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Briefing by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate of the Italian Republic, Rome, 11 October 2000

Speeches and statements

Briefing by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate of the Italian Republic, Rome, 11 October 2000

11 October 2000
Looking backCurrent challengesLooking to the FutureUNHCR needs more resources

Mr Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour to be here today. I would like to thank in particular Senator Migone for taking the initiative to organise this briefing.

Looking back

When I became High Commissioner in 1991, the changes for the better were extraordinary. People spoke of a new world order. But history did not end, as one scholar had predicted. Indeed, the times became very complicated. Within weeks of my arrival as High Commissioner, almost two million Iraqi Kurds fled to Iran and Turkey. And in the following years, especially in the former Yugoslavia, and Central Africa, we were constantly challenged. UNHCR was on the frontlines, often in war situations. The times also demanded innovative approaches to asylum. We broke new ground - and saved many lives - by promoting temporary protection for refugees from Bosnia.

At the same time, new patterns in conflicts made forced population movements more fluid and complex than ever before. We faced terrible ambiguities and dilemmas, frequently alone. In Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Central Africa, real international engagement came too late - if ever - and only after human suffering had reached dramatic proportions. Some of the conflicts unresolved by political and diplomatic initiatives eventually triggered a military reaction by the international community. This led us into a confusing new era of so-called "humanitarian wars" - a term that troubles me greatly - and a more crowded humanitarian space.

Solutions to refugee problems take time. This is a lesson I have learned over the years. But complex refugee problems can be solved when governments are committed and resources are available. In spite of all difficulties, we have had successes. The most important one is that millions of refugees, over the past ten years, have repatriated. In Mozambique, in Indochina, in Central America, we helped millions of people return home. These are achievements that have contributed to shaping history in the last decade.

Current challenges

Let me turn to some of our current challenges. I would like to focus only on some of the most significant situations - and to start from those where solutions may be at hand.

For example, minority returns are finally becoming a reality both in Bosnia and in Croatia. People in Bosnia are even returning to towns that were virtually synonymous with ethnic cleansing. Tensions have subsided, security is better and the obstacles to return are now often more practical than political. But these welcome trends are not irreversible. More money is needed now to build houses and create jobs that will anchor returns. On the other hand, we welcome the turn of events in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the country hosting the largest number of refugees in Europe. We hope that the recent positive developments will have a crucial impact on the refugee situation both in Serbia and in the region.

Rwanda has made progress, but it needs new development investments to consolidate returns and foster reconciliation. Development actors must step forward and the government must have the political will to resolve the fundamental problems of power sharing and democratisation. In Burundi, the choice is between peace and renewed conflict. The latter would certainly cause massive displacement. President Mandela has given new momentum to the Arusha process. If peace comes, UNHCR is ready to help more than half a million refugees go home from Tanzania.

In the Horn of Africa, a region which you undoubtedly follow very closely, fighting earlier this year uprooted nearly 1.5 million people in Eritrea (including 90,000 who sought refuge in Sudan, which I visited in June). Determined international efforts, however, resulted in a cease-fire and helped address the worst consequences of the latest drought. Deployment of a UN observer mission is getting underway. In an operation that President Afewerki defined "exemplary", we helped repatriate more than a quarter of those who fled to Sudan, and many internally displaced people. A final peace settlement would open the way to solutions, both for people displaced recently and for the refugees from previous outflows. It would be an important stabilising factor in a region where there are other encouraging signs, for example in Somalia.

Elsewhere, unfortunately, solutions to refugee problems remain elusive. In most of these situations, a combination of secessionist or rebel movements and weak conflict resolution processes - as well as a lack of international engagement and resources - have created a dangerous spiral that makes solutions very difficult to achieve. I would like to elaborate on Africa, where I have been 31 times since 1991, because this continent continues to be of great concern to UNHCR.

In Congo, for example, amidst a complex clash of political, military and economic interests, people are suffering, and little is done to address their plight. It is a paradox that whereas Congolese continue to seek refuge outside the country, and 1.8 million are displaced internally, over 300,000 people from neighbouring countries have sought refuge in the Congo itself! This shows the regional dimension of the crisis, but also the profound despair of people seeking safety. I have told all leaders in the region: don't forget the people - and as you negotiate, don't ignore the human cost of this war.

