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Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Round Table on "Refugees: Victims of Xenophobia," Geneva, 11 April 1984

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Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Round Table on "Refugees: Victims of Xenophobia," Geneva, 11 April 1984

11 April 1984
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We are indeed honoured to have such a distinguished gathering of personalities with us today. You have come from all corners of the world, statesmen and stateswomen, leaders both present and past - of your respective countries, outstanding journalists and representatives of some of the world's finest newspapers. You are all people at the centre of international activity, persons whose viewpoint commands respect and authority. Many of you have interrupted busy schedules to be here today. We are grateful for your interest and support.

Xenophobia is more than just a fashionable word. It is a chronic illness which if left unchecked may have far reaching consequences for the family of nations. It is likely to have a particularly destructive effect on one of the most outstanding achievements of the twentieth century in the field of humanitarian endeavour. I refer here to the establishment of an international mechanism which permits asylum-seekers to be admitted, to have their claim to refugee status considered with sympathy and understanding, to return freely and voluntarily to their country of origin or, if this is not a viable solution, to start a life afresh and to become fully integrated in their new homeland. This mechanism loosely called international action in favour of refugees is in danger today of being seriously undermined, as the refugee issue is caught up in the wave of resentment against foreigners which appears to be so widespread in the modern world. Naturally, the aspect from which we consider xenophobia is how it affects the refugee.

Your presence here today to address this burning issue is therefore most timely and we look forward to your individual contributions, in the hope that we may together add to the efforts which are now being undertaken by responsible persons to combat this malaise in our society.

We must of course first clarify what we mean when we talk of xenophobia. When for example a country adopts measures to restrict the purchase of real property by foreigners or to prevent aliens from taking up employment I do not think that this is necessarily evidence of xenophobia. Every state is entitled to protect its borders and to take such measures as it considers necessary to protect its own national interests.

Xenophobia however becomes apparent when some sections of a state's population manifest an evident dislike of foreigners which is in turn reflected in government policies. The danger here is that the resulting action taken by the authorities to reflect this dislike may be out of proportion to the actual problem and may go far beyond what may be reasonably perceived as defending the nation's interest. It is this element of excessiveness which marks the dividing line between the legitimate exercise of power by a sovereign state based on perceived national interests and the policies of governments based on xenophobic reactions. The latter phenomenon may understandably become the subject of international concern because of its consequences for interstate relations and universally accepted standards. Xenophobia exists everywhere, in all countries. Basically, it is the selfish, egocentric ill-will against people who are different and therefore against all foreigners.

In so far as the refugee is concerned present restrictive trends in many countries show us what disasterous consequences xenophobia may have. Thus we see governments being increasingly reluctant to admit refugees: when asylum-seekers are admitted they are frequently subjected to a less than sympathetic hearing and have to face serious obstacles to their integration into local communities. Numerous governments which have hitherto followed generous policies - and have strongly supported my Office's humanitarian endeavours in favour of refugees have in recent times demonstrated a most distressing tendency to apply stringent deterrent measures with the evident aim of stemming the flow of asylum-seekers. Such measures run counter to the humanitarian objectives of international action in favour of refugee: they are also indicative of a tendency to overlook the special situation of the refugee and to assimilate his treatment to that of other aliens. It is at this point that some form of warning signal from the world community is called for, because understanding of the special position of the refugee strikes at the very heart of international action on their behalf. We hope that such a signal will emerge loud and clear from today's debate.

An illness, once diagnosed has to find a cure. Public opinion is a key factor, and that is why your presence here today as leaders of world opinion - is so important. Xenophobia has undoubtedly resulted in a negative view by the general public of the refugee. The refugee is seen as a burden on public welfare resources, a trouble maker, a threat to the demographic structure of the host country. The true facts tell a very different story. The vast majority of refugees are industrious, often highly qualified individuals, who given the opportunity, rapidly become productive members of the community as a recent study by the Church World Service in the United States has shown. Very few refugees abuse the hospitality of their host country. In so far as allegations of an unending flow are concerned, in those countries where this fear is the most pronounced, the influx of refugees, in purely numerical terms, is almost infinitesimal when compared with the total population. All these profoundly erroneous perceptions of refugees can be readily contradicted by the true facts but in a climate that is hostile to foreigners, efforts to correct them are likely to fall on unwilling ears. Thus the leadership provided by outstanding personalities in dispelling negative stereotypes of refugees and in fostering public opinion that is more responsive to the humanitarian needs of this uniquely vulnerable group is of pivotal importance.

The media also have a vital role to play. They are, as it were, the principal refugee image maker. It is indeed through the eyes of the media that the public views - and judges the refugee. There are many instances in the history of my Office where the generous response by the international community to a given refugee situation could be directly linked to the exposure which has been given it by the media. The crisis in Indochina, which has led to the exodus and the resettlement of over a million refugees, is one example and there are many others. The danger is however that in a xenophobic climate, the media is more likely to reflect the general mood which as I have said may be inimical to refugee interests. I therefore very much hope that those representatives of the media who are here today will use their considerable influence to bettering the image of the refugee and to focus attention on his tragic plight.

These are few thoughts, which together with the note which has been distributed to you, will, I hope, provide a point of departure for your deliberations. I do want to impress upon you the urgency of the matter at hand. If present xenophobic trends are permitted to continue their destructive path, I fear that the impact on the edifice of international action in favour of refugees may be such as to reduce it to no more than an empty shell. This is the level of our concern.

As a gathering of independent personalities, I have no doubt that you will express your views openly and in all frankness - bearing in mind of course that we are here today not to discuss the actions of individual states and even less to attack them but to address ourselves to the problem of xenophobia as it affects the refugee.

Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen. I look forward to hearing your views.


11 April 1984