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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-fourth session, Geneva, 10 October 1983

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-fourth session, Geneva, 10 October 1983

10 October 1983

Mr. Chairman, first of all, may I congratulate you warmly on your election. I am looking forward to co-operating with you this year and I have no doubt that, under your guidance, we shall have a constructive and inspiring session. While expressing my deep thanks to the outgoing Chairman for all his help and good advice throughout the year, and to his colleagues in the Bureau, let me extend my congratulations and welcome to the new Vice-Chairman and Rapporteur.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, as you 'Know we are giving the Executive Committee considerably more information than in the past: following the wishes and pertinent decisions of the Executive Committee, the Programme document, which we usually call the "book', is more thorough in its presentation of facts and figures; documents on progress in various fields are regularly sent to Executive Committee members in the framework of the flow of information arrangements; and informal sessions or other meetings are held during the year as required. Therefore, I no longer feel that my introductory statement should serve to report on various refugee situations in the world, but rather as a basis for reflecting together on some major issues confronting this Office in its humanitarian task. The few specific refugee situations, to which I shall refer, should only illustrate the broader concerns I shall now try to share with you.

When we look at the 'book", we find a report on the previous year, an explanation of the state of affairs in the current year, and our plans for the next year. In other words, while reporting on the past, we look more or less just over a year ahead. This is probably a reasonable time-span for establishing realistic and sufficiently detailed programmes and targets for each country, given the fluidity and sometimes rapid or drastic evolution of refugee situations. However, even though we have this annual cycle, we are trying increasingly to develop a longer-term view, especially in so far as we have to steer our minds and our action toward durable solutions whenever this is possible. Sometimes, these can only be achieved over a matter of several years. Much has been said - and I hope, done - about improving our capacity for programme delivery and monitoring. We now feel the need, more than ever, to develop our long-term planning from a solution-oriented perspective. Of course we have already been doing this, both for new problems or for problems which linger on year after year. This is in our mandate. But can we do more and better?

While never giving up hope that one day - however remote - the refugee problem will subside, we should, in the face of realities and past evolution, look at the problem as a long-term one. Refugees have been with us in considerable numbers for decades. Why not admit that the refugee problem will be with us for a long time to come? Solutions have indeed been found and implemented, sometimes for very large numbers, year after year. But new refugees and new problems have constantly emerged. As a consequence, though the list of solutions is long, the overall balance in terms of numbers reflects unfavourably on mankind: there were some 1.5 million refugees in 1951 when UNHCR started its activities there are some 10 million today. Numbers are not all. In a way, however, the magnitude of the refugee problem is an indicator of the state of the world. True, there have been, these last two years, fewer refugee generating crises than in the years before. Yet, even if, in the future, there were no new refugee influx anywhere, it would take the world a long time to absorb the backlog it has created. Very often, a situation of initially modest scope gains momentum and turns into a lasting problem, solutions, when they are possible, are often only partial. Therefore, we have good reasons to look into the future of our activities.

All those concerned with refugee work, including of course UNHCR, Governments and non-governmental organizations, must develop not only the will but also the capacity to achieve durable solutions. We all know there are obstacles on the road to a durable solution. Some cannot be overcome and some can. Let us review them briefly and recall how UNHCR may help. Obstacles may stand in the way of all three solutions voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement. Sometimes, one or the other of these options is left open, sometimes the horizon for solutions is obstructed whichever way one turns.

Impediments to voluntary repatriation are basically of a political nature, or linked with political life. The numerous voluntary repatriation operations of these last years have followed accessions to independence, changes of regimes, amnesties to political opponents, or the end of a conflict. Our hopes for the future, as regards this solution, are based on past experience. We are not in a utopian world where all refugees can repatriate voluntarily. However, even a purely humanitarian organization as we are can help: a successful repatriation and rehabilitation programme can produce a snowball effect once the political conditions are created; through our participation in tripartite commissions grouping the authorities of the country of refuge, the country of origin, and UNHCR, a set of difficulties can be ironed out and conditions conducive to voluntary repatriation can be promoted. I have in mind, for instance, the repatriation from Djibouti to Ethiopia which started recently. Sometimes even, UNHCR can help in delicate negotiations between two countries, provided we do not side with either one and confine ourselves to our purely humanitarian and non-political role. Within the framework of existing realities, we are systematically reviewing the situations where we believe, or hope, that more can be done for voluntary repatriation so that, while respecting the refugees' free will, no stone is left unturned.

