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Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Mexico, Mexico City, 29 July 1999

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Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Mexico, Mexico City, 29 July 1999

29 July 1999

Madam Secretary of Foreign Affairs,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased and honoured to be here with you. As you know, I have come to Mexico, on my third official visit to this country, to participate in the closure of the Repatriation and Reintegration Programme for Guatemalan Refugees, which brings to an end a major chapter in UNHCR's history in Mexico and Central America. At the ceremony that took place yesterday in Campeche, I also witnessed the granting of naturalization certificates to Guatemalan refugees who have chosen to remain in Mexico. By allowing some 22,000 Guatemalan refugees to remain in the country, and obtain migratory documents or naturalization, Mexico is taking an important step and is setting a valuable example.

I would like to share with you my thoughts, ideas and concerns with respect to the challenges of refugee protection. Because our work, at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is about people, and their real problems, I have chosen to examine these challenges from the perspective of what, in today's world, is perhaps the most defining trend in people's lives: I am speaking of globalization. Is there a relationship between globalization and the problem of refugees? Does globalization have an impact on forced population movements? If yes, can it help resolve refugee problems or does it aggravate them?

The process of globalization is first and foremost rich in opportunities. Think of the unprecedented access to reliable news which technology has provided to millions of people previously depending on controlled media and very limited information. Think of the enormous power of global communications in giving visibility to situations of poverty, violence and persecution, of which the world would have otherwise remained unaware. My Office deals with refugees - a global problem indeed - and its mandate rests on international refugee law - a global "protection" regime: I believe, therefore, that the many positive aspects of globalisation can be of great benefit to our work, and to the life and welfare of those whom we protect and assist.

However, I am not underestimating the less positive impact of recent globalising trends, especially on the most vulnerable strata of society. As we all know, the free circulation of goods and capital has created wealth, opportunities for work, and a better life for many. However, the rapid movement of investment capital in and out of certain regions, depending on the possibilities for quick profit, have certainly contributed, together with other factors, to some of the worst financial crises of the last decade. In such cases, liberalisation and deregulation have also been the conduit for a particularly brutal, raw form of capitalism.

These less positive aspects of globalization, are perhaps inevitable during an expanding phase. We should take stock of the very serious weaknesses in the global system, and adopt measures to correct them - the global danger represented by HIV-AIDS and other viruses, for example; or the so-called "loose nukes", nuclear weapons in countries controlled by fragile governments; and so on. I will focus specifically on flaws and weaknesses of globalization with respect to humanitarian and refugee work.

Throughout history, globalising trends have first and foremost affected the way people moved. Recent financial crises, for example, have had a tremendous impact on society, particularly on the poor. Social destabilisation frequently leads to political crises, and, especially in countries where democratic institutions are relatively new and fragile, to the further impoverishment of the poor strata of society, or to the exclusion of minorities or marginal groups. This in turn may cause population movements - as is happening in Indonesia, for example.

Another effect of globalization which has an impact on population movements is the weakening of state control on the economy. Money moves much faster and more freely than ever before across borders, to where profit is available, and away from where it is not. This, of course, is almost always of great benefit to a large number of people: in spite of recent problems, many countries in East and South-East Asia, Latin America, and to a much more limited extent in Africa, have made astonishing and fast economic progress. This has had an enormous impact on many people's welfare and lives.

On the other hand, the range and influence of economic interests that mobilise capital, and are mobilised by it, are so huge and widespread, that the ability of states to control them is seriously beginning to decline. The consequence is that states have less power not only to direct the flows of capital and goods - which many see as a positive effect - but also to protect those left even more deprived and marginalised than they were in less interdependent, and more regulated economies. Social safety nets break down when people are most exposed to job shortages or job losses. This causes real hardship as well as widespread anxiety and frustration. Deprived of state protection, people often leave, or flee. Countries in the ex-communist block - particularly in the former Soviet Union - provide examples of the impact of a deregulated economy on society, and, in some cases, of population movements as a result. In developing countries, the further weakening of already fragile state institutions has had dramatic consequences, most particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Unable to represent - let alone protect! - any collective concerns, states collapse; economic, ethnic, and religious interests prevail, and often collide dramatically, causing tension and conflict.

Conflicts are also very often fought in developing countries on the basis of rather narrow group interests. Take for example the wars being fought in the Congo and Angola, and, until very recently, in Sierra Leone. They have as main objective the control of economic resources by some factions, more or less supported by groups and corporations in other countries, in what are becoming regional, if not global, wars over material resources. Needless to say, it is the poorest who suffer the most. As if being impoverished by war was not enough, they are often targeted by the fighting parties. Respect for their most basic human rights, already limited under normal circumstances, ceases to exist. Their only way of escape is to seek refuge in safer areas, or abroad.

