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Statement by Mr. Douglas Stafford, Officer-in-Charge of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 15 November 1990

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Statement by Mr. Douglas Stafford, Officer-in-Charge of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 15 November 1990

15 November 1990

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished Delegates, ladies and gentlemen;

It's an honour for me to address you today, as Officer-in-Charge of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The honour is mixed with sadness due to the recent departure of Thorvald Stoltenberg for the post of High Commissioner. He was the new wind that the Organization needed. He set in motion many changes. Our annual Executive Committee Session this October reaffirmed the soundness of his policies and urged their continuation. My charge is to sustain the Organization's new momentum.

If I may single out one world which dominated our work over the last year, it would be scarcity. No, not scarcity of refugees, but scarcity of every other resource. You may know that in 1980, UNHCR had twice as many resources for each refugee that it has in 1990 - the reason being that while resources have remained stable around US$ 500 million, the number of refugees have more than doubled - from 7 million in 1980 to today's 15 million. For the first time in our history, we had over and funded a long with our 1990 programme. That deficit - which we will absorb by the end of this year - represented fully 10% of our target budget. The only way we could cope with this financial crisis was by cutting refugee programmes and administration costs to bare essentials.

These programme-cutting exercises are not simply about writing and re-writing projects until the bottom line adds up. They are not exercises in book-keeping. Rather, they are about not meeting many of our obligations. Obligations towards human beings who do not choose their plights. And obligations to share the burden with impoverished host countries who generously continue to share their poverty with refugees. I want to stress this point to you: UNHCR does not have the luxury of selecting its projects. We can't determine whom we'd like to help; we can't choose a suitable target population or development project. Our constituents are selected for us. They are composed of all the refugees under our mandate and no matter how many they may be, our funds must somehow stretch to cover their needs.

If only it were like the parable of the loaves and the fish, where limited resources stretched forever. Unfortunately, we have had to give priority to immediate needs, what we call life-sustaining activities. An unfortunate term, perhaps, but nevertheless descriptive. For lack of money, we have had be postpone durable solutions: - For example, organized repatriation from Malawi to Mozambique, or local integration in Somalia. We haven't been able to put the necessary money into education - because it is no considered 'life-sustaining'. We haven't been able adequately to maintain vehicles, camp infrastructure, or food buffer stocks. One only needs to spend a few days in Malawi to see how the refugee programme has damaged the roads and destroyed the forests of this generous asylum country.

While slashing into existing refugee programmes, we've been hit by fresh crises; for example, the exodus of refugees from Liberia. Today, over 720,000 Liberian refugees are outside their country, most of them in Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Sierra Leone, with smaller numbers in Ghana and Nigeria. After a slow start, our funding appeals were successful, but as refugees numbers grow, so does the need for funds.

More recently several thousand refugees have fled Rwanda for neighbouring counties. UNHCR sent a high-level mission to the region last month and is in close contact with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity and with interested governments, to offer any help we can in finding a comprehensive solution to a refugee problems that has been allowed to last for three decades.

My point, Mr. Chairman, is that we can never decline a refugee crisis, saying: no, this situation is extra-budgetary. No, we didn't project these needs. UNHCR's role is simply to step in and try to meet those needs, wherever and whenever they occur.

The report of the board of auditors to the General Assembly on the accounts of our voluntary funds for 1989 takes up the resource issue. The audit report states, "the ability of UNHCR adequately to respond to its mandate of providing assistance to refugees is limited by its mandate of providing assistance to refugees is limited by its capacity to raise voluntary funds in a systematic and timely manner. The establishment of effective funding arrangements is therefore a necessity"

Indeed, UNHCR is an organization without financial security, with no guaranteed income for refugee operations, with a constant uncertainty as to whether the next refugee crisis can be met. Event as I speak, we still require another 23 million US dollars to fund our general programmes. It is no exaggeration that we will not know whether or not we have survived the financial year until the 31st of December.

The unpredictability of our funding must be addresser. If it is not, no long-range planning will be possible and we will be unable to face refugee emergencies in a responsive way when they occur.

For 1991, our Executive Committee has approved a target of 345.5 million US dollars. We hope that this figure will meet our needs. We can never be certain. But we need to know that this income, at least, is reasonably predictable. You can put our programmes at the forthcoming Pledging Conference taking place here next Tuesday. We are appealing not only to the traditional donors who have seen us and the refugees through so often, but also to the emerging new economic powers who have not previously assisted UNHCR and the world's refugees. We need your help badly.

Today the world's refugees population is approximately 15 million people. It's a shocking and daunting number of people who don's enjoy the protection of their own governments - of people who are, one might say, orphans, under international law. For every refugee, there is a solution, of political will, money and patience, can be found to make it happen. Happily, it happened for some in 1990. UNHCR brought home some 43,000 Namibian exiles. Chilean refugees returned to their homeland in larger numbers than ever before. Despite difficulties, over 175,000 Afghans returned home from Pakistan and Iran - some under a UNHCR programme, some spontaneously. About 30,000 refugees have returned to their counties in Central America. Thousands of Vietnamese asylum-seekers have also returned home, in the knowledge that they can do so in safety and dignity - and having discovered that resettlement does not flow automatically for leaving one's country.

One month for now, on December 14th, UNHCR enters its fortieth year. Twice in our lifetime UNHCR has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A recognition of the impact refugees have on the security and stability of the International order. To leave a refugee problem unresolved generally causes tension, aggression and conflict. Events in the Middle-East and recent events in Central Africa are testimonies of this fact. On the contrary, to fine solutions for refugees is a concrete contribution to world security and stability.

In all, we estimate that about 26 million people have ceased to be refugees in the last forty years. We want to add to that figure in 1991. We look with hope to developments in South Africa, in Mozambique, around Western Sahara and Cambodia, as situations where refugee populations can shed their displacement and return home. Voluntary repatriation is the ideal solution for a refugee. In today's political climate, our ambition must be to pursue all avenues for voluntary repatriation.

A most important task for UNHCR comes prior to voluntary repatriation namely to ensure the granting of asylum. The right of protection for a refugee is a cornerstone of human rights. The granting of asylum is essential in our pursuit of global security and stability.

But for many countries, the much larger issue of migratory flows is now pressing. Whereas persecution and oppression have to be met by asylum; migratory flows must be met by economic and development aid. The reality of mass exodus cannot be ignored, and it cannot be met by humanitarian aid as mere charity. The questions of refugees and migratory flows must be placed firmly on the worlds political agenda. If this does not happen, governments both developed and developing counties will find it ever more difficult to cope with mass exoduses and UNHCR will, for our part, find it increasingly difficult to identify those falling under our competence, in order to protect and assist them.

Mr. Chairman, UNHCR's mission is in many ways a complex one. But it is also a gratifying and simple one. Even in the worst of times, the direction is clear - to do everything possible to bring protection and assistance to the millions of refugees who are our raison d'être. Indeed, the first High Commissioner for Refugees, the Norwegian explorer and statesman Fridtjof Nansen set the course in 1921 when he stated: "Lack of alternative is the strongest incentive for human action". We would do well to remember that statement today.

Thank you.