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Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Second Regular Session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Geneva, 7 July 1988

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Second Regular Session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Geneva, 7 July 1988

7 July 1988

Madam President, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is indeed an honour for me to address this Council in response to various resolutions of the General Assembly of the United Nations. I am particularly pleased to have this opportunity as I last appeared before you in July 1986, and as you are undoubtedly aware, refugee situations often develop and evolve very rapidly.

Before turning to the specific General Assembly Resolutions, I would like, Madam President, to say a few general words on the situation in Africa, as these General Assembly Resolutions deal with problems and issues on that Continent.

In late May, my presence at the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Summit and twenty-fifth Anniversary celebrations in Addis Ababa provided me with an excellent opportunity to review ongoing and new programmes with some of the countries on the Continent most directly affected by the increasing needs of refugees. This Continent, which has for many years hosted a considerable proportion of the world's total refugee population, deserves to have its concerns and needs properly addressed. Despite some progress in the search for durable solutions the overall refugee/displaced persons population has continued to increase. African countries, therefore, look to UNHCR to do still more, and still more effectively, to help relieve their burden; in other words, to mobilize more resources.

Southern Africa remains, of course, the area of greatest concern, as much because of the potential for vastly increased numbers of refugees as for the already heavy burdens borne by countries of asylum. Accordingly, the Office has considerable expectations from the Conference on the Plight of Refugees, Returnees and Displaced Persons in Southern Africa (SARRED) to be held in Oslo next month. Not only should this gathering greatly increase public awareness but, though not a Pledging Conference, its effect should also help noticeably in the mobilization of resources. Preparations for the Conference are well advanced. In this connection, UNHCR has organized four seminars in the region for journalists and has begun distributing public information material. The increasingly deteriorating situation combined with the legitimate aspirations of peoples and governments in that region must be accorded ample international support and recognition. My Office will spare no effort to meet these humanitarian needs. This will be reflected in the Office's General Programmes budgetary levels and targets for 1988 and 1989. In turn, I call on governments to be generous in their response to my appeals.

There are, nevertheless, some developments in bilateral relations and even within States that give qualified cause for optimism that tensions at the origins of the flight of refugees may be reduced, and the conditions for voluntary repatriation created. Particularly with respect to externally displaced Mozambicans, every effort will be made to establish the basis for a tripartite arrangement which would allow for the safe return of these persons to their country of origin. The Office's response to the enormous number of people now involved and the new outline of a plan to streamline the delivery of assistance will be reflected in the upward revision of the 1988 budget for Africa.

Madam President, I recently visited Malawi and Ethiopia, both countries faced with a continuing major influx of refugees and displaced persons. There are now well over half a million Mozambicans in Malawi alone. I was able to see at first hand the immense impact of such a great and ever-growing burden on that country. UNHCR has had to steadily mobilize increased levels of financial and material assistance to keep pace with the needs. At the same time, UNHCR has strengthened and continues to strengthen its own staff presence.

The situation of the Sudanese refugees in western Ethiopia remains precarious. Their numbers are now approaching 300,000. It was clear from my visit to the camps that the very considerable efforts made by the authorities and the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, assisted by UNHCR, are succeeding in bringing a once critical situation under progressive control. The enormous difficulties involved in maintaining a major relief operation to meet acute needs in such a remote area require a very high level of response and continuing close attention. To achieve this financial requirements for 1988 have doubled and UNHCR is substantially strengthening what six months ago was only a skeleton staff in the area.

At the same time, I am happy to report that progress during the past year in achieving durable solutions to the plight of refugees continued. The organized repatriation of Chadian, Ethiopian, and Ugandan refugees continued. A new programme of repatriation of Zimbabweans from Botswana has recently started. Negotiations continue to restart the repatriation of Zairian refugees from Angola, suspended since the end of last year. Also, increased assistance for Namibian refugees is being envisaged through continued active collaboration with the Southwest Africa Peoples Organization (SWAPO), and in this respect the allocation for 1988 will amount to some $2.6 million.

Madam President, it is against this general background that I will now apprise the Council briefly on the implementation of a number of General Assembly resolutions pertaining to certain refugee matters and situations in Africa:

Resolution 42/107 requires me to report to the Council on the progress on implementation and follow-up action concerning the Second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA II).

As you are aware the ICARA II exercise was designed to bridge the gap between relief assistance for refugees and developmental aid for certain key host countries in Africa.

Significant progress has indeed been registered with respect to the implementation of those projects of a non-developmental nature which UNHCR was specifically requested to implement on behalf of the refugees. with respect to those projects of a developmental character, UNDP, being the lead developmental agency within the UN system, was entrusted with the task of their implementation.

