Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the International Conference on the Plight of Refugees, Returnees and Displaced Persons in Southern Africa (SARRED), Oslo, 22 August 1988

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the International Conference on the Plight of Refugees, Returnees and Displaced Persons in Southern Africa (SARRED), Oslo, 22 August 1988

22 August 1988

Mr. President, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen:

The crisis that has brought us all here today is no ordinary footnote in the catalogue of world events. All of us - governments, private agencies, international organizations, the media - are assembled here to confront the tragic problems of refugees, returnees, and displaced persons in Southern Africa whose suffering cannot be allowed to continue. Your presence testifies to the recognition by the international community of the dimensions of the crisis, of the burden it imposes on countries in the region, and of the need to strive for solutions. I should like to pay tribute to the Organization of African Unity and to our hosts, the Government of Norway, for having taken it upon themselves to convene this conference. The challenge before us here is to come to grips with the problems that affect some six million human beings and nine states - and to act decisively to resolve them. UNHCR, as the international agency mandated to protect and assist refugees, is at the centre of this challenge and I am proud to affirm our commitment to play our due part in meeting it.

Every time representatives of the international community gather together at an occasion like this one, questions may legitimately be asked: why another conference? Why on this topic? Why now? I believe we must confront these questions head-on if we are to capture the imagination and full support of the world, of public opinion, of governments and ordinary people everywhere who care for their fellow human beings in distress. For us there is one more question: why is this conference and its success so important to UNHCR? I have no hesitation in responding that there are four principal concerns in my mind as I address you today.

First: the root causes of the crisis. While UNHCR's work is strictly humanitarian, and this conference is certainly that, we must address the particularly inhumane causes which have resulted in the flight of more than one million refugees in the region whom we must care for. In addition, these root causes have resulted in more than 5 million locally affected and internally displaced people. The underpinnings of this human tragedy lie in the destabilisation that is occuring in the region, the perpetuation of the oppressive system of apartheid and the savage military conflicts unleashed in some countries and which also have had serious repercussions on other states in the region. We at UNHCR, who have to deal with the human consequences of these events as refugees stream into our camps, can only call for an immediate end to the inhuman activities of the insurgents, particularly those of RENAMO, whose unparalleled brutality in Mozambique has produced most of the region's refugees and internally displaced people. The case of Mozambique illustrates that those who have been displaced across the region have fled their homes or countries not for fear of their own Governments, which are themselves targets of destabilization, but because, in the definition of the OAU Refugee Convention, these people find themselves victims of "external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of (their countries) of origin or nationality."

Our second concern today must be the nature and scale of the human tragedy. Not only are we speaking of more than 1.1 million refugees and more than 5 million internally displaced persons - an extradordinarily high figure by any standards - but of human beings who arrive in unspeakable conditions of misery and exhaustion. What is worse, they come in this destitute state to countries which are ill-equipped to host them - states struggling with their own overwhelming problems of development, but which nevertheless offer them hospitality from a crowded table. The impact of the crisis of displacement on the societies and economies of the region is devastating; and the catastrophe goes on, as the refugees continue to arrive in vast numbers - in one country alone, Malawi, at the shocking rate of over 20,000 per month.

The task facing the countries of asylum would be daunting even in normal circumstances. But these countries of Southern Africa are, in fact, offering asylum and help in the midst of economic sabotage, destruction, and destabilization. The excellent work of the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference (SADCC) since its founding in 1980 has amply demonstrated that, given the chance to function in peace, the countries of the region could attain remarkable successes in co-operative, self-reliant regional development. UNHCR can only hope that this chance will come, that present initiatives to create peace will succeed and provide an impetus to others, that conflict and war will no longer be imposed upon the peoples of the region, and that the peaceful conditions necessary for development will be restored. Until then, however, it is essential for UNHCR, and indeed for all of us, to recognize the situation as it is and work to alleviate the plight of the displaced and dispossessed, as well as of the states which are so bravely and generously hosting them. We must redouble our efforts to provide emergency assistance to refugees in distress, and medium-term help to enable refugees to stand on their own feet. It is only through such aid that the states of the region can be supported as they keep their doors and their hearts open to refugees.

