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Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 7 February 2002

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 7 February 2002

7 February 2002
Regional developmentsConcluding remarks

(Check against delivery)

Mr. President,

Thank you for inviting me to brief the Security Council. It is important to remind ourselves constantly of the links between refugees and international peace and security.

Let me begin with 11 September. UN Security Council Resolution 1373 of 28 September 2001 calls on States to work together to prevent and suppress terrorist acts. It also calls on States to prevent terrorists from gaining admission to countries by illegally abusing the asylum system. This is entirely consistent with the 1951 Refugee Convention, which specifically excludes persons who have committed serious crimes.

The perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of terrorist crimes, who might seek to abuse the asylum channel, must be promptly identified and dealt with. At the same time, let me add words of caution. In taking new counter-terrorism measures, we must ensure that governments avoid making unwarranted linkages between refugees and terrorism. Genuine refugees are themselves the victims of persecution and terrorism, not its perpetrators. Security Council Resolution 1373 must not be used to deprive innocent people of their basic rights.

Refugees and asylum seekers have for some years been the objects of considerable mistrust and hostility in many countries, and they are now particularly vulnerable. In the current climate, there is a risk that refugees and asylum seekers may become convenient scapegoats and may be unfairly victimized. We must not allow this to happen. We must continue to fight against xenophobia and intolerance in our societies.

We must not allow the global fight against terrorism to weaken the international refugee protection regime. Refugees and asylum seekers must not be discriminated against because their religion, ethnicity, national origin or political affiliation are somehow assumed to link them to terrorism. Governments must avoid resorting to the mandatory or arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, and to procedures that do not comply with the standards of due process. Detention of asylum seekers must remain the exception, not the rule. Resettlement programmes must be maintained, and must not discriminate against people of particular ethnic groups or nationalities.

In November 2001 my Office issued a document outlining these concerns and providing practical suggestions on how to ensure that applicable international standards relating to refugee protection are met. Since then, UNHCR has been called upon by governments to provide its expertise in helping to draft new regulations aimed at avoiding abuse of the asylum channel by terrorists and other criminals. UNHCR stands ready to continue cooperating with States in this respect, to ensure that international standards of refugee protection are respected.

Regional developments

Mr. President,

There are currently more than 21 million refugees, internally displaced persons, stateless people and others of concern to my Office. I am determined to make progress in finding durable solutions for many of these people. In many countries, this can be done. The challenge is to ensure that the international community remains fully committed to supporting political processes aimed at ending conflict.

I will start with the Afghan situation. As you know, even before 11 September Afghans constituted the largest refugee population in the world, with some 3.5 million in Pakistan and Iran alone, and many others spread out in countries across the world. In the last few months, in spite of the insistence of Pakistan, Iran and other neighbouring countries on keeping their borders with Afghanistan officially closed, UNHCR played an active role in encouraging them to provide temporary protection for the most vulnerable.

Some 300,000 Afghans have entered these two countries since 11 September, and I am pleased to say that with the co-operation of the Governments of Pakistan and Iran, we have succeeded in ensuring that their basic needs are met. In Pakistan, considerable progress has been made in transferring refugees from makeshift camps to more secure areas with better living conditions. It is particularly gratifying to note that the notorious Jalozai camp, where conditions have been particularly bad, is about to close.

Inside Afghanistan, the number of internally displaced people was estimated to be around one million in December, bringing the total number of displaced Afghans to some five million, or one fifth of the population of the country. Now, with the new Afghan Interim Administration in place under Chairman Karzai, and with international troops on the ground, we have a new opportunity to address this massive problem of human displacement.

My Office is fully committed to playing an active role, within the UN operation and under the leadership of the Secretary-General's Special Representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, to help build peace in the country. Enabling refugees and internally displaced people to return to their homes is a vital part of this process.

