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Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Conference of UNHCR Representatives held in Geneva from 14-17 May 1968

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Conference of UNHCR Representatives held in Geneva from 14-17 May 1968

14 May 1968

It is of great pleasure for me, and for all of us here to extend a hearty welcome to the Representatives. It is the third time the office holds such a meeting and we are counting on you to contribute to its success. The main purpose of this Conference is to allow us to pause and reflect on what we have done, and on the challenge facing us at this moment, when we are standing at the crossroads, mainly because of the considerable geographical expansion of refugee work. Though the solutions may be the same, the techniques to achieve them vary from country to country and need constant reappraisal because refugee problems are so closely linked with political ad historical developments. The purpose of the meeting is to have a confrontation between those of us who act as ambassadors of the office in the field, and those at Headquarters who set the policy and issue directives on the basis of our relationship with governments, with the General Assembly, and with the Executive Committee. I want this confrontation to be very frank. My purpose this morning is to concentrate on certain important aspects of protection, material assistance, and interagency co-operation, and to outline the evolution of our work from a political point of view after which I should like you to express your views on these subjects. While some of us at Headquarters who travel frequently get an idea of new developments, many of our colleagues at Headquarters, and some of our Representatives who are doing such splendid work in Europe, have not visited Africa nor have they had an opportunity to exchange views about our work there with those of you who are carrying it out. The relationship between the work in Africa and that in Europe is extremely important. If those of us who work in countries which are in an economic position to give us the financial assistance we need, and which have traditionally contributed to our programme, cannot reflect what UNHCR is doing today in Africa and in Asia, the areas for which we need most support, then it will be much more difficult for us to present to those countries the needs of the developing countries. This meeting, therefore, should be an exchange of views not only between the field and Headquarters, but also between those who are representing the office in Africa, and implementing our projects there and those in Europe who are winding up or continuing to meet the current responsibility of UNHCR there, and who are, at the same time playing an important rôle in highlighting the needs of refugees in Africa and Asia. They must know how to explain to the Ministries concerned how the funds are being used, and why they are needed, and how to throw a light on the differences and similarities between permanent solutions in Africa and those in Europe.

What we have done in Europe constitutes a tremendous success story, although, through no fault of UNHCR, it took twenty years to achieve. Now refugee problems have shifted from Europe to the developing areas. As some of you will remember, in earlier days UNHCR was controversial, and its work was ignored by a number of governments. Sometimes too, without being able to present our position we were used in the struggle for zones of influence. In those days, because of our traditional link with the splendid network of voluntary agencies which may have had understandable interests in a certain political approach, UNHCR was to some extent set against a controversial background. This has changed, because of the change in political relationships in Europe, and also because the number of refugees in need in Europe has been substantially reduced. This has come about through the extraordinary efforts of the international community, promoted, organized, and co-ordinated through the catalytic function of UNHCR, and reflected in such ventures as World Refugee Year, the European Refugee Campaign, etc. the backlog of "old" European refugee with which my predecessors were faced has slowly been reduced. Moreover, the way in which the office geared itself to meet new emergencies like the one in 1956, and the current influx since then, has contributed very substantially to a reduction of tension. The fact that the camps stood out like a sore on the political body of Europe perpetuated animosity and political confrontation. If the problems of the camps are solved, then the tensions are reduced. If you will allow me a parallel, the tension in the Middle Eastern refugee situation has remained because a million people have been maintained in a state of suspension for twenty years. As you know, the political instability in that area was aggravated by the presence of this unsettled group of refugees.

As far as new refugees within the competence of UNHCR, are concerned roughly 24,000 were recognized under the 1951 Convention in Europe, in 1959, as against 10,000 to 10,500 in 1965. Last year the figure was about 6,000. This is a downward trend, which I do not believe is due to a more restrictive interpretation of eligibility criteria.

At the same time we have been faced with the tremendous challenge of the new problem in Africa and Asia. Of course we have to be careful with figures, although they are necessary. Let us say, however, that there are roughly 850,000 refugees in Africa. As you know there is movement back and forth so that it is hard to determine the figure precisely. Of course we have moved away from the individual approach to eligibility in force in Europe, with all its administrative implications.

In Asia we know more precisely the numbers and the groups which are our concern, and Governments in Asia have better refugee statistics than those in Africa with its vast under populated areas where there is sometimes no existing infrastructure to permit a check on the exact number, condition and status even of the nationals of the country. I feel that there are many areas in Asia where the office might play a rôle, which we have not yet fully defined.

There is, for example, the question of Chinese without proper protection, and other problems which are bound up with the political unrest in South-East Asia. In order to have a more precise idea of the situation in Asia a Chargé de Mission will proceed to the area, in the very near future, to assess the situation, to ascertain which groups are in need of assistance, or protection, what is the attitude of Governments towards them, and what UNHCR can do.

This evolution in our work has given the Office wider recognition. Today it has acquired a universal character which it never had before. The countries of Africa and Asia have understood the contribution UNHCR can make in terms of permanent solutions to refugee problems, and all countries are interested in solving these problems which are a handicap to their economic and social development. We have gained this recognition because we have succeeded in solving problems rapidly in many developing countries in an impartial and objective manner. In turn, these countries give us their political support, and sometimes also very significant token contributions. These are new developments. The list of contributors shows that the base has been broadened enormously, which is an indication of the universal political support UNHCR is enjoying. This support is also confirmed in the General Assembly and in the Third Committee by the considerable number of speakers and the unanimously positive nature of their interventions. At the last Session of the General Assembly, for instance there were 50 speakers, including the USSR, all of them positive and constructive, even in their criticism.

This recognition is also reflected in meetings of other United Nations Committees - such as those which deal with the problems of decolonization, or with the problems of education and training. While the Fourth Committee deals with political subjects, all references to UNHCR assistance to refugees from territories under Portuguese administration, from South Africa, or from South West Africa were dealt with on a humanitarian and non-political basis. There were also references in the Sixth Committee to Instruments relating to protection, and interest was expressed in the Declaration on the Right of Asylum, the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol. Already today, in 1968, 13 States have acceded to this Protocol which was open for signature in 1967. Recently, the Human Rights Conference, in Teheran, which I attended and which was a highly political meeting, passed a resolution through its Second Committee about this Office. The resolution, which stressed the questions of asylum and non-refoulement and encouraged accessions to instruments for the protection of refugees, was sponsored by countries in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa. These included the Sudan, which only a few years ago considered that the problem of the Southern Sudan was a purely internal question and which was initiating bilateral repatriation agreements. I need not stress that repatriation agreements between countries of origin and countries of asylum should always provide for the sacrosanct right of the refugees to return only of their own free will and never by force. The fact that UNHCR has been brought into such negotiations indicates recognition of the fact that UNHCR is an impartial and objective instrument of the international community which helps by eliminating the political element of refugee situations and by encouraging a dialogue between the country of origin and the country of asylum. If voluntary repatriation is not possible, our aim, in line with the resolutions of the Organization of African Unity is to create conditions of settlement for refugees which contribute to peace in the interest of the country of origin and the country of asylum alike.

Let us now turn to protection. The mandate of the Office remains the same. There are no fundamental changes in our terms of reference. Some people may feel that the basic terms of reference are somewhat obsolete, that the definition of a refugee as expressed in the Convention and on a somewhat wider basis in the Statute, no longer meets the present situation. It is felt that the concept of well-founded fear of persecution, this implicit or explicit attack against the country of origin, is not adequate. It was probably not adequate when it was evolved in 1949-1950. One of the characteristics of international machinery, however, is that they cannot achieve perfection. But we can get nearer to it in practice by utilizing our judgement, and taking advantage of the resolutions passed by the General Assembly, and which in a sense constitute useful adjustments to the Statute.

