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Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Steering Committee Information Meeting, 15 March 1990

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Steering Committee Information Meeting, 15 March 1990

15 March 1990

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for having responded to our invitation, particularly so soon after the end of an intensive Human Rights Commission session. I felt that it was important for me to report to you on the consultation I have conducted since, and at the request of, the Third Meeting of the Steering Committee on 23 and 24 January.

You will recall that the Committee asked me to undertake démarches with the parties directly concerned to establish whether consensus on the question of the duration of the moratorium on returns could be reached in the near future. I accepted to play this role and immediately conveyed to the parties concerned both the thinking of the majority of the Steering Committee members on the unresolved question of return to Vietnam and the reasons why I, as High Commissioner, felt the ten-point note otherwise agreed during that meeting represented the most acceptable and human balance of interests at that particular point in time.

On 29 January, I wrote to the President of the United States, Mr. George Bush, and I requested Mr. Vieira de Mello to handcarry a similar message to the Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam, Mr. Nguyen Co Thach, which was delivered in Hanoi on 1 February. I also addressed a letter to the British Secretary of States of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr. Douglas Hurd, with particular emphasis on the need to ensure fair and adequate status determination of Vietnamese asylum-seekers in Hong Kong.

I have maintained a close and constructive dialogue with Washington on this issue and I am informed a reply from the President to my message is forthcoming.

Foreign Minister Thach replied to me on 5 February, stating that the policy of Vietnam is to welcome voluntary returnees as well as those who do not refuse to return. The Vietnamese Government, he added, was determined not to accept forced repatriation, but proposed instead to press ahead with the voluntary repatriation programme. It would continue bilateral discussions with the parties concerned, with a view to arranging the repatriation of those who did not refuse to return, with international assistance and supervision by a neutral organization. In this connection, Mr. Thach also proposed that UNHCR might play this latter role.

On the question of refugee status determination in Hong Kong, I received a reply from the British Secretary of State, dated 2 February 1990, in which he indicated that he entirely agreed on the importance of fair and objective status determination procedures and that he would, to that end, pursue urgently the points I had made in my message to him.

As a result of the above exchanges as well as of a number of other consultation my colleagues and I have had with the parties concerned, I want to share with you my feeling that we must now proceed on the assumption that the impasse on the question of the duration of a general moratorium if likely to persist. While efforts must continue to resolve it, parallel action has to be taken to ensure the continued, effective implementation of the Comprehensive Plan of Action and, as far as possible, those points on which unanimity emerged in the course of the Third Steering Committee.

May I say here, on the issue of alternative returns, that what is required in UNHCR's view - rather than a general moratorium, the need for which is contentious and the duration of which is bound to be arbitrarily determined - is general agreement on the minimum reasonable period of time needed to process cases in accordance with the steps envisaged in the CPA, from arrival to possible return, including status determination and appeal, counselling and reflection, return arrangements and reception in Vietnam.

I trust all governments will, without exception, agree with me that a continued stalemate on the issue which remained unresolved on 24 January, calls for a concerted and determined effort to preserve and build on the CPA as the only viable multilateral approach. This is evidenced by its achievements so far as well as by the large area of agreement which developed during the two rounds of Steering Committee III. It is my hope and expectation that in the months to come, governments will continue to adhere strictly to the CPA and refrain from precipitous unilateral measures, particularly the denial of first asylum, during this fragile interim period, for its collapse would be detrimental to all, not least to the human beings whose plight it was intended to address. Of course, I am fully aware that there may be bilateral discussion aimed at developing acceptable arrangements for the orderly, phased and monitored return, in conditions of safety and dignity, of those non-refugees who do not volunteer to repatriate after the period referred to above. Moreover, while there is a continuing need to ensure the balanced implementation of all aspects of the CPA, it must also be recognized that there is a legitimate expectation that a general resolution of the problem of non-refugees should be found within a reasonable period of time.