Local integration is not always possible either. Some of the difficulties in developing countries are well known: insufficient infrastructure, lack of cultivable land or of water, shortage of work opportunities, often severely limit the absorption capacity of the receiving country. The international community then needs to act in a co-ordinated way, so that conditions are improved as much as feasible, within financial, technical and staff constraints. In this context, I would mention the Meeting of Experts on Refugee Aid and Development, held from 29 to 31 August. The meeting's report is submitted to the Committee. It calls for a review of policies for refugee assistance in low-income countries with a major refugee problem and for a new approach to the solution of such problems. The report emphasizes that, while meeting refugees' urgent needs as a first priority in the early stages of an influx, the refugees' productivity should be encouraged from the outset to the extent possible this should enable refugees progressively to support themselves and contribute to the development of the area. This more comprehensive view of what is sometimes called the "refugee affected areas", where the refugees are a component of a much wider picture which involves the local population as well, invites us to realistic reflection on the means of overcoming the obstacles to self-sufficiency and, where it is feasible, local integration.

But obstacles may be other than technical. Even when refugees are offered asylum and hospitality temporarily, they may nevertheless be undesirable. Asylum should always be considered as a peaceful and humanitarian act. However, refugees may be seen to have a political impact as a group and may contribute to tension between neighbouring countries or affect important national concerns.

Short of the possibility of repatriation and local integration, resettlement becomes the only solution. Obstacles to resettlement are well known. No country has an endless receiving capacity. Not all refugees are able to integrate smoothly. For many, resettlement is not really an adequate solution and they may suffer severe cultural trauma. There are the handicapped who have the double disadvantage of being refugees and disabled. Three hundred of them are accepted every year. Eight hundred, a comparatively small figure, are still waiting, however and new disabled refugees are identified every day. More places are also needed for those whose security is endangered and need immediate resettlement as the only possible solution to their protection problem.

The difficulty of reaching of burden-sharing balance acceptable to all concerned, the world economic crisis, xenophobia which is a spreading danger, compassion fatigue, all these factors affect resettlement policies and practices as indeed they may deplorably affect the granting of asylum.

As a result of the combination of all the adverse factors I have briefly reviewed, there has now been, for a long while in our programmes, a comparative slowdown in the provision of durable solutions. Relief, care and maintenance, have become increasingly conspicuous components of our overall efforts. Some striking figures are reported in the programme "book". In 1970, 83 per cent of the programme was geared toward the promotion of durable solutions. In 1977, the proportion was 54 per cent. Then, major refugee crises erupted within a timespan of very few years: refugees in South-East Asia, in the Horn of Africa, in Pakistan. In 1981, as a consequence of this rapid increase, the proportion of the programme devoted to the promotion of durable solutions was at its lowest: 26 per cent. Since then, there has been some progress again and we hope that next year we shall reach 33.5 per cent. These are perhaps too many figures. But they are indicative and must serve as a powerful incentive to reverse the trend further.

We only have three solutions at our disposal. We must promote them wherever there is the slightest glimmer of hope, even if it takes many years to reach them and implement them satisfactorily. And we need the Governments with us: they have the key, not UNHCR. Of course, Governments have their own constraints and it would be unrealistic and unfair not to recognize them. However, refugees are waiting, and for them no progress often means deterioration of their condition.

Through this great puzzle, we are trying to develop our planning capacity, keeping the need for "durable solutions whenever possible" as our leitmotiv. We must help push barriers a little further back. Though we are by no means the centre of the game, which is a position occupied by Governments, we must be a catalytic agent and convince: convince refugees, convince Governments, convince the international community. It is not always so difficult to start helping. A new problem may receive a favourable echo from Governments, from public opinion, from others concerned. But gradually, if solutions are not readily feasible, the situation changes. The great difficulty lies in seeing a problem through to a conclusion. Like the problem of the boat-people or that of refugees from Indo-China more generally.

