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"Telecommunications in the Service of Humanitarian Assistance" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Telecom 99 + InterActive 99 Forum, Geneva, 14 October 1999

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"Telecommunications in the Service of Humanitarian Assistance" - Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Telecom 99 + InterActive 99 Forum, Geneva, 14 October 1999

14 October 1999

Mr Harbi,
Speakers and Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Coming here is an astonishing experience for a novice in telecommunications. Obviously, this is the showcase of a whole new world of opportunities - opportunities to get in touch, to learn, to know, to grow. These amazing achievements fill me with admiration. I am grateful to the International Telecommunication Union for inviting me. And yet, I cannot help but think of many of the places where my UNHCR colleagues are struggling to protect and assist 22 million refugees and other uprooted people worldwide - dangerous and remote places, very cold, or very hot, or very dusty; often without electricity; cut off from all networks - places where communication is hardly possible. I cannot help but think of the refugees themselves. Many of them have never used a phone in their life. Many others (and I do not know what is worse) had to leave behind them places in which they took easy communication for granted, like we do. Refugees, of course, are not just victims - they are women and men able to make extraordinary contributions to society. Einstein was a refugee. Some of the leaders in your industry, like Andy Groves of Intel, for example, were refugees. But refugees, in their vast majority, were either born, or were thrown, on the wrong side of the "digital divide".

Let me introduce UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Our work started in December 1950. We were a small organization, with a staff of 23 and a yearly budget of less than 5 million dollars. In those days, UNHCR dealt mostly with individual refugees fleeing communist rule in Eastern Europe. Almost fifty years later, we employ over four thousand people. Our yearly budget, since 1992, has constantly exceeded one billion US dollars. Twenty years ago, we dealt with 2.5 million refugees. Today, the Office cares not only for 12 million refugees, but also for more than 10 million other people - such as persons displaced within their own country, returnees, and so on.

Increasingly, huge logistical means must be mobilized to bring assistance to uprooted people - many of you will remember the airlift which kept the city of Sarajevo alive for three years during the war in Bosnia; or another airlift, which brought emergency assistance to a cholera-stricken population of one million Rwandans in the Zairean city of Goma. The images of the Kosovo refugee tragedy are still vivid in our minds. As we speak, my colleagues are facing another challenging and difficult day to help refugees in places such as East Timor, Burundi and the North Caucasus.

UNHCR's work is not simply "humanitarian". We deal, specifically, with refugees, returnees and other people who are either displaced, or trying to resume a normal life, at home or in another country. They are all people on the move, people separated from their children, parents and friends, deprived or traumatized people, people who therefore desperately need to communicate.

On the other hand, to ensure their protection and provide them with assistance, we must be with the refugees, next to them. This means that the staff of UNHCR and of its partner agencies must often work in remote, isolated places. Think of Sierra Leonean refugees in the Liberia rainforest, for example - one of the most inaccessible areas in the world. Think of the 150,000 internally displaced people in Afghanistan, a country in which simple telecommunication technology is as accessible as science fiction. And these are not just under-equipped places. They are also dangerous, especially if you cannot communicate effectively. Good, efficient, accessible telecommunications are therefore a key element of refugee operations. I would even go further and say that they are an essential tool to protect refugees and to provide security to staff working with them.

Just like any other human activity, humanitarian and refugee programmes today require professional and dedicated backing, including state-of-the-art support in the field of communications and information technology. One of the most typical features of today's refugee crises is - frequently - the size and speed of forced population movements. In these emergencies, UNHCR's traditional information, communication and refugee registration systems - designed for more manageable crises - have come under incredible strain.

The Kosovo crisis was a turning point. It attracted a lot of attention, including from business companies eager to help us address the movements of enormous masses of people, first fleeing Kosovo, and shortly thereafter returning home. Thanks to British Telecom, in some locations, refugees were able to call, free of charge, their relatives in other countries. This helped family reunification, and was of great psychological help. Thanks to Eutelsat, we are continuing our efforts to improve communications in Kosovo today. Thanks to a very substantial contribution of resources by Microsoft and several computer companies, we tried a new, electronic refugee registration package, which we hope to improve and use in other situations as well. This is particularly important. In many places we still register refugees by hand. Given the importance of registration - to ensure fair food distributions, for example; or for the purpose of tracing lost relatives - we need to make fast progress in this field.

There are other areas in which we must improve our technology. For example, in carrying out campaigns to inform refugees about conditions in their own country, in order to help them make up their mind about staying where they are, or returning home - like in West Timor today. Our delivery of messages to large groups of people under difficult circumstances could improve immensely if we had more effective tools. And I do not even need to mention the security of staff - many field officers, responsible for what are literally refugee cities, still rely on old-fashioned walkie-talkies. Emergency teams setting up vast operations depend on a couple of satellite phones, and a few overworked technicians and operators. Yet, effective communication systems are crucial. The day before yesterday, a group of UN colleagues survived a rebel ambush in Burundi because one of them fled the scene with a functioning portable phone, which she used to call for help. We are more aware than anybody else of the importance of good telecommunications for security. However, limited resources mean that our access to the best technology is also limited.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Telecommunications today are about partnerships. Few other fields of business are so dynamic in searching for synergies, and in maximizing them. I represent here a very different world, in which partnerships are nevertheless as essential. And I am here not only to tell you who we are, and what we do - but also to propose that you be partners in our endeavours to help people have better, safer lives. The challenges are immense. Advanced technology will be crucial to strengthen our communication capacity, especially in chaotic emergencies - between our various offices, with our partner agencies, with the outside world, and - last but not least - with refugees.

I will be very practical and give you some examples. First - very simple and straightforward - we need (on a donation or cost-sharing basis) communication equipment, particularly satellite phones, VHF and HF radios, and especially wireless telephony and data transmission equipment (because we work in some of the least technologically advanced areas in the world, and we depend on scarce resources, any system we are provided with, must be relatively simple, very reliable, and cost-effective). Second, we have a growing need to move internal information in a fast, and reliable manner; I wish to ask the owners, operators and technicians of satellite links to help us have better and cheaper access to them. Third, we would like to gain more access to the Internet, in order to raise awareness of refugee problems, and perhaps promote a better image of refugees, particularly in Europe. Fourth, we could explore together the possibility to launch education programmes for refugees using computer technology; I am particularly keen on this project because, as I said, refugees have potential, and we must give them opportunities. And last but not least, we badly require specialized staff support.

I do not wish, however, to talk about partnership and then just give you a shopping list. We at UNHCR, and in the humanitarian community at large, are quite serious about working with you. I say so not only because we need your resources and know-how, but also because I sincerely believe that business - the telecommunications business in particular - has much to gain in being associated with humanitarian operations. UNHCR is prepared to enter into stand-by arrangements with telecommunications companies, that could be activated in case of large emergencies, and through which resources can be made available, and more importantly, staff can be deployed to provide support in refugee operations. We are ready - through our offices in countries where your companies are based - to talk with you on how we can make telecommunications be of real service to refugee programmes.

To paraphrase Thomas Friedman, refugees are among the people who must still upload, rather than download, for a living. And although they very much need to communicate, they are also among the people who have the least means to do so.

You can help us link them up, so they will have a voice in the global world.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.