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"Refugees Between Conflict and Conciliation" - Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Symposium "Peace is the Name of God" organized by the community of Sant'Egidio, Padua, 5 October 1997

Speeches and statements

"Refugees Between Conflict and Conciliation" - Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Symposium "Peace is the Name of God" organized by the community of Sant'Egidio, Padua, 5 October 1997

5 October 1997

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to begin by greeting our hosts, the Community of Sant'Egidio, whose invaluable work for peace and reconciliation I admire and respect. In many countries throughout the world, the Community's efforts to put an end to conflicts have been an indispensable premise to our own action. Mozambique, of course, is the example which comes immediately to my mind . We could not have assisted about 1.7 million refugees return home had the civil war not been stopped. We all know the essential role played by the Community there, as in many other conflict-torn countries.

I would like to provide you today with some thoughts on the theme of 'conflict and conciliation' seen from the perspective of an organisation whose primary mandate is the protection of refugees. Refugees - indeed - straddle the boundary between conflict and conciliation. Nothing defines better the essence of their precarious and exposed life. The fine line between these two opposite concepts also underpins one of the most difficult tasks of my Office: turn refugees and displaced persons away from conflict, and help them become instruments of conciliation.

The relatively simple geopolitical schemes of the Cold War have collapsed, unveiling a much more intricate web of tensions - ethnic and religious problems, grave social inequalities, competition over scarce resources - fuelling internal conflict in many parts of the world. Since I have become United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1991, a time of great hopes and expectations, my Office has had to face some of the most intractable refugee crises in its history: the Kurdish exodus from Northern Iraq in 1991, the huge displacements of populations in the former Yugoslavia, a succession of refugee tragedies in the Great Lakes region of Africa since October 1993, just to mention the gravest emergencies in which UNHCR has been involved.

Our objective, as I have said, must be to turn conflict into peaceful encounter. In countries of asylum, this means helping hosting communities create an environment which is not hostile to refugees; in what we call 'countries of origin' - their own countries - it means giving returnees the means to contribute to peace and stability when they repatriate.

The task is particularly complex in asylum countries, and especially, as I have pointed out, in regions where refugees are a cause for instability. Internal conflicts almost inevitably cause the forced displacement of populations. Thus, refugees and internally displaced persons are very frequently the victims of conflict. But we must recognize that in many instances, refugees can become a cause of further conflict - to be more accurate, their presence often compounds existing tensions, bringing them to the bursting point. Refugees can also be used and manipulated by conflicting parties in countries of asylum. The most striking current example is the case of Rwandans in ex-Zaire. They fled conflict at home. Some were actually responsible for that conflict - worse, for the genocide that compounded it. They were assisted in camps, but the perpetrators of genocide used genuine refugees as shields, and utilized relief assistance to mount terrorist attacks in Rwanda. The very existence of camps was one of the igniting factors of the civil war in ex-Zaire. Rwandan refugees have been a highly destabilizing factor in the region and this crisis has affected the attitude of regional governments towards refugees, undermining a solid tradition of asylum in Africa.

There are other ways in which refugees can be part of a conflictual situation in countries of asylum. In Europe, for example, widespread social and economic problems contribute to transforming the perception of refugees from victims in need of protection to competitors for scarce jobs, housing, and social benefits. The inextricable mingling of refugees and economic migrants compounds this problem in the public eye, and worsens the erosion of the concept and practice of asylum.

During the Cold War, humanitarian principles - notably the principle of asylum - by and large coincided with international security interests. The situation has now changed. What seems increasingly important is to convince states that their own security is not threatened by the presence of refugees - indeed, that the security of people, including refugees, is compatible with the security of states themselves. Although this may appear a paradox, it is also by adhering to humanitarian standards that the security of people and that of states can be made compatible with each other. Some examples may be useful: refugee settlements should be kept at a reasonable distance from borders; military elements should not be allowed to remain with refugees; wherever possible, refugees should be given the right to work in the country of asylum, thus providing their communities, as much as feasible, with legal economic opportunities, and diminishing their dependency on free aid - almost invariably an element of instability. Our experience tells us that in every situation where these standards have not been applied, not only have refugees been denied their rights, but security and stability have been affected as a consequence.