In the context which I have outlined, I would like to give a few examples of where we stand and what we are trying to achieve today.

We have been giving a great deal of thought to the refugee situation in the Horn of Africa and the Sudan. How can we achieve further progress in depth, in each country and in the region as a whole?

In Somalia, there are two sine qua non conditions for a real shift towards self-sufficiency: more land, more income-generating activities. This requires a considerable effort. In March of this year, in compliance with the pertinent General Assembly resolution, a review mission visited Somalia to consult with the Government on the refugee situation, assess the international relief effort and identify the requirements for 1983 and later. The mission was to focus on the overall needs of refugees, including aspects relating to their settlement and rehabilitation. These terms of reference could not coincide better with UNHCR's own preoccupations. Assessments of this kind, and ensuing recommendations, especially at a time when the emergency phase is over and concrete efforts are being made to move beyond care and maintenance, are fundamental for proper long-term planning.

The mission visited all regions where there are refugees: Gedo, Hiran, the north-west and lower Shebelli. It acted in close co-operation with the authorities, visited 27 camps out of 35, and met with representatives of countries involved in helping. The World Food Programme accompanied UNHCR and liaison was maintained with other United Nations bodies. While attention was paid to self-sufficiency in Somalia itself, the question of voluntary repatriation was not overlooked.

The mission looked into all facets of assistance; food and food storage, health, safer water supply, communal facilities, provision of utensils and equipment, shelter, transport and logistics. And, of course, self-help, which is really the new direction. Though conditions do not permit, as regards self-help, an all embracing plan covering all refugees, it is now hoped that efforts will lead to more than just a modest beginning. Attention is being paid to small-scale farming. Larger scale agricultural projects are also planned, where the possibility of land expansion exists, dry and irrigated, with rain, river, or underground water, next to camps or in other areas to which relocation is envisaged. Guidelines are being drawn up for planning and implementing rural settlements for refugees, with the objective of achieving socially and economically viable rural entities. Measures also include training in various fields. Small-scale industry and handicrafts are foreseen. Provision for reafforestation, tree and bush planting, is made. The needs of the local population are part of the overall concern.

Of course this approach is by no means a solution to all difficulties and will require years of efforts by all concerned. It is, however, an endeavour to consolidate, improve and build something better in a vast joint effort, realizing the magnitude of the task, the time element, and the means that need to be mobilized by UNHCR and others.

In the Sudan, there have been new elements: a sizeable refugee influx this year and last, and flooding in the Kassala area which made it imperative to airlift tents and blankets. While these emergencies were faced, reminding us that data and conditions in a given refugee situation may change rapidly or suddenly, attention was also paid to a plan of action, in line with the intent and spirit of General Assembly resolutions, the latest of which is from December 1982. Just before that date, UNHCR had already sent an assistance review mission to the Sudan, in November. The mission came up with a set of recommendations, in agreement with the Sudanese authorities, designed, once they could be implemented, to give a fresh impetus to the programme, aiming at self-sufficiency and integration where possible. These recommendations covered refugee protection and assistance measures; they also addressed the phasing out of some UNHCR activities. Much attention is given to the highly complex problem of ensuring that refugees have access to sufficient land in the face of its limited availability near existing settlements. The Director of Assistance then visited the Sudan early this year to study with the authorities how best to implement the recommendations. In April, an UNHCR-International Labour Organisation study was concluded on income-generating activities for refugees in Eastern and Central Sudan; implementation of some aspects has already begun. The United Nations system has helped in various surveys. Here again there is no magic wand, but there is a systematic effort. In order to give the necessary support to the launching and implementation of the plan and to follow up progress carefully, a task force has been set up within headquarters, drawing on all sectors concerned.

