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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the High Level Segment of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on Development in Africa, Geneva, 5 July 1995

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the High Level Segment of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on Development in Africa, Geneva, 5 July 1995

5 July 1995

Mr. President, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen

The problems of development and displacement are closely linked in Africa, a continent where half of the world's refugees live. UNHCR assists nearly 7 million refugees in Africa, in addition to almost 5 million internally displaced persons and returning refugees. The massive exodus of more than 2 million people from Rwanda to neighbouring countries last year highlighted the human tragedies confronting Africa. The situation in the Great Lakes region remains extremely fragile. Refugee flows continue also in other parts of the continent, notably west Africa, Somalia and Sudan. In addition, large numbers of persons remain internally displaced in many parts of the continent, in refugee-like conditions, without international protection or assistance.

However, the picture is not all bleak. Five years ago, approximately a third of all African refugees came from four countries in southern Africa. Today, thanks to the statesmanship of the leaders in the region, the refugees have returned home to Namibia, South Africa and Mozambique. The return of 1.6 million Mozambican refugees was UNHCR's largest repatriation operation ever in Africa. We are now planning for the voluntary repatriation of some 300,000 Angolans, which will hopefully bring to an end the bitter history of oppression and flight in southern Africa.

I should emphasize that both the impetus on repatriation, as well as the impulse for future outflows will be greatly affected by the way in which African leaders and the international community seek to address the political, social and economic challenges which confront Africa. This is why I urged the OAU Council of Ministers at their recent meeting to adopt a comprehensive and concerted strategy on refugees and the displaced. Based on international cooperation and solidarity, such a strategy should address the causes which lead to refugee flows, protect and assist the victims when they are forced to flee, and seek solutions to their plight. The Bujumbura conference was an attempt to provide such a comprehensive and balanced approach to the humanitarian problem in the Great Lakes region by bringing together the political, humanitarian and development dimensions.

I cannot but underline the key role of economic development in a comprehensive approach to Africa's humanitarian crisis: firstly in terms of preventing refugee problems from arising, secondly in terms of mitigating the adverse impact of refugee problems on the development of countries of asylum; and thirdly, in terms of resolving refugee problems.

Firstly, in terms of prevention. Poverty, environmental degradation, population pressures and competition for scarce resources often fuel ethnic, social, political and religious tensions. They in turn provoke violence which leads to refugee flows. Economic development, therefore, is essential for the prevention of refugee problems but, to be truly effective, it cannot be pursued in isolation from political efforts to promote respect for human rights, the rule of law and accountable governance.

The steady decline of development assistance to Africa not only reflects poorly on notions of international solidarity, but, I believe, is also shortsighted in terms of global security. With the end of the Cold War, African problems may seem far removed from the strategic concerns of the industrialized world. But in an increasingly inter-dependent world, distant problems can rapidly become domestic ones. Nowhere is this clearer than when political insecurity and economic instability lead to large-scale population movements which engulf entire regions and, if left untreated, can become a global threat from which none is immune.

Secondly, the impact of displacement on the development of countries of asylum. Despite their own daunting problems, countries like Tanzania and Zaire are hosting very large numbers of refugees. They cannot be expected to fully meet their obligations to refugees without the financial support and solidarity of the international community. Commensurate with the needs, nearly fifty per cent of all UNHCR's resources are earmarked for programmes in Africa. However, I am acutely conscious of the fact that international refugee assistance does not compensate for the collateral impact of refugees on the host country, in terms of the damage to the physical environment and burden on the social and economic infrastructure of the local communities. This is an area which deserves greater attention and development assistance from the international community.

While acknowledging the burden of asylum countries and the generosity which they have shown, I must express my concern at the more restrictive policies and practices which some countries are adopting. I must appeal in the strongest possible terms to Governments to continue receive refugees and to provide them with the safety and protection they need, in accordance with internationally recognized principles.

Thirdly, the role of development in finding solutions to refugee problems. The situation in the Great Lakes region daily reminds us of the threat posed to regional peace and security when refugee problems are left unresolved. This same region also demonstrates that successful voluntary repatriation depends on political action to achieve peace, and economic action to rehabilitate war torn societies.

Whether in the case of Eritrea or Angola, Mozambique or Ethiopia, refugees are returning to countries in the process of profound change, to villages which have been devastated by war, homes which have been destroyed, schools and hospitals left in ruins, roads and fields heavily mined. The reintegration of returnees is a major challenge under these circumstances, but given the mandate of my Office, what we can do is limited. As in the case of Mozambique, we have set up small-scale quick impact projects that promote self-sufficiency of returning refugees and their communities. But these fall far short of the overall needs.

More comprehensive, timely and sustained efforts are needed to rehabilitate war-torn societies. They must be comprehensive in order to address both the range of needs faced by the country, and the diversity of beneficiaries, whether they be returning refugees, internally displaced or those who remained behind. The efforts must be timely because peace is most fragile in its infancy, and must be seen to pay early dividends to those who are most affected by war or conflict. While appreciating the work of development agencies and financial institutions, we must press for new means and methods to respond faster and earlier to meet rehabilitation needs. Development should not follow in the footsteps of humanitarian relief but, wherever possible, should be launched simultaneously, and in a complementary and mutually supportive manner.

Most importantly, for peace to be consolidated, development and rehabilitation resources must be provided in a sustained manner. Without sustained efforts, how can we ensure that the peace which has taken hold, for instance in southern Africa, can be made to last? The international community must remain engaged long after the television cameras have moved on.

Finally, let me say that the costs of meeting the development and rehabilitation needs of Africa are indeed enormous. But the cost of instability, conflict and displacement is much greater. The human toll is immeasurable. Avoiding that greater cost will require both political will and international solidarity. It will require appreciating the links between peace, development and displacement, and addressing the refugee problem through a comprehensive strategy. I call once again upon the African leaders to ensure good governance and respect for the rights and dignity of their citizens so that those who have fled can return home and others will not be forced to flee. I call upon the international community to assist the countries of asylum to receive refugees, and the countries of origin to reintegrate and rehabilitate those who return. Only through such common efforts can we hope to bring together political, humanitarian and development issues and turn the fragile opportunities of today into solid foundations for a better tomorrow.