"Save the Environment to Safeguard Asylum" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on Africa Refugee Day, Geneva, 20 June 1996
Today celebrates a milestone in the asylum regime in Africa. For on this day 22 years ago, Africa made a solemn commitment to open its doors to refugees, not only to those fleeing persecution but also armed conflict, aggression, foreign domination or events disturbing public order - an undertaking that has become a model of generosity. And so it has aptly been designated Africa Refugee Day.
Africa Refugee Day is both a happy and sad occasion - happy because it serves as a reminder of the decision in the summit of the Organization of African Unity in 1969 to welcome refugees, and sad because in the continent today there still are many people who find themselves in situations that leave them no option but to seek refuge outside their country. In fact, Africa is the continent with the largest number of refugees - 6.7 million. In addition, the number of persons displaced in their own countries continues to increase, as it does worldwide.
The recent plight of Liberian asylum seekers aboard leaky boats forced to turn away from port after port showed how much pressure is being brought to the asylum regime as refugee problems often continue to defy solutions. Host countries - and donor governments - have shown impatience at the continued presence of some 1.7 million Rwandan refugees in ecologically and economically fragile communities. Burundi refugees fleeing terrible violence have difficulty in finding safety abroad.
However, the picture is not only bleak. Where the underlying problems have been addressed, the refugees have gone home. In the past year, UNHCR completed the voluntary repatriation of some 1.7 million Mozambican refugees - the largest operation so far undertaken in Africa. In the next two years, UNHCR will repatriate 300,000 Angolan refugees. Refugees from Togo, Mali, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia also are returning home.
In accepting the 1995 Felix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize on behalf of UNHCR, I have announced that the cash grant that goes with it will be used in helping educate the refugee children of Africa. It is in education that we begin to understand and give meaning to values of tolerance that allow people to live together in harmony.
This year's theme for Africa Refugee Day - Save the Environment to Safeguard Asylum - is appropriate. UNHCR has been making an effort to address environmental problems in communities hosting refugees. Various energy-saving means, such as provision of fuel-efficient stoves, have been developed and distributed in refugee camps. Programs are in place to educate both the local communities and the refugees to understand the importance of preventing damage to the environment.
But as in other refugee-related problems, the only lasting solution to this ecological dilemma in asylum countries is to seek ways that will end the plight of the refugees. With the support of the countries concerned and the international community, UNHCR is committed to this.