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Address by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Old Dominion University Graduation Day, Norfolk, USA, 11 May 2002

Speeches and statements

Address by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Old Dominion University Graduation Day, Norfolk, USA, 11 May 2002

11 May 2002

(Check against delivery)

Madam President,
Colleagues, Students,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Forty years ago I graduated from the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Today I stand before you as Doctor of Human Letters, Honoris Causa, in the Old Dominion University. It is an honour to be here. Thank you for the warm welcome that you have given me.

Let me start by recalling a speech that President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave to the US Congress in 1941. In this speech, he spoke of four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom of all people to worship God in their own way; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. As High Commissioner for Refugees, my work relates most closely to the last of these: freedom from fear.

UNHCR was established in December 1950. Its creation should be understood in the context of the setting up of the United Nations in 1945, and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly in 1948. Underlying both of these was the aspiration that all peoples should have their own democracies, and that all governments should respect human rights.

The United Nations, which is based on the principle of state sovereignty, understood early on that nations must be responsible for those who are the victims of violence, persecution and fear. Those who are not protected by their own governments must have international protection. It was this conviction that led to the founding of UNHCR and the drafting of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

UNHCR's origins, however, go back to the League of Nations period between the First and the Second World War. Although no universal system of refugee protection was set up during this period, measures were put in place at the international level to address the problem of specific groups of refugees. Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian polar explorer, was appointed by the League in 1921 as the first high commissioner for refugees. His mandate was initially limited to the problem of Russian refugees in Europe, though it was later extended to include other specific groups of refugees.

During the inter-war years, a body of refugee law began to develop. But progress was limited, and the first international convention on refugees, drawn up in 1933, was only ever ratified by eight countries. A new low point was reached in 1938, when 32 nations gathered at Evian, France, to discuss ways of resettling Jews fleeing Nazism. The Evian Conference was an abysmal failure, merely confirming the general lack of willingness of countries around the world to offer a lifeline to the Jews.

We have come a long way since then. Over the course of the last fifty years, refugee protection has been globalized. A network of institutions, norms and laws have been developed to deal with refugee problems wherever they manifest themselves. The 1951 Refugee Convention, together with its 1967 Protocol, has in effect become a universal charter of refugee law.

Today there are more than 21 million people of concern to my Office. These include refugees, asylum seekers, returnees, internally displaced people and stateless people. All of these are people who are not able to benefit from the protection of their own governments. All of them are products of political failure.

During the Cold War years, a number of countries proved their generosity in providing asylum to refugees. The United States, for example, opened its doors to over a million Vietnamese people from 1975 onwards. But while many countries lived up to their international obligations towards refugees, no systematic system of burden sharing was developed.

In recent years new problems have arisen. We now see governments refusing to accept refugees because they are so many; refusing to accept them because they are mixed up with economic migrants; refusing to accept them because of a lack of burden sharing amongst states.

Since September 11, I have had to face an additional problem. Refugees and asylum seekers have for years been the objects of considerable mistrust and hostility in many countries, and they are now particularly vulnerable. In the current climate, they can easily become convenient scapegoats.

It is, of course, essential to ensure that perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of terrorist crimes, who might seek to abuse the asylum channel, are promptly identified and dealt with. But at the same time, we must ensure that governments avoid making unwarranted linkages between refugees and terrorism. Genuine refugees are themselves the victims of persecution and terrorism, not its perpetrators. They should not be victimized twice.

A major challenge for UNHCR today is funding. UNHCR is at the service of governments. But to be effective, it needs the support of governments. Traditionally, UNHCR has relied on voluntary government contributions for about 97% of its funding. Only around 3% is paid out of the regular budget of the United Nations. In recent years the level of government contributions to UNHCR has declined, even though large numbers of refugees continue to languish in camps, and even though increasing numbers of desperate refugees are turning to human smugglers and criminal networks in their search for a better future outside these camps.

Millions of refugees live in the most degrading conditions of abject poverty. They are often accommodated in remote, economically marginalized and insecure areas, where they are given few opportunities for self-sufficiency. Many of the children do not have access to education, and many of the adults have no employment opportunities. The result is that a large number of these people are entirely dependent on humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, levels of humanitarian assistance is going down and down.

The abominably low levels of assistance being provided by the richest countries to the most marginalized and vulnerable people in the world cannot be allowed to continue. A few weeks ago, when I addressed the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, I said: we, in the international community, should ask whether we ourselves are not violating the human rights of refugees by not providing them with enough assistance for them to live with a minimum of dignity.

This is a human rights issue; but it is also a security issue. For how can we live in a world without crime, and how can we live in a world without terrorism, if we do not address the critical need to ensure freedom from want? Injustice, poverty, conflict, ignorance and disease - all these contribute to instability. We live in a globalized world, and we cannot afford to turn our backs on peoples and places severely affected by any of these. On the contrary, we must make every effort to address the conditions that lead to despair and breed hatred and violence in the first place. Let us not underestimate the price of indifference.

Refugee programmes are a worthwhile investment. For to invest in finding solutions for refugees is to invest in international peace and stability. This year, for example, we are helping one and a quarter million Afghan refugees and internally displaced people to return to their homes, mainly from Iran and Pakistan. The operation is currently costing UNHCR 25 million dollars per month, which may sound like a lot of money, but it is nothing compared with the amounts spent on a daily basis on the international military presence in Afghanistan. The returning refugees will play a vital role in the reconstruction of their country. Given the opportunities, refugees can once again become productive.

Increasingly, international burden sharing has become the key to finding solutions for refugees. UNHCR has an important role to play in ensuring that there is a fair system of burden sharing in place. But at the same time, refugees should not be seen solely as a burden. Without underestimating the humanitarian and security issues related to the presence of large refugee populations, it must be recognized that refugees are not merely the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid. They can make positive contributions. They can enrich our societies, as many have done in the past.

A number of today's world leaders were themselves refugees at one point in their lives. In the case of Afghanistan, Chairman Karzai was himself a refugee. Rather than marginalizing refugees, therefore, our challenge is to find ways of empowering them, so that each of them can contribute positively to the societies in which they live - whether this be in countries of asylum, countries that they return to, or countries of resettlement, such as your own country, the United States.

Perhaps this is the most important point: to understand that refugees have the capacity to become valuable citizens. Not a burden; not a risk; but valuable citizens. Recognition of this is where good governance for refugees begins.

Dear students,

On this graduation day, I call on you. Consider the 21 million refugees and other people of concern to my Office. Some ten million of them are younger than 18 years of age. What about their education? What about their chances in life - their chances of living in dignity? I call on you to volunteer your services, or to donate some of your revenues in your rich lives to come. But above all, I call on you to respect refugees.

Thank you.