Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

"Refugees: Lessons from the past" - Richard Storry Memorial Lecture, presented by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at St. Anthony's College, Oxford, 5 May 1993

Speeches and statements

"Refugees: Lessons from the past" - Richard Storry Memorial Lecture, presented by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at St. Anthony's College, Oxford, 5 May 1993

5 May 1993

It is indeed a great honour and pleasure to deliver the Richard Storry Memorial Lecture. Standing on the podium of St. Anthony's College, I am reminded of days gone by. It is thirty years since my husband and I lived in London. Professor Storry always kindly invited us to lectures and university functions and we took every opportunity to drive out to Oxford. Professor Storry was a great benefactor for Japanese academics. He invited many outstanding historians. I recall with great nostalgia the presence of Professors Maruyana Masao and Oke Yoshitake - my most revered intellectual and research mentors - at St. Anthony's College.

My first encounter with Professor Storry was in connection with his masterpiece, The Double Patriots - A Study of Japanese Nationalism. The nature of Japanese military radicalism was an issue that absorbed all students of modern Japanese history in the 1950s. I gained much insight from Professor Storry's analysis of the thought and behaviour of military reform advocates. I wrote my own dissertation on the political power change and policy shift resulting from the rise of the military in the course of the Manchurian Affair.

Today I have chosen to discuss the refugee issue because it lies at the cutting edge of international concern, and it is what I am concentrating on daily as UN High Commissioner for Refugees. As the world gropes for a new political and economic equilibrium, as historic hatreds are unleashed, as old power structures crumble and new ones are yet to form, as the gap between the rich and poor widens, as demographic pressures grow, the phenomenon of displacement has taken on frightening proportions, as much within borders as across them. In the course of the past year alone, my Office mounted emergency programmes for 3 million people in the former Yugoslavia, for 260,000 refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh, for some 420,000 refugees in Kenya, mainly from Somalia. In early December we sent emergency teams to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. In recent weeks we have had to cope with the influx of some 200,000 refugees from Togo into Benin and Ghana.

During that same period of 12 months we have helped more than 1.5 million refugees to return home voluntarily - more than a million to Afghanistan, 300,000 to Cambodia, tens of thousands to Ethiopia. On 30 March I travelled to Thailand to close down the last of the Cambodian refugee camps. In a few months time we will be embarking on an ambitious plan to repatriate 1.5 million Mozambican refugees. But this optimism must be tempered with the reality that many refugees are returning to situations of devastation and conditions of uncertainty, sometimes even insecurity, threatening the durability of repatriation and reintegration.

As the weight and complexity of today's refugee problems confront us with new challenges, and as we develop new strategies to meet them, I believe it is useful to gain a historical perspective on the issue. By looking back we may be better able to understand and cope with what lies ahead. Therefore, my lecture, while focusing on the refugee issue from a contemporary perspective, will try to draw lessons from the past. I will examine the ways in which international protection of and solidarity for refugees has evolved, and how novel responses have been developed, with particular reference to the problems in Southeast Asia and the contribution of Japan, in respect for Professor Storry.

In the past, as at present, refugee movements were caused by war and upheaval in society, whether political, religious or ethnic. The ancient practice of granting sanctuary in holy places reflected respect for the deity and the Church, while the grant of asylum by kings, republics and free cities was a consequence of territorial sovereignty. In both cases, asylum was used, not only as a measure of sympathy for the plight of the individual, but also as a tool to further social or political aims and interests. As the power of the monarchy grew, and that of the Church somewhat waned, the State usurped the right to grant asylum. The practice of granting "internal asylum" in holy places declined, with absolute monarchies enjoying absolute prerogative over the grant of asylum.

The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which forced thousands of Huguenots to flee France, marks the beginning of the modern tradition of asylum in Europe. It was followed by the issuance of the Edict of Potsdam by the Marquis of Brandenburg, allowing the settlement of the Huguenots in his territory. Similar Acts by other States established the policy of granting asylum on the basis of religious persecution. After the French Revolution a new category of refugees - based on political rather than religious grounds - came into being. In Asia, in the seventh century, many refugees escaping from warfare in the Korean peninsula were given asylum in Japan.

