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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Conference on the Least Developed Countries, Paris, 10 September 1981

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Conference on the Least Developed Countries, Paris, 10 September 1981

10 September 1981

It is a tragic fact that world events continually create refugees. Victims of conflict and persecution, they have been indeed an almost constant feature of human history. Today people are fleeing various countries on all continents, and out of a total of some ten million refugees and displaced persons of concern to the United nations High Commissioner for Refugees, almost half are in least developed countries.

Under the mandate conferred upon my Office by the General Assembly of the United Nations, I have two duties: to provide international protection to refugees, and to seek permanent solutions to their problems. The Statute of UNHCR outlines these solutions as "the voluntary repatriation of such refugees, or their assimilation within new national communities". Such communities may be in the countries of first asylum, or in other countries of permanent resettlement. Assimilation can be achieved through social and economic integration leading to their self sufficiency; refugees will thus become again useful and dignified citizens.

But before durable solutions can be found, relief aid aimed at meeting the refugees' most immediate needs is obviously required. Although relief is an essential measure, every effort is made to prevent it from becoming open-ended. Perpetuation of relief assistance, besides being in the long run more expensive than durable solutions, may foster unrest, inertia and dependence. Nevertheless, for various reasons, relief may have to be provided over extended periods.

The most desirable long-term solution is voluntary repatriation. To create conditions in which this highly desirable development is feasible, is a challenge of statesmanship, when it can be achieved, voluntary repatriation helps bring much needed stability to developing regions, thus allowing them to concentrate all their efforts and resources on the arduous task of nation building. Unfortunately, there are situations where voluntary repatriation may not be possible, and durable solutions must be pursued in the form of local integration or resettlement to third countries.

The problems of any host country receiving refugees are compounded when that country is a least developed country whose resources are inadequate to sustain its own economy. Therefore, assistance programmes must, as a minimum, ensure that refugees do not become a liability to the host country. Relief assistance is a life-line, both for the countries of asylum and for the refugees, but it is only a palliative. Aid programmes must go further and, in the best of circumstances, transform the refugees into useful citizens as economic and social assets in their new societies. Assistance must be provided which is commensurate with the magnitude of the problem.

In accordance with my mandate, UNHCR's programmes aim at bringing refugees to a level of self-sufficiency comparable to that of the local population - and to enable them to participate in the social and economic life of the host country. At the early stage of the integration process, UNHCR encourages governments to include and harmonize refugee programmes in their national development plans. Thus, UNHCR's programmes as such will constitute the basis for subsequent action within the wider framework of the actual development of the countries concerned. Further relevant measures on behalf of the refugees will be as far as international assistance is concerned, the responsibility of other appropriate bilateral and multilateral aid agencies.

Africa has more refugees than any other continent. They have been received with the greatest generosity and understanding. African countries have granted refuge and shared their resources with those in need. Thanks to this spirit, African governments, working in close co-operation with the Organization of African Unity and my Office have consistently facilitated durable solutions to the problems of refugees.

During the past ten years, over one and a half million refugees in Africa have returned to their home countries of their own free will. Thus, in 1972 and 1973, several hundred thousand Sudanese returned to their homes following the agreement reached in Addis Ababa in March 1972. UNHCR was privileged to co-ordinate the initial programme for the resettlement and rehabilitation of this group. Later, UNHCR was entrusted with the co-ordination of the return and initial rehabilitation of those who had fled territories in Africa formerly under Portuguese administration which had gained independence. Thus, as from 1975, UNHCR launched sizeable rehabilitation programmes in Angola, Guinea-Bissau Mozambique. Recently, the assistance programme for returnees that UNHCR co-ordinated in Zimbabwe was concluded. This programme provided for the initial settlement and rehabilitation of some one million persons, including 250,000 former refugees who had returned home, mainly from Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia.

In co-operation with the governments concerned, my Office is now involved in arranging for the return and initial rehabilitation of thousands of Chad nationals who were uprooted during the disturbances in their country. Another example is a pilot project for returnees to Ethiopia, which has been established with assistance from my Office. Expansion of the project is envisaged as repatriation gains momentum.

As regards refugees for whom voluntary repatriation is not feasible, one important solution has been the creation of rural settlements in the countries where the refugees were received. Thus, large numbers of refugees have settled in Tanzania and the Sudan where they have become productive farmers; the integration projects have become important elements in the national and regional development schemes. In these and other countries, numerous elements have been combined to achieve durable solutions for the refugees; the governments' contributions including land, existing infrastructure and services; the operational and managerial know-how of governments; the assistance of the United Nations and non-governmental organizations; the contributions made by UNHCR. Similar integration projects have been, or are being pursued in Botswana, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Lesotho, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia. Such projects benefit not only refugees but may also benefit nationals residing in the area.

