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"Human Displacement in the Decades to Come: Meeting the Needs of Refugees" - Speech by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on receiving the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding, Manila, 7 January 1998

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"Human Displacement in the Decades to Come: Meeting the Needs of Refugees" - Speech by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on receiving the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding, Manila, 7 January 1998

7 January 1998
How can we seek to prevent forced human displacement and in particular refugee crises in the future?

I am very pleased to be here and to have the opportunity to address this Forum. The ongoing refugee crisis in the Great Lakes region of Africa and a previously agreed official visit to the Ukraine unfortunately prevented me from attending the official award ceremony last August.

I am deeply honoured to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding. This Award means much to me. The Magsaysay Award is being likened as the Asian Nobel Peace Prize and, as an Asian, it is a great honour to be recognized by my own region. I am pleased, however, not only because of the personal recognition, but also because of the attention it draws to the cause of refugees and to my colleagues at UNHCR who work very hard alleviating the plight of displaced people. The Magsaysay Award is a source of encouragement to all of us at UNHCR.

The fact that this Award is given for international understanding among people in different countries is very appropriate from the perspective of my work. Understanding refugees and their problems is a first step toward identifying solutions and preventive strategies to forced human displacement. Understanding leads to greater awareness and, in turn, to willingness to address the problems at hand. Refugee crises are essentially an international problem, involving at least two or more countries and often posing threats to regional security and stability. Cooperation among states will lead to international solidarity, burden sharing and efforts to solve refugee crises. Today, I would like to draw attention to the lessons learned from the responses to the complex refugee crises in Southeast Asia.

Today, we live in a rapidly changing world. On the one hand, there is a growing trend toward globalization, through technological advances, commerce and information sharing. The world is becoming a global neighbourhood. On the other hand, there are strong forces of fragmentation, giving rise to insecurity, isolationism and civil conflict. We are all aware of the dire humanitarian dimension of refugee movements. But especially during the last few years, there has been an increasing recognition that refugee crises pose formidable political and security challenges to states and the international community. Except for ad hoc responses, however massive, this improved understanding has not yet prompted the international community and states to adopt comprehensive and strategic responses to the many humanitarian crises.

When I became High Commissioner in 1991, UNHCR was responsible for 17 million people in the world. Today, UNHCR takes responsibility for nearly 23 million people uprooted by war, violence and gross violations of human rights. This number includes refugees who have been forced to flee abroad, returnees who have returned home but require our assistance to reintegrate into their communities, and people who find themselves displaced inside their own countries or otherwise affected by war and violence. Currently, the Asian continent hosts the largest number of refugees, 4.8 million, and some 1.7 million internally displaced persons and 1.2 million returnees assisted by my Office. On the whole, the total number of persons of concern to my Office in Asia, 7.9 million, is slightly lower than that of Africa, namely 8.1 million.

Forced displacement, whether taking place within countries or spilling across borders, is nowadays, in most instances, a product of conflict among communities within borders. In the past, internal conflicts were often fuelled by ideological and political rivalry among the superpowers, as in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Central America, Ethiopia and Vietnam. As ideological confrontation has receded, group identity along ethnic, religious or linguistic lines has become more of a divisive factor. Increasingly, people translate feelings of separateness into political claims, especially when they feel discriminated against or treated unfairly. In the worst instances, this may lead to state fragmentation or implosion, as for example in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia. New states also imply new borders. Majorities fear to become minorities or second class citizens in new states.

Forced displacement of minorities is increasingly not only a by-product but also an objective of fighting and human rights violations. De-population or re-population tactics are the sad characteristic of the conflicts in the Balkans and the Caucasus. Following the break-up of the former Soviet Union, the peaceful transition from authoritarian to democratic societies has been undermined in some parts by ethnic conflicts, religious intolerance, and political rivalries resulting in millions of uprooted peoples.

Elsewhere too, internal conflict and ethnic tensions are causing emergencies. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda shocked the conscience of the world. More than 1.5 million Rwandans took refuge in the neighbouring countries of Tanzania and Zaire. Although more than 1.3 million have returned since the end of 1996, there are continuing violence and human rights abuses in the region. In Afghanistan, the continued civil conflict and the Taliban practices of violating human rights, particularly those of women, have all but dimmed the prospects for an end to the longest refugee crisis and the return of the nearly 1.2 million refugees in Pakistan and the 1.4 million in Iran.

Regarding Southeast Asia more than twenty years after the beginning of the exodus of Indochinese refugees, the region has undergone major changes. Yesterday's enemies have become today's allies and economic partners. Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar have joined ASEAN. Sustained economic growth, improved standards of living, and stronger civic institutions have brought stability to many countries of Southeast Asia. If, however, we wish to prevent humanitarian crises in the future, we must pay due attention to the lessons learned. The responses to the refugee crises in Southeast Asia bear witness to the often tense relationship between humanitarian principles on the one hand and national, regional and international security interests on the other. Striking a balance between the rights of refugees and legitimate state concerns is very difficult.

