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Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, fifteenth session, 16 May 1966

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Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, fifteenth session, 16 May 1966

16 October 1966

Mr. Chairman, this is an auspicious occasion for me in many respects, and before I have the opportunity of placing some thoughts before the Committee as I engage in the fifteenth session of our Executive Committee, I would like Mr. Chairman, with your permission, to address my grateful thanks to all the speakers who chose to take the floor here this morning, to the distinguished representatives of the Holy See, of Australia, of Venezuela, of France, of Lebanon, of Iran, of Switzerland and of Sweden. May I particularly thank the representative of Sweden who announced his country's very generous, special contribution of $50,000 towards the 1966 programme of my Office. This is again an indication of Sweden's great concern for the plight of refugees whom it has never ceased to assist in every possible way. This makes Sweden the sixth country in the list of major contributors to the efforts of UNHCR.

I would also like to thank the Ambassador of Iran, His Excellency Mr. Mansour, for choosing to come here personally this morning. I am very grateful that he elected to speak on this occasion and I would also like to address a special word of gratitude to my old friend the distinguished representative of Switzerland for his kind remarks and for reminding the Committee of my links with our host country, Switzerland, where UNHCR has always maintained its Office and where the High Commissioner feels privileged to live. I am in a way continuing these traditional links, as the distinguished representative of Switzerland has said, since two of my distinguished predecessors, both of whom I was honoured to serve, come from this country. May I also pay special tribute to the distinguished outgoing Chairman, Ambassador Saul Rae, and thank him for the way in which he conducted the meetings when he was Chairman of the Executive Committee. He did this with a tremendous concern for the refugees, and he did this with speed and efficiency, without ever losing his sense of humour. I must say that I was very much looking forward to sitting next to you, Mr. Ambassador, but just as I sat by you today, you moved away from the rostrum and returned to your seat with the Canadian Delegation again. May I say how very much we appreciate your interest in our work and your invaluable co-operation.

Finally, I wish to extend, on behalf of all my colleagues and myself, my warm congratulations to the officers who have just been elected, particularly to you, Mr. Chairman, and also to the Vice-Chairman and to the Rapporteur. I very much look forward to working with this new team in the interest of the refugees whom we are all trying to help.

Mr. Chairman, I would first like to say how very pleased I am to be able to thank all the members of the Executive Committee for their support during my election, which took place during the twentieth session of the General Assembly. I already expressed my thanks to the General Assembly as a whole after my election, and to the Secretary-General for the confidence which he placed in me.

I am extremely aware of the difficult nature of my task and the tremendous responsibility which it entails. This is indeed a great challenge for a man of my age. I rely greatly on personal contacts with all the members of the Committee here, who guide our efforts, in the interest of better understanding of our work and also so that we can open the way to coherent and generally acceptable action receiving unanimous support, which is what we have always aimed at and which my predecessors were largely able to obtain during their own respective mandates.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, as we open the fifteenth session of the Executive Committee, I wish to place before you some of my thoughts on the present situation which confronts the Office with respect to the refugee picture in the world, and give you very frankly, and to a great extent off-the-cuff, my own personal assessment of this particular problem. What are its main features? If we look at Europe, we have to note that after the implementation, and in the present economic situation of the countries concerned, the problem of "old" refugees may now be regarded as a thing of the past. Some serious difficulties nevertheless persist in certain areas in finalizing the completion of these major aid programmes, and for this reason we shall - indeed we must - thoroughly review in the coming months the various projects which have too long been held up, and whose implementation is blocked for a number of different reasons which are independent of the efforts and the wishes of the High Commissioner. The current programme, however, has adequately played its part and has prevented the appearance of new areas of distress and thereby new accumulations of misery which, in the present state of prosperity of the countries of first asylum in Western Europe, would seem rather paradoxical.

Indeed we may express the hope that events such as those we experienced in the comparatively recent past, no more than ten years ago in fact, will not soon occur again in Europe. The general economic trend indicates quite clearly that European countries will become more and more able to face the aftermath of old problems and the various repercussions of the limited but still continuous influx of new refugees. It is therefore up to the High Commissioner, I think, to work out ways and means with European Governments of first asylum to see to it that refugees are assisted speedily in order to prevent new accumulations of misery from taking place, and this the High Commissioner must do sometimes even at the expense of his own popularity with some of the countries of first asylum.