I believe that it is still possible to help refugees integrate in host communities, although in traditional areas of long-term asylum, such as in Africa, this is becoming increasingly difficult due to dire economic problems. We must insist on the actual economic contribution which very often refugees make to countries giving them asylum. On the other hand, it is essential to re-emphasize the need to help communities hosting refugees, particularly in certain areas which are more affected: the environment comes immediately to mind, but health, education and public infrastructure are also important. More integrated assistance programmes involving both refugees and nationals are necessary if we are to foster peaceful coexistence. It is essential also to enhance programmes aimed at rehabilitating regions affected by the presence of refugees after these have left: the economic, social and environmental burden on host countries often continues beyond the departure of refugees, while the interest of donors wanes.

Refugees and displaced persons do not tread the fine line between conflict and conciliation only in countries where they have been given asylum. I must stress that voluntary repatriation continues to remain UNHCR's preferred solution to refugee problems. However, we are increasingly being confronted by cases in which, for a variety of reasons, refugees return to situations which are only partly stabilized - they sometimes return to conflict in their country of origin. They may indeed become part of that conflict. In this respect, the example of Rwanda is again very telling - but repatriations to countries where some areas were insecure have occurred elsewhere, for example in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Somalia.

I would like to provide two more concrete examples. Since the Dayton peace accords, pressure has been mounting in certain European states for Bosnian refugees to return to their country, although under the circumstances - particularly for those whose ethnic group represents a minority in their area of origin - it may appear premature to promote voluntary repatriation. In other instances, UNHCR may simply not have the choice any longer: to mention again the example of ex-Zaire, the alternatives after November 1996 were to leave Rwandan refugees in a life-threatening situation in the country of asylum, or rescue them and evacuate them to provinces in Rwanda where we could not monitor their reintegration, let alone guarantee their security.

The relation between realities on the ground and the need to uphold certain basic principles means that we are increasingly confronted with very difficult dilemmas. Indeed, the theme of the annual meeting of UNHCR's governing body, the Executive Committee, which starts in Geneva next week, will this year be 'Repatriation Challenges'. One particular aspect of the debate on repatriation which I wish to emphasize today, and which appears to me as key to any discussion on how the refugee issue can be perceived constructively, is the need to link the reintegration of returnees in their own country with what we have defined 'conciliation' - better still, with what, in a context of return, I would prefer to term 'reconciliation' of communities, of people, divided by conflict. In this respect, allow me to conclude my remarks with a few points of reflection.

Reconciliation is not limited to a political solution, as Dayton and Arusha have shown in different but comparable ways. Too often, reconciliation is seen only as the possibility for all components of a community to enjoy the same political or legal rights. This is essential, but for a community to live in real peace, its components must be further and more deeply reconciled. A culture of peace can be fostered through education, for example, or through the provision of economic opportunities to the poorer strata of society, amongst which are often the returnees.

As I said at the beginning, the end of the Cold War has created uncertainty and instability. We must continue hoping, though, that the dismantlement of a system of opposing ideologies and proxy wars will eventually interrupt the recurrence of large forced human displacements, and of refugee emergencies. The time has come to invest more in the reintegration of returnees in their communities. More resources, more energy must be devoted to reconciliation. I wish to commit my Office to pursuing these tasks even more decisively than in the past, in closer cooperation with Governments, UN agencies, churches and NGOs.

These efforts, however, should not make us forget my last point, which I consider essential. Reconciliation is first and foremost about human beings. A reconciled society is one where Bosnian and Rwandan children do not think of their classmates as Muslims or Hutus, but as fellow Bosnians or Rwandans. Reconciliation, therefore, is ultimately forgiveness - this bravest, most difficult gesture which alone can eventually heal the wounds of hatred. By way of conclusion, let me quote Pope John Paul II: "Solidarity," he said in Sarajevo last April, "can become a reality only if it is built on forgiveness. For peace to be stable, after so much blood and hatred, it will have to be built upon the courage to forgive."

Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen.