Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

"Refugees in Asia" by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Council for Foreign Relations, New York, 6 June 1995

Speeches and statements

"Refugees in Asia" by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Council for Foreign Relations, New York, 6 June 1995

6 June 1995

I am very pleased to have this opportunity to address the Council for Foreign Relations on "Refugees in Asia". As usual the Council has chosen a subject which is at the cutting edge of international concern today.

When I became High Commissioner in 1991, UNHCR spoke of 17 million refugees in the world. Today UNHCR takes responsibility over some 27 million people uprooted by war, violence and gross violations of human rights. This number includes refugees who have been forced to flee abroad, returnees who have come home but are yet to be properly reintegrated, and people who find themselves displaced inside their own countries or otherwise affected by war and violence.

Mandated by the UN General Assembly to protect and assist refugees and to find solutions to their problems, UNHCR has been confronted in the post-Cold War world with large-scale humanitarian disasters, most recently in central Africa and the Balkans. Emergencies have been paralleled by opportunities for repatriation. Despite the uncertainties and insecurities, more than 9 million refugees have returned home in recent years.

The mixed landscape of promise and peril has brought about a major reassessment of the traditional approach to the refugee problem. Unlike the past, the international community is increasingly interested, not only in what happens to refugees after they cross a border, but why they have fled and how they can be helped to return home rapidly and safely. Coupling traditional concerns for sanctuary with a more innovative search for solutions, UNHCR has attempted to develop a strategy which promotes the prevention and solution of refugee problems together with the protection of refugees. A bias towards the country of asylum is being replaced by a focus on the country of origin.

Asian refugee problems have greatly helped to shape UNHCR's new orientation. What challenges has UNHCR faced in Asia? How did we overcome them? What lessons can we learn from our Asian experience for the prevention and solution of refugee problems around the world? These are some of the issues which I would like to address today. Given the size of the continent, the diversity of the challenges and the brevity of the time on our hands, I will take examples from two specific parts: south Asia (excluding Pakistan), and southeast Asia (including Indochina).

Although Asia is better known these days for its economic miracle, it has a long history of varied attempts at dealing with population movements. In south Asia alone some 35 to 40 million people have crossed international borders since 1947, but, with the exception of Afghan refugees, most have either returned home or have been successfully integrated in their new homes in the neighbouring countries. In southeast Asia, over the past twenty years UNHCR has protected and assisted more than two million Indochinese - Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese who fled their homes. Today, however, only 50,000 remain in camps without a durable solution. More than 1.2 million Indochinese have been resettled in the West. Over 370,000 Cambodians, some 70,0000 Vietnamese and 22,000 Laotians have returned home in recent years. The steady decline of refugee numbers in Asia, just when they are spiralling elsewhere, is a remarkable achievement which deserves both recognition and reflection.

The efforts to resolve refugee problems through a comprehensive refugee strategy have varied greatly between south Asia and southeast Asia.

Although south Asia has a long tradition of hosting and integrating large numbers of refugees, in more recent times the ethnic, communal and religious conflicts which have produced the refugees have tended to spill across borders, and sometimes fuel inter-state tensions. As one scholar put it, not only have wars produced refugees but refugees have also produced wars in this region, examples being the Indian invasion of Pakistan in 1971 after 10 million refugees fled East Pakistan, and the Indian military involvement in northern Sri Lanka in 1990. More and more governments in the region have come to realize that the real solutions lie in the home country, whether for the moslems from Myanmar, ethnic Nepalis from Bhutan, Tamils from Sri Lanka or Chakmas from Bangladesh. In addressing the problems, the tendency has been to seek bilateral agreements, with limited or belated UNHCR involvement. The repatriation of refugees has often been long and arduous, and hampered by lack of physical and material security for the returnees. Though somewhat limited in its expected role, the major challenge for UNHCR in south Asia has been to ensure voluntary repatriation while ascertaining that the basic human rights of refugees are not overlooked.

The Myanmar/Bangladesh refugee situation is a good example to show how UNHCR has sought to solve this problem rapidly. Faced with the strong pressure in Bangladesh to quickly return refugees, UNHCR felt that the only realistic solution was for the Myanmar refugees to go home, although conditions inside the country were still less than ideal. We decided to take the initiative ourselves to create and promote conditions conducive to voluntary return. We negotiated agreements with both governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar to establish our own effective presence, in Bangladesh to verify the voluntary nature of return and in the Rakhine state of Myanmar to monitor the treatment of returnees. We have also launched a number of small-scale, community based quick-impact projects in Myanmar to anchor the returnees and assist the communities which receive them. Assured by the international presence and assistance, over 190,000 persons have returned. The challenge is to ensure the durability of return through long-term socio-economic and human rights improvements, but that will require a more sustained commitment and broader involvement of the international community.