UNHCR's initial Return Plan describes our regional approach to the Afghan situation, outlining the preparations that we are making for the return and reintegration of refugees and internally displaced people. It is difficult to estimate at this stage the magnitude of the return movement, and the speed at which this will take place, but our initial plan is to assist up to 1.2 million returnees in 2002, including both returning refugees and the internally displaced. It will be a substantial return operation. I will be the "High Commissioner for Returnees".

Security is the most important factor for significant returns to take place. The majority of the five million refugees and internally displaced people are from the countryside. It is vital, therefore, to ensure adequate security throughout the country, and not only in Kabul and the main urban centres. In this context, I am concerned about the deteriorating security situation in various parts of Afghanistan. The recent violence in Paktia province has been widely reported. In Balkh province, tension between rival factions has resulted in serious clashes in at least two areas, with atrocities against civilians - including killings and rape - reported in Sholgara. In Mazar-i-Sharif, in spite of General Dostum's disarmament campaign, armed men from rival factions have flowed back into the city in the past few weeks and are visible everywhere.

The issue of security is crucial. Events such as those in Paktia and Balkh provinces, and ethnic tension in general in the north of the country, including Baghlan province, are a deterrent to the return of refugees and internally displaced people. They also prevent access for humanitarian operations. If the security situation continues to deteriorate, there is a serious risk that Afghanistan will slide back into a 1992-like situation. I therefore strongly support the position taken by Lakhdar Brahimi yesterday, when he expressed his hope that the Security Council will five favourable and urgent consideration to the possibility of extending the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beyond Kabul.

In Pakistan, over 100,000 Afghan refugees are estimated to have repatriated since the end of November. But while repatriation continues, the influx from Afghanistan has not come to a halt. Some one thousand people a day are still being admitted into Pakistan as "vulnerables". While lack of sufficient assistance is being cited as the main reason for fleeing Afghanistan, recent arrivals - particularly from the north - have increasingly referred to discrimination against Pashtuns. This is a worrying development. I would like to make a strong plea for tolerance, non-discrimination and reconciliation in the new Afghanistan.

In Iran, over 65,000 refugees are estimated to have repatriated voluntarily since the end of November, and spontaneous returns are continuing at the rate of about 700 per day. In addition, the Government has been deporting substantial numbers of Afghans. UNHCR continues to request access to these deportees to establish whether or not there are any refugees among them.

Mr. President,

Let me now turn to other regional developments. Although the international spotlight has been on Afghanistan, Africa continues to demand the greatest share of UNHCR's resources and attention. Out of 21 million people of concern to my Office, more than five million are in Africa. A considerable number have been languishing for years in refugee camps.

In December last year UNHCR organized a Ministerial-level meeting in Geneva to discuss refugee problems in Africa. At this meeting, it was made clear that opportunities are arising to put an end to some of Africa's protracted refugee situations. We must seize these opportunities.

In the case of Sierra Leone, a year ago I briefed the Security Council on humanitarian issues there, following my first mission to the country. Since then, there has been much progress, and repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees has now begun in earnest. UNAMSIL's successful completion of the disarmament process has greatly contributed to stability in the country. The Government's declaration that the war has officially ended is also a welcome development. Now the war is over, it is vital to build peace. My Office is actively engaged in facilitating the return of refugees from Guinea, and we will soon start facilitating similar returns from other countries of asylum, particularly Liberia, Gambia and Ghana. The return of refugees is essential for successful and legitimate elections to take place. Meanwhile, the deteriorating situation in Liberia is of great concern. New Liberian refugees are already arriving in Sierra Leone, and it is vital that every effort be made to contain to situation in Liberia.

Eritrea is another country where considerable numbers of refugees are returning to their homes, after many years of exile. The UN Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE) has played a vital role. Over the last year, some 36,000 refugees have repatriated voluntarily from the Sudan, and the momentum has picked up recently. While most of these are refugees who fled Eritrea during the conflict with Ethiopia in 2000, some of them are refugees who had been living in camps since the 1960s and 1970s. UNHCR intends to complete the repatriation exercise by 2003. However, to achieve this, work needs to be done to strengthen the absorption capacity in Eritrea.

