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Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 47th Session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), 28 July 1969

Speeches and statements

Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 47th Session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), 28 July 1969

28 July 1969

Thank you very much Mr. President.

Mr. President at the time when men are walking on the moon, when the Economic and Social Council is discussing such lofty questions as the second development decade, the revision of old principles applying to education, it may seem out of place and indeed almost trivial to discuss the problems of refugees who after all represent a fairly small proportion of the world population. Nonetheless, Mr. Chairman, I would feel that their continuous existence is ample proof that men have failed to live in harmony with each other and the fact that we should all live on this very small planet has not prevented the creation of many....of refugees who are in need of assistance and protection and of hope. In many ways it would seem to prove that although we are all living on this small planet, in more ways than one we do not yet all seem to be contemporaries.

What is encouraging Mr. Chairman is the fact that this Office, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, one of the smallest if not the smallest of the United Nations system and we are proud to be, has been able to do something about this problem which has been not only a source of satisfaction and encouragement to us Mr. President but also which is more important to the refugees themselves and also to the Governments since the Governments chose at the last session of the General Assembly to grant us their unanimous support by acclamation. The basic aims and intentions of UNHCR remain unchanged. We seek permanent solutions to refugee problems that come within our mandate. We try to help refugees to cease being refugees. The report which is before you Mr. President gives details about where and how this has been done. I would therefore choose to limit myself to the main factors and developments since the last Session.

After what I hope was a brief flare-up in Europe we feel that the situation in this part of the world is again becoming stabilized. The role of UNHCR in this particular situation was not so much to provide funds as European Governments faced this new situation with generosity and also a great many of the up-rooted people were able to move overseas very quickly. We were called upon here mostly to provide expertise through our representations in the countries concerned and our aim in a strictly humanitarian and non-political spirit was to promote and encourage repatriation but if this could not be done then to help the people move as quickly as possible to avoid any stagnation which would have been against the interests of all concerned.

In Latin America we are continuing with our efforts to assist handicapped refugees, aged refugees who need individual attention who sometimes would like their families and relatives to join them and who were resettled to that part of the world many many years ago. No new problems have arisen but we have felt that to be able to grasp this residual caseload that we have there in a more effective manner it might be more appropriate to make some administrative changes and exercise our presence in countries like Argentina more than previously since the large part of the group that we are concerned with is in that country.

Turning to Asia, Mr. President we are still of course concerned about the settlement and rehabilitation of Chinese refugees in Hong Kong and Macao, Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal and there also, as a result of some missions undertaken by my representatives in the area, a number of Governments have raised new problems of some groups of refugees who may be without protection or status as a result of which we may have to strengthen our office in Asia and increases our presence in some of these countries.

The Middle East of course torn apart as it is by this tragic situation that we all follow every day has also created problems for our refugees. I would like to emphasize here of course as is well known to the Economic and Social Council that we are not concerned with the Palestine refugees which is the responsibility end concern of UNRWA. Nonetheless the situation prevailing in the Middle East has created some problems for our own refugees as I said and many of them belonging to minority groups have been up-rooted economically and socially as a result of the war. We have been called upon to increase our aid to these groups and also to promote whenever possible the movement of these people to countries where they can lead a more stable, economic life.

The focus of our work remains concentrated Mr. President on Africa. There the situation has of course not improved in the sense that new groups have been added to the existing refugees that we have already been assisting for some years and also the disastrous situation in Nigeria has created a number of refugee problems outside that country particularly in Equatorial Guinea where substantial quantity of Ibos are in a position of not being able to return home for the time being.

To meet this need Mr. President and to respond to the frequent requests which Governments address to us we must of course strengthen the implementation of both our protection function and our programmes of material assistance. In the field of protection a considerable amount of progress has been achieved. I am very happy to report to ECOSOC that since your last Session Mr. President the number of accessions to the 1951 Refugee Convention have increased from 53 as it stood last year to 56. At the same time the Protocol - the 1967 Protocol to the 1951 Convention - has been further strengthened by increased ratifications from 17 last year to 33 this year which I think is truly a remarkable progress. Also the Netherlands, a country which has always shown great concern for the plight of refugees has submitted to the Government's signatories to the 1957 Agreement on refugee seamen a draft Protocol which is designed to extend the benefits of this Agreement to refugees covered by the 1967 Protocol which I just mentioned.

Mr. President whatever permanent solution, whether repatriation, resettlement or integration it is clear as we speak of protection that refugees must be given a status in conformity with the Convention and the Protocol. I often tell my colleagues that the office is judged not so much on its results and achievements with regard to large groups but essentially for what it is able to do for individuals and therefore our presence to implement the protection of the individual has to be strengthened in the field. The situation as it exists for instance in Africa precludes frequently the possibility of exercising our protection function from headquarters and for this reason whilst maintaining our Branch Offices in Africa it is my intention to increase our protection function and responsibilities by adding to the already existing Branch Offices additional offices in West Africa and East Africa, both dealing with protection and with representatives there who will be in a position to travel from country to country as the need arises. For this type of need which has repercussions on our administration I hope to be able to rely on the understanding of the Economic and Social Council and of course the General Assembly.

What has very much developed in Africa Mr. President is a situation of accumulation of refugees in the urban centres. This problem of course simply adds to the already existing exodus from the rural areas to the capitals and urban centres of these developing countries and together with this exodus and the presence of a greater number of refugees in the cities come also unemployment, social and economic problems of all sorts and a certain amount of political tension. For this reason I am very gratified that Organization of African Unity, the regional body with which we work in close contact, has now set up a wide network of correspondents in many different African countries with our close support to give some assistance to the Bureau of Placement and Education about which I reported to ECOSOC already last year. The correspondents are now looking for opportunities for refugees in Africa and we feel very much that the success of this initiative is essential or we may find ourselves in the position of having an ever increasing number of individual cases of refugees in the capitals and urban centres of Africa who could become a hard core not unlike the problem which we faced in Europe in the post-war years.