With the growth of nationalism, the rise of political movements and the breakup of empires, political persecution became a reason for seeking and receiving asylum in Asia as well as Europe. Although the Chinese empire never disintegrated into multiple nation states, the possibility of a "Chinese partition" was the central issue in East Asian international relations at the turn of the 19th century and into the twentieth century. Political movements in China produced political exiles. Both reformists and revolutionaries, notably Sun Yat Sen, sought asylum in Japan where they were supported and from where they launched their revolutionary movements.

Chinese revolutionaries were not the only ones who were protected by the Japanese political leaders. At varying times, leaders of nationalist movements in Indochina, India and the Philippines received arms and money as well as asylum. Those Japanese political activists who provided assistance to Asian nationalists were themselves nationalists motivated by the desire to liberate Asian countries from western colonial domination. Granting asylum was a highly political act but was generally tolerated as long as Japan's bilateral relations were not overly strained with the countries of origin of the refugees.

Thus, asylum continued to be viewed more as a prerogative of the Sovereign than as a protection for the individual. Until the early part of this century this did not create serious problems. Political offenders were exempted from the ambit of extradition treaties. Most refugees were generously received and easily integrated. Many of the European refugees found homes in the new territories, where labour demands were great.

The situation dramatically changed in the prelude to and aftermath of the First World War, as hundreds of thousands of people were dislocated by war or fled devastation and persecution in the wake of the breakup of empires. By 1922 economic devastation resulting from the war, the collapse of the Russian empire, the onslaught of famine and the coming of the Russian revolution had forced more than 1.5 million people to flee Russia. Some 100,000 White Russians sought safety in China and some among them later made their way to Japan and other Asian countries.

The landscape of displacement in the early part of this century was not dissimilar to the one we are witnessing today in the Balkans and further east. Not unlike present times, displacement in one part of the continent was accompanied by disinclination in other parts to receive the displaced. Receiving countries who were themselves burdened with problems of reconstruction following the war, by growing unemployment and political unrest, were reluctant to admit or allow large numbers to remain. Bilateral efforts to transfer refugees from one country to another failed as Governments began to restrict immigration out of economic, political and strategic considerations.

Realising that the refugee problem had transcended national and bilateral interests and had become a matter of international concern, the League of Nations appointed Dr. Fridtjof Nansen in August 1921 as the High Commissioner for Refugees in Europe. Through the appointment of the High Commissioner and the subsequent adoption of international conventions on refugees, the foundations of international responsibility for refugees were finally laid. Dr. Nansen's most widely known achievement was the agreement on travel documents for refugees, the "Nansen passport" which is the forerunner of today's Convention Travel Document for refugees. His contribution to humanitarianism is commemorated every year through the Nansen award which recognises outstanding service and commitment to the cause of refugees.

Until the Nansen passport came about, refugees had no travel documents of international recognition, which hampered their ability to move in search of new homes. Nor could they repatriate without fear of retaliation. Refugees had always been vulnerable but their predicament was made worse by the growth of the nation-state. Under the inter-state system of international law the protection of individuals is ensured by their link to their country of nationality. Refugees who flee their country have lost their national protection and have no claim on the protection of other states. They are thus a legal anomaly.

This absence of national protection has remained the basic criterion for refugee status and the raison d'être of international concern since 1921 to this day. International arrangements which were adopted during the inter-war years, however, sought to limit the scope of international responsibility by defining refugees in terms of specific ethnic or national groups from Europe - such as Russians, Assyrians, Greeks, Turks, Spaniards or German Jews - who were in need of international protection on the basis of the objective situation in their country of origin. It was not until after the horrors of the Second World War that refugees came to be seen as a universal concern, as individuals, rather than groups, who require protection from the excesses of the State. The onset of the Cold War gave greater political meaning to the concept of a refugee as an individual who is in conflict with his national government because of his beliefs. Thus when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established in 1951, the Office was given a universal mandate to protect refugees, who were defined as all those who are outside their own country and who have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of social group.

The UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was also drafted in 1951. Article 33 of the Convention, by prohibiting the return of a refugee to a territory where his life or freedom would be threatened, created the first legal restriction on the sovereign right to grant or refuse asylum. Article 35 of the Convention bestows on the High Commissioner supervisory powers over the implementation of the Convention, making it a powerful tool of international protection. Today there are 114 States party to the Convention. The most recent accessions to the Convention have been by some of the East European and CIS countries, including Russia in February 1993. Relatively few Asian States are parties to the Convention but among them are China, Japan, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and South Korea.