When the first boats of Vietnamese began to arrive in Southeast Asia in 1976, the countries in the region feared that they would remain burdened with these unwelcome guests. Economically, there was no demand for surplus labour in the ASEAN states or Hong Kong. Socially, governments feared that the refugees would upset the delicate balance among their own ethnic communities and arouse historic animosities. Politically, ASEAN states saw the refugee outflow as a deliberate attempt to destabilize the region. To prevent their arrival, some countries began pushing off overloaded boats causing uncountable deaths on the high seas.

If Vietnamese refugees were viewed with suspicion, the Cambodians were pawns in the hands of factions to further their political and military goals against the Vietnamese backed regime in Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge controlled some of the camps accommodating Cambodians on the Thai border, and used the camps as military bases and to recruit soldiers, thus violating their humanitarian and non-political character. Refugees from Laos were at times recruited for military activities with the aim of destabilizing their home country.

The responses of Southeast Asian countries to the Indochinese refugee crises show how geopolitical realities influenced the admission and treatment of refugees. Consequently, humanitarian action was severely constrained and new options had to be examined to respond to the crises. For the boat people, the first International Conference on Indochinese Refugees in 1979 recognized the principle of admission and refuge, on a temporary basis, in the region. It was coupled with a commitment to resettle the refugees in third countries. This burden sharing arrangement was to survive for a decade, providing temporary protection as well as resettlement to over a million refugees.

Improvements in international and regional political relations created new opportunities to adopt a solution oriented approach in the late 1980s. The second International Conference on Indochinese Refugees held in 1989 adopted the Comprehensive Plan of Action. The CPA recognized that while conditions in Laos and Vietnam stabilized, many people were no longer fleeing persecution, but poverty. The lure of resettlement had become part of the problem. The objectives of the CPA were twofold: to protect genuine refugees and to prevent further outflow of non-refugees. The Agreement placed interlocking and mutually reinforcing obligations on the countries of origin and of first asylum, and the major donor and resettlement states. Countries of asylum in the region agreed to admit the boat people and to screen them, with the assistance of UNHCR, to determine their claim to refugee status. Only those recognized as refugees would be guaranteed resettlement. In turn, the countries of origin acknowledged their responsibility toward their own citizens by agreeing to take back all non-refugees and to scrupulously observe their safety. UNHCR undertook the role of monitoring the returnees in Vietnam and to bring about a climate conducive to return.

The CPA came to an official conclusion in June 1996. Since 1975, nearly 840,000 Vietnamese left their country, of which 760,000 have been resettled. In addition to being a strong supporter to the CPA, the Philippines played a key role in two areas: First, despite the high number of arrivals, it maintained its policy as a safe first country of asylum, setting an example to the rest of the region; Second, it played an active part in regional burden-sharing by generously agreeing to managing a processing centre for Vietnamese recognized as refugees in the countries of first asylum pending their resettlement to third countries.

With regard to Cambodia, the comprehensive approach adopted under the Paris Peace Accords went much further and paved the way for solving the Cambodian refugee problem as an integral part of the UN Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC) operation. In addition to its military component, UNTAC had a strong civilian arm focusing on institution building, reconstruction and the organization of elections. My Office was assigned the responsibility for repatriating 370,000 Cambodian refugees from Thailand, which was completed well before the elections by May 1993. Although the return of the refugees was not only dependent but also instrumental to peace building, the renewed outbreak of conflict resulted in the outflow of 60,000 refugees into Thailand last year. Although many have returned home since, it demonstrates that the problem of forced displacement must be solved within a larger context of peace making, peace building and participatory governance. These are no easy objectives, but essential if we wish to solve and prevent refugee flows.

Although much has been achieved in Southeast Asia resulting in regional peace and stability, there are several issues requiring close attention. States in Asia are made up of a rich amalgam of ethnic and minority groups. On occasion, however, minorities have been portrayed as a threat to national security that has led to their exclusion and even expulsion. Although some minority groups may have resided in a country for several generations, they may not be considered habitual residents or citizens, as the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia. The influx of Nepali migrants has prompted the Bhutanese government to enforce a stringent citizenship law and adopt a policy promoting traditional values. Little progress toward a solution for the some 85,000 Bhutanese of Nepali descent who have fled to Nepal has been achieved. In many instances, it may be difficult to establish citizenship and, following a refugee outflow, the country of origin may refuse to take people back, absconding its responsibility toward its own population. Consequently, this may give rise to the problem of de facto statelessness further complicating the already difficult problem of finding a solution. The question of citizenship is, therefore, an important one.

The plight of internally displaced persons in Asia has attracted little attention. Governments have viewed this question as falling within the exclusive domain of national sovereignty. The situation of internally displaced persons is often even more compelling than that of refugees since many do not benefit from international protection and assistance. For example, in Sri Lanka several hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced as a result of the continuing heavy fighting in the Jaffna peninsula. Likewise in Myanmar and Cambodia people have been displaced internally due to conflict. Given the magnitude of the problem and the fact that the internally displaced can cross borders, creating a refugee crisis, the issue must be urgently addressed.