As you know, the Convention to which 53 States have acceded continued to be the basic refugee charter. We must continue to promote accession to this instrument, particularly now that there is a Protocol. There is no doubt that protection whether it is of a legal character or given in the form of material assistance should be geared exclusively to permanent solutions. We must not administer protection for protection's sake, although I know this may sometimes happen involuntarily because the day to day work for refugees just goes on.

A group to which our attention should be directed is that of people who are economically and socially integrated but who are still under our mandate because they have not acquired a new nationality. The largest remaining community of refugees in Europe, 180,000 people, is in Germany. On the whole they no longer require assistance. They have received housing and have jobs, but they are still on our caseload. I am not convinced that there is not some way of improving this situation. Refugees should be given a chance to acquire a nationality. They should, of course, not be forced, but there is a limit to the duration of refugee status. One can become a professional refugee, for all kinds of reasons. In Latin America thee are many people who have not acquired a new nationality because they are practically in the same position as nationals. In Greece some refugees fear that by becoming nationals they will have to do military service which might jeopardise their jobs. We must try to perform our quasi-consular function in such a way that the people who can acquire a new nationality are encouraged to do so. If refugees have benefited from the hospitality of the country of asylum, which has restored their human dignity and given them new hope, stability for their children, and a new status, then surely they owe something in return to that country - including perhaps military service and the payment of taxes.

This is a matter for your own judgement. It depends on the legislation of every country. In some countries it is difficult to acquire a new nationality, in others it is easy. Recently in Germany, I was able to obtain from the Ministry of Refugees a statement in a joint communiqué, and an undertaking, that those refugees in Germany who have a possibility of acquiring German nationality and who so wish will be given a chance to do so. This is the kind of thing which we should try to promote.

With regard to eligibility, it should be remembered that, in the final analysis, the responsibility for eligibility lies with the sovereign states in which the refugee is an asylum seeker. UNHCR has to ensure that bona fide refugees are given a chance, but should not assume responsibilities which properly belong to governments.

On the whole, we have reason to be satisfied that eligibility is being determined according to the terms of reference of UNHCR. I believe that the downward trend in the numbers recognized is a true expression of the historical and political evolution of Europe. I refer to Europe because, as you know, there has been no real problem of eligibility in the developing countries. I want you to remember this question and to analyse it in greater depth - what your own responsibilities are and what are those of the governments in this field.

If the Convention is really to be applied in Europe, then governments should also be reminded that it is not only a question of following a liberal eligibility policy but also involves ensuring that people are not kept in camps. Although most of the camps are empty, in some countries, there are still refugees in camps. I am not referring here to the handicapped group, but to the non-handicapped. I should like to reach the stage (possibly Utopian at the moment) where a refugee arriving in a Western European country is as far as possible given an opportunity to find employment and live outside camp until he can be fully integrated in that country, or processed for resettlement. The concept that because people need care and maintenance it is justifiable to keep them in cams while the international community searches for permanent solutions for them is wrong. This was justified when there was a backlog of hundreds of thousands of people in camps because they could not find employment, and could not be absorbed by the existing infrastructure of the society in post-war Europe. Today, however, when compared with the past, there are very few new arrivals and we should try to persuade governments, some of whom have already accepted this, to give the refugees a chance to work normally and to live outside camps, until a permanent solution can be found for them. For, as is said by our experts Dr. Jensen, Dr. Berner, and others who have been doing very useful research work on the psychiatric problems of refugees in the handicapped caseloads, a man who lives in camp conditions very quickly becomes more or less handicapped, a burden to society and a burden to himself, and is much more difficult to resettle, or to integrate.