In Somalia, with one of the largest refugee populations in the world, various circumstances have made it difficult to pursue durable solutions on a large scale. Somalia, therefore, remains basically a "holding operation" where international assistance of considerable magnitude is required to help the authorities cope with the burden of providing care and maintenance to hundreds of thousands of refugees.

In general, the refugee situations in the Horn of Africa and the Sudan exemplify the kinds of problems faced by developing countries. The sheer magnitude and weight of the numbers of refugees threaten to affect the economies and progress of these countries. Only a return to normality would enable them to concentrate all their resources on the urgent development needs.

The International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA) which was held in Geneva on 9 and 10 April 1981, was an urgent appeal to the world to meet the needs of Africa's five million refugees. Looking back, one may say with satisfaction that the appeal was heard: the world was made conscious of the magnitude of the refugee problem in Africa, and substantial resources were mobilized. African countries have opened their doors and given help to refugees coming to them in distress. But the magnitude of the needs calls for a substantial involvement from the international community in support of Africa's own efforts: on the road towards a new international order, the burden must indeed be shared.

In Asia, UNHCR's two main areas of concern today continue to be the situation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and of Indo-Chinese in South-East Asia. Durable solutions are also our objective in that region. When Bangladesh became an independent state in December 1971, 10 million refugees who had been granted asylum in India returned home - under a voluntary repatriation programme co-ordinated by UNHCR. Nine years later, when Bangladesh itself received some 200,000 refugees from Burma, successful negotiations between the two countries paved the way for the voluntary return of these people. UNHCR's contribution in this, as well as other similar operations, was not only to facilitate the return of the refugees but also to assist refugees after they returned to their country of origin and, in certain cases, implement assistance programmes, limited in time and scope, for their rehabilitation.

Today, in Thailand, where the number of refugees is approximately 250,000, solutions in the form of repatriation of certain groups of Kampucheans and Lao are being actively pursued. My Office is in constant contact with the authorities so as to ensure that repatriation of refugees is totally voluntary.

But for a number of Indo-Chinese refugees, resettlement to third countries remains the only feasible solution. Until mid-1979 the monthly arrivals in countries of asylum in South-East Asia far exceeded the departures. Fortunately the trend was reversed thereafter. However, with monthly arrivals averaging some 8,900 during the first half of 1981 and the resettlement process somewhat slowing down, we are reminded that the problem is still present.

Pending durable solutions for the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, who, according to the Government of Pakistan, now number some two million, UNHCR is carrying out a major relief programme in close co-operation with the Government, the World Food Programme and the other organizations. As far as possible, attention is given to income-generating activities and vocational training.

In Latin America, too, constructive solutions to some past refugee problems allow us to tackle present situations in a spirit of hope for the future. Thus, recently, the large numbers of Nicaraguans who fled their country's civil strife were repatriated and reintegrated through a large-scale UNHCR programme. At present, UNHCR's largest problem in the region is that of the Salvadorians who have sought refuge in several countries in Northern Latin America. My Office is providing care and maintenance for the refugees in Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and other countries; plans are being elaborated to settle sizeable groups in those countries which have agreed to their durable integration.

Recent developments in the refugee world, of which I have mentioned only a few today, clearly demonstrate the truism that no region has a monopoly on human suffering. At the same time it points to the considerable burden being borne by countries belonging, in many cases, to the group of least developed countries. The refugees' presence has placed major strains on developing economies and, in many cases, diverted already scarce resources from the urgent needs of nationals. In spite of this, these countries treat refugees with great generosity.

In these circumstances, it is of paramount importance that international assistance supplement local efforts. During 1981 and 1982 UNHCR plans to spend more that US$ 400 million on behalf of the 4.5 million refugees and displaced persons living in the group of least developed countries. Efforts of such magnitude, combined with the invaluable contributions of the voluntary agencies, should lend to refugees becoming self-sufficient and prevent them from becoming yet another burden on this group of countries.

Indeed, the whole international community must share the responsibility for helping the millions of refugees whose lives have been uprooted. And the burdens falling on developing countries, so generously receiving the refugees, must be shared in a spirit of solidarity by others who are better off. With such an international effort, our action will continue to prove that problems created by man can be solved by man.