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Talking Points for a Keynote Address by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the InterAction Forum on "Operating in an Age of Uncertainty: New Challenges in Humanitarian and Development Work," Washington D.C., 19 May 2004

Speeches and statements

Talking Points for a Keynote Address by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the InterAction Forum on "Operating in an Age of Uncertainty: New Challenges in Humanitarian and Development Work," Washington D.C., 19 May 2004

19 May 2004
IntroductionConvention PlusAfricaBeyond Africa


UNHCR started out in 1950 as a small organization with a three-year mandate to help find solutions for refugees who were still homeless in the aftermath of the Second World War. Since then, refugee protection has been globalized. A network of institutions, norms and laws has been developed to deal with refugee problems wherever they manifest themselves.

The international political environment today is very different from what it was like when UNHCR started its work and there are many new challenges confronting the Office. But some of the obstacles that UNHCR had to deal with in its early days remain. One in particular is the insufficient commitment by the international community to finding permanent solutions for refugees.

Millions of refugees continue to live in the most degrading conditions. They are often accommodated in remote, economically marginalized and insecure areas. They often have few opportunities for self-sufficiency. In Africa alone, there are over three million people in protracted refugee situations, including refugees from Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Burundi, Liberia, Western Sahara, Sierra Leone, Somalia and the Sudan.

The 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol provide a firm foundation for refugee protection. But alone they are not enough to ensure that the needs of refugees are met. Individual states will only live up to their commitments when they see the international community is committed to burden sharing and finding durable solutions. This is a collective responsibility and it must begin at the outset of every refugee crisis.

Convention Plus

"Convention Plus" is an initiative which builds on the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol by putting in place new arrangements to complement these instruments and strengthen their implementation. Hence the "plus". It is aimed at turning the international community's common aspirations of achieving durable solutions into concrete, practical and shared commitments. This means a stronger multilateral commitment to finding sustainable solutions to refugee problems in a burden sharing framework. The "Framework for Durable Solutions" can be found on UNHCR's website.

Burden sharing needs to be less ad hoc and more effective. It must not simply amount to "burden shifting". It is part of the broader goal or improving the overall management of refugee affairs, which includes focusing more on solutions. By apportioning responsibilities better amongst States, surely we will only increase the chances of ensuring peaceful solutions, improved security for States and more safety for the refugees themselves.

This calls for a change in the approach to solving refugee situations - particularly protracted ones. Convention Plus is based on the same principles and values that UNHCR has always stood for, but it offers a new opportunity to transform the way in which we address refugee problems. The test is whether or not Convention Plus can bring about concerted action and new tools to resolve refugee situations in an effective, predictable and cooperative manner.

Over the past year, the Convention Plus initiative has focused mainly on developing generic sets of understandings and commitments with States and other partners. The focus is now shifting to implementation. This involves determining which situations are most pressing and appropriate for collective responses, and putting together plans of action to do so. The aim is to address both protracted and evolving situations in a proactive, rather than reactive, manner.


It is encouraging to note that in spite of some setbacks, never before have there been so many opportunities for durable solutions, in particular voluntary repatriation, in so many parts of Africa. There is enormous potential for resolving long-standing conflicts, consolidating peace and putting an end to protracted refugee and IDP situations.

The African Dialogue on Voluntary Repatriation and Sustainable Reintegration was convened in March this year to build on this positive momentum. At this Dialogue, it was emphasized that realizing the full potential for durable solutions in Africa today will mean achieving more development in Africa and reducing the risk of conflicts recurring. Now is the time for the international community to unite in lending its full support to this goal.

In many parts of Africa, refugees are beginning to rebuild their lives after years in exile. In Eritrea, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and parts of Somalia, hundreds of thousands of refugees have gone home over the past few years. Ongoing reintegration and rehabilitation activities continue to allow the remaining refugees and internally displaced to return to their homes.

UNHCR is actively exploring the possibilities for a comprehensive plan of action (CPA) for Somalia. This approach would involve addressing the situation both in Somalia and in exile. The extent of support for this from all quarters is encouraging and the building blocks for this CPA are now being put in place.

Other operations are at different stages in their planning, depending on political developments and the status of peace processes. In Liberia, where the deployment of peacekeepers and humanitarian personnel throughout the country is underway and where the disarmament and demobilization process has just taken off, thousands of refugees have spontaneously started to make their way home. The fourteen year war, however, has left a devastated country that needs to be urgently repaired if return is to be sustainable. Likewise, the demobilization of former combatants will only be successful if they are able to integrate into a society in which they have confidence.

Regional approaches are also needed if a recurrence of conflict and instability is to be avoided. The forthcoming Conference of Mano River Heads of State on 20 May will provide a good opportunity raise this issue again.

