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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Club Diplomatique de Genève, Geneva, 13 October 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Club Diplomatique de Genève, Geneva, 13 October 1993

13 October 1993

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you today on the issue of refugees.

Let me begin by giving you basic information about my organization and what we do. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established by the UN General Assembly in 1951 to protect and assist refugees, and to find solutions for them. From Benin to Bangladesh, from Afghanistan to Azerbaijan, from Somalia to South Africa, in 109 countries across the globe UNHCR is helping some 19 million refugees and displaced persons today.

We respond to their emergency needs for food, shelter and health, as in Azerbaijan where several hundred thousand people have been displaced by the recent fighting. On a happier note, we also help refugees to return home. Last March we completed the repatriation of some 370,000 Cambodians from Thailand. Last month I travelled to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. The Afghan refugee problem was one of the largest in modern times, with 6 million refugees in Iran and Pakistan. Today more than 1.5 million Afghans have returned home with our help. The challenge now is to ensure the minimum conditions of safety and economic and social well-being for those who have chosen to return to a country which is still strife-ridden. Refugees have also begun to return to Mozambique from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and South Africa. It will be the largest repatriation exercise in Africa, involving 1.5 million people.

Seventy five percent of UNHCR staff live in or close to refugee camps, monitoring distribution of relief, negotiating with the authorities to allow those fleeing to cross borders, setting up camps and helping people, and when peace comes, to go home.

Most of UNHCR's work occurs away from the glare of cameras in inaccessible and harsh corners of the globe. But of late, our efforts in northern Iraq and Bosnia-Herzegovina have received considerable media exposure. In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, my Office assisted in the return of 1.7 million Kurds from neighbouring countries, and in the reconstruction of some 1,500 Kurdish villages, which allowed 6,500 families to survive the winter at home. UNHCR deployed some 180 staff alongside 500 UN guards and hundreds of NGO staff as a confidence-building measure to enhance security.

In former Yugoslavia, UNHCR provides life-saving assistance to over 4 million people, of whom over a million are refugees in Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. The rest are displaced inside Bosnia-Herzegovina or in besieged cities, and dependent on international assistance and protection for their survival. The UNHCR airlift to Sarajevo is the largest humanitarian airlift since the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948, and surpassed Berlin last Friday. Since 1 July 1992, in over 5,500 flights some 60,000 metric tonnes of relief supplies have been brought in to sustain the nearly half a million residents of the city. I am deeply concerned about the humanitarian catastrophe we could witness with a second winter of war in the former Yugoslavia.

Northern Iraq and former Yugoslavia clearly highlight the pressing nature of the refugee problem today, which has become a major issue affecting the stability and security of our societies.

Why is the refugee issue such a pressing one today in Europe?For one, it is no longer limited, as it had been for much of the past, to the distant Third World. Sarajevo is closer to Geneva than Madrid. Europe is not only receiving refugees, it is also producing them.

Another important change is the sheer magnitude of the refugee outflow. In 1970, UNHCR cared for 2.8 million refugees. By 1982 that figure had risen to 11 million. Today almost 19 million people are assisted by my Office. An additional 25 million people are displaced within their own frontiers. These figures mean that about one in every hundred persons has been forced to leave his home.

The projection of what is to come is even more dismal. One of the main causes of refugee flight is conflict. Some 35 such conflicts are now underway across the globe. With the recent resurgence of nationalism rekindling age-old feuds, that figure could increase to 75 by the year 2000, possibly doubling the number of those compelled to flee.

Severe socio-economic problems are also at the root of population movements. The global economic recession is hitting hardest on the poorest, and environmental and population pressures are exacerbating their plight. One billion people live on less than US$1 per day. The gap between rich and poor nations is widening, as is the disparity between the rich and the poor within communities, fuelling social and ethnic tensions.

In parallel with the pressures to move are growing the possibilities to move. Modern transport has narrowed distances while international media has increased the aspirations of the less well off to seek a better future for themselves and their children in distant lands.

In Western Europe alone the numbers of asylum-seekers have increased from 30,000 in the 1970s to 400,000 in the late 1980s. In 1992 they reached close to 750,000. In the case of Switzerland, asylum applications have almost doubled from 9,700 in 1985 to just over 18,000 last year. The increase reflects on the one hand the larger numbers of refugees in search of protection, and on the other, the greater numbers of economic migrants who use asylum procedures as a door to Europe in the absence of immigration programmes.

In short, we are living in an age when more people are moving than ever before.

The challenge is not how to keep refugees away, but how to manage refugee and migratory movements in a way which upholds basic human rights and humanitarian principles and meets the needs of the victims as well as the concerns of the States and communities which receive them.