Djibouti today is an example of a situation where a new element intervenes and entails reorientation of part of the programme toward a durable solution: in this case voluntary repatriation. Refugees have now started to return to Ethiopia, some spontaneously, some under the organized repatriation programme. The return of the first group under the programme took place on 19 September. Two further groups have returned since. The Tripartite Commission composed of authorities from Ethiopia, Djibouti and of UNHCR, focused on ways and means to promote the return while emphasizing its strictly voluntary nature. A plan was established to provide appropriate relief and rehabilitation assistance measures upon return. Here we see the regional dimension of the problem. Returnees from Djibouti cannot be viewed in isolation, but fit into the wider context of voluntary repatriation to Ethiopia. UNHCR offices have been opened in Asmara and Dire Dawa to provide technical assistance to the Government and the agencies and on-site monitoring of programme implementation.

When the Special Programme of Assistance to Ethiopian Returnees started in June 1982 it was felt, on the basis of the pattern which had evolved over the years, that basic relief assistance was necessary but not sufficient. Hence, in addition to distribution of food and other basic commodities, self-sufficiency packages are given, for agricultural or pastoral activities, according to the requirements. On the one hand, utensils, a draft animal, a plough, seeds and fertilizers and, on the other, starter flocks of goats, sheep, or cattle. Urban returnees are eligible to receive assistance in establishing small-scale cottage industries. Thus, an endeavour for an overall programme, adapted to refugee needs and local realities. However, once more we have learned that in a real world, it is not sufficient to wind up the clock and let it go. According to the Government, it seems that up to three million people in the north-western provinces have been affected by drought; this has had a negative impact on the UNHCR programme and understandably so, as priorities in the area, in terms of logistics and transport, had to be reviewed and existing means mobilized or immediate distribution to victims. Our objective, however, remains unchanged: in co-operation with the authorities and the agencies, to provide proper initial rehabilitation to the returnees, giving them a sound basis to start a new life in their home country.

The most globally planned, longer-term approach to refugee problems in Africa is being developed today through the preparation of the Second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa, due to take place at Geneva from 9 to 11 July next year. The pertinent General Assembly resolution aims both at meeting the needs of refugees and returnees and at strengthening the social and economic infrastructure of African countries concerned with refugee or returnee problems, to help them cope with the burden. In our 1984 programme to meet refugee needs, more than half of the target submitted for Africa is for durable solutions. Additional needs are being studied, country by country.

In order to devise projects aimed at easing the burden on national infrastructures, technical teams are at work: the Organization of African Unity, the Office of the United Nations Secretary-General, the United Nations Development Programme, UNHCR and other agencies, are visiting some 15 countries. The teams are to take all possible factors into account, such as the refugee situation, the government policy toward refugees, the socio-economic situation, the impact of the presence of refugees. Projects being prepared so far, extending over three to five years, aim to be reasonable, realistic and technically sound. Reports will be produced for each country, with the respective Governments' concurrence. UNHCR's active involvement in all preparations is guided by our confidence that the Conference will lay a solid foundation for future concerted action.

Let me take one more example of the comprehensive efforts under way, on another continent. The response to the refugee situation in South-East Asia has been unprecedented. It is almost hard to believe that more than a million Indo-Chinese have been resettled outside the region, in less than a decade. Still, there remain today almost 200,000 refugees in the area for whom solutions are increasingly difficult to find. We have, therefore, attempted to study the situation in all its aspects in order to suggest an integrated overall approach. We know that third country resettlement cannot provide a total solution to the problem. Settlement efforts today, after an outstanding achievement, barely exceed the increase in numbers. Particularly, the number of boat people in camps has remained virtually unchanged for two years now. We know that self-sufficiency in the region is not a realistic option at this juncture. We know that voluntary return home has yielded comparatively small results so far.

So, while there are no obvious solutions in sight for sizeable numbers, while 3,000 new arrivals reach first asylum countries each month, in addition to natural increase, what can UNHCR do? First create and maintain awareness of the situation, which is no longer in the headlines. I have contacted several Governments emphasizing that, in spite of the response from the international community, the continuation of joint efforts is still badly needed. It seems that some measures are indeed under consideration for maintaining and possibly increasing the present resettlement rate, for speeding up intake of those accepted, and for relaxing admission criteria.

