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"The Current Problems of Refugee Populations" - Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Ben Gurion University, Beer Sheva, Israel, 23 May 2000

Speeches and statements

"The Current Problems of Refugee Populations" - Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Ben Gurion University, Beer Sheva, Israel, 23 May 2000

23 May 2000

Professor Bar-On,
Colleagues of Ben Gurion University,
Dear Students,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start by thanking Ben Gurion University for inviting me to Beer Sheva. It is a pleasure to be with you today and a great privilege to receive an honorary degree from this important academic institution. I take it not only as an honour for myself, but also - and especially - as a recognition of the role that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees plays in ensuring protection and seeking solutions for 22 million refugees and other uprooted people world-wide.

By the time UNHCR was created, in December 1950, another United Nations body - the Relief and Works Agency - was already working with Palestinian refugees. Given the specific characteristics of the Palestinian refugee problem, this division of labour has been maintained ever since, and UNRWA continues to be the UN body primarily responsible for Palestinian refugees in this region. This means that although UNHCR co-operates actively with Israel on other refugee matters, our programmes here are relatively small.

This said, I feel both honoured and challenged to be speaking to you about refugees, their problems, and their hopes. Israel is a country rooted in history's worst tragedies of forced human displacement - and millions of refugees owe their tragic plights to the Holocaust. The Jewish people have behind them hundreds of years of persecution, flight and exile. On the other hand, not only economic migrants, but also refugees have built this country - and refugees of Jewish origin have made enormous contributions everywhere. One of UNHCR's most recognised slogans uses the name of a very famous Jew - it says, "Einstein was a refugee".

This land has benefited from the presence and the work of refugees. But this is a land which has also suffered greatly because of refugee problems. Since 1948, millions of Palestinians have fled. And while some, just like the Jews, have rebuilt their lives elsewhere and made extraordinary contributions to their host countries and communities, most of them remain uprooted, with a strong wish to see an end to their long displacement.

On Thursday, in Jerusalem, I will visit Yad Vashem and pay tribute to the victims of the Holocaust. As High Commissioner for Refugees, however, there will be an added significance to my visit - in remembering, and condemning, the unspeakable horror of the worst genocide of the 20th century, I would like to also remember and condemn all genocides, and the brutal acts of violence, which continue to kill, and to force people into exile.

My Office has had to deal for many years with the consequences of genocide, and of violence against ethnic and social groups. Three years ago, in a speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, I underlined the close link between refugees and genocide, mass violence or persecution. The reality is that decades after the Holocaust, violence and persecution continue to force hundreds of thousands of people every year to become refugees, or to flee to safer areas of their own countries. Think of the massacres in Cambodia in the 1970s, for example; and of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; and of the repeated waves of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. In all these places - and in many others, too - mass violence has inevitably caused mass flight.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established almost 50 years ago. In its early years, it dealt almost exclusively with individual cases or small groups of refugees fleeing from the communist Eastern block. Starting in the late 1950s, however, UNHCR was requested to assist with massive outflows of refugees in other regions, especially in Africa. The situation of refugees worsened dramatically as Cold War rivalries were transmitted into a polarised and heavily armed Third World, exacerbating tensions and leading to regional or internal conflicts. At the end of the 1970s, UNHCR cared for eight million people; during the 1990s, this figure reached 27 million. The paralysis of international relations which marked the Cold War impeded any resolution of these conflicts. Consequently, millions of refugees continued to stagnate in over-crowded camps in countries which had no capacity to absorb these growing numbers.

Then the Berlin Wall came down. The end of the Cold War polarisation resulted in countless internal conflicts. Some, like in the Balkans, or in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, were not only particularly violent and destructive, but also of such extraordinary complexity that traditional conflict resolution mechanisms were inadequate to address their root causes. And the graver the conflict, the more dramatic were the humanitarian tragedies that occurred as a result - think of the over four million people uprooted at the peak of the Bosnian war, for example; or of the one million Rwandans pouring across the Zairian border in just four days in 1994.

These are the types of conflicts and of refugee crises that prevail today. And the situations which I have mentioned - exceptional as they may have been - indicate in a dramatic manner that humanitarian action alone cannot resolve fundamental social, economic and political problems. Like all of us, I hope that in due course, from the turmoil of this transition period, a more effective approach will arise, resulting in the establishment of reliable conflict resolution mechanisms that can bring a measure of stability. The crux of the matter, however, is that such processes are eminently political: humanitarian response can cure the symptoms of conflicts, but cannot remove the root causes.