In West Africa, the repeated setbacks in implementing the Lomé agreement keep half a million Sierra Leonean refugees from coming home. More decisive international support is needed for the further deployment of UN peacekeepers. Meanwhile, the conflict seems to be expanding. There have been attacks across the border of Guinea - less than a month ago, one of my colleagues was killed. We face a severe risk that instability will escalate, causing massive displacement in the region - and refugee flows may become a "vehicle" for the conflict to spread. Humanitarian assistance must be coupled with security support - I think that peacekeeping should focus on border areas, too, if we are to prevent the conflict from spreading and a humanitarian catastrophe from unfolding.

Closer to you, in Kosovo, the massive international relief operation is winding down. No one died of exposure or starvation last winter. This was no small achievement - and we are grateful to all our partners, including the Italian military contingent, for contributing to it. UNHCR's focus is now on protecting and assisting non-Albanians. Minorities in Kosovo live in a virtual state of siege in mono-ethnic enclaves under heavy KFOR guard, sustained by UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. We must overcome the cycle of violence and revenge and the climate of impunity. Enabling the few remaining non-Albanians to stay in Kosovo will be the first step toward return as a solution for those who have left.

Looking to the Future

I could mention many other crises - Afghanistan, West Timor, the North Caucasus, just to mention the most worrying ones. The list, unfortunately, is long. However, it is to the future that we must look. I see four important areas where we must reflect, plan and take concrete action - emergencies, security, complex population flows, and the post-conflict period.

First, we must continue to strengthen UNHCR's emergency preparedness and response capacity, which lies at the heart of our ability to save lives.

Emergency mechanisms established in 1992 dramatically improved our ability to respond to crises. But the humanitarian environment has changed since 1992. UNHCR's initial response during the Kosovo refugee crisis revealed two important facts: the Office had to review its emergency mechanisms; and governments, on the other hand, had to re-examine their co-operation with UNHCR in emergencies. We all need to learn from what happened. On our side, drawing from the recommendations of the independent Kosovo evaluation, we are implementing - within the constraints of available resources - a plan of action to increase our "surge capacity". We have had contacts with the Italian government on strengthening linkages in some specific areas of emergency response: co-operation on training, especially of Italian NGOs and volunteers; the use of storage facilities in Brindisi together with other UN agencies; the re-establishment of an emergency fund for UNHCR by the Italian government; and the translation into Italian of our Emergency Handbook.

The second area where efforts are needed is to create a secure environment for refugee-populated areas and humanitarian operations.

In Eastern Congo and more recently in West Timor, we have learned painful lessons about the tragic consequences that follow when refugees and perpetrators of violence are left together. Similar trends are emerging in West Africa. Since 1997, I have advocated looking to a "ladder of options" between the extremes of fully fledged peacekeeping on the one hand, and the absence of any security measures on the other. The concept remains valid, but we must move forward with implementation. Our objective is to operationalise "medium" options, such as the deployment of international civilian monitors or police, with a view to strengthen local law enforcement mechanisms.

In parallel, we must forward decisively on staff safety. It is essential to balance the need to be next to the refugees - often in very dangerous areas - with the requirement that staff be kept safe. Whilst we appreciated the sympathy that governments expressed when our colleagues where killed last month, your support must be translated in concrete political and financial measures. Staff safety costs money. We need your help, and we need it urgently.

The third area where we have to take action is in developing new approaches to complex forced population movements.

We face an extraordinary challenge responding to the globalisation of migration and forced displacement. Italy is an example of this situation: traditionally a country of emigration, it has become a destination for people on the move for a variety of motives. Asylum seekers fleeing human rights violations and violence tend to travel with people seeking better economic opportunities, and those uprooted by environmental and other disasters. They often come from the same countries, travel the same routes, hold the same false documents and use the services of the same criminal trafficking and smuggling networks.

As a consequence, here and elsewhere, asylum and irregular migration have become seriously confused in the public mind. People are also increasingly troubled by perceived abuse of the system and the cost of giving asylum. Governments have responded by making it more difficult for asylum seekers to reach their territory, detaining them upon arrival, interpreting their protection obligations restrictively and creating lesser forms of protection.

