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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the meeting of the Standing Conference on Refugees, London, 8 December 1980

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the meeting of the Standing Conference on Refugees, London, 8 December 1980

8 December 1980

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is indeed a great pleasure for me to address you today and to share with you some of the major concerns which UNHCR is facing in our world-wide task of helping refugees.

I am particularly honoured by the privilege of addressing you in these venerable chambers of the "Mother of Parliaments", which to this day, in spite of all the challenges, is a bastion of the liberties of the individual and of fundamental human rights.

It is for me particularly reassuring to know that in this context the Palace of Westminster has always been the home of staunch champions of the cause of the uprooted and dispossessed. Such Parliamentarians can be counted upon to defend the institution of asylum and the status of refugees.

Indeed, the traditions of the United Kingdom as a harbour for refugees were brought home to me only this afternoon on my way to meet you here, as I walked down Broad Sanctuary and recalled its place in history as a refuge of the oppressed.

I am well aware that the Standing Conference, under the distinguished leadership of Sir Leslie Kirkley and his devoted colleagues, has forged an assembly of voluntary agencies in the United Kingdom which reflect the concern of the British people and has, since its inception, succeeded in mobilizing tremendous support for refugees.

This Standing Conference is an indispensable partner of UNHCR and your support is absolutely vital in helping us meet the challenges which confront us in practically every corner of this troubled world.

Mr. Chairman, you will recall that UNHCR, which was established in 1951 by the General Assembly of the United Nations, which was established essentially with the problem of refugees in post-war Europe. But since those early years there has been a constant and dramatic expansion of activities on behalf of refugees, as the refugee problem has gained in intensity and complexity. Emergency situations calling for immediate and sustained action are occupying a growing place in the daily work of those concerned with refugee activities. The General Assembly of the United Nations has progressively extended the scope of UNHCR activities to displaced persons who find themselves in a refugee-like situation as the result of man-made disasters.

Today, the total number of refugees and displaced persons in the world is estimated at over 10 million. Our expenditures for assistance to refugees this year will reach US$ 500 million and the amount may be similar in 1981.

The consequences of this expansion are disturbing and evoke several preoccupations. Firstly, the human suffering involved. I shall not elaborate on this point here. You know these problems too well through your daily experience and tireless work. Secondly, how are we going to raise funds of such magnitude, particularly when many of our traditional donor governments are facing economic recessions. Thirdly, how can we find the necessary technical personnel to carry out our current wide range of programmes.

Here, I would say quite frankly that we must increasingly turn towards the voluntary agency community. I am deeply grateful for what you are already doing, which indeed constitutes a most impressive record. For example, the voluntary agencies have, world-wide, contributed over $20,000,000 to our programmes this year, up to 31 October. In Thailand, 52 voluntary agencies are operating, while kin Somalia, 25 voluntary agencies, with a total expatriate staff of over 150 persons are working in the 32 refugee centres which accommodate over one million refugees.

To dwell for a moment on Somalia, which is one of the most impoverished countries in the world, I have often referred to this as a permanent tragedy for a country which is completely overwhelmed by the influx of refugees. Compounded by a prolonged drought, much of the limited grazing lands have gone back to desert following the arrival of refugees with their emaciated herds of cattle, trees have been cut down to provide firewood, water is a desperate problem and has often to be carried hundreds of kilometres by trucks, and many of the children, women and old people who arrive are severely, malnourished.

I hesitate to think how much greater this tragedy would have been had we not succeeded in enlisting the massive involvement of the voluntary agencies in Somalia, including many British agencies.

Mr. Chairman, as you know, UNHCR depends heavily on the expertise of the agencies in providing the doctors, nurses, agronomists, hydrologists and community development workers who actually carry out the operations in the field.

At this point, I would like to give you a brief summary of the major situations as they stand today. I believe that this will demonstrate the complex character of the refugee problem which in some sectors is marked by success, in others by progress, and in others by rather bleak prospects.

During 1980, Africa continued to be the continent with the highest number of refugees, with approximately five million refugees and displaced persons. The numbers grew noticeably in 1980 mainly as a result of events in the Horn of Africa and Chad. While the vast majority of the refugees in Africa are of rural background, thousands who were living in towns in their home countries now congregate in urban centres such as Cairo, Djibouti and Khartoum, thus placing a severe strain on local resources. Somalia has some 1,000,000 refugees in camps by government estimates, as well as high numbers outside organized settlements. Sudan reported 441,000 refugees at mid-year and declared 1980 as "the Year of the Refugee". Refugees fleeing civil strife in Chad also entered neighbouring countries, particularly the United Republic of Cameroon and Nigeria. Fresh influxes of refugees from Uganda reached Zaire and the Sudan last month.