Before I turn to some concrete proposals I wish to submit for your attention, let me again strongly emphasize that my Office must have increased and vigorous political and financial support to carry out its various responsibilities under the CPA, some of which are clearly of an exceptional nature. UNHCR, as you all know, agreed to facilitate the consultative phase that preceded the International Conference and to assume these rather unique functions, particularly at a time of financial restraint and broad governmental concern over extra-mandate activities, because we believed they were justified, and even necessary, to preserve human lives and first asylum in the region. We also felt that this approach was necessary in order to preserve the mandate of the institution and its ability, in the longer term, to better protect and assist refugees falling within its competence.

Subject to receiving the backing I just referred to, I am prepared for UNHCR to play this exceptional lead role in a number of areas.

I would like first to reflect briefly on an essential question which appears to me to be particularly relevant at a time when first asylum may, once again, be called into question in South-East Asia, especially if there should be a new influx of boat people, namely how can this protracted problem be addressed in a truly comprehensive manner? As the Secretary-General indicated in his opening statement at the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees last June, there is neither a purely humanitarian nor an effective unilateral answer to this question, which must be confronted against a complex historic and political background. This, in turn, breeds a variety of economic and social problems that have exerted an increasing influence on the decision taken by many Vietnamese to leave their country by boat. Fifteen years after the end of the war in Indochina, time has come for us to recognize that until these root causes are clearly addressed and vigorously tackled, an exodus is likely to continue in spite of the CPA and in spite of our combined best efforts. If this is correct, the logical consequence would be a further erosion, if not a breakdown, of the goodwill of regional governments towards an indefinite influx of asylum-seekers, the nature of which has in recent years become increasingly migratory. As I stated earlier, our ability in those circumstances to protect and assist genuine refugees would be seriously hampered, if not made impossible. Ultimately, chaos would once again prevail in the region, leading to greater human suffering and loss of lives on the high seas. Is the collapse of such multilateral humanitarian endeavours conceivable at a time when international confidence in the ability of intergovernmental mechanisms to effectively address major political, economic and social challenges in finally being vindicated?

I can only repeat here, in even stronger terms, what I said in my opening statement at the Steering Committee Meeting on 23 January, namely, that it is difficult, particularly for my Office, to formulate and implement solutions to large-scale exoduses such as the one under consideration and for it to contribute to the stabilization and reversal of population movements, unless governments, international organizations and the non-governmental community urgently tackle the sources of the problem and take such initiatives as may be open to them. As I will explain, my Office is prepared to play its role in co-ordinating and promoting an initial response to the main underlying needs in Vietnam, particularly in those geographical pockets of poverty which produce the majority of the non-refugee component of boat arrivals. Although, as I said, UNHCR's responsibility should be limited, both in time and money and as far as possible, of a promotional and co-ordination nature, there is no doubt in my mind that in the short term this approach will require an initial active operational involvement on our part.

As far as the longer term is concerned, I propose to call the attention of the Secretary-General as well as other competent senior colleagues, both in the United Nations Secretariat and the U.N. family at large, and selected Executive Heads of other intergovernmental institutions to what is, I believe, becoming increasingly self-evident: in the absence of resolute 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, I believe, is particularly apt in the case of Vietnam.

I would now wish to briefly to through the various facets of the CPA, indicating progress achieved and action still required, before I concentrate on what I think is the heart of the difficulty we face at present, i.e. the expansion of return to Vietnam.

Regarding departures, UNHCR will continue to co-ordinate the information campaign to discourage unnecessary and dangerous departures by boat, but greater governmental, non-governmental and media support is called for at all levels. Apart from this role, little more should be expected from the Office under this component, except insofar as assistance programmes for returnees are concerned, which obviously also have a preventive impact.

As regards ODP and related programmes, especially the bilateral arrangement for former re-education camp detainees, efforts must continue in co-operation with IOM and interested governments to further expand to monthly departure rate, while recognizing the substantial progress made to date.

