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Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Administrative Committee on Co-ordination, Spring Session, 1 May 1990,

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Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Administrative Committee on Co-ordination, Spring Session, 1 May 1990,

1 May 1990

Mr. Secretary-General, Dear Colleagues,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity of taking the floor at this, my first appearance at ACC. A few words only - out of respect for our limited time, but also for the simple reason that I have only a few months of experience in my present functions. I feel, however, that during that short period I have already been confronted with what may well be the main challenges facing UNHCR in the nineties. I am convinced that these can only be met through concerted international and multilateral efforts. Hence my interest in thinking aloud with you already at this early stage of my tenure.

I noticed that the Secretary-General in his recent statement to the Special Session on International Economic Cooperation observed that the increase in the flow of migrants within as well as among countries has been one of the consequences of the economic and social retrogression in developing countries. Refugees have gradually become part of migratory movements they are increasingly being treated at the frontiers as economic migrants fleeing poverty rather than as refugees escaping political or other form of persecution. My direct concern is, of course, that refugees find a safe haven - and that persecution is met by asylum. But I am equally concerned that the international community should address the challenge of migration - and flight from poverty - through, among other things, a development approach to humanitarian emergencies.

As regards the root causes of some of the major and protracted exoduses in recent times, resolute initiatives are clearly called for in the countries of origin. In so doing, the United Nations should combine preventive aid measures as well as adequate assistance programmes for returnees, including in exceptional circumstances persons who do not strictly speaking fall into the refugee category.

Let me briefly mention the example of South-East Asia. How can the tragic problem of Vietnamese boat people be tackled in a truly comprehensive manner? As you yourself, Mr. Secretary-General, indicated in your opening statement at the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees last June, there is no purely humanitarian answer to this question, which we must confront against a complex historical and political background. Indeed, contemporary history in that part of the world has bred a variety of economic and social problems that have exerted an increasing influence on the decision by many Vietnamese to leave their country. Fifteen years after the end of the war in Indochina, Governments - especially those of first asylum counties - and my Office, continue to cope with a humanitarian nightmare that seems to be without an end. It appears to me that time has come for us to recognize that until these root causes are clearly addressed, the exodus is likely to continue in spite of UNHCR's best efforts. If this prediction were to prove accurate, the logical consequence would be a further erosion of the goodwill of governments in the region and a possible breakdown of he principle and practice of first asylum, as result of an indefinite influx of asylum seekers, a phenomenon whose nature has in recent years become increasingly migratory. Caught, as we would inevitably be, in such a spiral, our ability to protect and assist genuine refugees would be seriously hampered, if not made impossible. Ultimately, chaos would once again prevail in that region, leading to greater human suffering and loss of livers on the high seas.

Mr. Secretary-General and dear colleagues, can we afford the collapse of such multilateral humanitarian endeavours at a time when international confidence in the ability of the United Nations to effectively tackle global challenges is finally being vindicated? While the answer is obviously negative, I must stress that it is difficult for my Office to formulate and implement solutions to large-scale exoduses and for it to contribute to the stabilization and reversal of population movements, unless it can rely on the support of governments, of the Secretary-General, of other international organizations and of the non-governmental community in dealing with the sources of the problems. My Office is prepared to play its role in co-ordinating and promoting initial responses to the main underlying needs in countries of origin such as Vietnam, particularly in those geographical pockets of poverty and despair which produce the majority of the non-refugee component of the outflows. However, as far as the longer term is concerned, I felt I should seize this first opportunity to call your attention to what is, I believe, becoming increasingly self-evident, namely that in the absence of early, resolute and co-ordinated action on all fronts - including the political, economic and social - humanitarian action, however necessary and well - intentioned, cannot resolve the problem of mass exoduses. This, as I said, is particularly apt in the case of Vietnam. In this and in other regions, I call, therefore, on you personally to assist my Office in formulating those strategies that may lead to the preventive action and comprehensive response that I have just alluded to.

However, refugees are not only a product of instability caused by unsatisfactory economic and social living conditions. By their arrivals in large numbers in some of the poorest countries in the world, they aggravate prevailing difficulties; their presence and demands on already severely strained infrastructures add to the extreme hardship already affecting the local population. In many instances, they become an added impediment to development efforts. In order to enable the refugees as well as the local population to break out of the vicious circle of poverty there is a definite need to complement UNHCR's limited investments in the humanitarian field with wider resources from those agencies with competence in the field of development. That is the background to my letter of 11 April 1990 to all the colleagues present here today. I have been asked by my Executive Committee to seek your cooperation in this field. I feel that we owe it even more to the refugees and their generous hosts.

My Executive Committee's call on UNHCR to seek the increased cooperation of other agencies is also caused by the critical funding situation confronting the Office - indeed, one of my major preoccupations since assuming my post. UNHCR currently faces the most dramatic crisis in its history, having experienced a major shortfall in both its regular and special programmes in 1989. This deficit must be absorbed with fresh 1990 resources which are, in turn, insufficient to meet the basic requirements for our activities in the current year. The situation today is that I still have to raise some US$ 170 million to cover my regular programme, in addition to identifying special resources to meet a number of other important responsibilities. My dilemma - and I believe that of the international community - is that many of those activities requiring special funding, which is currently not available, are in areas related to wider United Nations efforts in peace-making - an essential responsibility for UNHCR as a member of the United Nations family.

Let me mention a few recent examples. We were privileged in contributing to the successful Namibia operation by bringing more than 40.000 former exiles back to their country. I have already informed the Secretary-General that UNHCR has been asked by all parties to play a somewhat similar role if conditions in South Africa should permit. We hope that we can continue to make a meaningful contribution to the Peace process in Central America through an involvement, under the CIAV umbrella in the return of Nicaraguans to their country. In one of my first visits abroad, I joined a high-level UN mission visiting Pakistan and Afghanistan where, through our humanitarian endeavours, we hope to be able to give a constructive backing to the Secretary-General's political initiatives. Last July, the Secretary-General designated my Office to act as the lead agency in the repatriation of some 300,000 Cambodian refugees and displaced persons. UNHCR has since done extensive planning work, but is keenly aware that the scope of the operation requires concerted and well-synchronised action in partnership with other UN agencies as well as non-governmental organisations.

I cannot hide that, as a former politician, I am fascinated by the political challenges as well as possibilities in the non-political job as High Commissioner. But I must also admit that I am deeply concerned at the limitation put on our ability to act - mainly due to funding crisis. A leaner, more efficient and therefore relevant UNHCR will, hopefully, provide some of the solutions. The support of many of you represented here today will be equally essential. I am a strong believer in cooperation and dialogue. I look forward to demonstrating it in future contacts with you. Thanks for listening.