Despite the individualistic concept of a refugee, the High Commissioner had to concern himself from an early stage with refugees on a group basis. Indeed, the very first challenge came from Asia, notably the exodus of Chinese refugees to Hong Kong in 1957. Because of the existence of "two Chinas", these refugees could not be deemed to have lost protection of their country of nationality, and thus fell outside the High Commissioner's mandate. The problem was solved by the General Assembly authorising the High Commissioner to use his "good offices" in relation to this group of refugees. The concept of "good offices" gave the High Commissioner the flexibility to assist specified groups of refugees without having to pronounce on their legal status as refugees.

In the years which followed, the concept of "good offices" was developed in conjunction with "prima facie group determination" of refugees to allow UNHCR to assist refugees on the basis of an objective evaluation of the situation in the country of origin. There was a similarity between this approach and that applied in respect of the various groups dealt with under the League of Nations. In addition to de-politicising certain situations, large groups of refugees in Asia and Africa could be assisted which would have been administratively impossible if individual determinations had to be made.

The endorsement by the UN General Assembly of UNHCR's activities on behalf of groups as well as individual refugees, and later in 1972, its authorisation for UNHCR to extend its humanitarian expertise to other situations at the request of the UN Secretary-General are indicative of the flexibility and pragmatism which have always marked the international response to the refugee problem. These General Assembly decisions have allowed UNHCR to adapt itself to the changing humanitarian concerns over the four decades of its existence. In recent years it has allowed UNHCR to become increasingly involved with the protection and assistance of internally displaced persons, including at present in Bosnia-Herzegovina and northern Sri Lanka.

If the scope of international responsibility for refugees has changed in the course of this century, so has the nature of asylum. Throughout the Cold War the response to the refugee problem was premised on the non-return of refugees to countries under communist regime. The only major cases in which refugees were able to return to their own countries were those of African and Asian countries which gained independence as a result of decolonisation. Asylum therefore was therefore not only a measure of protection but also a form of solution offering local integration. Indeed, the provisions on social and economic rights contained in the 1951 Refugee Convention are designed to facilitate integration of refugees in the receiving state. However, the very large number of refugees which began to pour out in the late 1970s and in the 1980s, as well as the growing recognition of human rights, particularly that of the right to return and the obligation of States towards their citizens, helped to modify the principle of asylum.

The Indochinese refugee problem, which began in the 1970s, was the first to challenge the permanency of asylum. It also established mechanisms of burden-sharing and pioneered new approaches to solving refugee problems. Because of the important precedents they have created let me briefly explain these three aspects.

Firstly, on the development of burden-sharing mechanisms on the basis of international solidarity. By 1979, more than 200,000 Vietnamese refugees had arrived in Southeast Asia. The humanitarian crisis reached critical proportion as countries of asylum in the region began to push off overloaded boats. In an attempt to mobilise international support, UNHCR convened the International Meeting on Indochinese refugees in July 1979, at which 65 countries participated, including Vietnam and the countries most immediately affected in the region. Recognising the burden which countries in the region were having to shoulder and the need for international solidarity if a humanitarian disaster was to be avoided, other countries not only generously offered to contribute funds for the upkeep of the refugee camps, but also pledged to increase the resettlement of the Indochinese refugees in their own countries. Over the next decade or so, more than one million people were resettled, mainly in western countries, 700,000 of them from the refugee camps in southeast Asia and the rest directly from Vietnam, as part of the Orderly Departure Programme for family reunion and other humanitarian reasons. It has been the largest resettlement programme ever organised by UNHCR.

Japan's involvement in international refugee issues can also be traced to the inception of the Indochinese refugee problem in the 1970s. Japan participated actively in the 1979 Meeting and for the first time undertook resettlement of Vietnamese refugees. It 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.

