, the year that is drawing to a close marks the thirtieth anniversary of UNHCR. It is perhaps worth recalling that this Office was originally set up in 1951 for a period of three years. The sense of perseverance that must characterize people dealing with problems of human beings already prompted the first High Commissioner, Mr. van Heuven Goedhart, to say the following in his inaugural speech to the Third Committee of the General Assembly: "...I submit that the refugee problem is by no means a dead problem, that it is not even a dying problem, but a living problem, and I further submit that the only true solution to the refugee problem is world peace in the true sense of the term ..." Sadly the age in which we live is one of conflict and violent change. It is a long while since this Office had no more than one major crisis to handle at a time. These last years, we have witnessed everywhere emergency situations requiring prompt and large-scale interventions. Far from phasing out, the responsibilities of UNHCR have grown over the decades and the office has been obliged to assume burdens of dimensions unforeseen by the founding fathers. The ability of national and international humanitarian aid to meet the refugee needs fully is challenged daily; the plight of masses of mostly destitute people is a problem of increasing universal concern.

Never has this growth of UNHCR commitment been as drastic as during the past five years. The volume of material assistance is a good indicator - although by no means the only one - of the dramatic trend. At this juncture, I would like to share with you the way I see UNHCR involvement, its evolution during these last few years of heavy demands, its main characteristics, its aims and its limits.

In 1977, for the first time, UNHCR's annual budget exceeded $100 million, a trend that was confirmed in 1978. In 1979, the figure had more than doubled and again it doubled in 1980 to exceed $500 million.' I am relieved to see that such sharp annual increases are not recurring; this year even some decrease is expected as also for 1982. Since refugees are victims of world events beyond our control, only time will tell whether, indeed, the upward trend has been reversed, or at least the global situation somewhat stabilized.

As all of us know, UNHCR's expanded commitments resulted directly from the great increase in the number or refugees during the past several years. Crises in various areas in Africa and Asia caused millions to take to flight. It was the responsibility of this office to assist them. UNHCR's expanded commitment, however, was brought about not only by the sheer increase of refugee numbers but as I have recalled during previous sessions - by a broadening of my Office's concerns. Indeed, the international community, particularly through the United Nations General Assembly, has empirically and progressively assigned new tasks to UNHCR in successive resolutions. The concept of good offices, the initial rehabilitation of returnees in their homelands after large-scale voluntary repatriation, responsibilities for persons displaced as a result of conflicts or radical man-made changes in their countries, have led to UNHCR's involvement in a wide range of situations. The increasing magnitude and complexity of situations affecting persons of concern to UNHCR have called for clearer definition of the nature, the modalities and the limits of our material assistance, and the conditions for phasing out. In the face of these questions, of both an institutional and of a practical nature, I shared our points of view earlier this year with members of this Committee, through a paper called "Guidelines for UNHCR activities". Without repeating the contents of this paper, I would like - instead of proceeding to our usual "tour d'horizon" of the main world refugee situations - to take specific examples, which will illustrate our thinking. I shall turn first to operations where relief assistance or care and maintenance remain the predominant aspects, then to situations where durable solutions can be achieved.

We have given considerable thought to the degree of UNHCR's involvement in long-term material assistance. UNHCR's mandate suggests that relief assistance should lead to some form of durable solution as soon a possible. We have found, however, that this is not always feasible. We cannot, and the international community cannot, in good conscience cease supporting refugees who still need assistance. Thus, UNHCR finds itself embarked on relief programmes of long duration and often of considerable magnitude.

Mr. Chairman, one example of such a situation is Pakistan, from where I returned two weeks ago. The Afghan refugees in Pakistan are among the largest concentrations of uprooted people in the world. Assistance in the form of tents, food, quilts, medical care and other commodities and services is distributed to some 1.7 million persons. It was certainly a moving experience to meet the refugees in their tented villages or traditional houses in the desert or at the foot of huge barren mountains - all eagerly expressing their wish to return to their homeland when circumstances permit. They are received with hospitality by the Pakistan authorities and by the local population, notwithstanding the fact that they compete for limited water, for pasture land, for employment opportunities. The two provinces where they are - North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan - must face their own considerable development problems. One of the many refugee villages is the second largest town of Baluchistan, after the provincial capital. What can these refugees do? A few find wage-earning activities, some are trained in carpet-weaving or cottage industries, some practise crafts and small trades, some draw meagre resources from the land. But for the great majority, the only answer for the time being is to rely on care and maintenance. The Pakistan authorities themselves are making considerable efforts to assist this group. The support of the United Nations system - notably the World Food Programme - has been enlisted, as well as that of voluntary agencies; UNHCR, however, in its humanitarian task, is faced with a heavy and costly operation.

If we change continents we find some similar characteristics in Somalia. The energetic multipurpose measures initiated by the international community and coordinated by my office to complement the Government's own efforts in favour of the refugees are now bearing fruit. Such is the case regarding food distribution to the some 35 existing refugee camps. Water supply has improved, as has the general health condition of the populations concerned. The decisive role of the 28 voluntary agencies involving some 350 people can hardly be overemphasized. The situation constitutes a strong challenge for the authorities and people, who have shown great generosity and sense of fellowship, and for the international community. Djibouti, to which I have often referred, is another example of a long-term relief operation, in a country of scarce resources that has generously opened its doors to a number of refugees that make up 14 per cent of the country's population.

In northern Latin America, where the largest refugee problem is that of Salvadorians, care and maintenance pending durable solutions has been a necessary temporary answer for the refugees - who sometimes arrive in a most destitute condition - in Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama.

Even if it often seems that there is a long way to go to reach durable solutions, we never give up hope. Relief is necessary, sometimes over years, but it remains a temporary palliative measure. Fortunately, if we turn to durable solutions, the final objective of all UNHCR material assistance, there is a wide range of positive experience to recount. The best solution, voluntary repatriation, has taken place these last few years all over the world: 200 Burmese returned to their country from Bangladesh as from 1978; also in 1978, repatriation started for 150,000 Zairian refugees from Angola; conversely in 1979, UNHCR assisted in the return home from Zaire of some 50,000 Angolan refugees the same year, 100,000 Nicaraguan refugees repatriated from Costa Rica and Honduras) in 1979 and 1980, refugees returned to Democratic Kampuchea, Uganda and Equatorial Guinea, and received basic assistance. Today, repatriation is under way to the Lao People's Democratic Republic - some 599 persons so far - and negotiations are taking place in Thailand and in Phnom Penh to ensure the safe voluntary return and reintegration of further groups of Kampucheans. The returnee movement to Ethiopia has been gaining momentum since last year and plans are in hand to expand the current returnee programme.

The most recently completed repatriation operation took place in Zimbabwe. As is well known by this Committee, UNHCR coordinated, at the request of the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, a humanitarian assistance programme to provide for the initial settlement and rehabilitation of 660,000 persons. These included both returning refugees and persons who had been displaced within Zimbabwe itself and who, following independence, could go back to the homes they had had to abandon.

A UNHCR programme has now started for the return and initial rehabilitation of Chad nationals who were uprooted during disturbances in their country. At the request of the authorities and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, a number of persons internally displaced, who have returned to the capital, will be included among the beneficiaries. This is the most rational formula, as in practice it would hardly be possible to differentiate between the two groups, the former refugees and the internally displaced.

In the Zimbabwe and Chad programmes, UNHCR has been guided by two important considerations. Firstly, the limitation of the programmes in time and scope. Secondly, the inclusion of assistance to internally displaced persons, in addition to a sizeable programme for returnees; it obviously appears more rational for the United Nations system to mobilize the efforts of one single organization for a whole group of persons - returnees and internally displaced - in similar predicaments, and in similar locations.

This rapid review of repatriation programmes testifies that, in the dynamics of refugee problems, strong forces work in the direction of dignified, durable solutions. It shows that one fundamental right, of which nobody can deprive a refugee - the right to hope - is not a void and meaningless concept.

Let me emphasize that, short of a substantial programme for refugees, externally displaced persons or returnees, in any one country, UNHCR as a rule does not engage in assistance to internally displaced persons. Indeed, on a few occasions when I have been approached, I have declined to engage in operations geared almost exclusively towards internally displaced persons. This applies all the more when the main cause for internal uprooting is a disaster which is not man-made.

Unless or until voluntary repatriation can take place, local integration in the first asylum country is the best solution. This is no easy task, especially if one considers that the majority of refugees in the world are in developing countries, often in the group of the least developed. However, here again, there are encouraging examples which make the national and international efforts a highly worthwhile proposition.

Just over a month ago I was in China, a country that has received some 265,000 refugees, where most of them are on the road towards integration, thanks to far-reaching efforts by the authorities, supported by the international community. While the majority of the refugees are being resettled in the countryside on State farms, we visited another most interesting type of settlement in the Kuangsi Autonomous Region. Near the town of Beihai, some 11,000 refugee fishermen are being helped to self-sufficiency. The authorities, partly with UNHCR support, are providing the refugees with housing in apartment blocks, with a hospital and a school and with the necessary means to continue their traditional activity; fishing boats are being repaired, new boats are provided as necessary, as well as a number of trawlers for fishing on the high seas. Some refugees have attained self-sufficiency and no longer need international assistance, others are still in the process of becoming self-sufficient. Except for some 50 persons seeking family reunion with relatives abroad, the numerous refugees with whom I was able to talk expressed gratitude and the wish to remain where they are.

In the Sudan, a country that has received some half a million refugees, major emphasis is laid, within the UNHCR programme, on local integration of refugees in rural or suburban areas. Progress is currently under way, affecting over 100,000 refugees in organized settlements.

In the United Republic of Tanzania, large numbers of refugees have settled and have become productive farmers; as a highly welcome development, 36,000 have been naturalized.

In these and other countries, numerous elements have been combined to achieve durable solutions for the refugees: the Governments' contributions, including land, existing infrastructure and services; the operational and managerial know-how of Governments) the contributions made UNHCR and by the United Nations system) the impressive and fruitful efforts of non-governmental organizations. Similar integration projects have been or are being pursued in Botswana, Burundi, Lesotho, Rwanda, Uganda, Zaire and Zambia. Local integration projects are also implemented for sizeable groups in northern Latin America.

The other durable solution being pursued is resettlement to third countries. The resettlement of Indo-Chinese refugees, particularly, has been marked by considerable progress over the past four years. To date, some 700,000 persons have been resettled abroad. Of this number, over 400,000 are boat people.

Results in terms of durable solutions, in the form of voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement, are thus encouraging. They pose the problem of how best to phase out UNHCR assistance. Help should normally cease once refugees have attained self-sufficiency. However, to reach the stage of self-sufficiency, as well as to help speed relief to refugees, may require some measures that would normally be considered developmental in character, such as digging wells to provide water in areas where there has been virtually no development. The principle behind our action is to assist the refugees as quickly and effectively as possible. We see to it that assistance is limited in scope, with a double objective in mind; to bring the refugees to a level of self-sufficiency comparable to that of the local population, and to enable them to participate in the social and economic life of the host country. It is then that we consider that UNHCR's role in terms of material assistance is at an end. We are, therefore, encouraging Governments, at an early stage of the integration process, to include and harmonize refugee programmes in their national development plans. Thus, UNHCR's programmes as such will constitute the basis for subsequent action within the wider framework of development. Further relevant measures on behalf of the refugees will become, as far as international assistance is concerned, the responsibility of other appropriate bilateral and multilateral aid agencies.

Mr. Chairman, in facing our task, we have been endeavouring to adhere to a number of guiding principles in which we firmly believe, as they have become an inherent part of our thinking. Above all, while making every effort to avoid eluding our responsibilities, and while fully appreciating the legitimate claims from developing countries for substantial international assistance to face large-scale refugee problems on their soil, the volume of our programmes must be maintained at a reasonable level, wastage must be carefully avoided, the need to economize in a rational way must prevail. Efficiency is part of the answer.

In seeking to attain these goals, we appreciate that numerous resources outside UNHCR - in terms of funds, competent staff and equipment - can be mobilized at international level. We are aware of the views expressed in many quarters - notably in the Economic and Social Council - for streamlining interagency co-operation, ensuring complementarity and avoiding duplication. The co-operation of the various agencies and programmes of the United Nations system has proved very valuable in this respect. Our partnership with the World Food Programme is a model example. Many other organizations join in the effort in their respective fields of competence. Our co-operation with the non-governmental organizations is also a source of constant encouragement to my Office. Whether they act as operational partners, donors or technical advisers, their contributions to improve the refugees' plight is of immense importance. The Consultation between the non-governmental organizations and UNHCR, which took place here at Geneva in May of this year, was a great step forward in our continuing efforts to strengthen our links and co-ordinate our tasks. Over 125 voluntary agencies participated in this historic meeting, which is now being followed up actively.

To mobilize resources for great humanitarian causes of a much larger scope than UNHCR can reasonably include in its own programmes, there may be major events evoking vigorous responses. We all remember that in May 1979 a Conference on the Situation of Refugees in Africa was held in Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania. In close co-operation with OAU, we continue to follow up actively on the far-reaching recommendations then made and endorsed that year by the OAU Council of Ministers in Monrovia, in the spirit of international solidarity and burden-sharing that prevailed throughout the meeting and came out as forceful principles for future action.

This year, on 9 and 10 April, the International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA) gathered some 100 countries. The international community rose to the occasion and showed its will to help solve the plight of some 5 million refugees in Africa, by arousing world-wide interest and support and pledging $US 572 million. Of this amount, a total of $443 million has been specifically indicated by donors to be channelled to various organizations, which include the World Food Programme, UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross and UNHCR. The efforts of the three conveners of ICARA, namely, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity and my Office, have thus helped to lay a solid base for coming to grips with the urgent needs of nearly a score of African countries struggling under the burden of uprooted people.

There are other world-wide efforts, aimed at specific categories of vulnerable people, such as women or the disabled. In these cases, we endeavour to mobilize and organize support directed at the refugees. Following last year's World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women, I have appointed a focal point for activities relating to refugee women charged with the responsibility of assisting in the development and co-ordination of programmes for their benefit. I have also asked the UNHCR field offices to ensure involvement of women refugees in the administration and management of refugee centres, encourage Governments to compile data on the number and needs of women refugees, especially women heads of families, single women without support and others in need of special care. Attention is given to closer co-operation with Governments in extending necessary protection against violence to women refugees and measures are taken to promote programmes for enhancing the training, as well as social and economic potential of refugee women.