Other refugee problems in Africa continue to cause concern. In Angola, which has some 55,000 refugees, Namibians were again subject to military attacks on refugee camps by South African forces. Refugees in Djibouti came to constitute nearly 15 per cent of the country's population. In Ethiopia, towards the end of the year, UNHCR announced a new programme to assist refugees returning to Ethiopia from neighbouring countries. Disruption and drought also threatened refugees and displaced people in Uganda. In the face of the magnitude and urgency of refugee problems in Africa, a major international conference on assistance to refugees on that continent will be held in Geneva in April 1981, under the auspices of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity and UNHCR. UNHCR is playing an active role in the preparation of the Conference.

Refugee problems also continue to arise in other parts of the world. In Latin America, as you know, refugees continued to leave Cuba and Haiti. Due to events in El Salvador throughout the year, some 35,000 Salvadorians left their country. Some 20,000 are living in Honduras and several thousand others are being assisted in various countries in the region, notably Costa Rica, Mexico, Belize and Nicaragua. Bolivian refugees have left for various countries principally Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela.

In the South-East Asian region the mass influx of Indochinese refugees, particularly Vietnamese "boat people", which had reached its peak in May-June 1979 continued, although on a smaller scale.

The acts of piracy in South-East Asian waters continue to pose major problems, with refugees being subjected to repeated attacks, rape and robbery on the high seas. Major efforts are deployed to combat this problems.

The influx in late 1979 and early 1980 of large numbers of Kampucheans into Thailand necessitated a major programme of international assistance this year. Some 150,000 Kampucheans stay in emergency holding centres where they receive shelter, maintenance assistance, as well as medical and educational facilities.

The year also witnessed the dramatic escalation of the number of refugees from Afghanistan in Pakistan, which, according to the authorities, reached 1,200,000 by the end of November. UNHCR reviewed its programme of assistance twice during the year, raising its eventual needs for basic food, shelter, health, education, water supplies, household items and self-help projects for refugees in Pakistan to US$ 99 million.

Having reviewed a number of problems, often of a distressing nature, I must also emphasize that if the world creates refugees, it also mobilizes the means to assist them, to alleviate hardship, to save lives. Indeed, I am deeply gratified to report that day after day, year after year, solutions are found and implemented in a great number of situations. Today's refugees are not all yesterday's. This year saw the attainment of durable solutions throughout the world. The mutual repatriation of Zairians and Angolans from each other's countries continued. Following the Lancaster House Agreement on Rhodesia in December 1979, UNHCR co-ordinated the voluntary repatriation of Zimbabwean refugees. Some 33,000 were repatriated under UNHCR auspices before the national elections, mainly from Botswana (about 18,000), Mozambique (about 11,000) and Zambia (about 4,000). In addition, several thousand returned home on their own. The repatriation resumed after the independence of Zimbabwe and by the end of July over 51,000 persons had returned home with UNHCR's help. A major resettlement and rehabilitation programme is now under-way for over 600,000 persons in the country, returnees as well as displaced persons. Finally, in a major new development, the United Republic of Tanzania announced the naturalization of some 36,000 former Republic refugees.

In Latin America, during 1989, UNHCR was in the process of completing its programme for the rehabilitation of 100,000 former Nicaraguan refugees who had returned to their country.

Boat and land cases have been resettled in large numbers from South East Asia. The figure is impressive: for over a year now, some 800 have been resettled every day. Almost 300,000 in one year, accepted by the United States, France, Canada, the United Kingdom and many other countries. Examples of solutions could be multiplied if we go back into the past decade's history. I would add that this year we shall have succeeded in raising the $500 million needed. Also, seven more States have this year ratified the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, bringing the total figure of States parties to these major instruments to 83.

Mr. Chairman, all of us concerned with refugee problems have realized that the needs of refugees and the consequent demands upon the resources of the international community have increased dramatically in the past few years. In meeting these needs and in carrying the refugee message to the public and to the decision-makers of the United Kingdom, British voluntary agencies have played a major role.

I am often asked whether we can ever foresee the day when refugees will no longer exist. The answer is that as long as human rights are violated, as long as there are conflicts and war, refugees will continue to seek shelter in countries of asylum. This is an international responsibility which none of us can escape and we must combine our efforts with increasing imagination and dynamism.

To be with you today gives me great encouragement because I know that in this tremendous challenge the Standing Conference with its constituent agencies, and those Parliamentarians who have so often demonstrated their commitment to the cause of refugees, can be counted on to serve as an inspiring example of what can be done to bring new hope to refugees.