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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 11 November 1980

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 11 November 1980

10 November 1980

Mr. Chairman,

Once again I am given the highly welcome opportunity to share the main concerns of my Office with this Committee, for which I am grateful. I consider this annual contact and exchange of views with the Third Committee, and through it, with the General Assembly, as most important. The present magnitude and complexity of refugee problems, the upsurge of situations of an emergency nature, are demanding considerably strengthened attention and efforts on the part of the international community and it is only normal - while also most encouraging - that so many governments representatives referred to the refugee situation during the general debate in the General Assembly.

Mr. Chairman, UNHCR activities have developed considerably since we last met. In one year only, several new emergency situations, calling for rapid action on a large-scale by my Office, have arisen. Activities of an emergency nature have now become a permanent feature of our work, along with our traditional search for durable solutions. Our programmes have grown considerably - we expect to spend US$ 500 million this year and a similar amount next year. More than ever we have the feeling that UNHCR lives and evolves with world events.

From an Organization which initially concentrated its efforts in well-defined geographical areas - mainly Europe - UNHCR has grown into a universal organization, carrying out protection and assistance activities all over the world. This, for us all, is a cause for great preoccupation, as it reflects a dramatic widening of the problem of the uprooted. At the request of the international community, there has, at the same time, been a broadening in UNHCR's terms of reference. UNHCR was initially created to deal with persons outside their country, who were unable or unwilling to return owing to a well-founded fear of persecution. This original mandate, defined in the UNHCR Statute adopted by the General Assembly on 14 December 1950, remains unaltered and still covers a wide range of situations today. However, the United Nations General Assembly has empirically and progressively extended the scope of UNHCR activities to other categories of people. In 1957 the concept of good offices was introduced for the first time by the General Assembly. Later, following the settlement of internal or external conflicts, or the achievement of independence by a particular country, UNHCR was called upon to co-ordinate large-scale voluntary repatriation, and to establish programmes for the reception, initial relief, and rehabilitation measures for the returnees in their home countries. Finally, UNHCR has increasingly been entrusted with the responsibility of assisting persons displaced as a result of man-made disasters who find themselves in refugee-like situations. General Assembly resolutions, originating in this Committee, have provided the institutional basis for what has meant a considerable evolution for UNHCR.

As it stands at present, the sphere of our activities is an important element to take into account in considering the question of the United Nations system's response to humanitarian emergencies. Indeed, today, the world community is faced with large-scale emergencies calling for concerted humanitarian action, and for the strengthening of the capacity of the United Nations system in this field. An imperative condition to enable the system to respond efficiently is the adequate co-ordination of all organizations concerned. And this raises the interlinked problems of defining the areas of competence of each organization, and of designating a lead agency in each single emergency.

I have given close attention to these questions, and have sought the views of my Executive Committee when it met last month. With regard to emergency situations involving refugees within the meaning of the UNHCR Statute, it is natural that my Office be the lead agency, as it has been to date. In the case of voluntary repatriation, the General Assembly resolutions these last few years have specifically referred to returnees as a group of concern to UNHCR, and I am prepared to continue playing a co-ordinating role in these situations.

Whatever its involvement, one fundamental aspect of UNHCR's action is its eminently and exclusively humanitarian character. This was stressed again by my Executive Committee at its last session, in one of its decisions, when it "reiterated its conviction that the human and social aspects of emergencies involving refugees must be kept distinct and separate from the political activities of the United Nations concerned with the root causes of such emergencies, and that they should therefore be handled by a body that can clearly be seen to be purely humanitarian, social and entirely non-political." I firmly believe, of course, that the root causes of any refugee problem must consistently be addressed as a matter of priority. The ideal would be that those who assist in a refugee situation by providing humanitarian assistance, be assured that parallel efforts, aiming at conciliation, are deployed by the parties interested in the settlement of the problem which caused the uprooting of people. However, the promotion of such endeavours of a political nature are for appropriate for a, distinct from UNHCR. It is certainly to the credit of the United Nations that, 30 years ago, it created a body to focus on the purely humanitarian aspects of the refugee problem. The humanitarian character of such a body, UNHCR, has been maintained intact, and this has proved to be an invaluable asset in our work.

With regard to the capability of response in itself, UNHCR has created an Emergency Unit, specifically to help develop emergency preparedness and to support the various key sectors of my Office where action is needed when an emergency arises. Also, given the magnitude of many of the recent new refugee problems, the present provisions for the use of the UNHCR Emergency Fund have proved inadequate. Therefore, my Executive Committee is recommending to the General Assembly that it authorize me to allocate, from the Emergency Fund, up to $10 million annually for refugee emergencies, it being understood that the amount made available for one single emergency should not exceed $4 million. Other measures, which apply equally to emergencies and to UNHCR's more long-term activities, aim at better planning, programming, implementation and control. Modern management techniques are being introduced and electronic data processing is being developed.