In view of the linkage between refugee aid and development, the Secretary-General has requested both UNHCR and UNDP to strengthen and co-ordinate their efforts to ensure an effective response to the growing refugee problem in Africa and to help provide the socio-economic basis for its durable solution.

UNHCR, therefore, fully intends to co-operate with UNDP in order to achieve the early revival of the ICARA II process, and this I am pleased to report is well underway.

In this regard, I am pleased to report that the UNDP Administrator and myself have recently agreed on new and detailed guidelines governing co-operation between our two agencies with regard to development activities affecting refugees and returnees. These guidelines recognise the impossibility of assisting refugees and returnees without linking such assistance to the developmental and environmental needs of the host communities. I have, in addition, recently instructed my field representatives to regularly consult with their UNDP counterparts in identifying the implications of a given refugee or returnee situation and in choosing the most appropriate course of action from the early stages of the programme. The two agencies have also agreed that in submitting projects to potential donors they should adopt a country-by-country rather than a regional or global approach. It has also been agreed, in order to reinforce this co-operation, that UNHCR is to be routinely invited, with the concurrence of the host country, to participate in UNDP country programming exercises.

By Resolution 42/106, the General Assembly welcomed the decision taken by the OAU to convene in August 1988 the International Conference on the Plight of Refugees, Returnees and Displaced Persons in Southern Africa (SARRED). The said resolution also requested the Secretary-General and my Office to closely co-operate in order to give all possible assistance to the Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity in the preparation and organization of the Conference.

As I have observed earlier in my statement, the preparations of this very important conference are well advanced indeed. I am happy to report that the important progress so far registered in the preparation for this conference is attributable to the close collaboration between UNHCR, the United Nations, UNDP and the Organization of African Unity. My Office has made substantial contributions, in financial, material as well as manpower terms for the realisation of this Conference.

Pursuant to the General Assembly resolution 42/126 on Humanitarian Assistance to Refugees in Djibouti, my Office has continued to provide the necessary resources in favour of the refugees in Djibouti who, according to the Government, number approximately 13,000 persons. In pursuit of lasting solutions, 3,591 refugees have since September 1986 returned voluntarily to Ethiopia under the auspices of UNHCR, while 52 others were resettled in third countries. The rest of the refugee population receives various forms of appropriate material assistance pending the results of the joint Government and United nations attempts for lasting solutions.

I should like now, as requested in General Assembly resolution 42/127, to report on the progress of UNHCR assistance activities on behalf of refugees in Somalia and with your indulgence in some detail.

Since 1979, Somalia has hosted a large refugee population while at the same time has tackled numerous economic problems and drought-related emergencies. The presence of refugees strains an already fragile infrastructure and eco-system, and the Government of Somalia deserves highest praise for the remarkable way it has coped with this problem in spite of its limited economic resources.

Since 1983, the Government of Somalia has declared that while voluntary repatriation remained the most appropriate durable solution, a programme of local settlement could be formulated for those who did not wish to return or could not achieve self-sufficiency in the centres where they were residing. While this policy lends itself to the development of local settlement schemes, progress in this field has been slow due to reduced programme activities in 1985-1986; the need to establish appropriate implementation arrangements and the time-consuming nature of the appraisal sequence for settlement projects. Hence, the UNHCR programme in Somalia has, heretofore, largely remained one of care and maintenance.

While this ensures that immediate requirements are being catered for, difficulties associated with a prolonged relief operation also are increasingly perceived. Thus the need to shift the programme on a different and durable solutions oriented path. Following the resumption, by mid-1986, of assistance at its previous level, this has been attempted by simultaneous and systematic pursuit of both voluntary repatriation and local integration, with considerable success.

Concurrently, a number of initiatives have been taken, including a major programme aimed at developing self-sufficiency projects. In the agricultural sector, where some 5,500 hectares have so far been developed, a three-pronged approach is being promoted, focusing respectively on area development, local settlement and mini-settlement projects.

At the beginning of this year, a major initiative was taken by UNHCR, the Word Bank and the EEC to develop a comprehensive programme combining refugee assistance and development needs. It envisages the promotion of income earning opportunities within the broader framework of national development efforts and aims at alleviating the burden placed on the economy of Somalia as a result of the refugees' presence. A distinctive and fundamental feature of this programme is that it will benefit both refugees and the local population.

Parallel to the shift of emphasis in the programme towards voluntary repatriation and self-reliance, a major review of care and maintenance sectors was undertaken in the first quarter of 1988. The result was a streamlining of activities, particularly in respect of domestic relief items which cannot be considered as essential at this post-emergency stage of the programme.

A major element in determining future needs, and particularly food requirements, is the re-enumeration of refugees in Somalia. In this context, I wish to report that the first phase of this exercise which involved aerial photography was completed in 1987. The second phase which consists of a socio-economic survey is presently underway.

