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Address of Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 2 October 1982

Speeches and statements

Address of Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 2 October 1982

2 October 1982

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is indeed a great honour and a privilege for me to address you this morning and to open your debate on the 23rd report on the activities of my Office. I particularly value this opportunity because it serves to underline the strength of the ties between the Council of Europe and the Office of UNHCR and the cooperation that exists in our common fields of endeavour. It also offers me the rare occasion of addressing - in one single body - the democratically elected representatives of all the member states of the Council of Europe. In view of the influence which, collectively, your constituencies have on world events this is I do assure you an opportunity to which I attach the highest importance.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we meet in the shadow of a most shattering and appalling event - the massacre of hundreds of defenceless men, women and children in two refugee camps of Southern Beirut. This senseless act of violence has prompted expressions of indignation and outrage throughout the civilized world - sentiments to which I feel bound to lend my own voice. The Palestinians who were victims of this tragedy were not within the competence of my Office. Their fate is however symptomatic of the plight of many hundreds of thousands of refugees who are of my concern. For there has in recent years been a marked increase in the incidents of physical violence which have been perpetrated against refugees and asylum-seekers. Frequently these have occurred in circumstances of unmitigated cruelty and savagery. Asylum-seekers have fallen prey to pirate attacks, innocent women and children in refugee camps have been the victims of military forces, and persons seeking the safe haven of a refugee camp have been shot down while fording a river or attempting to cross a border.

Dramatic situations like this deservedly attract headlines and thus become the subject of international attention. But they do not constitute the whole picture. As you know one of the important functions of my Office is to find durable solutions to refugee problems and as the report before you shows, in this respect the Office has been able to achieve a measure of success. The most desirable solution to all refugee problems is of course that the refugee be able to return home, voluntarily and in safety. During the period covered by the report, circumstances in a number of countries permitted the return home of refugees under such conditions and in three instances - that of Nicaragua, Zimbabwe and Chad - such movements involved the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of persons. Where the solution of voluntary repatriation was not feasible durable solutions had to be found by the assimilation of refugees into new communities - either in countries of first asylum or failing this in other countries of settlement which accepted the refugees for permanent residence.

I am pleased to note that the successes that have been achieved over the past few years in securing durable solutions in either of these ways - repatriation or integration - have not been offset by the emergence of new refugee situations of corresponding dimensions. This encouraging development enables me to report a relative stablisation in the world refugee problem over the past twelve months. I should add here that in pursuing the on going task of finding durable solutions for refugees my Office has always benefitted from the support given collectively and individually by member states of the Council of Europe. Whether by way of pursuing liberal admission policies, by providing resettlement opportunities or financial contributions or by the general backing of the refugee cause in national and international fora, this support has been both consistent and constant. I most earnestly hope that my Office can continue to rely on this most important support of member states in every domain of our activities in favour of refugees.

Against this background I should now like to review some of the major problems still confronting the international community, for which solutions still have to be found. I shall start with Africa, the continent with the largest number of refugees and displaced persons. An existing caseload of some 500,000 refugees in the Sudan is still on the increase with continuing arrivals in the southern part of the country. In the rest of the Horn of Africa, the situation is no less serious or demanding. In Somalia while voluntary repatriation is given all due attention, emphasis is now being placed on engaging the refugee population - some 700,000 persons - in farming and other gainful activities while they remain in the country. In Ethiopia my Office recently launched an appeal for funds towards an expanded programme on behalf of returnees aimed at providing basic relief and assistance to those returning, as well as creating a climate conducive to further voluntary repatriation. In Chad as I mentioned earlier the programme of repatriation and rehabilitation of 200,000 Chad nationals has now been substantially concluded.

In Asia, the three main concerns are the refugee situations in Pakistan, in Thailand and the continuing question of the boat people.

In Pakistan, the authorities report further arrivals which place a corresponding burden on the government to find new areas where they can be accommocated. UNHCR will continue to assist the 2.1 million most needy refugees who are located in 300 refugee villages in North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan. One of our main concerns in this complex situation of considerable magnitude is to promote activities which would enable the Afghan refugees to become more self reliant. At our request, the World Bank sent a mission to Pakistan which identified a project with four components; irrigation, afforestation, range improvement and road construction and improvement involving an investment of up to $20 million. This project would provide labour - intensive work opportunities for refugees and some local people of up to 28,000 work years, help repair environmental damage caused by the presence of the refugees and create durable economic assets in the refugee areas. The World Bank has agreed to provide further assistance in the preparation, appraisal and supervision of this pilot project.

The situation in Thailand and that of the boat people has gradually slipped out of the news, overshadowed by more recent events and I therefore feel a note of caution is warranted. Although more recently resettlement from the area has outpaced arrivals the problem is still far from being solved. A worrying factor is that the 1982 resettlement places so far offered are roughly half those provided for the same period in 1981. I therefore very much hope that the generosity that has been extended by countries of resettlement, including those that are members of the Council of Europe, can be sustained until this problem is finally resolved.

To complete this necessarily brief tour d'horizon of refugee problems in the world, I would like to add a few words about Latin America. Recent events in Central America which will be familiar to all of you have led to sizeable refugee flows. The most important UNHCR programmes are those underway in Honduras which is receiving refugees from three countries and where special efforts are being made to find a long term solution for the refugees in agriculture.

