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Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the International Conference on the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) for Indochinese Refugees, Geneva, 15 March 1990

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Thorvald Stoltenberg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the International Conference on the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) for Indochinese Refugees, Geneva, 15 March 1990

15 March 1990

Dear friends,

First of all let me thank you all for coming today. I would also like to thank in particular those NGO representatives who came specially to Geneva to attend this meeting.

Some of you might have realized by now the importance I attach to a continued exchange of views with the NGO community. I fully realise the crucial role you are playing in favour of the refugee cause in general, and the need to have your support for the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees in particular. I regret the short notice in calling this meeting but I needed to share my ideas with you and to seek your suggestions on the follow-up to the CPA before my forthcoming two week mission to Namibia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. As you know, the sailing season is about to start now and every day lost might result in increasing the already unbearable number of people who risk their lives in the search for an uncertain future.

My Office has maintained a regular and open dialogue with you on the shaping of the CPA and, since its adoption in June 1989, on its implementation. Although Non-Governmental agencies have been long associated with refugee work in South-East Asia and Hong Kong, I feel time has come for a qualitative leap in our co-operation.

I don't want to go into the details of the CPA, as I know many of you are familiar with it, but let me briefly recall some of the recent developments.

During the Third Steering Committee of the International Conference held on 23 and 24 January 1990, most of the issues reviewed led to unanimous agreement on progress achieved or action required, except for the duration of a possible general moratorium on non-voluntary returns.

The Committee requested that I should undertake high level consultations with all Parties concerned to resolve this question, a role which I accepted to play not only in response to the wishes of the majority of the Steering Committee members but also and particularly because I felt that this was essential to preserve the integrity of the multilateral and human approach to the problem of boat-people.

On 29 January 1990, I wrote to the President of the United States, Mr. George Bush, and I requested Mr. Vieira de Mello to handcarry a similar message to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam, Mr. Nguyen Co Thach, and Vice-Prime Minister which was delivered in Hanoi on 1 February. I also addressed a letter to the British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr. Douglas Hurd, with particular emphasis on the need to ensure fair and adequate status determination of Vietnamese asylum-seekers in Hong-Kong.

The day before yesterday, I convened a meeting with the Permanent Missions of Members countries of the Steering Committee, to inform them on the outcome of my démarches and on the need to proceed on the assumption that the impasse on the question of the duration of a general moratorium is likely to persist. While efforts must continue to resolve it, parallel action has to be taken to ensure the continued, effective implementation of the CPA and as far as possible those points on which unanimity emerged in the course of the Third Steering Committee meeting.

May I say here, on the issue of alternative returns, that what is required in UNHCR's view - rather than a general moratorium, the need for which is contentious and the duration of which is bound to be arbitrarily determined - is general agreement on the minimum reasonable period of time needed to process cases in accordance with the steps envisaged in the CPA, from arrival to possible return, including status determination and appeal, counselling and reflection, return arrangements and reception in Vietnam.

I can only repeat here, in even stronger terms, what I said in my opening statement at the Steering Committee Meeting on 23 January, namely, that it is difficult, particularly for my Office, to formulate and implement solutions to large-scale exoduses such as the one under consideration and for it to contribute to the stabilization and reversal of population movements, unless Governments, international organizations and the non-governmental community urgently tackle the sources of the problem and take such initiatives as may be open to them. As I will explain, my Office is prepared to play its role in co-ordinating and promoting an initial response to the main underlying needs in Vietnam, particularly in those geographical pockets of poverty which produce the majority of the non-refugee component of boat arrivals. Although, as I said, UNHCR's responsibility should be limited, both in time and money and as far as possible, of a promotional and co-ordination nature, there is no doubt in my mind that in the short term this approach will require an initial active operational involvement on our part.

I would now wish to briefly go through the various facets of the CPA, indicating progress achieved and action still require, before I concentrate on what I think is the heart of the difficulty we face at present, i.e. the expansion of return to Vietnam.

Regarding departures, UNHCR will continue to co-ordinate the information campaign to discourage unnecessary and dangerous departures by boat, but greater governmental, non-governmental and media support is called for at all levels. Apart from this role, little more should be expected from the Office under this component, except insofar as assistance programmes for returnees are concerned, which obviously also have a preventive impact.

As regards ODP and related programmes, especially the bilateral arrangement for former re-education camp detainees, efforts must continue in co-operation with IOM and interested governments to further expand the monthly departure rate, while recognizing the substantial progress made to date.