We tried to establish a centre in Yugoslavia which was to be used exclusively for the interviewing and processing of refugees for emigration. It was not intended to be a permanent place of residence, a camp. I shall not go into the details of this Yugoslav experiment, which has not yielded the results that we anticipated. However, I should like to see the camps in countries of first asylum used purely for the processing of individuals, not as places of residence, not as places of stagnation.

On the question of protection, our main duty in the developing countries is to ensure that the refugees are given, as in Europe, a status which is as close as possible to that of nationals. In Africa one has to distinguish between the urban centres and the rural areas. I should, however, like to stress that repatriation, one of the three traditional permanent solutions, often referred to by the General Assembly in resolutions concerning the Office should be sought and promoted, as long as it is voluntary, of course. This is perhaps a new and more dynamic aspect of our protection responsibility, because in Europe repatriation was not conceived of as a permanent solution. Although there has not yet been massive repatriation in Africa there are indications of repatriation of Angolans returning from Zambia, Angolans from Tanzania, and of Congolese returning spontaneously from Burundi. It has not really been a result of a long drawn-out effort on the part of UNHCR, because in Africa, when people want to go back, they just pick up their belongings and go. They do not usually have to apply to our Branch Office to get an exit visa or a return visa or any document or stamp. This trend is something which we have to explore further and to promote, because there is no better solution to any refugee problem than voluntary repatriation. This is greatly facilitated by the fact that today we often have representatives in some of the countries of origin of the refugees, who are in touch, not only with Headquarters, but with our representatives in the countries of asylum. An example of this is our Branch Office in Khartoum and our Regional Office in Addis Ababa. In the areas where we have such a set-up, we should constantly remember that there may be a possibility of negotiating repatriation, provided it is of a voluntary nature. I believe this is one of the reasons for which the governments have confidence in UNHCR. We must not give the impression that we are against the return of nationals to their country. Once we do that, even unwillingly, we immediately become controversial, and the governments have a right to object. If we wish to have the confidence and support of the international community, we must show that we are totally objective. If people want to return it is our duty to help them to do so and even to arrange with the government of the country of origin that their return should be made possible, and that, as far as possible - though here of course we have no binding authority - that their rights should be respected and that they should not be discriminated against in any way for their previous flight.

Turning to material assistance the Current Programme is working well. We must occasionally revise our method of work and we must ensure that the funds given to voluntary agencies, both national or international, are well spent. We have to reappraise and re-assess our work every day to make certain that what we are doing is right, not only according to our traditional pattern but also according to our conscience. I am not trying to apply a restrictive financial policy, but we must establish orders of priority. With the crying development needs in Africa and Asia in mind, and also the political instability of these areas, and also remembering the problems of financing the programme and the growing need, then surely to practice a well-balanced and economic policy on the use of funds is in line with effective and efficient administration and with governments' wishes. So in Europe, let us see whether the Current Programme cannot be even further improved, whether the funds cannot be better utilized. I should like to stress how very pleased and grateful I am for your efforts, which I promoted when I took office two and a half years ago, to hand over the responsibility for the implementation of the Current Programme, as far as possible, to the local authorities. In many countries this is proving successful. I have not yet heard any word of criticism from any government of this policy. Most European countries are developed and have the means to do more. It is up to us to make sure that European governments understand this. They have all the necessary administrative means, so let us try to avoid doing in Europe what the governments can do themselves just as well or even better. At the same time, let us remember that our protection function and our presence must be maintained or intensified, to ensure that the refugees are given equality ad a fair chance. There is no question of withdrawal and I want you to emphasize this whenever you mention our policy to the governments to which you are accredited.

On the question of material assistance in Europe, our top priority is the winding up of major aid in the countries where we still have funds earmarked for this purpose, and the transfer of outstanding assistance needs to the current programme, a concept which has proved its usefulness in the countries where it is already functioning.

As a result of the recent mission carried out in Latin America we shall get a clearer idea of what still needs to be done for the old caseload of post-war days in that area. Material assistance there should continue to be concentrated essentially on the aged, the handicapped and people who are without families, and sometimes without work or means of subsistence.

