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Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Consultations on the Arrivals of Asylum-seekers and Refugees in Europe, Geneva, 28 May 1985

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Consultations on the Arrivals of Asylum-seekers and Refugees in Europe, Geneva, 28 May 1985

28 May 1985

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.

May I begin by welcoming you most warmly to these Consultations. I am pleased to see representatives from so many countries, European and non-European alike; I am also glad to greet the representatives of organisations which have always extended invaluable support to humanitarian work.

As a United Nations Office devoted to refugees, our concerns must be global, because both the refugee problem and our mandate to tackle it are global in nature. Our worldwide mandate has not, of course, prevented us in the past from addressing regional refugee problems, whenever required. In the recent past, meetings and conferences have taken place on refugee situations, for instance, in South-East Asia, Africa and Latin America. On these occasions, governments have recognized the problems of specific groups of refugees as an international responsibility and agreed on the necessity for concerted action to resolve them. In Europe today, we face a critical situation where the concerns may be mainly regional but whose characteristics require a truly international response. It is for this reason that I have decided to invite you to these Consultations.

I need hardly add that problem of asylum-seekers and refugees arriving in Europe, which will constitute the focus of our deliberations over the next four days, is only one of the acute concerns facing my Office and the international community. There are others, different in nature but no less pressing, which engage UNHCR in Africa, Asia, Latin and Central America and elsewhere.

This month of May 1985 has been replete with anniversaries which have promoted the world to look back on the cataclysmic events that have shaped our time. Allow me today also to look back and to share with you some personal reflections on four decades of refugee history in Europe. I am doing that from the vantage point of somebody who has lived through the period in various capacities in private, governmental and international life - and as a citizen of Europe.

The European asylum tradition, of course, goes back much further in time. But it is no coincidence that refugee history since the founding of the United Nations was built on the ruins of war. After the destruction, there was a need to reconstruct societies, there was a need to help the victims of war, and there was a need to reaffirm human values. Their painful past had shown European states the importance of creating a better framework for protecting the individual human being against the forces that sought to destroy his humanity. It was therefore natural that European states would play a principal role in working on behalf of refugees.

Europe not only took an active part in establishing the legal framework for the protection of refugees, and notably the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees; European states were also among the first to ratify the various instruments, introducing national legislation based on international refugee instruments and setting an example in implementing these in practice. From the beginning, Europe has always supported the refugee cause in meetings and conferences, in UNHCR's Executive Committee, in the General Assembly of the United Nations and elsewhere. On the financial side, countries in Europe have traditionally been among the most generous and regular donors to refugee programmes. In general, thanks to the efforts and the consistent support of Europe, human lives have been saved and new futures have been made possible. Europe can indeed to proud of its significant contribution to the setting of standards for the treatment of refugees and to international burden-sharing and solidarity in refugee work. On my travels all over the world, I have again and again sensed an aura of respect and appreciation for the humanitarian values, traditions and performance of the continent I come from. This has helped me a great deal in my functions.

Unfortunately, I have today to express my deep concern over trends which have lately been emerging in Europe. States which have been the champions of human rights are now finding it difficult to grant some of these basic rights to asylum-seekers; peoples who have in the past opened their doors and their hearts to refugees are now showing signs of greater reserve and even intolerance vis-à-vis asylum-seekers and refugees.

Let me state it categorically: we are obviously not proposing that all or even most refugees from developing countries should be settled in the industrialised world. Solutions can and should, whenever possible, be found in the region of origin of the refugees. This is, of course, what is in fact happening, for the most part. The great majority of the world's refugees remain in their own region. They are hospitably received; they integrate into their new societies or they return voluntarily to their countries of origin. In fact, it is less than 3% of the world's refugees who seek and require solutions in the industrialised world.

Is it too much to ask that this small number of bona fide asylum-seekers, for whom there may be no solutions in the regions of origin and who therefore seek a future in the industrialised world, should be received and treated in accordance with those international instruments and those humanitarian traditions which have their source in this continent? Indeed, are not Europe's humanitarian values the pole of attraction? Those very values have always been promoted and defended by European States in numerous international fora. What a shock it must be, then, for an asylum-seeker to arrive here and sometimes be met by a very different reality.

It is, of course, recognised that the movement of asylum-seekers to Europe coincides in many instances with movements of ordinary migrants; this is a problem which is causing special difficulty for European Governments and public opinion. Let me now say, in the first place, that my Office does not in any way consider that persons who leave their home countries for purely economic reasons should be treated as refugees. On the other hand, we are today faced with large groups of persons who are forced to leave their countries of origin in order to seek protection from danger to their lives or freedom due to serious internal upheavals or armed conflicts. As you are aware, I have been called upon by the General Assembly to extend protection and provide assistance to persons in this situation even though some may not necessarily have a "well-founded fear of persecution" within the meaning of the refugee definition in the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol. I would like to make it clear that I do not consider that persons falling into this 'broader' category are entitled to the same legal status as refugees according to the traditional definition. They should, however, be protected against forcible return to danger and their minimum human needs should be met pending a clarification of the conditions in their country of origin. Indeed, it is most gratifying to note that the legislation of almost all European countries parties to the Convention provides for the possibility of dealing with such situations in a humanitarian spirit.