The situation in Côte d'Ivoire is of increasing concern to UNHCR. Although the deteriorating political and security situation has not resulted in large refugee outflows, it is having a devastating effect on the economic situation in the region as a whole and poverty is increasing.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, planning is underway for the voluntary repatriation of refugees from neighbouring countries to parts of the country where peace and stability have reached sustainable levels, such as Equatoria and Katanga. UNHCR is reestablishing its presence in these areas to prepare for their return.

In Burundi, the signing of understandings between the Government and the rebellion as well as progress in the recent peace talks have already enabled UNHCR to facilitate the repatriation of 35,000 refugees since the beginning of this year. Up to 800,000 refugees could eventually return over the next few years. UNHCR is cautious with promoting a large-scale repatriation at this stage, as there are still enormous challenges to be met. As yet no decision has been taken as to the mandate and composition of any UN or African Union peace-keeping mission.

A key issue for the sustainability of returns is land occupation and property restitution, which touches directly upon the integrity and capacity of the Burundian judicial system. UNHCR is closely coordinating with other UN agencies and partners in planning for the reintegration of the returnees. The commitment of development actors in this process is essential.

In southern Sudan, positive developments in the peace talks give rise to hopes for the return of 600,000 Sudanese refugees in exile in neighbouring countries over the next few years. UNHCR is progressively re-establishing its presence in the South in order to prepare for refugees who will return spontaneously and to commence with rehabilitation activities that are essential for a minimum reabsorption capacity. In doing so, UNHCR is closely coordinating with other UN agencies, partners and local authorities on the ground.

These positive developments towards peace and return in Sudan, however, are increasingly overshadowed by the situation in Darfur, which is of extreme concern to UNHCR and to the UN in general. UNHCR recently took part in the High Level UN Interagency mission to Darfur and was able to confirm the devastating effects of violence on the Sudanese population in the region. It is estimated that at least one million people have been displaced as a direct result of violence and a large majority of them have suffered gross human rights violations. Rape has become a systematic means of warfare and the humanitarian situation is appalling.

UNHCR - together with its UN partners - is developing an enhanced operational plan to assist the affected population in Darfur. This will focus on the creation of a protection environment that is conducive to the return of the displaced, including IDPs and Sudanese refugees from Darfur currently hosted in neighbouring Chad.

In Chad, since the start of the Darfur emergency and in view of the increasing insecurity in the Sudan border areas, where tens of thousands of refugees remained scattered without effective access to humanitarian assistance, UNHCR has so far relocated 60,000 refugees to safe camps away from the border. The relocation operation continues and it is expected to reach the figure of 100,000 by the end of May, before the beginning of the rainy season. The main challenges are the scarce availability of water and the complex logistics that are necessary to deliver humanitarian assistance to the camps. Many of these camps will be cut off during the rainy season. Moreover, there will still be refugees who cannot, or do not wish to be relocated away from the border (for instance because of pastoral activities), for whom UNHCR is currently developing an alternative assistance and protection plan.

In Angola, 218,000 refugees have returned since the signing of the peace accord in April 2002. UNHCR has assisted 76,000 refugees to return through four main corridors of repatriation from Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Namibia. Among the main challenges to repatriation is the massive presence of landmines in areas of return, which either prevents refugees from going home or does not allow them to cultivate their land, greatly hindering their sustainable reintegration. There is an urgent need to support demining NGOs in Angola. Added to this is the lack of infrastructure, with many damaged bridges and inaccessible roads. During a visit to Angola in 2003, the idea that the Government needs to do more in terms of addressing these challenges was strongly promoted.

A sudden food shortage in the region has become another factor that could hamper the return movement. UNHCR is working closely with WFP to look into possible solutions and is also engaged in a close dialogue with development actors with the aim of ensuring that areas of return are included in their development planning.

Beyond Africa

Outside Africa, UNHCR also continues to be actively engaged in finding solutions for refugees. In Afghanistan, the situation has radically changed since the end of 2001. Some 3 million refugees and internally displaced Afghans have returned to their homes and plans have been made for up to one million more returns this year. Although UNHCR has no accurate figures of its own, according to the Governments of Iran and Pakistan there are still around 3 million Afghans in these two countries. Not all of these Afghans are necessarily "refugees".

Recognizing this, UNHCR has proposed a two-pronged approach in the region. The first prong involves continuing to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of refugees. The second prong involves encouraging Governments in the region to negotiate bilateral "temporary migration" agreements allowing Afghans to work in Iran and Pakistan and to send home their remittances.

There are also other protracted refugee situations that UNHCR is analysing, with a view to implementing Convention Plus approaches. For example, there is the massive displacement in Colombia, which has to be analysed in terms of the impact that this may have on the wider region. Another example is Nepal, where solutions for more than 100,000 Bhutanese who have been in camps for over a decade are long overdue.