In another successful repatriation operation, about 50,000 refugees have returned from Ethiopia to north-west and north-east Somalia over the last year. These numbers may be modest in comparison with the total numbers of refugees in Africa, but they are significant in a protracted refugee situation. The challenge now is to make sure that these returns are sustainable. In this context we are encouraging development actors to invest in areas of return so that returnees can rebuild their lives and engage in productive activities.

In the Great Lakes region, there are still unresolved conflicts, but there are also some hopeful signs. The situation in Burundi was reviewed by the Security Council earlier this week, with the participation of President Buyoya. I welcome both Nelson Mandela's earlier efforts and those currently being made by Vice President Zuma of South Africa and President Omar Bongo of Gabon to broker a cease-fire between the parties to the conflict. In the event of an effective cease-fire, I anticipate that hundreds of thousands of refugees in Tanzania and elsewhere will voluntarily return. Currently, some 600,000 Burundians are living as refugees in East, Central and Southern Africa, while a further 600,000 remain internally displaced in Burundi. Last year, some 30,000 refugees returned to the northern provinces of Burundi, where the security situation is better, showing that refugees are ready and willing to return as soon as it is safe to do so.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the deployment of MONUC last year was a positive step forward. Amongst other achievements, it played an important role in separating the ex-combatants who fled from the Central African Republic to the DRC together with some 24,000 refugees. Lack of access remains one of the main challenges facing UNHCR in the DRC, and I hope that the further deployment of MONUC in the country will lead to improved access. The long delayed Inter-Congolese Dialogue will finally begin on 25 February. Should this process be successful, a withdrawal of all foreign forces from the eastern part of the country may lead to a large-scale return of refugees from Tanzania and Zambia.

Africa must remain a top priority. The international community cannot afford to neglect its chronic problems of poverty, conflict and instability. Neither can it afford to ignore the refugees that these conflicts have generated. Western Sahara is an example of a protracted refugee situation where there are few immediate prospects for durable solutions, and where programmes to assist and protect the refugees remain severely under-funded. This is unacceptable.

Africa's leaders have committed themselves to putting the continent back on the path to peace, political stability, economic prosperity and sustainable development. The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) deserves our full support. Currently, the NEPAD initiative contains no specific provisions relating to refugees and returnees, but my Office is working closely with the African Union to ensure that this issue is adequately addressed within the NEPAD framework. I am pleased to note that G8 countries are supportive of NEPAD, and I hope that their interest will also be reflected at the International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey in March.

Mr. President,

Let me turn now to the Balkans. We are often quick to describe the problems in this region, but we should not forget that there have also been some important success stories. Democratic governments have replaced authoritarian regimes in Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and more than two million people who were forced to flee their homes during the wars of the last decade have returned to their homes.

Still, many challenges lie ahead. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia continues to host 230,000 ethnic Serbs and other minorities who fled Kosovo, as well as 390,000 refugees from earlier conflicts: the largest single refugee community in Europe. In spite of all our efforts to facilitate returns, many of them are likely to stay. The Serbian has drawn-up a national strategy which recognises that local integration of refugees will only be possible if critical needs such as job creation and public housing are addressed. This is a welcome development, but it is only likely to succeed with adequate backing and financial support from the international community. In southern Serbia, UNHCR has played an active role in preventing new violence, through promoting measures such as the creation of a multi-ethnic police force.

In Kosovo, there has been some progress. In September 2001, UNHCR facilitated the first return of Serbs to Kosovo, after more than two years of displacement. The numbers of those who have returned may be small, but the significance is not. However, there is still a long way to go. Despite the peaceful conclusion of elections last year, the ongoing political uncertainty in the formation of local government structures has contributed to the instability. The continued displacement and isolation of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Roma, and other minority groups also remains a real concern. Local leaders are still failing to make it possible for minorities to lead safe and normal lives in the province.

