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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the United Nations Women's Guild Luncheon, Geneva, 10 February 1994

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the United Nations Women's Guild Luncheon, Geneva, 10 February 1994

10 February 1994

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you today on the issue of refugees. It is at the cutting edge of international concern, both for humanitarian as well as political reasons.

Let me begin with a few facts about my organization and the refugee problem. 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. At that time there were one million refugees, mainly from Eastern Europe. Today, UNHCR is helping some 20 million refugees and displaced persons in 109 countries across the globe, from Bosnia to Burundi, from Afghanistan to Azerbaijan, from Somalia to South Africa.

One of our major challenges has been to respond to emergencies. In the past two years UNHCR has had to send emergency teams to Kenya when 400,000 Somali refugees flowed into the country; to Bangladesh when a quarter million Myanmar refugees sought asylum there; to Tajikistan when half a million people were displaced by civil strife; to Armenia and Azerbaijan when conflict uprooted several hundred thousand persons. A military coup d'état in Burundi last October uprooted 600,000 persons in one week and forced them to flee to neighbouring countries.

In former Yugoslavia, UNHCR provides life-saving assistance to over 4.2 million people including 2.7 million people displaced inside Bosnia-Herzegovina or trapped in besieged cities. The UNHCR airlift to Sarajevo is the longest humanitarian airlift, having exceeded the Berlin airlift of 1948 in early October. Since 1 July 1992, in over 7,300 flights some 86,000 metric tonnes of relief supplies have been brought in to sustain the nearly half a million residents of the city. Fighting and the intransigence of the parties continue to hamper our access to the affected population. 11 of our staff have been killed, trying to save the lives of others.

Moving to more positive developments, UNHCR is also helping refugees to return home. Last year we completed the repatriation of some 370,000 Cambodians from Thailand. The Afghan refugee problem was one of the largest in modern times, with 6 million refugees in Iran and Pakistan. Today almost 2.5 million Afghans have returned home with our help. However, recent fighting in Kabul has cast a gloom on further prospects for return. Refugees have also begun to return to Mozambique from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and South Africa. I shall be visiting this region in a week's time to see for myself what is expected to be the largest repatriation operation in Africa, involving 1.5 million people. In almost every repatriation operation, the challenge for us is to ensure the minimum conditions of safety and economic and social well-being for those who are returning often to war-torn countries.

Whether in the context of emergencies, on-going refugee programmes or repatriation operations, much of our work is with women and children, because they are the most frequent and the most vulnerable victims of humanitarian tragedies.

They are the ones to face particular hardship in the course of flight and during exile. When community structures and traditional roles are destroyed in the process of displacement, refugee women and girls are exposed to physical violence, sexual abuse and exploitation. When their fathers, husbands or sons are killed or lost in the conflict, the women must take on new responsibilities in exile. Their protection and assistance needs have to be carefully and consciously integrated into the international response to refugee problems.

UNHCR thus works very closely with refugees. Seventy five per cent of UNHCR staff live in or close to refugee camps, negotiating with governments to ensure protection to those fleeing across the border, setting up camps, monitoring distribution of relief, and helping people, when peace comes, to return home safely.

The refugee issue today has become a pressing political issue. Why is that? For one, it is no longer limited, as it had been for much of the past, to the distant Third World. Europe today is a major producer of refugees, as well as recipient of refugees.

Another important change is the sheer magnitude of the problem.

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, several of them in the former Soviet Union. This is a part of the world in which international humanitarian organizations have had little experience in the past and where there are few private voluntary organizations, which make rapid emergency response difficult. With the recent resurgence of nationalism rekindling age-old feuds, the number of conflicts 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 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 the growing possibilities to move. Modern transport has narrowed distances, while international media has raised the aspirations of the less well off to seek a better future for themselves and their children in distant lands.

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

Are restrictions and border controls really the answer to this problem? We only have to look at our own rich and multi-cultural gathering here to see how shortsighted, even counter-productive, that might be.

Refugees and immigrants are more than images of despair crying out for charity. They are agents of change, of cultural cross-fertilization, of development and of growth. But they are also symptoms of the deeper social, economic and political problems which plague the world. The challenge is not how to keep them 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 legitimate concerns of the states and communities which receive them.

Our response to population movements must be comprehensive and concerted. 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 five main components of this approach, as I see it.

Firstly, international protection should continue to be granted to those who need it. The 1951 refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol are the only universal instruments for protecting those who flee persecutions. Governments must continue to apply them liberally, respecting the spirit as much as the letter of the law.

At the same time, we need to recognize the limits of the 1951 Convention. The procedures are too cumbersome, some of the obligations too onerous when there are large-scale refugee flows of the kind we are witnessing today. In such situations temporary sanctuary, until people can return home in safety and dignity, is the better answer. UNHCR has advocated temporary protection for Yugoslav refugees in Europe. 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, large numbers 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.

Appropriate migration policies should be developed, which meet the labour needs of an affluent industrialised world as well as the aspirations of the poorer countries of eastern Europe and the Third World.

The third element is greater financial assistance in the poorer parts of the world. UNHCR's annual budget has soared from US$ 544 million in 1990 to over US$ 1 billion. I know that many generous donor countries are hard hit by the global economic recession, but cutting down on international assistance for refugees would be tragic. It would hit hardest the asylum countries burdened with the largest numbers of refugees in the poorest parts of our world. Those who would suffer most would be the refugee women and children. When there is no clean water or adequate shelter, the weakest feel the strongest pinch. When there is not enough fuel for heating or cooking, it is usually the young girls who must walk far to collect firewood. When sanitation and medical facilities are poor, children and pregnant women are hurt most.

If humanitarian assistance and development aid are cut, then, perhaps, one of the saddest casualty of all will be the refugees who are returning home after decades in exile, to places such as Cambodia, Afghanistan and Mozambique. Their villages have been devastated, their homes destroyed, their fields heavily mined. What kind of future are they going back to if the international community does not help them?

My fourth 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. 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.

UNHCR has undertaken a limited programme of training, legal advice and institution-building in Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States. Such activities must be dramatically expanded and complemented by the international community if we are to have any meaningful impact in preventing future movements.

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.

The fifth 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. Soon we hope to launch a similar joint programme in the Russian Federation.

Information can be used also to create a more positive understanding for 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 private voluntary organizations and fora such as this one have an important role to play in building support for refugees.

In conclusion, let me stress that we need strong public support to build a truly coherent and coordinated response to population movements. We have to look beyond parochial national interests and avoid the temptation of domestic isolationism. Together we can contribute to global stability and security. Together we can help to build a better world where there will be fewer refugees.