Mr. Chairman, it can never be over-emphasized that to keep refugees in refugee transit centres - I refuse to call these centres "camps" - indefinitely, is the very negation both of the spirit and of the letter of the 1951 Convention. The granting of asylum in my opinion, cannot be regarded as an end in itself. This means, in the first place, that the States granting asylum must certainly, in their own interests, in the interest of peace and stability and in the interest of the international community generally, do all they can to integrate those of the refugees who desire integration; and in the second place that the countries able to receive those who have been unable or unwilling to remain in the country of first asylum should keep their doors wide open for these refugees, raising their quotas when necessary and continuing to apply increasingly flexible admission criteria. In this connexion, Sir, we have been extremely pleased and encouraged to note - and I had the opportunity to stress this during my statement to the ICEM Meeting quite recently - the new legislation which has been passed by the United States of America, the new immigration law which provides for a special annual refugee quota of 10,200 persons without prejudice to their possible admission under various other categories provided for under the Act.

Only thus, Mr. Chairman, will the periodic recurrence of serious and distressing problems in places where they had already been resolved be avoided in the future.

And so, Sir, we turn to Africa and Asia.

The nerve centre of our refugee situations has moved from Europe to Africa and Asia where new problems constantly emerge, as for instance, quite recently again, in the Central African Republic, in Senegal and in Zambia. Also, again without wishing to prophesy the future, one can see that the problems in and around Rhodesia and South Africa may indeed be increasingly to the fore in the future. We know also that the situations in Asia are unstable; new refugees may require the immediate action and attention of UNHCR. Therefore, from the point of view of my office, the situation in Europe has changed largely from one of material assistance needs to that of simple protection, that is, making sure that asylum seekers are given protection, that they are granted asylum, that the principle of non-refoulement is observed in countries of first asylum. And so we are coming back in a way, in this emphasis on protection rather than material assistance, to the days when the office was established in 1951 when there was no programme and where indeed the essential role of UNHCR was to grant international protection. On the other hand, in Asia and in Africa where the needs are so great, material assistance is for the time being still the most essential part of UNHCR's contribution, although, and I think this must be underlined, protection also is becoming increasingly necessary and essential in Africa. An example, provided by one of my Directors just back from Senegal, illustrates this point. A refugee qualified as a truck driver was offered a job. But because he had no residence permit he couldn't obtain a license and was thus unable to work. Legal protection in this case meant getting him the vital papers which would enable him to earn his living and support himself and his family. There is and will be a need for protection in Africa as well as in Asia. We must make sure, in those countries where political changes are occurring every day, that the refugees also there are not returned by force, against their will, to their country of origin. The principle of non-refoulement, which is so sacred in international work on behalf of refugees, must be applied everywhere, not only in Europe but also in Africa and Asia. Therefore, as legislation develops in these newly independent countries of Africa, we must be ready to make sure that the refugees are not forgotten and that, in the framework of new laws which are being formulated in these States, UNHCR can, in an advisory capacity, make sure that refugees are protected and given opportunities which equal, as nearly as possible, those of the nationals of their countries of asylum. For this reason, we have maintained, as you know, very close relations with the Organization of African Unity. While on the subject of protection, Mr. Chairman, I would like to express my satisfaction and that of my colleagues, especially those from the Legal Division, for the replies which have already reached me from the various Governments which were consulted on the draft protocol prepared last year by the seminar held at Bellagio. These replies are almost unanimous in considering it desirable to extend the scope of the 1951 Convention to persons who are the victims of events which occurred after 1 January 1951.

Also, whilst I am on the subject of protection, may I say that I have been following closely the important question of the establishment of a new fund for the indemnification of refugees who were the victims of Nazism. The Government of the Federal Republic of Germany has not yet seen its way to changing the negative decision which, for budgetary reasons, it has been compelled to take. I have drawn that Government's attention to the extremely harmful consequences which would result from the maintenance of this negative decision. I sincerely hope that a solution will soon be found for this problem in which so many Governments, and indeed so many voluntary agencies, but I think most of all the refugees themselves, are known to be so vitally interested.