This new solution-oriented approach is also evident in Sri Lanka, where UNHCR has been monitoring and assisting Tamil refugees returning from India since the mid-1980s. When severe fighting in 1990 displaced much of the civilian population, we realized that unless we helped them they would be forced to flee to India and swell the refugee numbers. UNHCR therefore began to assist the internally displaced and established a so-called "open relief centre" in northern Sri Lanka, which is recognized by all parties to the conflict as neutral ground, free of military activities and under UNHCR's auspices. Here civilians can receive temporary sanctuary, until the fighting subsides and they are able to return home.

Activities such as these have helped to demonstrate the critical contribution which UNHCR can make in the search for solutions to refugee problems in south Asia. The fact that both Bangladesh and India requested and were elected to UNHCR's Executive Committee this year is a clear reflection of UNHCR's growing role in the sub-region.

In southeast Asia the search for durable solutions was complicated by the geo-political context, and it was only in the aftermath of the Cold War that attention shifted to the countries of origin. Unlike the refugee flows in south Asia, the Indochinese refugee problem was long considered, not simply irreversible but without much scope for regional solution. When the first boats began to arrive in Southeast Asia in 1978, the neighbouring countries feared they would be stranded with the refugees, which was unacceptable to them for economic, social and political reasons. Economically, there was no demand for surplus labour in the ASEAN states or Hong Kong. Socially, the governments feared that the refugees, who were mainly Chinese in the early days and later Vietnamese, would upset the delicate balance of the local communities and arouse historic enmities between the races. If the Laotians were treated more generously by Thailand, it was precisely because of their ethnic kinship with the host community. Politically, the ASEAN states saw the refugee outflow as a deliberate policy of the Vietnamese government to destabilize the region and refused to legitimize it by accepting the refugees. A number of states within and from outside the region actively supported the Khmer Rouge on the Thai border as a buffer against the Vietnamese-supported regime in Phnom Penh.

By 1979, more than 200,000 Vietnamese refugees had arrived in southeast Asia. In addition, Thailand received hundreds of thousands Laotians and Cambodians. The humanitarian crisis reached critical proportions when countries began pushing off overloaded boats and pushing back refugees. In an attempt to mobilize international support, UNHCR convened the International Meeting on Indochinese refugees in July 1979, at which agreement was reached that the countries in the region would admit the refugees, but only temporarily pending resettlement abroad.

Japan participated actively in the 1979 Meeting and for the first time undertook to resettle Vietnamese refugees. It also assumed one-half of the UNHCR budget required for Indochinese refugees at the time. Japan's contribution to UNHCR increased six-fold, from 10 million to 65 million in one year between 1978 and 1979. Since then Japan has remained among the top donors of UNHCR, contributing over US$ 100 million every year. A major Asian donor joined the ranks of the traditional Western donors, to be followed - I hope - by other rising Asian states.

Over the years conditions in Vietnam and Laos stabilized but the flow continued, thanks to the lure of resettlement in the West. International support waned with growing realization that the boat people were escaping, not persecution, but poverty. Resettlement quotas dwindled, while arrivals rose, leading once again to push-offs of boats, detention and abuse of asylum seekers in the late 1980s.

This time, UNHCR exploited the changed international climate to pioneer a regional arrangement, called the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), which was adopted at the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees in 1989. The objective was two-fold: to protect genuine refugees from Vietnam and Laos, and to prevent further outflow of non-refugees. The CPA placed inter-locking and mutually reinforcing obligations on the countries of origin, countries of first asylum, and the major donor and resettlement countries. UNHCR plays a crucial role in ensuring that the commitments were met. All parties have shown a remarkable degree of cooperation and political will, without which the CPA could not have been adopted nor implemented. It is clear, though, that the dynamics of US/Vietnam relations dominated, and continues to dominate the CPA.

Under the CPA, countries of asylum in the region were obliged to admit the asylum seekers but the group recognition of refugees ceased as did wholesale resettlement. Instead, the countries of first asylum established screening procedures, with UNHCR's assistance, to identify refugees according to internationally accepted criteria. Only those recognized as refugees were guaranteed resettlement by western countries. Vietnam acknowledged its responsibility towards its own citizens and agreed to take back all those whose asylum claims were rejected. UNHCR undertook to monitor all returnees in Vietnam, in order to assure their safety and create a climate of confidence. UNHCR also conducted a mass information campaign in Vietnam to inform people of the changed policies, in an effort to deter further economically-motivated departures.

Five years later, the outflow from Vietnam and Laos has virtually stopped, almost all those identified as refugees have been resettled and more than 70,000 people have returned to Vietnam, which has scrupulously respected its safety assurances. I met some of the returnees when I visited Vietnam in April 1992. The economic and social changes in that country are dramatic and deeply impressive. I left with a sense of optimism for the future, and with the hope that those still in the camps will soon return to contribute to the positive changes.