In Africa and Asia also the material assistance which we provide must be geared to permanent solutions. We have done this very effectively. I should like to stress here that if we have been universally recognized, it is because of our real contribution in the field of economic and social development in Africa, something which we have been able to promote through our catalytic rôle, through frequently calling in other partners, inter-governmental partners, such as agencies, members of the United Nations family, private voluntary agencies, for example the Lutheran World Federation, which has give us wonderful co-operation in Tanzania and in Zambia, the League of Red Cross Societies, and others. Many semi-governmental bilateral technical co-operation agencies have also been brought in. Examples of this are our partnership with the Swiss in Nepal, with the AIDR in Burundi and there will be future partnerships which we are at present negotiating. Of this caseload of nearly a million refugees, about four to five hundred thousand are well on the way to becoming self-supporting or are already self-supporting. This positive aspect of our work is something which we must stress to the governments to which we report. In the field of material assistance in Africa we have to try to gear our whole approach to speed and efficiency. I am not of course referring to protection. We must continue our protection work and, of course, try to develop a regional approach through the OAU, through our Regional Office in Addis Ababa, perhaps in the future through correspondents as we doing in North Africa. As far as material assistance is concerned, however, let us try always to set a termination date. In my opinion, and I believe also in that of governments, UNHCR must remain flexible to meet new emergencies as they arise, as they will in Africa and Asia. If we carry the weight of long-term programmes as we have done in Europe - how can we be expected to face the new challenge of refugee problems in the developing world. We have maintained our effectiveness and flexibility because we are small and we must remain so. However, we must rid ourselves of the old problems. It is because of this that I have tried to encourage the concept of interagency co-operation. This does not mean that UNHCR is handing over its responsibilities, or putting an end to its activities. This can be done only when there is no refugee problem any more and this is not the case, as we know, sadly enough. I should like to stress here that I have tried to work in the spirit of inter-agency co-operation with one aim only in mind, and that is to give the refugees a better standard of living in the countries where they are, and also to bring in the multilateral safeguard of the United Nations systems.

In Europe we did not work with the United Nations but with governments and voluntary agencies. In Africa, the voluntary agencies are not yet established as they are in Europe. Since we are non-operational, we have to seek partnerships wherever we can. What better partnership is there than one within the United Nations system, where all the governments are involved and the presence of the United Nations economic and social agencies, such as UNDP, UNICEF, WHO, FAO, World Food Programme, UNESCO, and the others, ensures an international impartiality which takes refugee settlement out of the political sphere? These agencies are interested in our work and ready to help us because they also understand the popularity of UNHCR. Ten years ago or less, as you can imagine, these agencies might have felt that the work of the High Commissioner might give rise to political controversies and that co-operation with it might render their work more difficult. But today, they appreciate that we are universally recognized, that the African governments consider our work to be very necessary and that sometimes UNHCR opens up new fields of activities for other United Nations agencies. If we can encourage the consolidation of rural integration through these agencies, which have the experience, and which were conceived by the international community to implement multilateral assistance programmes, then we should do so. It is a question of making sure that the right partnerships are found in any given situation. Now this is reflected, first of all within the ACC, in which we have been taking an active and constructive part, and in the fact that UNHCR has now been asked to attend the Inter-Agency Consultative Board. I am also invited to report to the Governing Council of UNDP. We are getting funds from UNDP, and are being used as an executive agency in Burundi for the interim project which is going to lead to a much wider United Nations development programme for that part of the country where the refugees from Rwanda are located. Here I should like to say that if we are to succeed in making the United Nations as a whole an effective instrument for the future, not exclusively in the political field where it is facing a tremendous challenge but n the field of economic and social development, then we must adopt a global approach. We must ensure that duplication is avoided, that the activities of UNICEF, FAO, WHO, UNESCO, and the members of the United Nations system complement and are co-ordinated with ours. This requires new planning and a new approach. To make this co-ordination effective, and to obtain the support of the headquarters of the agencies with which we work, we rely on the personal relationships which you can establish with the members of the United Nations teams in your areas. Also we depend a great deal on those of you who are representing us in Europe to explain to European governments that UNHCR is striving to achieve this co-operation and co-ordination, because the governments of the European countries are very interested to know, and are even concerned about the way in which the United Nations spends the governments' contributions to the multilateral economic and social development agencies.

