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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Informal Meeting of Permanent Representatives of African States accredited to the United Nations Office at Geneva, 17 January 1980

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Informal Meeting of Permanent Representatives of African States accredited to the United Nations Office at Geneva, 17 January 1980

17 January 1980
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Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish to thank you for your presence here today and to tell you how much I welcome this opportunity of exchanging views on refugee questions of mutual concern in an informal way.

During the last session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, several representatives of African States expressed interest in maintaining closer contact with my Office. A meeting such as this one should help streamline issues and should favour in-depth understanding of situations, thus paving the way for an increasingly adequate response from the international community in support of the generous efforts of the receiving African countries, to which I have paid warn tribute on numerous occasions.

I should indeed like to do it again today. The African States have responded to the refugee problem in an exemplary and highly responsible manner, in conformity with a long tradition of hospitality. This attitude has been confirmed consistently throughout refugee history in Africa, and has been illustrated substantially by the adoption of the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention and, more recently, by the Conference on the Situation of Refugees in Africa, which was held in Arusha from 7 to 17 May 1979.

I do not need today to emphasize again the importance of the Arusha Conference. The principles agreed upon and endorsed later on by the OAU Summit Meeting in Monrovia have already proved to be of great practical value for refugee work in Africa. I refer particularly to the all-important principles of "international solidarity" and "burden-sharing", to the full implementation of refugee instruments in Africa, to the desired harmonization of asylum and determination of refugee status of individual refugees and groups, to the establishment of proper counselling services, to satisfactory resettlement procedures, to the effective integration of refugees into the economic structure of the host countries and last, but not least, to the promotion of voluntary repatriation.

The follow-up of the Arusha recommendations was considered by the Conference as being "the primary responsibility of the OAU working in close co-operation with UNHCR". In our close and fruitful contacts with the OAU, and with individual African governments, we are indeed eager to ensure that what has been called the "spirit of Arusha is maintained, and to strive towards solutions of the many refugee problems with which African countries are faced. I would add that the United. Nations General Assembly resolution on The situation of African refugees", which received a wide sponsorship and which was adopted by Consensus on 29 November 1979, was a clear recognition by the world of the gravity of the refugee situation in Africa, the generosity of African States, the Importance to be attached to the recommendations of the Arusha Conference, and the need for world-wide support for the problem.

I think you will agree with me that we are not here today to review refugee problems in Africa one by one. I would rather refer to a few specific situations where important developments have occurred since the last session of the Executive Committee which require urgent and vigorous response, and which are conducive to action-oriented reflection.

And I would first like to turn to the positive side of events. Following the successful outcome of the Lancaster House Conference, Zimbabwean refugees who are mainly in Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia may now repatriate to Southern Rhodesia, which in a few weeks will become independent Zimbabwe. UNHCR has held intense talks with all concerned, that is, the Governments the Patriotic Front, with whom we have enjoyed a long-standing co-operation, and the non-governmental organizations. The United Kingdom Government has now requested me to act as Co-ordinator for the repatriation and reception in Southern Rhodesia of these refugees, and our operational plan should enable movements to start on a significant scale within the next few days. The first phase should be completed before the elections are held in Southern Rhodesia at the end of February. Last Monday, I sent a cabled appeal to 25 Governments, informing then of the plan, of initial action taken, and calling for the necessary funds. I am deploying staff to the area as necessary, and have established a presence in Salisbury. Every effort will be made for repatriation to take place ad rapidly as is consistent with the capacity of reception facilities in Southern Rhodesia.

Free return of refugees to their countries of origin and their homes is by far the best long-term solution to their problem. In fact, voluntary repatriation is the most gratifying task this Office can undertake, and other repatriation schemes are under way or under active preparation. Repatriation on a large scale has taken place to the Shaba Province of Zaire. The estimated total of those returned was 150,000 at the tine of the last session of the Executive Committee in October 1979. The UNHCR emergency assistance and rehabilitation programme for then will continue until 30 June 1980. Movements to Shaba continue at the rate of a few hundred persons per month.

Refugees from Equatorial Guinea have now started to return to their country mainly from Gabon and the United Republic of Cameroon. A UNHCR official is at present in Malabo to organize, in close cooperation with the authorities. UNHCR assistance to those who have already arrived.

I would also mention that refugees continuo to return to Uganda, while there are encouraging sings that the return of Angolans from Zaire to their country may gain considerable momentum.

If voluntary repatriation is the most desirable solution to refugee refugees it is not always feasible. Let me, therefore, now turn to situations requiring a different type of approach, refugees involving very large numbers of refugees and very severe hardship. The situation in Somalia is a case in point. The Somali Government estimates the number of refugees in camps at almost half a million, while very large numbers are outside camps. This demands a vast effort at the international level to assist this country of four million inhabitants in facing a problem of such dimensions. From 1 to 4 December last, the Deputy High Commissioner headed a mission to Somalia. Furthermore, in response to a request from the Somali Government to the United Nations Secretary-General, a high-level United Nations inter-agency mission, of which UNHCR was part, visited the country from 10 to 15 December. The problem has been known since 1978, but the number of refugees was comparatively small at that time and international assistance was limited. The recent visits clearly showed the complexities and the magnitude of the situation as it now stands. A. major programme is being drawn up within the United Nations system, which will also be the subject of an appeal very shortly. Immediate assistance Continues in the meantime, including three airlifts arranged this month to bring emergency items such as blankets, tents, medicines and clothing. UNHCR's presence is being reinforced in Mogadishu and three UNHCR sub-offices are being opened in the North-West, Hiran and Gedo regions, where the refugees are. The primary aims of UNHCR's assistance are to improve the living conditions in the existing camps and to develop additional rural settlement projects for the benefit of refugees.

