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Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the International Days of Older Persons, Geneva, 3 October 1997

Speeches and statements

Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the International Days of Older Persons, Geneva, 3 October 1997

3 October 1997

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to be here at the opening session of the International Days of Older Persons organized by GINA and the State of Geneva. Once again, Geneva is demonstrating its leadership by organizing this important event and drawing the attention of the public to contributions by and issues facing older persons. Even in my own Office, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I feel the need to increase our efforts at improving awareness, policy planning and projects for older refugees.

The elderly are among the most invisible groups of refugees and displaced persons. I hope to change that.

Becoming a refugee is a traumatic experience for any person, but I believe much more so for the elderly. Can you imagine what it means to watch your house being shelled to pieces, all your possessions going up in flames, and, most traumatically, the killing of your sons, daughters, and grandchildren? A lifetime of work, achievements and care being destroyed by an evil turn of history. Often, the only option remaining is to flee, to seek asylum and protection elsewhere, and to become dependent on the goodwill of strangers for the most basic necessities. Following years of hard work, this is a humiliating experience.

The suffering of elderly refugees was dramatically brought home to me during my many visits to Bosnia and Herzegovina. I was struck by the dozens of elderly women in black staring empty into the distance, as if life already left them, in each reception centre I visited. Many, when I talked to them, had tears rolling down their lined faces asking, "When can I return home?" Others could no longer bear to show their emotions. I felt deeply frustrated at being unable to console them or to bring even a ray of hope. I knew that for many among them peace would come too late and that they would not be able to return to their homes and loved ones.

In Rwanda, too, elderly refugees have suffered immensely. Following the 1994 torrent of genocidal killings leaving more than half a million people dead, some two million Rwandans fled to the neighbouring countries of ex-Zaire and Tanzania. Estimates indicated that some ten per cent of the camp population were over 50 years old. Many had lost family, their traditional support system, and instead were taking care of the grandchildren. Malnutrition was high among the older refugees as they could not walk long distances in search of fuelwood and water. During the initial phases of the emergency, their needs were often not recognised and their cries for assistance not heard. Consequently, many passed away anonymously in the camps or along roads still clutching their possessions in meagre bundles. In other instances, they were left behind as they were perceived as being a burden by the young, condemned to a certain death at the hands of nature or marauding rebels and soldiers.

Our experiences in the former Yugoslavia and the Great Lakes region of Africa demonstrate an urgent need to develop comprehensive policies toward elderly people as an integral part of our responses to humanitarian emergencies:

First, we need to assess the special protection needs of older persons. By protection I refer not only to physical safety, but also to steps to be taken to ensure that older persons can exercise their rights in a broad sense. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, among the major issues of concern are the rights of older persons to repossess their property or to seek financial compensation, and to obtain access to their savings and pensions.

Second, special attention must be given to the assistance needs of older persons. In many countries emerging from conflict, the social welfare system has collapsed, denying health care and pensions. In Armenia, for example, 65,000 older refugees from Nagorno Karabakh live in appalling conditions. The average pension amounts to approximately seven Swiss Francs each month. The lack of adequate housing is often a major issue. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, UNHCR is repairing and building homes for the elderly. It is also important that, from the outset of any humanitarian emergency, mechanisms be put into place allowing older people to express themselves, to raise their voices and to contribute their knowledge and skills. They should be fully involved in community development programmes. In return for assistance and shelter, they can contribute, for example, toward the care of unaccompanied children or assist households headed by single women. Others can teach crafts and trades to younger people. I believe that it is essential that older persons are not seen and do not see themselves as a burden or liability to their families and the community.

Third, we must create public awareness about the suffering and needs of older persons among the refugees. Here, I believe that many of you can play a role and make contributions. During my many visits to refugee camps, I have met retired doctors, nurses or people with special skills offering their services to the less fortunate among us. I admire their commitment and resourcefulness. Volunteering your skills and time to help others means a lot. You may also add your voice to calls for renewed efforts to alleviate human suffering.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Whether refugees or not, older persons have an important role to play in all societies They are a resource, not a burden. They are often the fundamental link between the past and the future, transmitting norms and values from one generation to the next. They should be respected. From the perspective of my Office, older persons have a pivotal role to play in the reconciliation of conflict-torn communities through, for example, settling disputes.

I would like to appeal for a greater understanding of the plight of older refugees. Awareness falls, however, short if not linked to concrete action. I hope that in your discussions today, you will give attention to the older refugees and examine ways of how to assist and to protect them.