So - you may ask - in this situation, what is the role of the refugee agency? What is the value of refugee protection and what are the problems that it can address?

I would like to make three points - and I trust that living in a region with complex links between human displacement, international tensions and economic resources, you will understand and relate to these problems.

First, we should stress the importance of the principle of refugee asylum. Clearly, today's unstable transition phase will continue in various parts of the world. More conflicts and more violence against civilians are likely to occur, at least for some time. As a consequence, it is easy to foresee that more people will be forced to flee their homes. People in flight need protection - and the institution of asylum is the most important refugee protection instrument at the disposal of the international community.

The complexity of population movements is placing the concept and practice of asylum in an ambiguous position. Frequently, economic migrants resort to requesting asylum as refugees because this is their only way to obtain employment - both in industrialised countries, and also, increasingly, in the developing world. But this blurs the picture, and genuine refugees are often identified with illegal immigrants. They are seen as intruders whose goal is to take away jobs and profit from an undeserved share of social welfare.

Yet, refugees fleeing conflict and persecution have legitimate claims. They harbour real fears that if they were to be sent back, they would be killed. Very often they are severely traumatised, having suffered or simply witnessed terrible acts of physical and psychological violence. In these cases, literally, giving them asylum can save their lives. After many years of relative peace and stability - in which refugees had become a distant problem, seen mostly on TV screens, or, sometimes, at airport immigration offices - citizens of Western European countries were again exposed directly to real refugee situations throughout the 90s, when hundreds of thousands of people from the former Yugoslavia started knocking at their doors.

I am insisting on this point because I need the support not only of states - but also and particularly of civil society; of academics, students, business people, common citizens - in promoting this concept of asylum world-wide. And your support, let me add, has a particular significance - many people in this country, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, can appreciate and understand the compelling urgency of providing asylum to people in danger. Because if the response to the Holocaust was - also - a failure to provide asylum, there were nonetheless many vivid examples of people who took risks to rescue those threatened by Nazi persecutions. Here, I hope you will allow me to mention at least my compatriot Chiune Sugihara, the vice-consul of Japan in Kaunas, Lithuania, whose courageous personal choice to issue thousands of life-saving visas to Jewish refugees fleeing the German advance in 1940 was later recognised by Israel with the award of "Righteous among Nations" - the only Asian to receive this honour.

My second point is that having affirmed the importance of asylum, we must look at refugee problems in a broader context. During the Cold War, when refugees crossed ideological, and not just political borders, it was relatively simple to recognise and treat them as a special category of people in need of protection and assistance until such time as they could return home or be integrated in a host country. Today, the situation is much more complex, and not only because of the confusion between refugees and migrants, which I have already mentioned. In many situations, uprooted people are internally displaced within the border of their own country - making it more difficult to ensure their protection and assistance. Refugee crises are often both the symptom and the cause of grave insecurity and instability. There is, generally, strong pressure to resolve their situation, even if the root causes of their flight have not been addressed. As a consequence, often refugees return to areas that remain unstable and have not recovered from the destruction of war.

What I would like to stress is that the context in which we attempt to ensure the protection of refugees is crucial. We cannot provide effective protection to refugees, or - when they return home - make their repatriation durable, unless we address the key problems underlying refugee flows, and, in particular, security and poverty. Over the years we have learned that refugee problems left to fester in unstable or underdeveloped areas, contribute to the deterioration of security and of the economic environment. The most dramatic examples of this situation have occurred, in the last few years, in Central and West Africa.

In the nine years of my tenure as High Commissioner I have made great efforts to explain that while the immediate response to refugee crises may be of an emergency nature, refugee problems cannot be resolved by humanitarian agencies alone. Humanitarian action must be backed by efforts at the political level to resolve conflicts, address insecurity and instability, and promote good governance; and by efforts in the socio-economic sphere to build infrastructure, create employment and ensure a more equitable sharing of resources. Again, I think I am speaking to an understanding audience - in the Middle East, as the President of the World Bank will better explain this afternoon, there are many close links between international tensions - which ultimately cause refugee problems - and the availability of resources, water and land for example. The potential for refugee flows is always high in poor and unstable areas.