The successful repatriation of the Cambodian refugees two years ago brought an end to another tragic, and perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Indochinese exodus. As far back as 1980, UNHCR had established a presence in Phnom Penh and started voluntary repatriation but with very limited results. Shortly thereafter, Thailand introduced its policy of "humane deterrence", placing Cambodian new arrivals in camps along the border effectively under the control of the Cambodian factions. The Cambodian refugee population on the border became a pawn in the political and military strategy. Although UNHCR ran a Cambodian refugee camp inside Thailand, it did not assume responsibility for the border population, until after the Paris Peace Accords were signed. Voluntary repatriation was an integral part of the UN operation (UNTAC) which implemented the Peace Accords.

As part of a new generation of peace-keeping operations, UNTAC sought to address humanitarian and human rights issues in conjunction with the underlying political and military problems. Beginning in March 1992, ending some thirteen months later and spending over US$ 128 million, UNHCR moved 370,000 refugees from the Thai border back to areas of their choice in Cambodia, in time to participate in the UN-supervised elections. The refugees were eager to return and the movements occurred safely and voluntarily, without coercion in the camps or mistreatment on return. UNHCR monitored the situation of returnees in all parts of Cambodia, including areas under the control of the Khmer Rouge. In cooperation with UNDP, and building on our experience in central America, we launched a host of small community-based quick impact projects to help reintegrate the returnees. Today, the returnees are in no different situation than the local population, which is no mean achievement when one considers their long and difficult exile.

Although the operations in Asia have not been without controversy, whether in the context of repatriation to Myanmar or Vietnam, the achievements have been remarkable. What conclusions can we draw from them for a comprehensive refugee strategy?

First and foremost, a flexible interpretation of responsibilities. Principles need to be interpreted imaginatively and applied pragmatically. Successive General Assembly resolutions have expanded the flexibility of our response, beginning with the General Assembly resolution in 1957 authorizing the High Commissioner to use his "good offices" to assist hundreds of thousands of Chinese flooding in Hong Kong. It enabled us to help the victims without running into legal and political difficulties arising from the existence of "two Chinas". The role we played in the CPA, Cambodia, Sri Lanka or Myanmar have shown how resilient our mandate can be with imaginative, yet judicious handling. Our capacity to evolve and innovate is fundamental to our ability to promote comprehensive responses in a rapidly changing world.

Secondly, the need to address the plight of the internally displaced. Today refugees are part of a larger picture of displacement. As Sri Lanka has shown, responding to the internally displaced helps to contain refugee situations and can even facilitate conditions conducive to the return of refugees. It is an essential component of a more comprehensive approach to refugee problems, as is evident from our involvement in Bosnia, the Caucasus, Tajikistan and parts of Africa.

Thirdly, an effective and early presence. International presence is one of the most practical means of protecting returning refugees and internally displaced persons, and has often proved to be an important confidence-building measure. UNHCR staff not only observe and report human rights violations, but act upon them by seeking remedial action from the concerned authorities. Without the assurance of protection, solutions cannot be pursued effectively, as we saw in the case of the Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh.

Fourthly, temporary protection abroad. Asylum must remain a possibility even if it is not permanent. The concept of temporary refuge in mass influx situations was first recognized in the context of the Indochinese refugees. Today that concept is being widely applied in Europe to provide temporary protection to large numbers of refugees from former Yugoslavia. Through such a concept, refugees can find the sanctuary they badly need, while governments can afford to be more generous in the knowledge of the temporary nature of their burden.

Fifthly, rehabilitation of post-conflict societies. The reintegration of refugees depends on the socio-economic recovery of their home countries. UNHCR's quick-impact projects in Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar have helped to reduce somewhat the gap between relief and development. However, our efforts are limited and cannot address the enormous rehabilitation and development needs of post-conflict societies like Cambodia. Unless there is the commitment, capacity and resources to tackle these diverse and difficult challenges, refugee solutions will remain at best fragile, at worst elusive.

Finally, the need for an integrated approach. Cambodia demonstrated the critical importance of placing refugee issues within a larger strategy of peace-making and human rights. For UNHCR close cooperation with UN's political operations is essential because it is only through political initiatives that the conflicts and violence which create refugee problems can be addressed. Humanitarian action can buy time and space for political action. It can consolidate peace, for instance through the return of refugees. But it cannot be a substitute for political action.

To sum up: what we have learned in Asia is of major significance for our global humanitarian challenges. In Asia, we learned to forsake old assumptions and fashion new concepts. We learned to mix action with imagination. Most importantly of all, we learned to work with a wide range of governmental and non-governmental partners. Together we have overcome some of the largest and longest refugee flows ever. I think Asian governments, the refugees and the international community can be justly proud of Asia's amazing "humanitarian miracle".