Experience shows that, for a large number of Khmer and Lao refugees in Thailand, we must look for other options than resettlement. For Lao refugees, departures during the first six months of this year have decreased by 50 per cent, as compared to the same period in 1982. Voluntary repatriation, especially for lowland Lao, while modest, is encouraging, and must increasingly be explored as a solution all Governments concerned should work toward this objective, including the provision of assistance in returnees' villages of origin. For Kampucheans, concrete practical steps must be taken by the parties concerned and, when the repatriation programme is undertaken - for those who freely wish to return several countries also should assist with reintegration assistance in villages of origin. UNHCR is acting or prepared to act at any stage of the process within its competence.

For all groups and whenever possible, since resettlement and voluntary repatriation do not appear to be the total answer, self-sufficiency schemes on a regional level should be envisaged and vigorously pursued within the context of regional burden sharing. Time is pressing. Some refugees have wasted years in camps. Some strive unsuccessfully for their well-being. Some fear for their safety. We are trying to enter into each detail of a particularly complex problem, in a renewed effort to seek durable solutions of a humanitarian nature.

Among the encouraging aspects of the overall problem, I would mention the momentum gradually gained by the Programme of Orderly Departures from the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. In 1983, up to 30 September, 12,918 persons left Viet Nam under the programme as against 10,057 for the whole of 1982. Last week for the third consecutive year, we had talks with a delegation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Viet Nam during which the evolution of this programme was the main concern. These talks, which also give the opportunity for conversations with all interested parties including resettlement countries, have proved fruitful in tackling difficulties, consolidating progress, and improving results.

I would also mention the problem of unaccompanied minors. There are currently some 4,000 of them in refugee camps in South-East Asia. Many do not have relatives in third countries and may not qualify for current resettlement programmes. Some have been rejected by several countries and have been in camps for a number of years. Initiatives such as the recently liberalized processing of minors by the United States will help in providing solutions for some of them. We cannot, however, allow unaccompanied minors to remain in refugee camps Indefinitely. New initiative must be provided to cope with this special problem.

We have just held a well-attended Seminar on the integration of Refugees in Europe, with the participation of government officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations from 19 countries, and a number of observers. The Seminar debated social and practical problems relating to refugee integration. These problems, as you will see from the report, do exist. They must be solved by efforts of all those concerned. It was, in any event, a useful venture and a rewarding experience to see how countries can meet and try, in a positive spirit, to analyse an integration process in all its aspects.

In northern Latin America, present situations and future prospects are widely diverse according to countries and to the location of refugees. While in some areas we are in a position to turn to local integration of urban and rural refugees, in others only holding operations are possible for the time being, with limited activities in the form of handicrafts or vegetable gardens. With the authorities and all those concerned, we are in the process of trying to open up avenues which should bring the refugees closer to some degree of self-sufficiency.

These were the introductory remarks I wished to make. Refugees count in today's world. In certain countries or regions they exceed 15 per cent of the local population. In others, their political weight is important. Refugees are an element in international negotiations of wider scope.

The refugee problem is increasingly difficult. In many places on earth, some of the poorest people in the world knock at the poorest countries' door. In spite of the often great hospitality given by so many developing countries, the needs remain colossal. Industrialized countries receive refugees and lend support; developments are showing that the level of their response, in many instances highly generous, is not to be taken for granted.

In a world situation which is chaotic in many ways, UNHCR tries to mobilize energies and put them to good use. We have developed patterns, and try to improve them, for emergency and more durable response, for implementing, monitoring and for vital support to our field offices which is crucial. We are now trying to develop analyses in depth for comprehensive action-oriented planning, in full awareness that all situations have their new and unusual characteristics. We must continue to increase our immediate sensitivity to complexities and not be caught unprepared. When we look at problems, we must also consider all options for solutions. When no real solution is in sight, self-sufficiency, income-generating activities, skills training and strengthening of local infrastructure are so many partial answers to the problem. We must be innovative and we hope you can help us to this effect. The solutions are ultimately produced by Governments, not by UNHCR.

I shall now be glad to hear your views.