The last of my three points is extremely important. It concerns the urgent necessity to assist communities affected and divided by conflict in rebuilding their lives together, in a spirit of coexistence, if not quite yet of reconciliation. This is an issue which has wide and deep resonance in this region. I am fully aware that inter-communal coexistence is a very sensitive question, and that any discussion on this matter continues to touch raw nerves both among Israelis and Palestinians. However, I would like to include it among the main problems related to refugee situations, because promoting coexistence is an increasingly important area of refugee work in many parts of the world; and also, given that many courageous projects have been launched in this region, especially since the start of the peace process, I am very eager to learn about your own experiences and seek your advice and insight.

In today's world, refugee movements are caused - mostly - by conflict. And contemporary conflicts are - mostly - of an internal, inter-communal nature. When fighting ends and repatriation becomes possible, refugees very often return to live with the very people they had fought against - from Bosnia to Rwanda and from Liberia to East Timor, this is a pattern which prevails in most large returnee situations. As I have said earlier, post-conflict reconstruction is a very crucial phase - and one often overlooked and inadequately supported by the international community. I would like to also emphasise that reconstruction in situations of refugee return is more than just rebuilding houses, roads, and factories - it also means rebuilding communities, and restoring the complex web of social, economic and psychological relations destroyed by war and exile. Unless this is achieved, no amount of material reconstruction will be sufficient to eliminate the causes of conflict. In places where this has been at least partly achieved - in many countries of Central America, or in Mozambique, for example - inter-communal tensions have eased.

I believe that the most pressing humanitarian challenge today is to promote coexistence of divided communities. I could describe to you many situations in which UNHCR is struggling not with refugee, but returnee crises - almost a contradiction in terms! The most dramatic example today is undoubtedly in Kosovo, where about a million ethnic Albanians were expelled in the spring of 1999. They returned in July, after the end of NATO action and the withdrawal of Serbian security forces. However, it was in turn that ethnic minorities became the target of retaliation and violence, and fled. Today, about 200,000 Serbs, Romas and other minorities from Kosovo live outside the province or are internally displaced within its boundaries. During my last visit to the area in March I was dismayed to see children belonging to minority groups go to school under military escort.

If granting refugee asylum is the responsibility of states, and addressing problems causing refugee crises, such as conflict and poverty, is the task of political actors and developmental organisations, a crucial role in helping people coexist can be played by humanitarian agencies, and especially grassroots groups. I think there are two challenges, broadly speaking. The first is of course to devise ways to bring people together - to actually implement coexistence, so to speak. The second is to create awareness of the degree of "coexistence potential", or lack thereof, of any project carried out in a situation of divided communities - something which has not yet entered humanitarian methods and culture. We have learned in many places the unifying (or dividing) power of a water point, a school, a playground, a sports event. I believe that in the future, when planning and implementing projects related to the return of refugees, from water to education to social services to the rebuilding of infrastructure, we shall have to ask ourselves - is this activity conducive to coexistence? Will it bring together communities, or divide them?

On this subject, I would like to say a few words about Drvar. Drvar is a town in north-western Bosnia, which used to be inhabited by a large majority of ethnic Serbs; during the war, most Serbs were expelled; ethnic Croats - some of them displaced from their own areas - arrived, and became the majority. The expelled Serbs are now returning, slowly, and this poses many difficult problems. The two communities remain polarised and separated. Tensions continue. The Serbs, of course, have a legitimate right to return - Drvar is their home. But what about the displaced Croats? Should they return to their own homes - which in some cases may be difficult, if not impossible? Should a deal be worked out for the two communities to coexist? And how can this be achieved, given the scarcity of resources, of jobs, of housing?

Drvar is very symbolic of the situation in many parts of the Balkans because its problems are about deeply divided communities having to reorganise a limited space which they have to share after having fought each other bitterly. But in spite of the difficulties, there are some positive signs, coming from the communities themselves. At least one example is worth mentioning.

I have recently visited Drvar and have met with an association of women from both ethnic groups, supported by UNHCR. The two groups obviously dislike each other - my colleagues, whose office is next to theirs, told me that they could hear them quarrelling and shouting at each other, all day long! However, talking to them, I felt that with practical common sense (perhaps a quality of women, rather than of men?) they had, somehow, decided to open a dialogue - to coexist, so to speak.