Mr. Chairman, I would like to spend a little time on the new problems in Africa. I have heard it said, both here in this Committee when I was Deputy High Commissioner, and also generally in my conversations with Governments in their respective capitals, and through people who are interested in refugee work, that the problems of refugees in Africa are different from those in Europe, that perhaps these uprooted peoples are not refugees. Are we sure here in UNHCR that the type of assistance which we provide is really the one which is needed? In other words, I have found it sometimes difficult to persuade Governments that indeed, although the methods to be followed may differ, although we may have to be extremely pragmatic in looking around for ways and means to solve refugee emergencies in Africa, the problem of the refugees is fundamentally the same. These are people who have been uprooted, who fear persecution, who fear for their lives, who have gone to countries of asylum where basically the solutions to their plight remain the same, as indeed it was in Europe, that is to say: either through voluntary repatriation in due course or through integration in the country of asylum and lastly through resettlement, although in Africa resettlement has not proved to be as practical as a permanent solution as indeed it was in Europe, for various reasons of which the Committee is perfectly aware and upon which I do not want to expand. You will however remember that in certain specific cases, such as for instance with the refugees from Rwanda who had first settled in the Eastern provinces of the Congo, some were resettled, and indeed are successfully integrated today in Tanzania where they are living a normal and useful life in the Mwesi Highlands. But in Africa it has been essentially integration which has best suited the local possibilities. While therefore the actual nature of the solutions does not change, the procedures adopted, as I have said, are necessarily somewhat different from what they were in Europe, where we also had to adapt ourselves depending on the countries where we worked. These particular realities call for action which is more diversified, which is more developed in fields, as for instance in the field of emergency relief, but at the same time for those refugees who wish to integrate it is essential that we should go beyond the stage of relief. We should make sure that their integration is sufficiently consolidated through such measures such as, for instance, educational opportunities for the children, so that the refugees stay and so that they are not maintained in a permanent state of unsettlement because they have no real roots. Now in all these solutions we are assisted in Africa by the availability of land which Governments so far have been willing to place at the disposal of the refugees in a most generous way. Secondly, there is on the whole in Africa, especially for those refugees who are willing and able to establish themselves in agriculture, an absence, at least in the field of agricultural work, of legal obstacles arising from regulations designed to protect national labour, as is the case in Europe. I do not wish to be too optimistic about this, however, because we have witnessed recently an accumulation of refugees in urban centres where indeed there are legal obstacles and regulations designed to protect national labour, to a certain extent such as exist in Europe; and I think the example I just mentioned concerning Senegal in a way illustrates this. Therefore, although we have no legal obstacles in settlement on land, which for the time being is the major part of our efforts, we may still face difficulties in cities where these legal obstacles exist. Thirdly, on the positive side, I would like to make a brief reference to the fact that the ethnic origin of refugees is very frequently similar to the ethnic origin of the people in the country of asylum. This creates indeed an effective bond straight away, and, thanks to the community of language and a community of tradition, it constitutes a psychological factor of prime importance in the process of the complete and rapid assimilation of the refugees in the receiving country. Finally, I would like to say that we firmly believe in UNHCR that the refugees who have been granted asylum in Africa have often been, as in Europe or countries overseas, a useful addition to the population of the receiving country and an asset to its economic and social development.

I think that the programmes we have implemented in the Congo, had it not been for some of the upheavals as a result of the rebellion - what we have done in Burundi jointly with the ILO, what we are doing in Tanzania with the Lutheran World Federation in places like the Mwesi Highlands or Rutamba - where we have the settlement for refugees from Mozambique - this was shown that areas which up till then had not been utilized for agriculture, had not even in fact been cleared of their forests, had suddenly become very prosperous fields where crops are being grown, where food was been produced and where generally the refugees had opened up areas which so far had not been really profitable for the country . Therefore, Mr. Chairman, while difficulties to be overcome have been great in the past, as this Committee well knows, and still are great, the results are nevertheless extremely encouraging; spectacular in some cases, like the ones I mentioned, less satisfactory in others, but everywhere they provide conclusive evidence of the usefulness and necessity of co-ordinated international action to overcome the numerous refugee problems which are arising one after the other on that continent, not to speak of Asia where also there are so many signs that a development of the same kind is to be feared.

In all these efforts, UNHCR has been directed towards one objective, which has been to find as rapidly as possible permanent solutions for refugees, to avoid stagnation, to avoid the existence of pockets of misery similar to the ones which I referred to in Europe. Because of stagnation, African refugees may become a source of friction, of economic, social and political instability, which ultimately will be far more costly and difficult to resolve than if speedy and effective action is brought to bear right away.