My third principal concern flows directly from this - the necessity for the international community to recognize the contribution made by the front-line states, in both protection and assistance terms, to alleviate this enormous human need. The protection contribution means that states here, in the fine spirit of the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention, have maintained the practice of granting first asylum in spite of South African pressures and military or armed attacks designed to reverse this practice. The world must recognize this contribution and its premise that for the most part refugees here, unlike those in some other regions of the world, do not need to be resettled outside the African continent, but are afforded refuge and hospitality in the region. (Of course, security considerations may necessitate emergency resettlement of some individuals, but for the most part Southern Africans are protected in Southern Africa.) The assistance contribution, in my view, places these African States in a significant "donor" category and should be an inspiration to the rest of the world in eliciting our solidarity.

At the same time I would be less than candid if I did not express my very real concern that the heightened sense of pervasive insecurity in the region - resulting largely from violent attacks, abductions and assassinations of which both nationals and refugees have been victims - has adversely affected the liberal asylum policies traditionally pursued here. While the pressures and dislocations imposed on normal governmental practice have not made it easy for states to protect refugees, it is my hope that some of the problems that have arisen in this area will be dealt with in a positive spirit and solved. UNHCR notes with a deep sense of gratitude that a number of countries of asylum in Southern Africa have been granting an automatic right of permanent asylum to persons recognized as refugees. Others, however, have had to invoke national security considerations in granting them only transit facilities or temporary asylum, which subjects the refugees to great uncertainty about their immediate future. I hope that states will rather be able to act in accordance with their own best traditions, and grant refugees asylum as they always have done. I am also encouraged by the fact that one of the objectives of the Conference is to address an urgent appeal to States to accede to and ratify the UN and OAU Refugee Conventions. I am confident that the States represented at this meeting will not fail to act in the spirit of these instruments. Full respect of these principles will not only directly benefit the victims but also have a strong impact well beyond the region, as an example of what is possible in even the most difficult of circumstances.

For UNHCR to protect refugees, access to all camps and settlements is essential. It is my hope that this conference will devote some consideration to the need to ensure that UNHCR is able to reach every refugee and asylum-seeker, wherever he or she may be found in Southern Africa. If national security is invoked as an obstacle to access, I must stress that the security of refugees is an equally vital imperative. In making these observations, I do not wish to detract, in the slightest, from the excellent record of the states represented here in protecting the refugees to whom they have played host. It is my belief, however, that we can do even more together to make Africa in general, and Southern Africa in particular, a continuing example to the rest of the world of how refugees can and should be treated.

The issue of military attacks on refugee camps and settlements is one of direct relevance to this region. You are undoubtedly aware of the efforts being made by UNHCR to address this problem, which affects refugees across the world. UNHCR's Executive Committee adopted a set of principles last year which constitute an extremely important step in improving the safety of refugees. I have no doubt that you will join me in affirming the exclusively civilian and humanitarian nature of refugee camps and in condemning unreservedly military and armed attacks on them. I invite all of you to co-operate fully with UNHCR in facilitating the upholding of these vital principles.

The fourth issue which I would like to raise, and in many ways the most important, is the action-orientation of this Conference: where we should go from here.

There are several aspects to the issue. It is only fair and proper to ask, first of all, what UNHCR itself is doing and hopes to do. I believe we can point with pride to our record of responsiveness to the region's needs in refugee assistance. Our 1988 General Programmes in Africa have gone up from $120 million last year to over $165 million this year - nearly double the 1986 figure of $86 million. Growing refugee crises have led to significant increases in our assistance to host governments in Southern Africa, notably Malawi, where we have responded to the recent crisis with an $18.6 million programme, and Zimbabwe, where we have nearly tripled our budget to $3.5 million this year. The efforts of UNHCR to meet the needs of refugees across the African continent have been greatly enhanced, and we have sought to ensure that the host countries of Southern Africa remain major beneficiaries of this overall contribution.