To ensure the protection of refugees is also the reason why UNHCR is involved in the CPA. If the CPA does not promote refugee protection, UNHCR has no reason to be involved with it. And us you all know, the starting point for this protection is the upholding of the principle and the practice of first asylum. South-East Asia has granted asylum to hundred of thousands of asylum-seekers in recent years, but thousands of others have also been refused. Since the CPA was formulated, first asylum has generally been restored in the region, with one notable exception. Let me assure you that I am doing everything possible, both directly and with the help of others, to rectify this situation which - as you know - is not at all easy. As I informed Governments on Tuesday, the restoration of first asylum throughout the whole region has been the central theme of UNHCR's position since the start of this exercise and will continue to be so. NGO support in this approach has always been important and continues to be essential.

A related aspect is that of access by UNHCR to all boat arrivals in the region. Again, this has generally been granted, but in one or two instances, we continue to have difficulty in obtaining early and unhindered access. We continue to press for this also, as UNHCR access can on occasions prevent asylum being denied and is, of course, essential for proper reporting under the anti-piracy programme.

I have also informed the Governments of the Steering Committee that conditions in some reception, holding and detention centres in the region are a matter of serious concern for me which I have shared with the competent authorities. Such adverse conditions, in the long run, lead to a deterioration of the psychological and physical environment, breed conflict and violence and make it all the more difficult to promote the voluntary return of those determined not to be refugees.

UNHCR can never accept harsh camp conditions as a method of deterring or discouraging further arrivals.

Refugee status determination - or "screening" as it is commonly called - is a pivotal component of the CPA, perhaps its most essential one. The purpose of the CPA is to provide resettlement for those who are refugees and repatriation for those who are not. This is proper and in accordance with international practice only if the screening process is fair and credible.

Status determination procedures are now established and working in Hong Kong, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. They will also be established in Japan, while in Singapore UNHCR has agreed to screen rescue-at-sea cases if necessary.

In general there has been significant progress in this area throughout Southeast Asia and we are most encouraged by the seriousness with which Governments generally have approached this aspect of the CPA. In some countries, we have urged that more rapid progress should be made and there are recent signs that this is being done. We continue to make active representations and practical proposals to the Governments concerned on improvements in the procedures and the substance of this crucial exercise.

Status determination processes are complex and labour intensive. We now have more than 45 lawyers working on this in the region. It may be that NGOs could help to provide and fund some of this legal expertise and possibly assist with legal counselling of asylum seekers in the future. Your help in persuading Governments to make adequate funds available for this key part of the CPA on a regular basis would also be important.

Finally, I would like to add that I attach a great deal of importance to the criticisms that some of you have made about the screening process. I can assure you that these are taken seriously and that we will continue, discreetly but firmly to press the Governments concerned to rectify any problems in this process.

Let me be very clear once again: for me the justification for UNHCR's involvement in any activity is first and foremost to ensure the protection of refugees. That is the raison d'être of the Office and that - I can assure you - is the present reality as far as I am concerned.

Regarding rescue-at-sea, some progress has been achieved recently towards extending similar treatment to all rescue cases as applied to other arrivals, in accordance with the CPA. May I point out here that UNHCR has agreed to take a calculated risk in "screening" persons disembarked in Singapore, on the assumption that other governments would assist the Office in the difficult operation of subsequently transferring them to a transit facility. With this support we may be able to move forward at last on this long-standing problem. It is also important that stowaways should equally be subject to screening as other arrivals.

Another area in which progress has been slow, due to the sensitive nature of the problem, is the setting up of national mechanisms for determining the best interests of unaccompanied minors. This is a difficult process in which we require the determined support on the part of first asylum countries, NGOs with particular expertise in this field and, very importantly, of Vietnam.

Turning now to resettlement, I must underline here the most encouraging results achieved so far. Indeed, our statistics covering the number of persons resettled over the six-month period between July and December 1989 indicate that 59.7 % of the pre-cut-off date population had left countries of first asylum or been accepted for resettlement, although you will recall that our optimistic target was 50 % for the first 12 months of the CPA implementation. There is a need, however, for this momentum to be maintained and in certain instances for it to be accelerated for all eligible categories, with a view to lessening the burden on first asylum countries.

In this connection, I wish to inform you that the Government of the Philippines has approved the establishment of a regional transit centre to accommodate pre-cut-off-date persons awaiting resettlement, thereby reducing pressure on other first asylum countries. A UNHCR technical team is presently in the Philippines and we have entered the execution phase of the extension work in the existing Processing Centre located in Bataan. We shall have to proceed stage by stage, in a modular fashion depending on the availability of funds and actual needs.