In everything we have done, Mr. Chairman, we have tried to follow the principles and respect the rules of multilateral United Nations aid.

What are the advantages of this multilateral aid and where are they most prominently apparent?

First of all, Mr. Chairman, and distinguished delegates, at the political level this multilateral aid offers guarantees for successful co-operation because of the variety of its components and the neutralizing effect which a clearly unbiased intermediary such as UNHCR can bring about. In such a field, especially since refugees are the product of political upheaval, these are guarantees that cannot be offered by bilateral aid which, inevitably, is sometimes suspected of perhaps not being free from self-interest and from political undercurrents. Multilateral aid is therefore, I believe, more readily acceptable both to the countries of origin from where the refugees come and to the countries of asylum themselves. To the former, the countries of origin, the refugee-producing countries, because it is more easy for the High Commissioner to convince them that the assistance of the international community is not directed against the refugee producing country; and to the latter, to the host country, the country of residence, because it avoids occasions for friction between that country and the neighbouring country from where the refugees came. Also it avoids what can be sometimes interpreted inside the country as some sort of political bias or alignment towards the source from which the aid is given. Therefore, Mr. Chairman, in order to fulfil my role and to make practical use of the advantages which are inherent in this multilateral aid, I must be sure that I can meet two requirements, which in my opinion are absolutely basic: first, impartiality and neutrality, and secondly efficiency. These are the two essential principles which I would like to see govern my action in the future. Now, to be able to do this I face problems, Mr. Chairman. One of them is the fact that being non-operational I must necessarily combine my action with that of other agencies which assume responsibility in particular for the implementation of the programmes. These operational partners are in the field, they are the ones who are in contact with the refugees, and often because of the number of their staff, in contact with the government officials more than my representative who is sometimes alone in the capital doing his diplomatic work and co-ordinating the efforts of our operational partners. And so, I must appeal here to my operational partners that they also should bear in mind the criteria of impartiality, neutrality and efficiency, which I am to bear in mind if I wish this multilateral aid of the international community to be really effective. And these operational partners must remember that failure to satisfy these norms might result in the Office's own action, and indeed the prestige of the High Commissioner in terms of protecting refugees, being distorted or wrongly interpreted by the countries of asylum where my operational partners are working. The absence indeed, in Africa for instance, of organizations suitably structured and equipped for social work similar to that being accomplished daily in Europe by the very numerous agencies which have done so much, makes this choice of operational partners, and in fact sometimes the mere discovery of such an organization, extremely difficult.

My other problem, Mr. Chairman, in the implementation of this multilateral aid, is the fact that my resources are extremely limited and that I sometimes have to call for financial assistance from other sources. Indeed, my programme remains the initial nucleus for other measures which are often of much greater and much more varied scope. My action ends when the refugees attain in principle the standards of living of the local population. However, as I said in my introduction, experience has shown that this standard is in the developing countries generally insufficient for it to be possible to regard the refugees as being firmly and permanently settled. In the second stage of integration after emergency assistance both the refugees and the local population are interested in arrangements which have to be made, not only by UNHCR, but also by the competent specialized agencies of the United Nations; assistance which may itself be combined with forms of bilateral aid at the second or third stage of integration. The aim, therefore, is to find ways and means of bringing these different kinds of assistance into play, combining them if necessary and whenever possible. With regard to the United Nations assistance which might be furnished by other members of the United Nations family - I am referring here to the specialized agencies, some of which already work with us in the field - the problem of financing occurs, and its a very real one. It was raised recently in the ACC meetings which I attended, and it is a matter of great concern to me.

As I said, I firmly believe that the experience acquired in past years in Africa shows that in general the action undertaken should be carried a little further, so that it can fully bear fruit, constitute a firm and stable basis for subsequent action in the wider framework of the actual development of the countries concerned, at least of the areas inhabited by refugees, where indeed their mere presence has added to the problems which already existed in these areas.

For this reason, and although I certainly do not want this office to become operational in any way, I firmly believe that many mistakes could be avoided and will be avoided in the future if we can benefit from the sound advice of an agricultural expert, who I intend to request from FAO and who would be seconded to UNHCR, to guide us on the very difficult problem of where land is available, whether it is productive enough, how many refugees it can accommodate, how long it would take for the crops to grow, since, as you know, sometimes one crop only can be grown, at other times two. In other words, I want to make sure that the international funds with which I am entrusted are not wasted through any mistake which could have been avoided in the first stage of the integration of refugees in these host countries in Africa.