I should now like to turn my attention to Europe and to bring into sharper focus a number of the major issues of mutual concern to my Office and member states in regard to the refugee problem in this region. Let me say at the outset that my Office follows refugee problems in Europe with the greatest care and attention. Through the deep involvement of European states in the refugee problems in other areas, the refugee problem in Europe is as it were a microcosm of the world refugee problem. As members of the Assembly will know the nature of the refugee problem in Europe has changed within the past decade. Previously the refugees who arrived came mostly from Eastern Europe. For the receiving states these refugees represented a fairly manageable problem since they could be absorbed into existing communities in Europe or moved to resettlement countries such as United States of America Canada and Australia. This picture has now dramatically changed because European States are confronted with the arrival of large numbers of asylum seekers from almost all continents of the world. This development has called for special understanding on the part of receiving states because many of these people come from countries of distinctly different cultures and different standards of development.

The present situation has proved all the more problematical because it has occurred against the background of a general migration from the southern regions of the world to the north involving persons who voluntarily leave their homes in search of economic betterment. This development has affected the European problem because many of the persons caught up in such movements have requested asylum purely in order to be able to remain in Europe.

The problem of abusive asylum claims is I know one of the major current preoccupations of European states. I am aware that a number of states have already taken measures to curb such abuses and prevent critical situations occurring as a result of a growing backlog of asylum requests. To this end they have adopted new asylum laws or have streamlined existing laws or administrative arrangements to ensure more efficient procedures and to eliminate abusive claims.

My Office of course fully appreciates the necessity for such measures and is in full accord with the endeavours of governments in this respect. I would however sound a note of caution that in pursuing such efforts it is necessary to ensure that basic guarantees are not in any way weakened or undermined. I know that this may not be an easy task but it is nevertheless of the utmost importance that a genuine asylum-seeker should not in any way suffer from general measures designed to eliminate abusive asylum claims. I am therefore pleased to note the emphasis placed by the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography in the draft Resolution before you of the need to maintain high standards of international protection of refugees and more specifically to ensure that in streamlining refugee determination procedures the essential guarantees are preserved.

Another problem which continues to be of concern to European states results from the varying reasons which prompt people to leave their country of origin and to claim refugee status. The asylum-seeker of the 1980s is not necessarily the prototype of the person who sought refugee status at the time the international refugee instruments were adopted. We have on the one hand the person who has a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her home country and who therefore meets the refugee definition as traditionally understood. At the other end of the spectrum we have the person who is clearly an economic migrant and whose request for asylum can be readily excluded. Between these two extremes, there are persons who while not falling within the refugee definition may nevertheless have valid reasons for having left their country of origin and not wishing to return there. Such reasons may be due to circumstances such as civil turmoil, a widespread state of repression or simply the fact that the authorities are unable to extend protection to all citizens. My Office believes that such persons should as far as possible be treated as refugees, if only on broad humanitarian grounds. As a basic minimum they should be allowed to stay until conditions in their home country permit their safe return.

A number of the other problems currently facing European governments in the refugee field are mentioned by Lord McNair in his excellent memorandum. In order to place them in a wider context I would now like to say a few words regarding the international protection of refugees from a global standpoint. At this level the general picture is presently somewhat disquieting. My Office has, it is true, observed a generally wider understanding of the basic principles of international protection. This is evidenced by the increasing numbers of States Parties to the international refugee instruments - including I am pleased to announce three states in the Asian region, namely Japan, the Philippines and most recently the Peoples' Republic of China - and by the adoption by individual states of internal legislation regulating the legal status of refugees. On the other hand there is a general tendency for governments the world over to be less generous than in previous years in granting durable asylum and in identifying persons who are to be regarded as refugees of concern to the international community.

These latter trends must of course be seen against the background of the tremendous upsurge in recent years in the number of persons seeking asylum or the protection afforded by refugee status. This development has prompted a widespread debate - now concentrated in the General Assembly of the United Nations - on the causes of such massive population movements and the measures that might be taken to avert them. My Office has greatly welcomed this initiative which it trusts will lead to a greater understanding of the causes of mass exodus and hopefully to the attenuation of conditions giving rise to them. There is nevertheless a certain danger that in efforts to deal with the causes of mass exodus, asylum-seekers may come to be identified with the large numbers of persons who leave their home country for purely economic reasons. This in turn could lead to a diminution of the guarantees presently available to asylum-seekers. In the ongoing debate we are therefore making every effort to ensure that in any conclusions which might be drawn, full account is taken of the need to preserve the fundamental principles of international protection.

Since the time when my Office was established the international community has come a long way in its efforts to deal with the refugee problem collectively and in a spirit of international solidarity and co-operation. We have not only witnessed the development of legal principles for the treatment of refugees but also the adoption of effective arrangements to provide temporary and, whenever possible, durable solutions for them. I believe it is true to say that the results achieved are not only - creditable but also profoundly encouraging for our further humanitarian endeavours. In this collective effort my Office has always welcomed the generous support provided by the Council of Europe and its Members States.

Ladies and Gentlemen, there are undoubtedly many challenges that lie ahead for us in our refugee work. I hope that my Office can continue to rely on your support and assistance so that we can the more effectively confront this most perplexing of human dilemmas - the world refugee problem.