I will come to voluntary repatriation in a moment, but let me end this brief review by insisting, once more, that UNHCR cannot be expected to meet all its responsibilities under the CPA, some of which are exceptional, unless adequate and prompt financial resources are made available to it and assurances are given that all CPA elements will be fully funded. Out of total financial requirements of US$108.5 million, to date only US$6.9 million for Special Programmes, has been received, not even enough to cover our commitments until mid-March. If the CPA is to be implemented at all, UNHCR must receive an average of US$9 million a month. If we do not receive indications of strong support from donors before the end of the month of march, UNHCR will be compelled to scale down its activities in the implementation of the CPA and all the efforts we have jointly made over the past two years will be jeopardized.

I will now turn to what I consider as the most important aspect of my proposal to you. As I said at the beginning, the current impasse requires that UNHCR leads a resolute inter-governmental and non-governmental effort in further building on the progress enumerated above. Recalling Vice-Premier Nguyen Co-Thach's reply of 7 February, in which he proposed to press ahead with the voluntary repatriation programme, I believe we should concentrate, in the weeks and months to come, on making this a reality. Countries of origin, asylum and resettlement, international organizations and NGOs must assist UNHCR in its promotional activities. We have submitted to Governments 48 hours ago a list of proposed steps of an administrative, logistical and programming nature. The list in question which we will distribute to you is not exhaustive, and we welcome any comments or additions that you may wish to put forward. It is, however, the minimum series of steps that we must take together in order to address what I consider is a legitimate expectation on the part of the affected human beings and of first asylum countries, and, as such, an essential CPA undertaking.

As regard assistance programmes for returnees in Vietnam, I believe we must rapidly upgrade reception facilities, monitoring arrangements and our reintegration projects to bring them in line with past and present assistance patterns in other countries of origin, of which neighbouring Laos is a good example. Such enlarged activities should clearly include an enhanced presence of UNHCR and of its partners as well as wider and unrestricted access to all returnees. These programmes would also have a beneficial preventive effect and could act as a bridge between the present modest and individually targeted aid and the long-term holistic approach alluded to earlier in my statement. Concretely, UNHCR proposes that the limited and clearly insufficient assistance delivered to returnees so far, include as priority in future new programmes, community services schemes benefitting returnees and the surrounding population, initially in the two Northern coastal provinces of Haiphong and Quang Ninh. In the latter, special attention should be given to the districts of Hongai, Cam Pha, Yen Hung and the island of Co To, from where more than half of boat people population reaching Hong Kong originates. UNHCR will soon be in a position to provide a description of projects and financial estimates, for which collection of basic data is under way in co-operation with the competent Vietnamese authorities.

As far as the short and medium-term is concerned, we propose to formulate small pilot projects in specific villages/districts with emphasis on primary health care, vocational training linked to job placement and other small-scale community services activities. These are sectors in which swift NGO involvement, including financial, would be essential, in co-ordination with the Ministries of Labour and Social Affairs as well as authorities at the provincial and local levels.

In the longer-term, larger assistance programmes could be envisaged in the same provinces, which could include, for example, rural development, income-generating and labour-intensive activities. While UNHCR could be involved in the design of projects and the mobilization of resources, implementation should be the responsibility of other U.N. and developmental agencies.

UNHCR is prepared to lead an early survey with the purpose of carrying out a socio-economic mapping of target regions and areas and of facilitating the design of projects and programmes.

All these activities presuppose of course an unrestricted access to the sites concerned, and my Office is prepared to "bat" in Hanoi in favour of a greater participation of NGOs.

Finally, I should also like to specifically refer to the question of assisting and monitoring returnees. Should the Steering Committee request UNHCR to assist and monitor, on an exceptional and time-limited "good offices" basis, all returnees including non-refugees in Vietnam, UNHCR would be willing to favourably consider this request. There would obviously be a number of pre-conditions to be met in this respect regarding the status determination process, the treatment of returnees, appropriate assurances from the country of origin and adequate financial means. However, UNHCR is not in a position to monitor non-voluntary departures from the countries of asylum.

I believe that you will agree with me that UNHCR is undertaking and proposing a number of measures under the CPA which are willingly as I am convinced that only by accepting these extra responsibilities can we ensure the full protection of refugees within UNHCR's competence. For me, it is fundamental that safety of the human beings concerned is ensured and that they are treated throughout this exercise with dignity. I said to Governments that it is only through our joint efforts to ensure this, that all of us can likewise maintain our own dignity and follow a course which is without excessive risks for all.

I hope the NGO community can support with resolve in facing this new challenge.

I now take pleasure in opening our dialogue.