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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen, 10 March 1995

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen, 10 March 1995

10 March 1995

Mr. President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great privilege and pleasure for me to address the World Summit for Social Development. The core themes of the Summit are of fundamental importance to the work of my Office to protect and assist refugees and find solutions to their plight.

Today there are more than 23 million refugees, internally displaced and other persons of concern to my Office worldwide. It is no coincidence that the largest numbers of refugees are in the poorest parts of the world. The linkages between displacement and deprivation, between refugee flows and social disintegration are evident.

Refugees and the internally displaced are a tragic consequence of unjust policies and malicious practices which marginalize and exclude vulnerable groups. They are the product of persecution and political conflict, generated by poverty, social discrimination, ethnic tensions and human rights violations. The recent exodus from Rwanda and Burundi, the tragic displacement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the protracted refugee situations of Somalia, Afghanistan and Guatemala are but a few of the many examples I could cite. In a volatile world of social and political tensions the threat of new refugee flows remains very much alive.

Against this background of deepening humanitarian crises and growing human displacement, issues of social development gain new urgency not only for the sake of individual well-being but also for global stability. I would like to focus my statement today on the issue of social integration, because I am convinced that a renewed and reinforced commitment by the Heads of State and Government on this aspect of the Declaration and Programme of Action can help to alleviate the refugee problem.

It can do so in two major ways.

Firstly, I believe the promotion of social integration can assist the search for lasting solutions to refugee problems, particularly in view of the increased possibilities for voluntary repatriation in today's political climate. In the past five years nearly 9 million refugees have returned home with UNHCR's help, including to Afghanistan, El Salvador, Iraq, Ethiopia and Cambodia. Over 1.5 million refugees returned to Mozambique last year, with a rapidity that reflected their confidence in the peace process in their country. But the ultimate success of repatriation will depend on the ability of the political and development processes to ensure the social integration of the returnees.

That is a major challenge, not only for Cambodia or Mozambique but for all the war-torn countries to which refugees are returning. Otherwise, the potential for solution can easily become the seed for disaster.

Therefore, UNHCR has sought to promote social integration through an assistance strategy based on quick impact, micro-projects which address the needs of returning refugees as well as the internally displaced and the local community. Setting up schools and clinics, drilling water points, and building access roads not only serve the whole community, but also contribute to national reconciliation in war-torn societies. Furthermore, such an approach can effectively link up short-term relief with longer-term economic and social development.

I am very pleased that the draft Declaration and Programme of Action recognize the need for such a comprehensive approach to voluntary repatriation. A multi-dimensional concept of peace must include not only freedom from war but also from want. Without that, people may come home, but for how long? And at what cost to the peace process itself? Political settlements which promote peace must also lay the foundations of social development without which peace itself cannot be sustained for long.

While focusing on the needs of the country of origin of refugees, the international community must not overlook the situation in the country of asylum. Some countries, which have only recently begun to host refugees, as in eastern Europe, often lack the appropriate legal and social structures for integration. In other cases, the sudden arrival of large numbers of refugees - as, for example, happened when over two million people streamed across the border from Rwanda into northern Tanzania and eastern Zaire last year - can severely strain the capacity, physical environment and social structures of generous but poor countries of asylum. Unless the host communities are supported with international assistance, not only is their own development likely to be jeopardized, but their ability to continue to receive refugees can be threatened.

Uprootedness and ultimate return deeply affect the roles and responsibilities of women. In promoting social assistance and integration of refugees, returnees and the internally displaced, special attention must be given to the needs of women and children, including their physical security. We need to recognize their innate strength and potential, and not look at them as mere victims.

Secondly, the commitment to social integration in the draft Declaration and Programme of Action should be seen also as a commitment to the prevention of refugee flows. Governments are gravely mistaken if they believe that building barriers or closing borders would solve refugee problems. Indeed, it is a fundamental aspect of my mandate of international protection to ensure that Governments continue to uphold the institution of asylum, and grant refuge, even on a temporary basis, to all those fleeing persecution and conflict.

Social stability is not threatened by refugees but by human rights violations and gross social inequities which uproot people. This reinforces the need to address the underlying causes, so that people will no longer be forced to flee. As the draft Programme of Action rightly recognizes, by fostering stable, safe and just societies we defend the right of people to remain in peace in their own homes and their own countries.

At a time when religious, ethnic and nationalistic tensions threaten to explode into violence, we must be vigilant in our defence of human rights, and vigorous in our efforts to promote tolerance for all those who live among us. States must be encouraged to set up effective institutions, laws and procedures that enshrine the principles of human rights, minority and refugee protection. It is with these objectives in mind that UNHCR has been providing legal and technical assistance to Governments, and collaborating closely with the international human rights machinery.

Resolving and preventing refugee problems thus depend on a partnership between sovereign States, the international community, and international and non-governmental organizations. Local NGOs, in particular, have a critical role to play in promoting social development.

The Social Summit is an important effort to shift world attention from macro-economic issues to the concrete living conditions of people, particularly the most deprived and marginalized in society, of whom refugees and the displaced form a large segment. Those who are marginalized must be drawn into the mainstream of development. Those who are vulnerable must be empowered to play their rightful role in society. It is on issues such as these that the sincerity of the international commitment to social development will be tested.

The draft Declaration and Programme of Action lay out an ambitious blueprint. The challenge for all of us here present is to put the words of the blueprint into action. Let me assure you, Mr. President, that my Office and I are fully committed to the goal of making social development a reality for refugees and the displaced.

Thank you, Mr. President.