Against the background I have outlined, I would like to review briefly the main problems of refugees and displaced persons which have arisen - or undergone substantial changes - this past year, and which require our daily response and co-ordinating capacity.

I shall start with Africa. The best durable solution to refugee problems is voluntary repatriation to the country of origin. This has taken place in the wake of Zimbabwe's independence, a landmark in this year's history. Following the Lancaster House Agreement in December 1979, UNHCR undertook to co-ordinate the repatriation of Zimbabwean refugees from the neighbouring countries of Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia, as well as from other parts of Africa and other continents. At the request of the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, made to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, UNHCR was given responsibility for co-ordinating a humanitarian assistance programme to provide for the initial settlement and rehabilitation of some 660,000 persons.

With regard to refugees from South Africa and Namibia, UNHCR continues, especially in the Frontline States, to provide assistance and protection measures. Educational aid to individual refugee students continues to be an important part of UNHCR activities.

In the Horn of Africa and the Sudan, the refugee situation has remained very serious. Since the problems faced are inter-related to a certain extent, I have for some time endeavoured to maintain a regional approach. In 1978 I launched an appeal to assist refugees and displaced persons in the Horn of Africa. Early this year I appointed a co-ordinator for my Office's activities in the region.

Developments in the area have been calling for increased activity on the part of UNHCR and of other organizations. A severe drought affecting most of the countries concerned has further aggravated the situation. The United Nations system as a whole, through inter-agency missions, has been studying problems of a considerable magnitude, not all of which fall within the scope of UNHCR activities. The need for assistance from various United Nations bodies and from the international community was stressed this year in resolutions adopted by the Economic and Social Council at its spring and summer sessions.

In Djibouti, refugees account for approximately 12 percent of the total population. While relief supplies have been provided to refugees, assistance for the promotion of self-sufficiency projects, including a pilot project in agriculture, has continued. We are now studying the Report of the Secretary-General on Assistance to Refugees in Djibouti (A/35/409), following the inter-agency mission which visited the country from 5 to 11 June. The requirements for humanitarian assistance to refugees are being given careful consideration.

Referring to ECOSOC resolution 1980/53, as requested I would report the situation in Somalia as follows. The Government estimates the number of refugees now living in camps at some 850,000. During the first half of the year, priority was given to immediate relief such as food, medicines, tents, blankets and domestic items. These most urgent requirements are currently being met. Over the past three months, supplementary and intensive feeding programmes have been launched for vulnerable groups. A recent survey showed a decreasing trend in malnutrition rates. Curative and preventive health programmes, as well as progress in the water purification field, have also made an impact and have contributed to the general improvement of health in camps. While maintaining appropriate attention to health and nutrition, the remaining part of the 1980 programme concentrates on improving living conditions in camps by new constructions of communal facilities, community development schemes and self-help projects. Internal distribution of commodities can be improved and the problem is being given close attention.

During a mission to Somalia in September, I was able to visit refugee camps, and to see for myself some of the work being carried out by the authorities and UNHCR, working in close co-operation with other UN agencies. Also, almost 250 experts provided by governmental and non-governmental organizations are at work in the country. My mission was a most welcome opportunity to discuss issues of mutual concern with the Government of the Somali Democratic Republic who firmly expressed its support for our action, and its willingness to co-operate further with us in exploring solutions for the self-reliance of these refugees in a longer-term perspective.

In Ethiopia, UNHCR activities have continued to focus on the special programmes initiated in 1978, within the framework of the Horn of Africa appeal. In co-operation with the Ethiopian Government, an initial project is being established to provide assistance towards the reception and rehabilitation of refugees who have returned or are returning to Ethiopia from neighbouring countries. Under this project up to 10,000 returnees can be assisted. Measures cover the construction and equipment of reception centres, the immediate material needs of returnees while in the centres, and the provision of a basic self-sufficiency package to help the returnees resume productive self-supporting activity as rapidly as possible. Close monitoring of the situation is taking place so that, after a certain period, further needs and financial requirements can be assessed.

In the Sudan, the number of refugees is estimated at almost half a million. In urban areas, large numbers have placed a severe strain on infrastructure and limited national resources. To arouse the interest of the international community, the Government declared 1980 the "Year of the Refugee in the Sudan", and launched a fund-raising campaign culminating in an International Conference on Refugees in Khartoum in June 1980. My Office provided support for this Conference and the Deputy High Commissioner headed the UNHCR delegation. An assistance programme involving the regrouping of refugees in organized rural and semi-urban settlements has been worked out between UNHCR and the Government. A number of other United Nations agencies are helping in the formulation and implementation of these projects. Here also, UNHCR is studying carefully the report of the inter-agency mission which visited the Sudan in June 1980 in accordance with ECOSOC resolution 1980/10.

Following the events in Chad, large numbers of refugees from that country have arrived in the United Republic of Cameroon, Nigeria and the Central African Republic. The number in the United Republic of Cameroon has exceeded 100,000 and an emergency programme has been launched by UNHCR to support the authorities in their own efforts to face the situation. I would like to mention that Nigeria has accepted some 50,000 Chadian refugees, without resorting to international assistance.

