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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 12 November 1979

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 12 November 1979

12 November 1979

Mr. Chairman,

Thank you for your kind words. I wish to congratulate you most sincerely on your election as Chairman of this Committee and I am looking forward to the debate on refugees which will take place under your guidance. May I also express my thanks to the distinguished delegates who made it possible for our meeting to take place on the dates initially scheduled.

I should like to say how much I appreciate the annual opportunity to inform this Committee of the current preoccupations of my Office. The interest of the General Assembly in refugee matters is essential and I have, of course, followed with close attention the many statements concerning refugees made by representatives during the general debate. Furthermore, as you know, the General Assembly, through its successive resolutions and guided most competently by the Third Committee, has always provided the institutional basis essential for the enlarged activities of my Office.

For this reason, at a time when the end of a decade is drawing near, I should like briefly to recall this evolution which has assumed an even grater importance in the face of the pressing humanitarian problems involved. As a preliminary remark allow me to say, Mr. Chairman, that one essential condition to enable UNHCR to carry out its activities effectively is that the understanding and support of the refugee cause should become increasingly universal. In this connexion, UNHCR greatly welcomed the presence at the thirtieth session of its Executive Committee, held in Geneva from 8 to 16 October, of nine new members - from four continents - pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 33/25.

During these past years, world events have given rise to refugee problems of considerable magnitude. The original UNHCR Mandate, as embodied in the UNHCR Statute, applies to persons who are outside their own countries and have a well-founded fear of persecution. This has been the framework for what we call today the traditional activities of UNHCR and these, indeed, continue to be a most important aspect of our work. But, as new humanitarian problems arose in the world, the Governments, the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the General Assembly turned to UNHCR in what has been referred to as "refugee-like situations". These relate to persons who have been displaced inside and outside their country, following internal disturbances or strife, as well as to large groups of former refugees who repatriated of their own free will and who need rehabilitation assistance upon their return.

Under pressure of events, the General Assembly has progressively adapted the competence of UNHCR to evolving needs making this Office one capital instrument of its humanitarian policy with regard to refugees and displaced persons.

Thus, during the first half of the decade, the humanitarian tasks co-ordinated by UNHCR, in close liaison with other members of the United Nations system, enabled millions of persons to resume a normal existence in the Sudan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Lao People's Democratic Republic and Viet Nam. Later, UNHCR was called upon to undertake the equally rewarding task of setting up programmes for the return home of refugees whose countries had achieved independence: Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. More recently, UNHCR was engaged in large-scale voluntary repatriation movements to Burma and Zaire. One would naturally have wished that, with such a vast number of humanitarian operations, many of them successfully completed or well under way, the refugee problem, as such, would have diminished considerably. Unfortunately, the problem today has become more universal than ever. While some problems are being solved, others continue and new ones arise.

This is true for Africa, for Asia, for Latin America, for Europe. In Africa, repatriation of refugees to Zaire has taken place on a significant scale. Preparatory work has started for the repatriation of Equatorial Guineans, and Uganda refugees are returning to their country. Refugee problems in the Horn of Africa, however, remain acute and require increased activity on the part of UNHCR and the international community. This is also the case with Sudan, which has one of the largest refugee populations in the world. At the same time, the number of refugees from Zimbabwe in neighbouring countries is increasing. In the southern part of Africa, military incursions brutally continue to frustrate efforts to find durable solutions. The problem of South African student refugees remains acute, and UNHCR continues its efforts to co-ordinate multilateral assistance and to provide educational opportunities for these refugees in an endeavour to keep pace with the demands of the situation, and in the spirit of pertinent General Assembly resolutions.

In Asia, we may note as a positive development that the large-scale repatriation of refugees returning from Bangladesh to Burma is about to be successfully completed. However, refugees and displaced persons continue to emerge in South East Asia as well as in Pakistan.

In Latin America, large-scale and often spontaneous repatriation took place in Nicaragua. But, in a number of countries on that continent new refugees were registered. In Europe, the surge of refugees, including those from other continents, is also increasing. I shall not describe these situations in detail, they are reported in the documents before you.