Reactive assistance is, of course, never enough in itself. I greatly value the intention of this forum to issue a Declaration and adopt a Programme of Action which will also address the need to remove the root causes of refugee flows. As the international community gives more attention to the factors that result in the movements of refugees in Southern Africa, it will be advancing towards real prevention. Much of the action in this area will occur beyond UNHCR's reach, but we are following it closely. I am sure I am not alone in welcoming the evolution of negotiations relating to the situation in Angola and Namibia, where a successful outcome could end the displacement of hundreds of thousands of human beings. UNHCR stands ready to play its part, as foreseen in the United Nations plan, in the repatriation and rehabilitation of Namibian refugees as soon as their voluntary return becomes feasible.

Moving beyond root causes to the basic needs of refugees, I hope this Conference will reaffirm the vital importance of continuing and increasing financial and material assistance to refugees, returnees, and displaced persons in Southern Africa. This is of course vital at the emergency stage, and in the phase of care and maintenance. It is also essential, however, that we at SARRED seize the opportunity to try to get the ICARA-II process back on the track. The concept behind ICARA-II - that refugee aid and development needs must be linked, both to reinforce the absorptive capacities of host countries and to enhance the refugees' contribution to their host states - is certainly applicable to the Southern African region. The strains on infrastructure and on ongoing development activities in these countries, caused by the influx of so many needy people, have received less attention than they deserve. UNHCR is making major efforts in this area and we can point to some impressive success stories for ICARA II elsewhere in Africa. This conference must revive the ICARA-II approach in Southern Africa as well and ensure that schemes linking refugee aid and development are drawn up and effectively implemented.

The situation of returnees must also receive our full attention. Throughout the world, it is UNHCR's experience that refugees generally have a better understanding of conditions in their home areas than they are often credited with - and when they are ready to go back, it is the duty of UNHCR and the international community to help their home countries to receive them. Taking the example of Mozambique, the desire of many refugees to return voluntarily to their country of origin must not be minimized, especially when they have no fear whatsoever of their own Government, when the pressure of their presence on the countries of asylum is becoming more difficult to bear and when their Government has ensured security in the areas in which other returnees have been settled. But it is the danger of further disruption of calm in these areas, through continuing insurgent activities, that has made it difficult for any major returnee programme to be mounted in Mozambique. When circumstances change, returnees can and must be helped to resume their normal lives in their own home areas. UNHCR welcomes the initiatives being taken by the countries concerned, in co-operation with us, to prepare the conditions for the refugees' eventual return.

Mr. President, while UNHCR tries to do as much as it possibly can for the region's 1.1 million refugees, we do not forget the 5 million internally displaced persons who are such a burden on the states of Southern Africa. It is obvious that the needs arising from displacement are much the same whether one has crossed a border or not, and that the solutions required are very similar for both refugees and displaced persons. I welcome your reflection on how best these needs can be addressed within the framework of the United Nations system. UNHCR is ready to provide whatever assistance it can and all appropriate support to the Secretary-General in his efforts to ensure that these vital needs are met.

In conclusion, Mr. President, the task before us over the next three days is a vital one. The tragic circumstances of the displaced and destitute, the immense strains placed on their host governments, the need to move beyond palliatives to real solutions, all cry out for effective responses from us - and particularly from UNHCR. I hope that this conference will succeed in raising the consciousness of the world about this problem, that it will give due credit to the governments of the area for what they have done, and that it will provide them the support and the resources to continue their efforts. The watchwords for this Conference are that we must: recognize the situation; acknowledge the needs; and act, act to ameliorate the situation and to meet the needs. We at UNHCR will do our best to fulfil our mandate with the resources you place at our disposal. I wish you every success in your deliberations.