Africa is the continent with the largest number of refugees and displaced persons, probably some five million. Receiving countries have shown great understanding and generosity towards these uprooted, and have often gone through great sacrifice while at the same time facing their own development problems. A very positive step in some countries is that naturalization is given careful consideration by the authorities: in Tanzania, the Government is currently naturalizing 36,000 refugees who were assisted by UNHCR in co-operation with the Government to settle in the country.

Mr. Chairman, I have greatly welcomed the initiative embodied in resolutions of the Organization of African Unity and of ECOSOC, to explore the possibilities of holding an International Pledging Conference for Refugees in Africa. In close co-operation with the UN Secretariat and the OAU, my Office has been active in taking initial steps and will continue to play an important part in ensuring a successful conference.

In Asia, our three main areas of concern have been the refugee situations in Pakistan, in Thailand, and the question of the boat people.

In Pakistan, the influx of refugees has continued in substantial proportions and the authorities now report a total number of 1.2 million. Consequently, it has been necessary to reassess the nature and volume of UNHCR assistance and to formulate revised programmes. Emphasis has been placed, where possible, on projects oriented to assist refugees in attaining self-sufficiency. This sizeable effort is drawing on resources from a very large number of organizations - both within and outside the United Nations system.

It was shortly before our meeting in this Committee last year, that we received news of a substantial increase in the number of Kampucheans in Thailand. At the request of the Royal Thai Government, UNHCR started a major assistance programme. Even larger numbers of Kampucheans were arriving in the frontier zone. You are familiar with subsequent developments, and with the substantial aid brought by the United Nations system to Kampucheans in their country, in the border area and outside. UNHCR was given the responsibility for those outside Kampuchea. This problem continues to be among our priority concerns.

Concurrently, programmes continue for assistance to other land cases in Thailand, and for boat people in the whole of South East Asia. Over 60,000 boat people - still a considerable number - have arrived in South East Asia in the past twelve months. At the same time, thanks to the generous response of the international community, some 175,000 were resettled. However, efforts on behalf of that group are still vital. Pirate attacks - a matter for the deepest concern, which I have often voiced - continue to be perpetrated against these people on their boats. Resettlement efforts are also needed for large numbers of land cases still in camps in Thailand. Therefore, as long as resettlement remains the main solution for land cases and boat people, it is most important that the resettlement momentum be maintained and that quotas are renewed when they have been filled. Following their resettlement, successful integration of the refugees is essential, and resettlement countries deploy considerable efforts to this end. With this in mind and at the request of a number of governments, we organized last month in Geneva, a workshop on the integration of Indo-Chinese refugees in their new countries. Representatives of governments, and of non-governmental organizations which play a key role in the integration process, participated in a fruitful and promising dialogue during which many experiences were exchanged.

I have reviewed our main areas of concern where material assistance programmes, sometimes of an emergency nature, often of considerable magnitude, are a fundamental element in facing a wide range of acute needs. I would like to mention, however, that throughout these activities, UNHCR retains its basic responsibility to extend international protection to refugees. The scope and importance of the Office's protection function has grown with the increase of refugee problems in different areas of the world. Refugee rights must be improved at the universal, regional, national and individual level. The fundamental principles of asylum and non-refoulement must be respected in practice. The protection task has become world-wide and, in a number of instances, also has an emergency character.

In the more general activities and commitments of my Office, I would like to make special reference to the World Plan of Action and to the resolution adopted in the framework of the United Nations Decade for Women. UNHCR participated in the Copenhagen Conference where it submitted a report on "The Situation of Women Refugees the World Over", which aimed at identifying the nature and extent of the problem of refugee women, and formulated appropriate suggestions and recommendations. The Conference in Copenhagen was an eye-opener for UNHCR and although a component for special assistance to vulnerable groups of women refugees has always been integrated into UNHCR programmes, particular efforts are being made, in the context of the Decade, to continue and reinforce this process in a more systematic fashion.

Also, UNHCR is preparing to participate next year in the International Year for Disabled Persons. Indeed, a substantial number of disabled refugees require special attention, treatment and rehabilitation where possible.

Mr. Chairman, UNHCR is at the close of its third decade of existence. In responding to world events and to the confidence vested in it by the international community, it has substantially increased in size and is managing considerable funds. Fortunately, results are visible and every day large numbers of refugees are settled and find an end to their plight. No result would be possible without strong governmental support to my Office and to the refugee cause in general. May I appeal for this to continue. I do, of course, realize the continuous and increasing demands on governments in the face of the considerable growth of the refugee problem. I am also aware, however, that, although in humanitarian work one can never be satisfied with the results achieved, to an encouraging extent the challenge is being met. The world creates refugees: it also mobilizes the means to assist them, to alleviate hardship, to save live. As long as persons are forced to flee and seek refuge, all concerned must continue to strive to give them a new home, a constructive existence and a restored human dignity.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.