Migration is also a key policy issue in Asia and in the Philippines in particular. Improvements in international travel and communications have made it relatively easy to travel from one country to another. Population pressures and the uneven distribution of wealth within and among countries in the region will lead to greater migratory pressures. Three out of the five countries with the highest population are in Asia, namely China, India and Indonesia. Migration has contributed to the economic growth in the region by providing relatively cheap labour and has acted as a boost for many of the sending countries. Other countries have sought to restrict immigration and have adopted stringent entry regulations and policies. But their effectiveness may be limited given the porous borders and limited capacity to control them. Moreover, given the absence of national procedures and legislation to grant refugee status in many Asian countries, refugees have often been labelled as migrants instead.

How can we seek to prevent forced human displacement and in particular refugee crises in the future?

Strengthening the refugee protection regime in Asia is the first priority. The 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to refugees bind the 134 States party to them to internationally agreed standards for the protection and treatment of refugees. While Japan, South Korea, China, Cambodia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand are signatories, the Indian subcontinent and most ASEAN members have not yet done so. Within the context of the CPA, states have gained considerable experience in the determination of refugee status. We must build on this experience and undertake efforts to develop domestic legislation and legal structures enhancing the protection of refugees. The Philippines is currently revising its refugee status determination procedures which I welcome. The principle of asylum, even temporary, should be reaffirmed in the region since on too many occasions refugees are prevented from seeking safety, are detained or forcibly returned.

Second, greater emphasis must be placed on solving existing refugee problems and preventing new ones from arising. This relates closely to the issue of state responsibility to maintain refugee protection and human rights principles. Primarily, states have a responsibility not to pursue policies and activities that lead to refugee flows. If these flows cannot be prevented it is a responsibility of states to allow them to enter and not to return them to a situation where their lives would be endangered. They must also ensure law and order and a minimum degree of security in the refugee camps. Finally, states have a responsibility to welcome home their nationals who wish to return voluntarily or when they cease to be refugees. Upholding these responsibilities are key if we wish to give credence to the right of people to remain at home.

Third, to achieve an integrated strategy based upon protection, solutions and prevention, strong cooperative partnerships must be forged among regional actors. This is the fundamental lesson we have learned from the CPA. Instead of responding to events, we should adopt a common pro-active strategy which would, hopefully, prevent the reoccurrence of humanitarian crises such as the Indochinese one. A comprehensive approach to dealing with forced population movements requires the participation of all governments of the region concerned. From this perspective, my Office, together with the International Organization for Migration, has initiated a regional consultative mechanism which provides an informal forum to discuss issues related to population movements in the region. In spite of their varying circumstances, all countries have an interest in these issues as they may also touch upon legitimate state concerns. Joint analyses of trends, exchanges of information, contingency planning, and defining categories of people of concern, among other issues, are being addressed in the context of the Asia/Pacific inter-governmental consultations. Two meetings have already taken place and a small secretariat has been set up in Bangkok. I have high expectations that this process will have a lead role in dealing with the difficult issue of population movements in the Asia and Pacific region.

I am also counting upon closer cooperation with regional organizations such as ASEAN and the Asian Development Bank. ASEAN has an important role to play in promoting regional security and stability through strengthening economic links and trade. Likewise, the Asian Development Bank can make significant contributions by ensuring that the needs of refugees, internally displaced persons, and returnees are incorporated into development planning and assistance.

We should also develop closer links with the emerging civil society, of which private voluntary agencies are key partners. They play a crucial role in the promotion of community awareness of the special needs of vulnerable refugees, such as unaccompanied minors, the elderly and victims of torture. We must make concerted efforts to strengthen emerging non-governmental agencies and civil society as an integral part of a capacity building strategy to deal with forced displacement.

As part of these efforts, I am pleased to announce that the prize money will be for the benefit of Muslim women in the Northern Rakhine State of Myanmar, many of whom had fled to Bangladesh and have returned since. Two women centres will be constructed to provide literacy and vocational training. I hope that these projects will contribute toward improving their social and economic base. I am pleased that the Philippine based NGO, Community and Family Services International (CFSI), is assisting us with their expertise. This collaboration has also an important symbolic value as it will lead to improved understanding among people in Asia. I am looking forward to see the first results of this collaborative effort which has been made possible by the Magsaysay Award. I should also mention that this distinction has already resulted in an additional contribution from the 1% for Development Organization, a group of UN staff who contribute 1 per cent of their income for development projects.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Ramon Magsaysay has been an inspiration for generations of Asians. Although he passed away before his time, he has left behind a strong vision of service for his fellow beings, in particular for the less fortunate among us. He was convinced that government must find its root in the will of the people, a view to which I fully subscribe. On a daily basis, my Office and I seek to alleviate human suffering as a consequence of the failures of governments to prevent war, conflict and human rights abuses. Let us learn the lessons of the past and carry forward the legacy of Ramon Magsaysay: During the last fifty years, Asia has undergone tremendous changes and overcome many wars and conflicts resulting in immeasurable human suffering. Today, Southeast Asia has become a region of peace and stability. It is my hope that through a better understanding my Office can work jointly with governments to prevent future humanitarian emergencies in the region.

Thank you.