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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the NGO/UNHCR Consultation in Geneva, 22 May 1981

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the NGO/UNHCR Consultation in Geneva, 22 May 1981

22 May 1981

Madame Chairman, Mr. Chairman, Dear Friends,

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you here today, and to declare this Consultation officially open.

As I look around this room, in which representatives of some 120 non-governmental organisations from all parts of the world are assembled, I feel that this must be considered as a historic event in the annals of refugee work.

With the tremendous expansion of the refugee problem, the partnership between the voluntary agencies and UNHCR has reached unprecedented dimensions. It is, therefore, most important that there should be a wide ranging exchange of views between us.

Our main objective should be to try and identify sectors in which our traditional partnership can be reinforced. However, we cannot expect to resolve every problem in the next three days and consequently, we should concentrate on major issues. More specific matters of a technical character will have to be followed-up in the coming months.

By close and systematic sharing of data, expertise and resources we can meet refugee needs more effectively. On the bases of shared objectives and motivation and using the foundation of our co-operation in the past, we can together face the dramatic refugee problems of today and bring our joint resources to bear in finding the durable and dignified solutions which the refugees deserve. Moreover, with your help, the refugee issue can be publicized in a meaningful and effective manner and we can jointly identify those areas where our common efforts can be applied to the maximum benefit of the refugees.

The number of refugees and displaced persons in the world is now estimated at over ten million. We live in a troubled world torn by violence, conflict and oppression, of which the refugees are a tragic consequence. As one of your illustrious colleagues called it, this is indeed "The Century of the Homeless Man". The consequences of these developments are very disturbing. I need hardly elaborate on the great human suffering involved, since most agency workers come face to face with these tragedies every day in their tireless and devoted work. The financial resources which have to be mobilised from the international community to deal with the situation have become staggering during a period when many of our traditional donors are facing economic recessions and reductions in public spending. The major tasks before us also necessitate more technical and administrative personnel to carry out the vast range of programmes.

To deal with all these problems we turn increasingly towards the voluntary agencies. I am deeply grateful to the agencies for the great support which they have given us in every sector of our work. They serve in many capacities such as operational partners who implement our programmes, as fund raisers, as the major instrument in the resettlement of refugees and finally they provide the necessary personnel such as doctors, nurses, teachers, agronomists and social workers in the refugee centres.

As you know, the refugee situation is in a state of constant flux. Some problems, particularly in the Horn of Africa and Pakistan, remain highly complex, while other problems have been resolved by the repatriation of the refugees to their home countries.

While we should certainly not despair, I would not like to think how much greater the tragedy could have been today without the massive involvement of the voluntary agencies in virtually every refugee programme. I want to pay tribute to all the agencies present in this hall, to whom we owe a deep debt of gratitude. Let us look to the future with renewed confidence, in the knowledge that, in a spirit of partnership, we can give the refugees a new life.

I am very much aware that the agencies whose devoted personnel in the field have direct links with the refugees, are deeply familiar with their problems. As the distinguished Federal Counsellor of Switzerland, Mr. Wahlen, said on the occasion of the award in 1963 of the Nansen medal to the International council of Voluntary Agencies, which is one of our closest partners and has worked with us over the past months to organise this meeting.... All the State subsidies in the world will never be able to replace the warmth of assistance rendered by one individual, one human being to another. It is man alone by his personal charity who can really bring succour to his neighbour in need. Without the individual who offers bread to the hungry, who cares for the sick, who brings help to the refugees, all assistance is devoid of soul.

I would like to conclude by expressing my sincere wish that this Consultation will prove successful and rewarding in our common task to give the refugees reason for hope and to restore them to their dignity.