In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), my Office continues to work alongside European monitors and NATO in conflict-affected areas to help build confidence between communities. More than 80% of the 170,000 people who were displaced last year have now returned to their homes. But unless progress is made in implementing the Framework Agreement of 13 August 2001, there is a serious risk of further unrest and population displacement. The government's recent adoption of the law on self-government is an encouraging step in the right direction, but it needs to be implemented as soon as possible.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, more refugees and IDPs have been able to go home to areas controlled by opposing ethnic factions over the past year - some 100,000 in 2001 - than at any other time since the peace agreements were signed. But significant problems remain. There are still more than 800,000 people from these countries who have not been able to return to their former homes and who have yet to find a durable solution. Property repossession is perhaps the single most important issue affecting the return of refugees and IDPs in both countries. UNHCR is making efforts to ensure that local authorities implement property laws and assist with reconstruction of properties destroyed by the war.

Throughout the Balkans region, the needs are shifting from emergency relief to development. But just at the time when international financial support is most needed, the amount of money available appears to be diminishing. It is crucial that we do not allow donor fatigue in the Balkans to jeopardize the significant progress which has been made towards resolving the problem of displacement. Many refugees and IDPs find themselves returning to rural areas where they face considerable difficulties in their economic and social reintegration. Unemployment continues to affect a high proportion of returnees, making job creation an urgent priority. The successful return of large numbers of people will ultimately depend not only on the continued political reforms and democratization currently underway, but also on the economic revitalization of the fragile economies of the region. Economic revival is critical for peace to hold. International financial support continues to be sorely needed in this process.

Let me end with a few words on other regions. In East Timor, I would like to commend UNTAET on the vital role that it has played in restoring peace and stability. As East Timor approaches independence on 20 May 2002, I am pleased to say that almost 194,000 East Timorese refugees have successfully repatriated from West Timor. The challenge now is to find durable solutions for the 70,000 East Timorese refugees who remain in West Timor and other parts of Indonesia. There are indications that the militias in West Timor no longer have such a firm grip on the camp populations, but there are still a number of factors inhibiting returns. Disinformation in the camps in West Timor is still a problem. Some refugees are reluctant to return until the issue of Indonesian government pension payments has been resolved. Lack of adequate housing in East Timor is also still a constraint. These problems need to be addressed urgently if voluntary repatriation is to be completed before independence day.

Finally, in a signal of hope, in Mexico the Government has over the last few years naturalized more than 6,000 Guatemalan refugees who chose not to repatriate, providing a successful example of local integration. The state government of Quintana Roo has also recently donated a substantial amount of land for these former refugees, demonstrating its commitment to ensuring the sustainability of this local integration.

Concluding remarks

Mr. President,

At the end of 2000, my Office launched the Global Consultations on International Protection, to reflect on how to revitalize the international framework for refugee protection set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and to assist States to address humanitarian challenges through cooperation and burden sharing. This unique consultative process has brought together representatives of States from all regions of the world, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, academics and refugees themselves. The Global Consultations process will generate an Agenda for Protection for the years to come.

As part of this process, on 12-13 December last year, a Ministerial Meeting of States Parties to the Convention and Protocol took place in Geneva. It was the first such gathering of States Parties in five decades, and was opened by the President of the General Assembly. Attended by 162 States, including 76 represented at Ministerial level, the gathering adopted a landmark Declaration of States Parties which breaks new ground in a number of areas. The Declaration specifically emphasizes the need to ensure respect for the rights and freedoms of refugees, international cooperation to resolve their plight, and action to address the causes of refugee movements and to prevent them from becoming a source of tension between States.

Refugees are a consequence of conflict, persecution and a lack of security. Durable solutions must be found for all refugees: repatriation, local integration or resettlement. If not, refugee camps and refugee-populated areas are breeding grounds for despair. Refugees in despair often go on the move, falling into the hands of human smugglers and traffickers. In the process, they may fuel criminal networks, and youngsters may be tempted by agents of violence. The Security Council has to be aware of this problem. It is a ticking time bomb if no solutions are found. Providing solutions halts rising crime, prevents new violence, and is indeed key for global security.

Thank you.