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Statement by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata on the occasion of Africa Refugee Day

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Statement by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata on the occasion of Africa Refugee Day

20 June 2000

Each June 20th, the Organization of African Unity - the OAU - and my Office, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, mark the anniversary of the OAU's 1974 African Refugee Convention. This tool of law is the cornerstone of refugee protection in Africa.

The continent's escalating refugee problems need our attention today more than ever. Since the early 1960s, when there were some 950,000 refugees in Africa, the figure has quadrupled to a staggering 4 million people driven from their countries. This is in addition to millions more displaced inside their own countries.

Last year, there were encouraging signs. The cease-fire agreements in Lomé and in Lusaka raised the hope that hundreds of thousands of refugees in Western and Central Africa would finally be going home.

But making peace agreements endure continues to be a major challenge. In West Africa, since we last commemorated Africa Refugee Day, UNHCR resumed its repatriation of Liberian refugees from Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. UNHCR had begun working with the U.N. Development Programme and the World Bank on a transitional programme that would promote the reintegration of Sierra Leonean refugees from Guinea and Liberia. But sadly, by mid-year, new tensions emerged and the truce began to unravel. The equally tragic situations in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, causing displacement not only inside those countries but also across their respective borders, are other examples of the open or simmering conflicts that continue to plague other regions of Africa.

I commend the efforts of the OAU, which is tirelessly working towards bringing belligerents to the negotiating table. I remain hopeful that the cease-fire agreements of Lomé and Lusaka will eventually bring peace to Western and Central Africa. This is vital. Our experience shows that refugee crises cannot be resolved without lasting peace.

However, if peace is to decisively replace war and suffering throughout this continent, it is going to require the shared responsibility of all Africans. Africans must live up to the spirit of humanity and justice that they have so generously demonstrated by taking in millions of innocent civilians driven from their homes in the past. Conflicts will not be resolved unless all countries - and their citizens - take a collective responsibility for achieving peace. In some regions of Africa, controlling natural resources - oil, diamonds, wood - appears to be a more pressing concern for governments and rebel groups alike, than the welfare of the people living in embattled areas. The relative ease with which arms are trafficked within and to Africa feeds the machinery of war. The worst pages of colonial history seem to repeat themselves as enormous resources are wasted in pursuit of wealth, war and domination.

In areas where refugees were once generously welcomed as brothers and sisters in distress, we see today an increase in xenophobia. The threat to national security and economic difficulties are often cited to justify this disturbing trend. We must all work together to counter it. This is why the OAU and UNHCR took the initiative to convene a gathering of jurists and humanitarian law experts in Conakry last March, to look at innovative ways in which the OAU Refugee Convention could be used to meet today's challenges for the protection of refugees.

Responsibility is not the sole prerogative of heads of state or politicians. Intolerance is born in the minds of people at the individual level. It pushes them to be hostile towards others because of their ethnicity, religion or political views. To reverse this alarming trend, UNHCR has launched a public awareness campaign across Africa called "Roll Back Xenophobia," targeting individuals but also governments and non-governmental agencies.

Responsibility does not stop in Africa either. Millions around the globe who, in the comfort of their own homes, watch TV and Internet images of desperate people driven from their own abodes by fresh violence and war can also do more. They should encourage their respective governments to remember the refugee plight in Africa, even when media cameras focus on crises elsewhere in the world.

As you listen to this message, I will be in East Africa. While there, I will take the opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to the people and leaders of Africa who have so very often opened their doors to refugees and others torn from their homes. You can rest assured that UNHCR will continue to protect and assist the refugees and displaced people of Africa. We will never stop working towards alleviating their suffering and finding lasting solutions for them.

I call upon all persons of goodwill to put an end to the spiral of violence and war we have seen over this last year. Only then may Africa find enduring peace and at last focus on improving the life of its people. And only then will every woman, man and child across this great continent have a lasting home, and a promising future.