Our response must be a comprehensive and concerted one. For too long, refugee policies and practices, conditioned by the Cold War, have concentrated on the countries of asylum. Today, the growing scale and complexity of the refugee problem, as well as the changed international context, make clear the need to focus also on the country from which refugees originate. The international community must address the entire continuum of refugee flows from its root causes and prevention to emergency response, protection and eventual solution.

I would like to outline six main elements of this approach, as I see it.

Firstly, international protection should continue to be granted to those who need it. The 1951 refugee Convention remains the strongest expression of international solidarity for the persecuted, and governments must continue to apply the Convention liberally.

At the same time, we need to recognize the limits of the 1951 Convention, particularly when there are large-scale refugee flows of the kind we are witnessing today. New concepts of protection must be devised based on the notion of temporary sanctuary, followed by voluntary return in safety and dignity. UNHCR has advocated such temporary protection for the Yugoslav refugee problem. What we are talking about is quite simple: admission to safety and assistance for survival until conditions in the country of origin are such as to allow safe return. Through such a concept, victims of war and violence can find the sanctuary they badly need, while governments can afford to be more generous in the knowledge of the temporary nature of their burden.

Secondly, there must be a clear distinction between refugees fleeing persecution and violence, and migrants fleeing poverty. The plight of both groups are equally deserving of attention. But differing needs require different responses. Therefore, efforts must continue to establish fair and efficient procedures to ensure that valid claims to asylum or temporary protection are duly and expeditiously recognized. Efforts must also be made to establish procedures and mechanisms for the orderly and safe return of non-refugees, along the lines of what UNHCR has promoted in Vietnam, and what is being considered for Sri Lankan Tamils.

Many rejected asylum-seekers are in reality would-be immigrants using the asylum channel, because there is not much opportunity for immigration to Europe. This brings me to my third point on immigration. Just as protection policies must address those fleeing war and persecution, migration policies should be developed to cope with those moving for economic and social reasons. Some demographers and economists argue that western Europe would stand to gain, at least in the medium-term, from an increased level of immigration. Governments must be more forthcoming in considering appropriate immigration policies which meet the labour needs of an ageing and affluent Europe as well as the aspirations of the poorer countries of eastern Europe and the Third World. Such a mix of asylum and immigration may give European governments greater flexibility to respond to some population movements, as well as preserve the asylum procedures from abusive claims.

The fourth element is greater assistance to refugee programmes in the poorer parts of the world, both to enable asylum countries to continue to provide sanctuary, and to promote solutions in countries from which refugees originate. I have already mentioned Cambodia, Afghanistan and Mozambique, as examples. There are also other situations, but almost in every case people are going home to areas where security is fragile, mines abundant and economic prospects virtually non-existent. If voluntary repatriation is to be a lasting solution, then returning refugees must be reintegrated properly in their communities. Opportunities for economic and social development must be created to sustain political developments.

My fifth element is about prevention:the prevention of refugee flows through the promotion of human rights, better governance and economic development. Respect of human rights in general, and the protection of minority rights in particular, are crucial for greater stability. Without that respect and protection, minorities and other groups will feel increasingly marginalised and exploited, and could be provoked into seeking escape in virulent forms of nationalism and sectarianism. We must be as vigilant about the right of people to remain where they are, as we have been about the right of people to seek asylum. The international human rights machinery, which was long paralysed by ideological confrontation, must now be used to greater effect to hold governments accountable for abuses.

At the same time, western governments must look beyond their traditional emphasis on political and civil rights and broaden their receptivity to economic and social rights. Poverty not only creates migratory pressures but also leads to unrest and social upheavals which in turn may result in refugee flows. Development assistance, with an emphasis on priority human needs, including job creation, poverty alleviation, education and health could help to reduce some migratory pressure. In fact I would urge development cooperation policy makers to include migration considerations as part of a larger international cooperative effort encompassing aid, trade and investment.

The sixth and final element is public information. Today, television beams the life-style of the west into the homes of the poor, generating new expectations and aspirations. It must be balanced with accurate information so that individuals who wish to leave their country can make an educated decision after weighing the consequences of movement against the possibility of staying at home. A massive UNHCR information campaign in Vietnam has played a significant part in directing those who want to leave towards orderly migration programmes rather than risking their lives in dangerous boat journeys. In Albania, UNHCR is cooperating with the International Organisation of Migration in a similar campaign to reduce illegal migration.

Information can be used also to create a more positive understanding of the plight of refugees in asylum countries. Public opinion and public policy are shaped by mass media and the statements of policy makers. Not only the media, but also academic institutions and non-governmental organisations have an important role to play in building support for refugees.

In concluding, let me stress that we need the demonstration of strong political will to build a truly coherent and coordinated response to population movements. We have to look beyond parochial national interests. The new climate of multilateralism offers hope for the way forward. We must seize this rare moment in history.