A while before our visit, they had decided to arrange a common event to celebrate Women's Day - and when the police denied permission, they suddenly found themselves defending a common cause - and this brought them together. They stopped quarrelling and united their forces to try and obtain permission for the forbidden event. I encouraged them to continue - and they looked very upset indeed with the police, so I am sure that eventually they will obtain the authorisation and march to celebrate, belatedly but together, Women's Day. It will be a small event in the whole of the former Yugoslavia and of its huge post-war problems. But it will be unprecedented in Drvar, a town where until recently people killed and expelled each other - a small event, but a big change. And most importantly, it will not be imposed from above, but coming from the grassroots level - the level where hatred and separation are realities of daily life.

My colleagues in Drvar asked me whether they should continue to spend long hours talking to the women, supporting their efforts, helping them bridge their differences - they had doubts as to whether this was really the job of refugee officials. I encouraged them to continue - because without any doubt they were addressing at the root one of the most serious issues related to contemporary refugee problems.

To design activities aimed at promoting coexistence when refugees return to divided communities, and at creating this "coexistence mindset", UNHCR, in co-operation with Harvard University, is launching a programme that we have called "Imagine Coexistence". Our ambition is to implement clusters of projects designed to help people live together, work together, play together, think together: at the centre of each project there should be, I believe, an income-generating activity: a small factory, for example, which receives incentives for employing people of different ethnic groups. Around this central activity we would like to build a number of related initiatives: playgrounds for children, theatre groups, sports and games, spaces for people to talk, and so on. I am aware that projects of this kind - or similar - have been tried, with varying degrees of success, in different parts of the world, including in this region. We are of course going to focus on coexistence in communities to which refugees return. And we have examined some of the experiments and are open to discussion and suggestions - meanwhile, we hope to launch pilot projects in Rwanda and Bosnia later this year.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have attempted to give you a broad picture of the challenges we face today - and of the directions in which we should move to resolve refugee problems world-wide. Before concluding, allow me to mention once more the large and complex displacement problem which is closest to us here, that of the Palestinian refugees.

I am aware that among the most contentious issues of the peace process is the return of refugees. As I said, my Office is not directly involved, but allow me to make some personal comments, having dealt for many years - and from a global point of view - with issues of forced human displacement. Different geopolitical situations cannot, of course, be easily compared - but UNHCR's experiences with refugees and with divided communities provide interesting elements which are worth reflecting upon in analysing the situation in this region.

More than any other humanitarian matter, refugee issues must be examined and tackled in the wider political context. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that beyond all political difficulties and complexities lie real problems affecting real people in their daily lives. I have met many refugees in all parts of the world, and what has always struck me deeply is their wish to find a solution to their plight - refugees do not want to be refugees any longer!

In trying to find solutions to refugee problems everywhere, UNHCR must invariably "mediate", so to speak, between the concerns of states, and the rights, wishes and aspirations of refugees. Let me therefore express the hope that, as in other situations of forced displacement, the Palestinian refugee problem - although it is one of the most complex political issues of today's world - be resolved in a humane manner which takes into account the wishes and hopes of millions of people, including of those who want to return; and the legitimate concern of the Israeli people that their security be maintained and their specific identity be respected.

The challenge is immense. When I spoke about the Bosnian town of Drvar I described the fundamental dilemmas of refugees and divided communities - the necessity for people with a history of harsh confrontation to share a limited space and, often, few material resources. This is why the challenge is particularly difficult here in the Middle East, but also in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in East Timor. To demarcate the narrow and crowded space of situations of difficult coexistence will not be possible without strong and dedicated leadership. Peace, however, will not last, if the communities do not commit themselves, with courage and determination, to build ties across the divisions of history. Only strong engagement at these two levels - leadership and community - will turn the claustrophobic spiral of hatred and retribution into an open and visionary sense of working together for a common future - of sharing, in the final analysis, the space for coexistence.

Tensions, conflict and exile have been part of the history of the Middle East for centuries. However, this region also has a deeply rooted tradition of respectful coexistence in its most accomplished form - during long periods of flourishing civilisation, the peoples of the eastern shores of the Mediterranean were able to live together and maintain their specificity. As in other situations, this is the goal to achieve. As in many places to which refugees have returned and where they are struggling to rebuild their lives - the proof of peace will be in coexistence, and eventually - let us be optimistic - in reconciliation.

We are looking at you not only because you deserve, and need, lasting peace - but also because the successful coexistence of the Israelis and the Palestinians will be of extraordinary encouragement, and of unique example, for many divided communities around the world.

Thank you.