We cannot ignore valid concerns. But governments, UNHCR and refugees share a fundamental common interest in having an effective, universal international protection regime. Italy has made considerable efforts, in the past few years, to upgrade its asylum mechanisms. The current legal system, however, is not geared to deal with the larger number of asylum seekers that have recently arrived. I hope that the new asylum bill, to which UNHCR has contributed technical advice, will soon be enacted to ensure more efficient procedures and better standards of assistance.

On our side, we are launching special consultations with governments. Our purpose is not to renegotiate the 1951 refugee Convention. Rather, we hope to promote its full implementation and to develop the new approaches, tools and standards needed to ensure its continuing vitality and relevance.

The fourth area I wish to highlight is the need to pay much more attention to the critical phase which follows conflicts.

Many post-conflict situations today are chronically under-funded. Resources come readily for high-profile humanitarian emergencies. When development investments are required to consolidate fragile returns, we have a much more difficult time getting the world's attention. Sometimes, scenes of misery and death seem to be a prerequisite for donor interest. We consulted governments on this issue in 1999. They called for greater co-ordination on the agencies' part. We made efforts. I am disappointed, however, that this has not led to more backing, and more financial support, for the transition phase.

On the other hand, when fighting ends and repatriation begins, refugees often return to live alongside the very people they fought with. In many places, UNHCR no longer struggles with a refugee crisis, but rather a returnee crisis. Kosovo is perhaps the starkest example. During my last visit in May, I was dismayed to see children going to school under NATO military escort.

UNHCR has launched an initiative that we call "Imagine Co-Existence". We are starting with pilot projects in Bosnia and Rwanda. We have learned in many places the unifying, or dividing, power of a well, of a school, of a playground. When planning or implementing projects, we must ask ourselves: does it promote or undermine co-existence? This - I believe - is one of the fundamental humanitarian questions of the next decade.

UNHCR needs more resources

In order to meet these four challenges, UNHCR must make further efforts to adapt. Rapid emergencies - and the increasing pressures for quick solutions - put new demands on our capacity to manage staff and resources. In Kosovo, we saw hundreds of thousands of people flee for their lives and then return home within a few weeks. Modernising the organisation, however, will cost money. Unfortunately, the financial situation of UNHCR is not encouraging.

I am deeply grateful for the strong backing that governments have extended to UNHCR. In spite of their efforts, however, UNHCR has become an under-funded organisation. By early this year, we could already project that contributions would not match our budget - the budget approved by our governing body last October. Meanwhile, new emergencies added nearly 100 million dollars to our requirements. The shortfall is greater than in past years. We have repeatedly prioritised and reduced our budget. This has diminished UNHCR's credibility and strained relations with refugees, governments and our NGO implementing partners.

I am very concerned by the decrease in funding by the European Commission, and by some European donors, including Italy. I wish to take this opportunity to appeal to you for greater financial support - especially in areas of concern to your country such as Africa and the Balkans. I regret to say that this support is currently not commensurate with Italy's political and economic position in the international community. On the other hand, the generous contribution provided by the Italian public to UNHCR's activities - last year it was our largest single non-government contribution worldwide - is of great importance to us, and should be encouraged, as in other countries, through legal provisions ensuring tax deductibility for contributions made to my Office.

The Office will be critically weakened if urgent action is not taken. Let me therefore make a personal appeal: unless fresh contributions are forthcoming, UNHCR will face a severe funding shortfall; and unless commitments for next year's budget are honoured, we will face the same situation in 2001. I deeply regret that this may happen as a new High Commissioner takes the leadership of the Office.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

UNHCR marks its fiftieth anniversary in December this year. But our longevity is no cause for celebration. UNHCR remains necessary because persecution and conflict force an ever greater number of people to flee their homes. So in our anniversary year, we are not celebrating UNHCR but rather refugees - their courage, their determination and their capacity for survival against all odds.

UNHCR's mission is crucially useful to today's world - and will remain so for long. Please support it. I trust that you will not mind if I say that you owe it to both to this country's long tradition of civilised openness and warm hospitality; and to its keen - I would say historic - sense of reality. And I hope that Italy's institutions will match - through a combination of political and financial backing - the understanding, commitment and support that the Italian people have always demonstrated to my Office, and to the cause of refugees.

Thank you.