There have been excellent results from the Good Office approach which was adopted by the General Assembly, originally as you know, in 1957 for the Chinese refugees in Hong Kong, and then in 1958 for the Algerian refugees in Morocco and Tunisia. We must continue this trend of enlisting resources from other organizations in our efforts to get closer to members of the United Nations system, and to take advantage of the resources available from the United Nations, without at any time considering this a handing over of responsibilities.

Now a brief word about fund raising and public information. It is of course both governmental and non-governmental contributions to the programme and to projects outside the programme which give UNHCR the means to effectively discharge its challenging task. The situation has improved and is further improving. We are witnessing an increase in the size of some of the contributions from our traditional contributors. Here I would refer specially to the remarkable example and inspiration given to the international community by the Scandinavian countries, in particular because of the regularity with which they have increased their contributions. We are also witnessing a greater interest on the part of private sectors of the community, as reflected by the European Refugee Campaign in 1966, under the leadership of HRH The Prince of the Netherlands, and by the creation of more active refugee councils or committees, particularly in the Scandinavian countries. Of course, we are very far from having achieved the goal which, in my opinion, should be the full financing of the programme by governments. What is done by the private sector should be over and above the contribution of governments to the programme, which provides the means to meet the essential needs of refugees coming within the competence of UNHCR. Every aid given over and above this should be financed from the private sector, or by the governments, in addition to their regular contributions to the programme. An example of this is the granting of specific contributions earmarked for education which is of key importance and closely linked to the process of integration in Africa. As you know, we have an education account, established essentially as a result of the governments' interest in this problem, and the fact that there was a real need for educational assistance in Africa. Mr. C. Opper, who was seconded to UNHCR by UNESCO has just been on mission to Africa and has prepared a report on the needs in African countries, which has not yet been analysed in depth. The interest which some governments continue to take in this problem is most encouraging, as are the indications of pledges of funds for the promotion of education. The whole approach of UNHCR in respect of education in Africa and in other developing areas is a completely new venture.

I would like to mention the problem of information. In some countries we must make a great effort to gear public opinion more specifically to the problems which we face today. There was no need to explain the refugee problem to Europeans in Europe, because they lived with it. It is much more difficult, however, to propagate information concerning the problems which we face in Africa and Asia because people really know very little about what is happening in Africa. Furthermore, in the United States for example, we must gear our information technique to completely new targets, because people do not understand the new refugee problems. This of course affects the attitude of the governments, as governments in democratic countries traditionally respond to public opinion. You might tell us how the people in the developed countries can help us in Africa and Asia, what kind of information they like to receive so that we can try to improve our techniques, our publications, and the form of our appeals. You should try to determine who, in area of competence, represents the sources of power and influence that have to be contacted, so that there is a better understanding of what we are doing in Africa and Asia.

From what I have said you can see that our work covers a tremendous area, and that the complexity of the problems which we face is a real challenge. I think we have responded very well to them so far, and I believe that this meeting should give us a new basis on which to carry on our work. We should try to keep the debate on a very constructive and productive level. I should like to meet you all at the end of the Conference and in my closing statement to outline concrete, valid conclusion to be used as a basis for our future work.

In conclusion, I want to thank you for your attention, to urge you to participate in the discussion and at the same time to wish you all in your respective duty stations continuing success, as indeed I hope for success and productive results from our deliberations in Geneva. Thank you.