Similarly, the Sudan - another country with a very high number of refugees - Ethiopia, with hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, and Djibouti, where one-tenth of the population is made up of refugees, are countries where the same vital need exists for resources from the international community to complement the considerable efforts made at national and local level. The dimension and nature of the refugee problems in the four countries I have mentioned - Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Sudan - warrant a very particular effort on the part of my Office and I have consequently decided to appoint a Special Co-ordinator for that area.

In Uganda, UNHCR extends humanitarian assistance to refugees to displaced nationals and to returnees. Food assistance has been extended to some 80,000 persons in the Karamoja reason. It is hoped to expand considerably the number of beneficiaries pending the harvest season in September. Apart from food, beneficiaries will also be provided with seeds and agricultural implements. A basic agreement has been signed with the authorities, governing the operation of the programme.

The magnificent response of Africa to African refugee problems is well known. But there is a limit to what countries and people, facing their own development problems, can do. The impact on the economies of asylum countries of a. large-scale refugee presence is significant, and there is a pressing need for support from outside the continent. The international effort must be vast and concerted. Problems must be identified and needs fully assessed, international opinion must be made sensitive to needs and to their dimension, means must be obtained for assistance, end smooth implementation of programmes must take place, taking into account available implementation capacity. Let me, elaborate a little on these few points. For the identification of problems and assessment of needs, I mentioned as an example a United Nations inter-agency mission to Somalia. I could also mention a similar type of mission to Equatorial Guinea, in October 1979. In relation to Southern Rhodesia, a UNHCR mission left just before the New Year for Zambia, Mozambique and Botswana, and is now in Salisbury. Such missions, of course, work in close co-operation with Governments, with the United Nations system - notably with UNHCR offices on the spot - and with all other parties concerned.

Once programmes are drawn up, international support must be obtained. Naturally, activities on the fund-raising side must be developed according to needs. But support in the widest sense is equally of fundamental importance. And here we are at the heart of the question of drawing international attention to refugee problems in Africa. The question of dissemination of information on the plight of African refugees was one subject of the 29 November General Assembly resolution to which I referred earlier. It is true that these problems are not sufficiently covered by the media. Some are even totally ignored UNHCR influence in this situation is limited, and the possibility of making any progress in this direction should be further explored. UNHCR itself has certainly given weight to Africa in its own publications, and has made every effort to prevent the lack of headlines in the world media from adversely affecting either its fund-raising efforts or the implementation of its programmes in Africa. However, I believe more can be done with a defined target audience in mind, and in co-operation with the OAU. We are planning a special effort on the occasion of the African Refugee Day on 20 June. Regular features on Africa will continue to appear in our bi-monthly publication known to all of you - News from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Other suggestions will be studied carefully.

A few words now on implementation of programmes. A large set of measures must be taken to ensure the maximum benefit to the refugees of all assistance available. A vast combination of effort takes place between a wide range of partners: the African governments concerned, the OAU, UNHCR and its traditional partners - the non-governmental organizations whose unfailing and invaluable co-operation is essential throughout the whole implementation process - other organizations of the United Nations system, international experts and consultants in various fields as well as international voluntary teams. While efforts should be intensified as far as possible to bring the volume of international assistance closer to that of identified needs, serious care should also be taken to ensure that available resources are indeed fully utilized. This would entail improving the absorption capacity of recipient countries, so as to avoid keeping funds allocated for given purposes idle. In this aspect I need hardly emphasize that UNHCR stands ready to help in reinforcing existing implementing structures if and where required.

As a last point, let me also stress the continuing need for additional opportunities to cater for the growing number of African refugees in need of educational and vocational training. I wish to recall that, following one of the recommendations of the Arusha Conference, which deals with the employment, education and training of refugees, my Office appealed, in September of last year, to selected governments in Europe and North America for the resettlement of a group of over 500 refugees living in Djibouti. Similarly, my Representatives in Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States have been instructed to take UP with government and educational authorities the issue of educational and vocational training opportunities on behalf of African refugee students for whom it has not been possible to find suitable placement in Africa so far. We are carefully following developments in this respect.

Our common goal is that programmes for refugees, may constantly be improved, intensified as necessary if means can be obtained, so as to ameliorate the condition of the ultimate beneficiary the refugee. For beyond the great variety of situations, the necessary diversity of approaches, the multiple difficulties to reach adequate, rapid and smooth implementation of solutions, are the human beings, often in distress, aspiring to a new life, a new home, a new dignity. At the international level, UNHCR is at the crossroads between the refugees and the international community. This position is highly delicate and challenging. Meetings like the one today are part of the constant effort of UNHCR to improve its response to needs of a distressing size. I should now be glad to hear your views.

Thank you.