The second point is in relation to asylum. By pledging to resettle very large numbers of Indochinese refugees from camps in Southeast Asia, the international community accepted the concept of temporary refuge in mass influx situations. Consequently, countries in the region were obliged only to disembark and receive the Vietnamese refugees, not to retain them permanently. The notion of temporary refuge was endorsed by the Executive Committee of UNHCR in 1981. It obliges States to admit asylum-seekers and treat them humanely until such time as a durable solution can be found for them elsewhere. It does not require them to accord the spectrum of rights which go with extended residence, such as employment, education and so on. Today that concept of temporary refuge is gaining support in Europe as a legitimate tool of international protection to deal with large numbers of refugees fleeing persecution, war and violence in Former Yugoslavia. The basic principles of temporary protection include admission, respect for non-refoulement or non-return to danger, humanitarian treatment, and repatriation when conditions so allow in the country of origin. 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.

The third aspect is a more recent one relating to the search for solutions to refugee problems. Taking advantage of the new climate of cooperation, UNHCR pioneered a regional arrangement in Southeast Asia to resolve an exodus which had lingered on for more than a decade. Over the years the nature of the exodus from Vietnam had changed. Most of those who were leaving Vietnam in late 1980s were escaping not so much persecution as poverty caused by the post-war socialist economy. The challenge was to device a response which preserved protection for refugees while assuring a humanitarian solution for non-refugees.

The answer was the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), adopted at the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees in 1989. Like the previous agreement on Indochinese refugees, it was based on commitments of the country of origin as well as the countries of asylum and resettlement, and involved UNHCR in a key role. Unlike the previous agreement, its objective was to stop the flow, and not only to meet humanitarian needs. It promoted a strategy of complementing protection outside the country of origin with preventive and solution-oriented activities in the country of origin. This focus on the country of origin was a novel approach in a world which was only just beginning to grasp the consequences of the end of the Cold War on refugee policies and practices. Under the CPA countries of asylum in the region were obliged to admit the asylum seekers but the policy of group recognition of all Vietnamese boat people as refugees was ended as was the policy of blanket resettlement. Instead procedures and criteria, based on the 1951 Refugee Convention, were introduced to differentiate refugees from others leaving Vietnam for primarily economic reasons. Only those recognised as refugees were guaranteed resettlement by western countries, and all those whose asylum claims were rejected had to return to Vietnam. The novel feature of the CPA was the responsibility of UNHCR to monitor in Vietnam the situation of all those who went back, in order to assure their safety and create a climate of confidence. This was the first time that an international organisation created for refugees provided a form of protection to non-refugee nationals in their own country. Another new function undertaken by UNHCR was a mass information campaign in Vietnam to better inform people of their options under the CPA, as part of a preventive strategy. In an effort to ameliorate some of the root causes of the departure, the European Community and Japanese NGOs undertook, in parallel to the CPA, training and assistance programmes, targeting areas from which people have left and to which they will return.

The CPA has succeeded in the sense that the outflow from Vietnam has virtually stopped but the durability of the solution will depend ultimately on the ability and willingness of the international community to address the root causes of movement in a more comprehensive manner.

The CPA has been an interesting experiment, creating a "package" of measures geared to a particular regional refugee problem in a way which strikes a balance between the interests of affected States and the needs of the individuals concerned. We have profitably used the experience of the CPA in other parts of the world, notably in Europe. In July last year, UNHCR launched a Comprehensive Humanitarian Response at the International Conference for Humanitarian Aid to Victims of Conflict in the Former Yugoslavia. Like the CPA, the Comprehensive Response complemented activities in the country of asylum with those in the country of origin. It included the protection of human rights and humanitarian law as well as the provision of international assistance to people so that they are not forced to flee their country, together with temporary protection outside the country for those who do leave. Like its precursors in 1979 and 1989, the Conference on former Yugoslavia and its Follow-up Committee have been invaluable in mobilizing international support for our humanitarian work in Former Yugoslavia.

In conclusion, it is evident from the earliest practice of sanctuary in Churches to the modern day developments on temporary refuge, that traditional approaches to asylum have been constantly complemented by flexible and innovative measures to balance the humanitarian needs of refugees with the political interests of States. Through this process a universal system of fundamental principles and values have developed, to which Asia has contributed its own experience of asylum, solidarity and regional cooperation for the benefit of refugees. There is much to learn from the Asian experience as we seek to meet the complex challenges of humanitarian action in a turbulent world.