In preparation for the Consultations, we circulated a Note outlining the issues that, in our opinion, require careful consideration. We have sought to give an indication of some of the difficulties confronting Governments in the present situation and also to show how these difficulties may have an adverse effect on refugees and asylum-seekers. To some, this Note may go too far; to others, it may not go far enough. Our common objective is to protect the bona fide asylum-seeker and refugee, and to do that we must safeguard and defend the international protection principles and humanitarian standards applicable to refugees in Europe - and elsewhere for that matter. At the same time, it is evident that without the support of Governments our international protection function cannot be discharged effectively. We have in our approach tried to strike a fair balance between the genuine problems of asylum-seekers and the legitimate concerns of States.

May I, at the risk of oversimplification, try to summarize these problems and concerns. For the asylum-seeker, it is a matter of being received and treated decently and humanely, in recognition of his special status and in accordance with established standards and practices. For States, the concerns are to see to it that the structures of protection and support are reserved for those who qualify for and genuinely need special consideration and special status.

What then are the aims of these Consultations? First they must serve to arrive at a better understanding of the problems we are facing, and of where we stand. Then, they must try to discuss ways in which these problems can be solved. In our Note, we have also tried to propose a number of solutions which the meeting may wish to examine. These are not exhaustive and you may well wish to propose others. I should, however, like to emphasize that it is ultimately in the power of governments, not of UNHCR, to create the essential conditions in which existing problems can be resolved, and fresh problems avoided. The efforts of UNHCR cannot substitute for the will and determination of Governments to find solutions to these various problems. The possible solutions which we have proposed in the Note should be considered with this fundamental fact in mind. I certainly look forward to hearing your views.

In our discussions, governments may wish to express their individual concerns and preoccupations. I trust that these will increase our mutual understanding. We must, however, move beyond the statement of known positions and difficulties. Our response to the problems must not simply reflect national preoccupations and anxieties. Rather, the problems we face are international in scope, and they demand that each country - whether in Europe or outside - equally discharge its humanitarian responsibility. There is a tradition in Europe of constructive co-operation in many spheres of life, which is also apparent in the refugee field. Such constructive co-operation is equally essential in the present situation of asylum-seekers arriving in Europe. Failure to act in a concerted, positive and imaginative way will only give additional cause for problems to spill over frontiers.

A better understanding of the problems should start with an appreciation of the unique situation of asylum-seekers as distinct from the wider category of alien economic migrants. Let us never forget that an asylum-seeker has had to take the most dramatic and painful decision of all - to leave his country of origin. He was forced to leave and he must not be forced to go back. One of the posters issued by my Office depicts grafitti on a wall which says: "Refugee go home". UNHCR's comment is simple: "He would if he could".

Nor should we, in these comfortable surroundings, forget some of the human dramas behind the problems we are discussing. It would be cynical for us to measure degrees of human suffering. Each refugee, whether in a refugee camp in Africa or in an urban centre in Europe, deserves our sympathy and help. The drama of the boat people and the dramatic exodus of thousands of refugees into the Sudan have captured the headlines. Meanwhile, there are smaller groups of refugees spending weeks in European air terminals, tossed around like ping-pong balls from airport to airport, thrown into "orbit". Their story is often untold. But they are no less worth of attention and help.

I hope our discussions will be frank and focus on practical measures that we can and must take. It will not be the purpose of these Consultations to discuss and adopt resolutions. In my summing up on Friday, I shall attempt to reflect the sense of the discussions and try to outline the directions for our future action. It is evident that these Consultations will not be a panacea in themselves. But they must, to have served a purpose, take an important step forward in our constant search for solutions. In this connection, I trusts that they will also contribute to the ongoing study on Irregular Movements of Asylum-seekers and Refugees which I have been asked to present to the next session of the Executive Committee.

Before concluding, let me share with you an experience from my recent mission to China. It was a great encouragement for me to see how hundreds of thousands of refugees have given the opportunity and the means to integrate in that country. One always learns something new on these missions and when talking to one of my hosts about the refugee crises UNHCR faces in the world, I was told that in Chinese, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters: one represents danger, the opportunity. In Europe today, I believe we may be confronted with a crisis. On one hand, the structure for the protection of refugees, so painstakingly built up over decades and emulated all over the world, is in serious danger. On the other hand, we have the opportunity at these Consultations to show that this structure is as valid and precious as ever and that the international community has the will and capacity to defend it and to strengthen it.

I thank you.