Mr. Chairman, in the face of this situation, international solidarity, on which ever-increasing demands have been made, must be maintained. It is on this solidarity that the large-scale action in favour of refugees, which transcends frontiers, must depend. If we examine the successive resolutions of the General Assembly relating to UNHCR we find that they appeal, in some form or another, to this solidarity. A refugee problem today can no longer be the concern of any particular state in isolation. The burden is too great, too heavy and the ramifications too numerous; the international community must soon be involved. The granting of asylum, resettlement offers, financial contributions, any form of tangible support, are vitally needed.

Mr. Chairman, there seems to exist on the part of the international community, a strong desire to search for concerted solutions to great humanitarian problems. There have been two important examples of this during the current year, on which I had an opportunity to inform my Executive Committee during its recent session in Geneva in October. I would like here to mention just a few of the main features of these efforts.

First, the Conference on the Situation of Refugees in Africa, held at Arusha in the United Republic of Tanzania from 7 to 17 May, under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity, the Economic Commission for Africa and my Office. A comprehensive report on the Conference was submitted to, and adopted by, the OAU Council of Ministers during their meeting in Monrovia from 6 to 15 July. At the Arusha Conference - and also in Monrovia at the OAU Council of Ministers and the Summit Conference of Heads of State that followed - the African leaders strongly demonstrated that they fully appreciated the gravity of the problem and their own responsibility in facing it. His Excellency President Nyerere concluded his introductory statement by saying "I do not believe that dealing with the problems of 3.5 million people and giving them a chance to rebuild their dignity and their lives is an impossible task for 46 nations and their 350 million inhabitants". I cannot fail on this occasion, again to pay a sincere tribute to the great generosity of the African States in extending hospitality to the refugees. Understanding and support comes not only from the leadership of the continent, but also, and generously so, from the peoples themselves. However, the task is immense and it is essential that international aid on a significant scale should continue, and be strengthened. The Conference did not address itself only to material assistance problems but also to protection issues. The right of asylum and non refoulement was strongly stressed. Such a Conference is a most important milestone in refugee work in Africa, and its practical conclusions will contribute to guiding the work of my Office and of those dealing with refugees on that continent.

The second large-scale effort which I would like to mention is the problem of refugees and displaced persons in South East Asia. My Office has been concerned with this problem for several years. UNHCR assistance to displaced persons in, and from, the Indo-Chinese peninsula first started in 1975. However, refugees had been arriving in the area, both by land and by boat, in large numbers. In view of the ever-increasing scale of the problem, I deemed it necessary to convene, on 11 and 12 December 1978 in Geneva, a Consultative Meeting with Interested Governments on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South East Asia. There was a great variety of questions to be covered: the urgent need for resettlement opportunities, for sizeable financial contributions, concerted action on rescue at sea, promotion of family reunion. The safeguard of the right of asylum was given the most careful attention. During the first half of 1979, the number of new arrivals had increased dramatically and the plight of the refugees had gained new and grave dimensions. The situation was one of a fight against time and human lives were at stake.

It was then that the Secretary-General decided to convene a Meeting on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South East Asia, which was held in Geneva on 20 and 21 July 1979. I will not deal in length with the results of the Meeting and the activity which followed it and which still continues, since you have before you the Secretary-General's Report on the subject. I would simply like to recall that immediate and tangible results were produced, leading to a series of concrete measures by the many Governments and organizations concerned. UNHCR, for its part, established a co-ordination mechanism, undertook missions to the area, and strengthened its staffing, thereby establishing the necessary apparatus so as to take advantage as rapidly as possible of the resettlement offers made which and reached 260,000 by the end of the Meeting, and in order to make the best use of the contributions in cash and kind which had been made or promised. A programme was set up for the integration of refugees in China, which has received some 250,000 of them. Practical proposals concerning rescue at sea prove effective. Negotiations were started and are now largely completed, with the Governments of Indonesia and the Philippines, which have offered facilities for the establishment of processing centres in the area. While 9,000 refugees a month were resettled in other countries during the first six months of 1979, this figure reached more than 20,000 in August, and 25,000 in September and in October. Implementation has continued of the programme for orderly departures from Viet Nam, and efforts are being directed towards establishing regularity of movement and accelerating the rate of departures, in co-operation with the Governments of receiving countries and the Vietnamese Government.

With the considerable reduction in the number of new arrivals, one might have hoped that the problem of refugees and displaced persons in South East Asia would have reached a stage of some respite, leading to an alleviation of suffering and offering good prospects for solution within a reasonable period of time.