As regards the disabled, I would say that being a refugee is in itself a handicap. When refugees suffer from a physical or mental disability, they are doubly handicapped. They often constitute the so-called "residual caseload". In view of the increasing number of disabled refugees warranting development of a special programme on their behalf, and as a measure of UNHCR participation in and support to the International Year of Disabled Persons, my Office has taken steps to institute a systematic solution-oriented identification of physically and mentally disabled refugees. It has also been possible to establish some special country and regional projects for their benefit. Likewise, I made a special appeal last August to a number of countries to give particular consideration to accepting a larger number of refugees in need of resettlement.

Mr. Chairman, UNHCR remains a tool at the hub of world-wide efforts and expectations. In order to implement efficient and economic programmes, we must also look at ourselves, and avoid complacency. I have had numerous opportunities in the past, during our formal and informal meetings, to explain the steps we are taking to keep pace with developments, to improve our delivery capacity, to keep our progress and our procedures under close scrutiny. A few words will suffice today - on one specific aspect - just to show our continuing and active concern.

Special attention has been given this year to how best we can meet emergency situations. Details of our progress appear in a background paper (EC/SC.2/2 of 26 August 1981) prepared for the Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters. We hope that the UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies will indeed provide the necessary guidance to UNHCR staff on all aspects of an emergency response. Drafted in close consultation with the competent organizations of the United Nations system, and with a number of experts, the Handbook - in a provisional form - is ready to stand the test of practice ' The purpose of this Handbook is to enable UNHCR personnel anywhere to meet an emergency. Now that the Handbook is completed, the Emergency Unit will concentrate on making such changes as appear necessary and will, as before, stand ready to assist in actual response to specific emergencies.

In all the difficult periods we have faced, my Office has always had the privilege of enjoying the support of Governments, not only those represented here, but also Governments in the world at large, in response to specific situations or in the United Nations General Assembly and other important fora. Governments have, in most cases, received refugees with generosity. Refugees or returnees have been given land or employment opportunities, allowed to settle and share in available resources, however limited they may have been, and eventually reciprocate the hospitality by becoming useful and dignified citizens again.

I have also appreciated Governments' understanding of the forced nature of the increase in our programmes, and I have been deeply grateful for all efforts in securing the necessary funding. I shall not enter into details today; I only wish to voice a plea for the effort to be continued and strengthened where possible, in the face of the magnitude and worthiness of the needs. This is very relevant for the General Programmes in 1982, towards the financing of which we shall need substantial contributions at the UNHCR Pledging Conference, which will be held in New York on 20 November this year.

The extension of the Office's action to different areas of the world and to a variety of different refugee problems, with the corresponding increase in the material assistance programme, should not detract attention from the Office's basic task to extend international protection to refugees. Events since the last Executive Committee have once again confirmed that the effective exercise of this function is indeed an essential necessity. There have, of course, been some encouraging developments, especially as regards further accessions to the basic international refugee instruments and an increasing awareness on the part of Governments and of public opinion of the importance of ensuring that refugees are treated in accordance with basic minimum standards. On the other hand, in many areas of the world there are still cases in which refugees are refused asylums are forcibly returned to their country of origin in disregard of the principles of non-refoulement and are the victims of arbitrary detention, acts of violence and piracy attacks. I am confident that these grave humanitarian problems will receive the full attention of the Executive Committee and that efforts to find the necessary remedies will receive the Committee's unqualified support.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, I would say that the principles that have guided my Office during the past few years of refugee crises are simple to state but more difficult to apply: to help those who are our concern; to help them quickly and in such a way that they can preserve themselves and their way of life; to try, when possible, to reduce and phase out our assistance) and, where necessary, to assist refugees either in returning to their former lives or in moving to new ones. We play our role in conjunction with other elements of the United Nations and of the international community.

We warmly welcome the advice, commitment and guidance of the members of the Executive Committee on these principles and on how best to apply them. They are reflected in the documents placed before the Executive Committee at this session. A fruitful and constructive dialogue can only benefit the refugees.

Even as we engage in such a dialogue, we must keep in mind that each refugee situation is unique. Therefore, our principles must be adapted to each situation in different ways, and our doctrine must be constantly applied by new and different methods.

The efforts of the international community, through this Office and through this Executive Committee, have borne and are bearing fruit. Millions who were in distress have been given the opportunity to rebuild their existence. Lives have been saved. There is an old saying, which reminds us that even the longest journey begins with a first step. All of us here are responsible at least for enabling each refugee to take a first step in the right direction, in his, or her, journey towards a restored dignity.