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Summary of Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Relief and Resettlement Conference, Khartoum, Sudan, 21-23 February 1972

Speeches and statements

Summary of Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Relief and Resettlement Conference, Khartoum, Sudan, 21-23 February 1972

21 February 1972

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadruddin Aga Khan, stated that it was a privilege for him to attend the conference. The presence of his office on what he termed "This historic occasion" testified to the close and productive cooperation which had always existed between the Government of the Sudan and UNHCR. He expressed appreciation for the moral, political and financial support which Sudan consistently granted his work for refugees both in the General Assembly and in the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's programme in Geneva. He was gratified to note that two of the Sudan Government's representatives in the Committee were actively participating in the Conference: Ambassadors Abdallah Hassan and Salah Hashim.

The High Commissioner particularly thanked Sayed Abdel Rahman A. El Beshir, Commissioner for Refugees, Government of the Sudan, for his invaluable efforts to assist refugees in the Sudan and for the warm relations which were maintained with the High Commissioner's Branch Office in Khartoum. Sudanese Embassies in the neighbouring countries had been of great help to UNHCR and this collaboration was in the best interest of the uprooted Southerners who wished to return home.

Sadruddin Aga Khan then commended the spirit with which the Government is tackling the refugee problem: through a dialogue and in search of an understanding which is truly in the spirit of the United Nations and the Declaration of Human Rights. It is the same approach that has enabled UNHCR to carry out its humanitarian and non-political activities in the neighbouring countries to the benefit of persons uprooted through no fault of their own across the Southern boundaries of the Sudan. This applied equally to the settlements of refugees whom UNHCR was assisting here and to whom the Sudan had extended generous asylum and hospitality.

Africa had consistently served as an example in this respect: the principle of asylum was faithfully implemented and large groups had been received by many African Governments. The High commissioner paid a tribute to this "great African tradition" as "without asylum there could be no hope for a refugee". UNHCR had spared no effort to ensure that "the granting of asylum should never be considered an act of hostility towards the country of origin of the refugees".

The High Commissioner further stated that his principle objective had always been to solve refugee problems permanently. The best way to achieve this was to promote and facilitate voluntary repatriation. Indeed, these were his basic terms of reference and the General Assembly had stressed this in many resolutions.

When this could not be achieved immediately, however, the refugee had to be made self-supporting. In his 10 years of experience in the field of refugee work, the High Commissioner had noted that the worst thing that could happen to a refugee is to remain idle. This creates bitterness and breeds unrest and instability. The refugee becomes frustrated and turns against his country and the country of asylum. He added: "we have seen in other parts of the world what this situation can bring about." UNHCR had borne this in mind when helping Sudanese in the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Uganda and Zaire. The fact that the refugees were encouraged to be self-supporting allowed them to become productive elements and this would be valuable when they returned to their countries of origin where they would be useful human resources. Whatever education or vacational Training they received abroad was an investment for their homeland in due course.

Much had been said about the services provided by UNHCR. This should not be exaggerated. It represented the minimum requirements. The High Commissioner did not wish to make the refugees a "privileged class". The usual criteria was that refugees should have the same standard of living, by and large, as that of the local population in the area. Any obvious differences would be counterproductive and would trigger off social friction.

These were the standards applied by UNHCR in Qala en Nahl and Rajaf and those observed by the Sudanese Government.

Most refugees yearned to return home, even if they were given material assistance in countries of asylum: some African refugees had left good settlements to go back to uncertainty only so as to be with their own people in their villages.

The High Commissioner declared that he would actively continue to promote voluntary repatriation - it had to be based on the free will of the refugee. This was stipulated in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol as well as in the OAU Refugee Convention. Refugees should never be forced back. This would work against the interests of both countries of asylum and countries of origin. UNHCR had spent considerable funds to finance the return of Sudanese from neighbouring countries.

By encouraging peaceful settlement until the refugees could return home UNHCR was "contributing to peace and stability in Africa". The office established rural schemes away from borders whenever possible, so as to prevent tensions and incidents. This was in line with OAU decisions, Refugees should not engage in subversive activities contrary to principles of the United Nations. Countries of asylum should not be used as a base against the country of origin. These fundamental rules had been observed closely in settlements like M'boki (Central African Republic), Gambela (Ethiopia), Agago-Acolpi (Uganda) and Isiro (North-East of Zaire).

UNHCR had been established in 1951 "to grant international protection and, subsequently, material assistance to refugees who had left their country of origin or of habitual residence." It would therefore be an infringement of national sovereignty to treat returnees as a separate group in their own country where they are citizens like compatriots who never left. This was especially true in the Sudan where many had been uprooted within certain parts of their country. Rehabilitation was needed in a whole area - for former refugees as well as for internally displaced persons. The High Commissioner was not empowered to utilize his limited funds for such projects since his programme had to cover the minimum needs of refugees - as defined in his statute - all over the world.

A great deal could be done, however, through UNHCR's "good offices" to promote the coordination of effective assistance towards the rehabilitation of returnees. The High Commissioner had stimulated and would continue to call for concrete contributions from other members of the UN System and from non-governmental Organizations. This had already produced visible results in the Sudan - viz, the World Food Programme project in the South and the generous collaboration of the Swedish Red Cross, the League of Red Cross Societies and voluntary agencies in UNHCR's Settlements.

Similarly, the Rajaf scheme benefited both refugees from Zaire and Sudanese repatriates.

This catalytic role of the High Commissioner for Refugees had been further strengthened through the resolution voted by acclamation in the last General Assembly and which the Sudan delegation had greatly contributed towards. The High Commissioner declared: "We shall not ignore the needs of returnees and the Government can be sure that we will facilitate their rehabilitation." He referred to what his office was doing in this respect on the Asian Subcontinent.

In concluding, Sadruddin Aga Khan declared: "this conference must succeed." The aims and objectives had been set out admirably by His Excellency the Vice-President and His Excellency the Minister for Foreign Affairs. UNHCR welcomed this pioneering initiative. This was an example of the best approach to achieve repatriation and solve a refugee problem. "I sincerely hope that it will set a precedent that will be followed by many countries" said the High Commissioner. This distinguished gathering symbolized what UNHCR stood for: a humanitarian partnership between the Government of the Country of origin and those of the Countries of Asylum; the OAU, the Red Cross, Voluntary Organizations - who had done so much in Europe and could do more in Africa, the Churches, in a new spirit of objectivity and impartiality devoid of parochialism and the agencies of the UN System. He also welcomed the presence of the representatives of the media whose responsibility it was to inform public opinion of this effort.

The High Commissioner thanked the Government and all those who came - particularly His Royal Highness Prince Henrik of Denmark and stressed: "I personally pledge my fullest support as UNHCR has always believed that there was no happier solution to the plight of the uprooted than to be able to live in peace and tranquillity in one's own homeland."

Khartoum, 22 February 1972.