However, the most recent influx of Kampucheans into Thailand, has shown once again in a most striking manner that human tragedies, already acute, can increase still further in scope and complexity. The new situation is only too well known today, and we all have present in our minds last Monday's Pledging Conference for Emergency Humanitarian Relief to the People of Kampuchea, during which so many Governments generously pledged vitally-needed assistance. In this new problem, I would like once again to pay tribute to the position taken by the Government of Thailand to give temporary asylum to all who seek refuge in the present circumstances.

Mr. Chairman, this brings me to the all-important protection function of my Office. My predecessors and I have continually called for countries to grant asylum to those seeking refuge, and for the scrupulous observance of the humanitarian principle of non refoulement. The safety of the refugees is at stake. Asylum and non refoulement are fundamental principles which must be ensured at the universal level. Refugee instruments, especially the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to he status of refugees, must also be given the widest possible universal acceptance. So far 76 States are parties to the Convention and most of them also to the Protocol. There are encouraging indications that further States are actively considering accession. I would also like to mention the OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, which forms the basis for development of essential regional legislation in favour of our humanitarian cause. Eighteen States are parties to that Convention. It is, however, equally important that States take the necessary measures for the implementation of the international instruments to which they are parties. It is towards the individual that the whole work of protection is directed. It is the individual who cannot be denied asylum, who cannot be returned to his country of origin, and who must be accorded the rights needed to enable him to rebuild his life.

Mr. Chairman, in order to meet the considerable needs which I have just outlined, my Office must dispose of means of means equal to the situation. The Organization is itself evolving and I am aware of the need for constant adaptation. As regards financial means, the contributions received have enabled all the programmes planned for 1979 to be implemented, notwithstanding their considerable expansion. This is indeed a tribute to international generosity of one considers that a year ago the 1979 Programme was estimated at $88 million and had subsequently to be increased to $178 million. The requirements for 1980 are, however, higher still: the General Programmes alone amount to $233 million, and we are counting very much on the Annual Pledging Conference, which is to take place on Friday, to provide the necessary funds to enable us to start providing assistance in 1980 without delay at a sufficient level and at a steady rhythm. We also hope that the offers announced on Friday will be followed by further offers and that the largest possible number of governments will participate in our next year's programmes. Mr. Chairman, I should like to add that my Executive Committee approved the concept of a Fund for Durable Solutions. Under this Fund, refugees in developing countries, in any part of the world, would be assisted towards voluntary repatriation and subsequent rehabilitation, local settlement or resettlement.

Mr. Chairman, before closing, I would like to say a few words about the organizations with which UNHCR works in close co-operation. I would mention in particular the invaluable contribution of the non-governmental organizations. Without their support my Office would be deprived of an important means of action. Their untiring activity and the results obtained are a continual source of hope for those who benefit from their assistance. I am also vary glad to have this opportunity to express my appreciation for the close collaboration with the agencies and programmes of the United Nations system and my Office which has, over the years, been developed and strengthened. I would also like to mention our close relationship with the Secretariats of the International Year of the Child, in Geneva and New York, as well as with UNICEF and the non-governmental organizations concerned to further the common task of assisting refugee children. I also deem it important to report that my Office is associated with the preparations of the 1980 World Conference of the United and Decade for Women and has participated in the Preparatory Committee in Geneva and New York while maintaining a close relationship with the Secretariat of the Conference.

Mr. Chairman, as I have said, new problems of refugees and displaced persons have, unfortunately, emerged in many parts of the world. New problems arise while current difficulties have frequently still to be resolved. And yet, if we had to draw up a list of problems which have been brought to a favourable solution, or of refugees who have been able to start a new life with renewed confidence in the future, the list would be long one. Solutions have been achieved, sometimes thanks to the efforts of the countries of asylum and of the international community, but sometimes, and this is fundamental, as a result of the situation in the country of origin of the refugees which has favoured the voluntary return of the return of the refugees. No refugee situation is without hope, each refugee must feel that his own efforts to find a solution will receive solid support. In the constant search to improve the lot of the uprooted, those whose task it is to help them must act with the conviction that the world which today provokes the departure of so many who find themselves at a certain moment destitute and helpless also works constantly to find solutions for them. To the extent that these solutions are strictly non-political and humanitarian the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, supported in its universal task by the international community, has an essential role to play.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.