In terms of reception of asylum-seekers, we are encouraged by the preservation or restoration of first asylum throughout the region since the adoption of the CPA, with one notable exception which requires urgent resolution and which I am actively addressing. It has been the central theme of UNHCR's position that first asylum can only be preserved through a multilateral, consensual and balanced abiding by all CPA undertakings. Conversely, without asylum being fully restored in the region, one of the main provision of the CPA remains unfulfilled. Early and unhindered access for UNHCR to all arrivals is also needed. I should state here that conditions in some reception, holding and detention centres in the region are a matter of serious concern for me which I have shared with the competent authorities. Such adverse conditions, in the long run, lead to a deterioration of the psychological and physical environment, breed conflict and violence and make it all the more difficult to promote the voluntary return of those determined not to be refugees.

On status determination, joint efforts are required to make more rapid progress in some countries, although in general significant achievements have been made so far in what must continue to be recognized as a pivotal component of the CPA. UNHCR continues to make active representations and practical proposals to the governments concerned on improvements in the procedures and the substance on this crucial exercise, to ensure its full effectiveness and credibility.

Regarding rescue-at-sea, some progress has been achieved recently towards extending similar treatment to all rescue cases as applied to other arrivals, in accordance with the CPA. May I point out here that UNHCR has agreed to take a calculated risk in "screening" persons disembarked in Singapore, on the assumption that other governments would assist the Office in the difficult operation of subsequently transferring them to a transit facility. With this support we may be able to move forward at last on this long-standing problem. It is also important that stowaways should equally be subject to screening as other arrivals.

Another area in which progress has been slow, due to the sensitive nature of the problem, is the setting up of national mechanisms for determining the best interests of unaccompanied minors. This is a difficult process in which we required the determined support on the part of first asylum countries, NGOs with particular expertise in this filed and, very importantly, of Vietnam.

Turning now to resettlement, I must underline here the most encouraging results achieved so far. Indeed, our statistics covering the number of persons resettled over the six-month period between July and December 1989 indicate that 59.7% of the pre-cut-off date population had left countries of first asylum or been accepted for resettlement, although you will recall that our optimistic target was 50% for the first 12 months of the CPA implementation. There is a need, however, for this momentum to be maintained and in certain instances for it to be accelerated for all eligible categories, with a view to lessening the burden on first asylum countries.

In this connection, I must again express my deep gratitude to the Government of the Philippines, especially to the President and the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, for their flexible and generous stance on the question of a regional transit centre to accommodate pre-cut-off-date persons awaiting resettlement, thereby reducing pressure on other first asylum countries. A UNHCR technical team is presently in the Philippines and we have entered the execution phase of the extension work in the existing Processing Centre located in Bataan. We shall have to proceed stage by stage, in a modular fashion depending on the availability of funds and actual needs.

I will come to voluntary repatriation in a moment, but let me end this brief review by insisting, once more, that UNHCR cannot be expected to meet all its responsibilities under the CPA, some of which are exceptional, unless adequate and prompt financial resources are made available to it and assurances are given that all CPA elements will be fully funded. Out of total financial requirements of US$ 108.5 million, to date only US$ 18.9 million, of which US$ 11.9 million for General Programmes and US$ 6.9 million for Special Programmes, has been received, not even enough to cover our commitments until mid-March. If the CPA is to be implemented at all UNHCR must receive an average of US$ 9 million a month. If we do not receive indications of strong support from donors before the end of the month of March, UNHCR will be compelled to scale down its activities in the implementation of the CPA and all the efforts we have jointly made over the past two years will be jeopardized.