We must avoid the tendency of having countries consider that it is always another country's responsibility to take these refugees because otherwise we will find all doors closed to them and their ultimate settlement and rehabilitation may well become practically impossible. For this also we must strengthen our programmes in the rural areas so that by providing opportunities in the field we give hope to refugees who otherwise might go to the city and be disappointed since they would find only despair but no opportunities there either. We feel that by providing these opportunities in Africa, by strengthening the Bureau of the OAU and supporting its function of placing and educating refugees that we would also avoid the brain drain since the refugees who have left Africa sometimes become permanent refugees abroad and are most reluctant or sometimes even unable to return to their Continent.

Turning now to rural settlement, Mr. President we must not forget that there are today over 950,000 refugees on the Continent of Africa. I have always felt and I continue to believe that repatriation is the best solution to any refugee problem and so we promote repatriation in Africa and we have had some limited but encouraging success. Recently for instance I am happy to report that a number of Sudanese refugees have returned home and are in the process of returning to their country. However repatriation can only solve a small part of the problem and the obvious answer is in the meantime until refugees can go home to give them an opportunity to live a normal life in the countries of asylum in which they find themselves.

For this Mr. President we must have a concerted approach since it is clear that very quickly through the assistance which we administer the refugees reach the same standards of living as the local populations. From then on it clearly becomes a development problem and so as a result of the interest expressed by the International Community in such resolutions as 2270 or 2311 which you remember well we convened an ad hoc meeting in January of this year at the request of ACC of all the specialised agencies and programmes of the United Nations so that we could study in a concerted and organised way the role of every one of these partners in our integrated refugee settlement schemes. The results of this meeting Mr. President are reported in detail and analysed in the Document E/4668 which is before the Economic and Social Council. I am very happy that we have obtained excellent results and that in quite a few countries either the development agencies have already taken over or are in the process of taking over hopefully in a relatively short time. This concerted policy which is emerging is in line with the wishes of my Executive Committee and of course also in line with the wishes of the General Assembly. This is covered Mr. President in your report to the Council which is on your agenda. Unfortunately some countries have been rather reluctant to adopt this integrated zonal approach.

There has been a feeling in some African countries that the refugees were only there temporarily and that therefore they would be going home and there would be no need to approach UNDP or the specialised agencies for a development programme, an integrated zonal development scheme, which would strengthen and consolidate the settlement of the refugees and at the same time benefit the local population. This is of course a very dangerous attitude because uncertainties, complication and of course additional costs to the international community set in very quickly. We all hope that the refugees will be able to return home one day but in the meantime it is not possible for an office such as mine to be able to continue relief indefinitely. This is first of all bad for the refugees themselves, bad for the countries concerned and of course much more difficult for us financially and administratively. I feel that the countries which have accepted the integrated zonal development approach can testify to the success of this approach. Indeed it seems superfluous to re-state the advantages derived from the conversion of refugees into active, stable and fully-productive populations. In looking at other parts of the world where for different reasons the refugees problem has not been solved we can see the amount of instability, unrest, tension and despair which the stagnation of refugee problems bring about.

Now to be able to give the refugee this opportunity it is essential as I said Mr. President to give him a status guaranteeing that he will enjoy the fundamental rights of the individual - which bodies like the Economic and Social Council and others are here to defend. Indeed it would seem paradoxical if a refugees who became uprooted from his own country because of injustice, discrimination, persecution was to remain a separate individual, a category of his own in the country of asylum where he finds himself. After all before being a refugee a refugee is a man like any other man and as we know any man can be a refugee. Therefore Mr. President we feel very strongly that refugees must be given a chance to lead a normal life. We feel in Africa that if we give refugees this opportunity they may well be the leaders of their countries after independence tomorrow. For this reason we have strengthened our education programmes and our vocational training activities. I should like to express our appreciation to UNESCO for its experts, for its advice, for its advice, for its contribution to our planning of refugee education particularly at the secondary level in the African countries and also to the Scandinavian Governments and the peoples of Scandinavia who have so generously supported the financing of our education account. I feel also Mr. President for this reason that my office did well to emphasise in the Economic Commission of ECOSOC the need not to forget refugees during International Education Year.

I believe Mr. President that we have learned a lesson in this effort in Africa. Cheap and hasty schemes do not work. The settlements to be really effective must be viable or it is just a thin guise for relief and relief is something that we do not want to perpetuate. Therefore our efforts must be strengthened not for very large costs indeed the total need even for a well organized settlement would seem a trifle to most Governments and we have tried also Mr. President as I think is testified by our submission to the Executive Committee to maintain an average ceiling on our programme needs and our target over the years.

Mr. President if the development decade if aimed as it is at overcoming poverty, distress and under-development then surely the refugees should not be forgotten. The plans which have been discussed in this room for the proper utilization of human resources cold not find a better application. This was stressed also during the 50th anniversary meeting of the International Labour Organization when repeatedly stress was placed on the need to achieve a stronger security in employment and a search for a better life.

Mr. President what we are doing in trying, in accordance with our Mandate, to provide assistance to refugees problems in not simply a work of charity, not even only of justice; it is a constructive effort aimed at solving the problems once and for all. We want thousands of individuals to make, as they can and must, a positive contribution to the general prosperity of countries which, because they support the universal principles of the right of asylum, have opened their doors generously to the asylum seekers. This is also, Mr. President, a work of peace. So may I be permitted once again to express the strong hope and belief that our work will receive general and unanimous support.

Thank you.