It was also felt necessary to formulate this rethinking of the programme within a coherent planning framework. To this end a draft action plan has been prepared and is presently being discussed with the Government. It aims at determining practical measures to renew the momentum for achieving durable solutions and adjust assistance programmes accordingly and within a clear timeframe.

With respect to the situation of refugees in the Sudan, which is the subject of General Assembly Resolution 42/129, during the period under review, UNHCR continued to assist 400,000 of the more than 800,000 refugees estimated to be in the Sudan. 330,000 of the assisted refugees were Ethiopians. Recent Government estimates indicate that the number of Ethiopians who are spontaneously-settled in urban and rural areas is substantially higher than those who are assisted by UNHCR in the land-based or wage-earning settlements. It is expected that the on-going voluntary repatriation of Ugandan refugees, of whom some 40,000 returned in the first half of 1988, and of the Chadians, would substantially reduce the size of these refugee groups by the end of 1988.

UNHCR, along with other donors and international organizations, has begun to respond to the needs of those localities where large numbers of unassisted refugees, mostly Ethiopians, live, by providing infrastructural support to local health and educational services, water supplies, sanitation and in agriculture. Given the developmental nature of these needs, UNHCR seeks to mobilize the assistance of the competent organisations, while limiting direct support under its own programmes to projects that meet immediate needs pending such mobilization, or that can be subsequently incorporated in longer development schemes. A major agriculture project planned in co-operation with the World Bank for South Kassala Province is scheduled to begin early in 1989. Discussions also continue with UNDP on the means to implement the comprehensive plan of assistance for refugee-affected areas designed by an inter-agency mission and approved by the General Assembly in 1987 amounting to some $480 million.

By Resolution 42/139 on Assistance to displaced persons in Ethiopia, the General Assembly requested me to report to this council on my efforts to mobilise humanitarian assistance for the relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of voluntary returnees and refugees. Currently there are over 19,430 persons who returned voluntarily from the Sudan, from Somalia and from Djibouti who are receiving appropriate relief and rehabilitation assistance in their original home areas under the auspices of my Office.

The final phase of the four-year programme of relief, rehabilitation and resettlement in favour of returnees in the Ogaden region was also concluded in April this year; the material assets have been handed over to the Government.

As for refugees, as I indicated earlier, the past nine months have recorded a dramatic increase in the refugee population in Ethiopia: from 200,135 at the end of September 1987 to over 337,000 persons in mid-1988. This has resulted in the expansion of the sectoral, technical and geographical scope of our operations in Ethiopia. There are approximately 295,000 Sudanese and 42,000 Somali refugees registered by the authorities. Due to the severely debilitated state of some of these new arrivals, I have taken initial steps to increase and reinforce my Office's capacity both for emergency response and for preparedness. As mentioned, during my recent visits to refugee sites in Ethiopia, I saw concrete evidence of the contribution of the host Government, the United Nations System, notably World Food Programme and UNICEF and various non-governmental organizations towards alleviating the plight of the refugees. As the influxes continue, sustained material support from the international community will be required to control the situation.

Under the terms of Resolution 42/138, I am requested to apprise this session of the current status of UNHCR's assistance programmes on behalf of student refugees in Southern Africa. During the period under review, my Office has maintained its educational assistance programmes for student refugees from South Africa and Namibia who have been granted asylum in Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zambia. It is currently estimated that a total number of nearly 600 refugees are benefitting from such programmes at an annual cost of about US$ 500,000.

The emphasis of UNHCR educational assistance programmes for South African and Namibian students continued to be at the primary and secondary school levels, with the United Nations Educational and Training Programme for South African Students (UNIPTSA) and other inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations concentrating on post-secondary education and vocational training.

The largest educational programme for South African student refugees remains that in Swaziland were some 13,000 rural South African refugees sought asylum in the late 1970s as a direct consequence of the implementation of the so-called "homelands policy" of the South African government.

Where it is not possible to find adequate opportunities within the countries of Africa, UNHCR offers scholarships and/or travel assistance to refugee students to pursue their studies elsewhere, mainly in West Africa. The majority of the beneficiaries were Namibian students from Angola and Zambia and the great majority of these, in turn, continued to be young women refugees.

My Office has also maintained its financial support for the Namibia Institute in Lusaka where future civil servants for independent Namibian receive training.

Madam President, as I look forward to the difficult work that remains to be accomplished not only in respect of refugees in Africa but also for the 12 million refugees and displaced persons dispersed throughout the world, I remain confident that my Office can count on the sustained support and generosity of governments to successfully meet the tasks before it. UNHCR, for its part, will spare no effort to carry out its important humanitarian mandate with renewed vigour, efficiency and dedication.

Thank you Madam President.