I will now turn to what I consider as the most important aspect of my proposal to you. As I said at the beginning, the current impasse requires that UNHCR leads a resolute intergovernmental and non-governmental effort in further building on the progress enumerated above, as well as on our Steering Committee III ten-point paper. Recalling Vice-Premier Nguyen Co Thach's reply of 7 February, in which he proposed to press ahead with the voluntary repatriation programme, I believe we should concentrate, in the weeks and months to come, on making this a reality. Countries of origin, asylum and resettlement, international organizations and NGOs must assist UNHCR in its promotional activities. I understand that a list of proposed steps of an administrative, logistical and programming nature has been distributed to you and I need not, therefore, spell them out here. The list in question is not exhaustive, and we welcome any comments or additions that you may wish to put forward. It is, however, the minimum series of steps that we must take together in order to address what I consider is a legitimate expectation on the part of the affected human beings and of first asylum countries, and, as such, an essential CPA undertaking.

As regards assistance programmes for returnees in Vietnam, I believe we must rapidly upgrade reception facilities, monitoring arrangements and our reintegration projects to bring them in line with past and present assistance patterns in other countries of origin, of which neighbouring Laos is a good example. Such enlarged activities should clearly include an enhanced presence of UNHCR and of its partners as well as wider and unrestricted access to all returnees. These programmes would also have a beneficial preventive effect and could act as a bridge between the present modest and individually targeted aid and the longer-term holistic approach alluded to earlier in my statement. Concretely, UNHCR proposes that the limited and clearly insufficient assistance delivered to returnees so far, include in future new programmes that we would soon propose to donor governments and non-governmental organizations for multilateral and/or bilateral funding and implementation under the UNHCR umbrella or in close co-ordination with our Office. They should include, as a priority, community services schemes benefitting returnees and the surrounding population, initially in the two Northern coastal provinces of Haiphong and Quang Ninh. In the latter, special attention should be given to the districts of Hongai, Cam Pha, Yen Hung and the island of Co To, from where more than half of the boat people population reaching Hong Kong originates. UNHCR will soon be in a position to provide a detailed description of projects and financial estimates, for which collection of basic data is under way in co-operation with the competent Vietnamese authorities.

As far as the short and medium-term is concerned, we propose to formulate small pilot projects in specific villages/districts with emphasis on primary health care, vocational training liked to job placement and other small-scale community services activities. These are sectors in which swift NGO involvement, including financial, would be essential, in co-ordination with the Ministries of Labour and Social Affairs as well as authorities at the provincial and local levels.

In the longer-term, larger assistance programmes could be envisaged in the same provinces, which could include, for example, rural development, income-generating and labour-intensive activities. While UNHCR could be involved in the design of projects and the mobilization of resources, implementation should be the responsibility of other U.N. and developmental agencies.

My Office is prepared to lead an early survey with the purpose of carrying out a socio-economic mapping of target regions and areas and of facilitating the design of projects and programmes.

Finally, I should also like to specifically refer to the question of assisting and monitoring returnees. Should the Steering Committee request UNHCR to assist and monitor, on an exceptional and time-limited "good offices" basis, all returnees including non-refugees in Vietnam, UNHCR would be willing to favourably consider this request. There would obviously be a number of pre-conditions to be met in this respect regarding the status determination process, the treatment of returnees, appropriate assurances from the country of origin and adequate financial means. However, UNHCR is not in a position to monitor non-voluntary departures from the countries of asylum.

In order to maintain the momentum in this overall process, particularly in Southeast Asia, which I believe to be absolutely essential, I would propose that we should also convene a meeting in the region at the end of April or early May to follow-up on the various point I have mentioned. I would suggest that this meeting should be at the working level and should concentrate on the positive and pragmatic aspects of the CPA which require further consolidation and support.

I believe that you will agree with me that UNHCR is undertaking and proposing a number of measures under the CPA which are exceptional in terms of its traditional role. I do this consciously and willingly as I am convinced that only by accepting these extra responsibilities can we ensure that full protection of refugees within UNHCR's competence. For me, it is fundamental that safely of the human beings concerned is ensured and that they are treated throughout this exercise with dignity. It is only through our joint efforts to ensure this that all of us can likewise maintain our own dignity and follow a course which is without excessive risks for all. I believe that UNHCR cannot do more than I have outlined and I call on you - the States directly concerned with this problem - to respond in a positive and flexible manner to this joint challenge.