So, there is perhaps no need to insist again on the fact that it is essential that UNHCR's small programme, the catalyst around which so much else is done for refugees, that this bare nucleus should be fully financed. Despite this very pressing need, which I think is self-explanatory, we are still faced with a deficit today of $260,000 for the 1965 programme; and so far as 1966 is concerned, we have received to date, or recorded pledges, in a total amount of $2,900,000, to which must be now included the generous extraordinary contribution of Sweden of $50,000. Therefore the potential deficit for 1966 is still close to $1 million dollars, and despite the hopes which all of us place in the success of the European campaign which was discussed here during the last session, and which is mentioned in the resolution of the General Assembly making the 24th of October, United Nations Day, this year a day for refugees, I would like to urge the Committee to remember that a great deal of what will be done by the private sector during this full campaign will be done for refugees outside my programme, refugees who in fact do not necessarily come under the UNHCR mandate. They might be refugees in Vietnam, refugees in Pakistan or in India, refugees anywhere, and also they may be for specific projects which these national committees and voluntary agencies are specifically interested to fund. Therefore the programme may not be covered by the 1966 campaign, and, in any case, my own personal view is - I have said it before and I would like to say it again - that nothing can replace the support which Governments give us.

All these developments Mr. Chairman, have far reaching consequences, of course, on the internal structure and the organization and methods of UNHCR. We must strengthen our staff where the main problem exists, in Africa; we must be ready to face the need in Asia also with staff in the right places at the right time; at the same time we must also make a parallel effort to compress our administrative establishment as much as we possibly can in Europe, and we must accompany this by an effort to transfer to Governments, and particularly Governments of first asylum in Europe or voluntary organizations who have been our partners ever since the office was created, some of the tasks sometimes performed by UNHCR.

At the same time, I believe more frequent visits by my colleagues and by the High Commissioner himself to the areas where we have programmes must take place. We should also, I think, work out a procedure of direct consultation with the Executive Committee, necessitated by the circumstances today - I am referring particularly to the urgency of action needed - also bearing in mind the need to avoid too frequent meetings and too exacting a procedure for the members. Nonetheless, I think personal contact with the Executive Committee is essential.

I also would like to press for an increased activity on the part of and better co-ordination with the specialized agencies of the United Nations. I believe we will do this in a pragmatic way, with FAO in the field of agriculture which I have just referred to, with UNESCO in the field of education to assist us with their expert know-how, on how to implement education projects for refugees in Africa, etc.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, it can be deduced, I believe, that UNHCR's task is particularly heavy for an office equipped such as mine for tasks which until recently did not really extend beyond a relatively restricted geographical area. I have already placed the problem honestly and squarely - and it is becoming daily more urgent - before the Advisory Committee for Administrative and Budgetary Questions of the General Assembly. I have asked the Assembly to understand my problem. They have asked me, on the other hand, to develop my effort of administrative compression, for the sole purpose of freeing personnel hitherto employed on the European front, so that we can direct this personnel to the areas and the countries where it may reasonably be thought that the activities of UNHCR will be concentrated in the future.

I will be reviewing and considering all the steps that can best be taken to achieve these various aims, by contacts with the Governments in Europe, for instance, on the ways and means to implement what is left of major aid. I hope very sincerely that by the autumn session I will be able to deal at greater length with the situation when it has been thoroughly surveyed.

And so, Mr. Chairman, to end this statement, begging your forgiveness and that of the members of the Committee for the length of this maiden speech as High Commissioner, may I say that in all the efforts which the United Nations and the international community as a whole has been putting in for social and economic development in countries of Asia and Africa, in everything that is being done every day by Governments, by voluntary agencies alike, for these areas, my essential task, as I see it, is to ensure that the refugees there should not be forgotten; that a permanent solution can be found for their plight as rapidly as possible, that we can avoid stagnation in the future, as I firmly believe we have avoided it in the past. We can learn through the experience that we have gathered.

We must continue to try and finance at least the basic need of the programme, which in turn encourages and pump-primes the effort of the international community as a whole. Refugees can lead a normal life, can get a feeling of human dignity, can contribute to the countries of residence which have generously opened their doors to them. Indeed, through our concerted effort, these destitute human beings can cease to be refugees as rapidly as possible. Thank you.