Although globalization may not be the only cause, it nevertheless certainly contributes to a generalised decline in the protection of people by states, and may give rise to a very strong sense of insecurity. This is palpable in Europe, for example; and it is dramatically felt in poor countries, where declining state protection is coupled with cuts in international development aid. This insecurity - undefined and vague as it may be - can have very negative consequences, in particular with the increase in the number of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Scholars speak of societies undergoing "identity crises". In this situation, people's fears of being threatened can easily be manipulated by unscrupulous politicians, and turned into hostile feelings towards "intruders": not foreign capitals, which are perceived as an abstract, invisible entity, but more immediate targets - foreign workers, immigrants and refugees.

I believe that xenophobia, the "fear of foreigners", is one of the most dangerous trends in modern society, and one that has to be countered by governments and civil society most vigorously. It is a world-wide phenomenon, flourishing in the North, but also spreading in the South, where the bulk of population movements continue to take place. While xenophobia is by definition anti-democratic, it often uses, paradoxically, the conduit of democratic institutions. Politicised xenophobia is particularly dangerous. The former President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, once told me that when he was in office in the Seventies and had near absolute powers, he could easily decide to give asylum to thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries; the current, democratically elected President, he said, has to deal with party politics and xenophobic fears, and must therefore be much more cautious in publicly upholding respect for refugee asylum.

In the situation which I have described, people compelled to move by poverty or by conflict and persecution - in short, migrants and refugees - are therefore particularly vulnerable. On the one hand, powerful transnational forces are contributing to reshaping the world; and they are eroding the authority of the state, which previously offered some protection to the weaker and more vulnerable members of society. On the other hand, the sense of insecurity produced by globalization fuels xenophobic, nationalistic sentiments.

Immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers are thus trapped, so to speak, between opposite trends. A good example of their situation is provided by how international borders are used with respect to refugees. The very concept of refugee hinges on the notion of a recognised international border, which marks the limit of state sovereignty - states keep out those threatening their security, but allow into the country, to be protected, refugees - whose own state cannot or does not want to protect any more. This fundamental concept, however, also gets caught between two extremes: on the one hand, globalising forces are making borders somehow less relevant; on the other, reactive, localised forces tend to identify all those seeking entry as potential threats, and thus demand that border controls be reinforced, excluding them. People compelled to move, people in flight, although mobile by definition, are thus among those actually excluded from the freedom and benefits of borderless globalization.

The extreme vulnerability to which "people on the move" are exposed by being trapped between these two trends makes them an easy prey of the so-called "migration networks", organised criminal rings which have made of human trafficking a most lucrative transnational activity. Traffickers charge exorbitant sums to help people cross borders and enter states in clandestinity. This activity has taken on enormous proportions. In this context, there is growing confusion between refugees, who flee persecution and violence, and migrants, who leave their country seeking better economic opportunities. In many situations, both poverty, and persecution or conflict, are pushing people to leave, making it difficult to determine the status of individual asylum seekers.

Confronted with an upsurge of people knocking at their doors, whom they have less capacity to absorb than in the past, and intimidated by xenophobic calls, governments build barriers to keep people out. The focus has shifted from the protection of refugees to the control of all those seeking entry, refugees and migrants. To overcome these obstacles, many migrants declare themselves refugees. So, are these people refugees or migrants? Does this distinction mean anything any more?

I think it is very relevant, and it matters very much. Each category of "people on the move" has its needs and requires not only humane treatment but also specific solutions to their problems, and specific legal frameworks for their rights. Refugees need international protection. Migrants need their labour and social rights to be recognized and respected.

Let us look at refugees first. The end of the Cold War has not eliminated situations of conflict and violence, of group and individual persecution, which compel people to flee and become refugees as their only safe choice. In the last two decades, the number of refugees and internally displaced people has increased dramatically. My Office considered around five million people to be of its "concern" in 1980. There are 22 million today. Although this is more difficult to estimate, the number of migrants also appears to be increasing. Even in Latin America, where refugee crises have been largely resolved in the last few years, there has been at least one recent example of a new refugee outflow - when several thousands Colombians a few weeks ago took refuge in Venezuela fleeing civil strife and violence in their country.

To eliminate refugees as a category deserving specific protection based on internationally agreed norms would therefore expose many men, women and children to life-threatening situations. As such, the distinction must be maintained. The perhaps inevitable confusion between refugees and migrants may result in some of the latter being admitted as refugees in the country. This confusion is not useful to refugees, and has undoubtedly contributed to the growing perception that they are no longer a humanitarian cause to be defended, but a problem to be controlled. On the other hand, it is preferable to err on the side of generosity than to return people to situations of extreme gravity and danger.

But we must also be realistic. Much as refugees will continue to exist, they will also continue to be mingled with migrants - maybe increasingly so - and this will prompt states to restrict access to asylum, an easier measure than trying to define better respective modalities and approaches for the two distinct categories of "people on the move". Clearly, defining and identifying a refugee will continue to be necessary, but will become more difficult. UNHCR has an international mandate and humanitarian concern for refugees, a special category of "people on the move", who deserve protection and have the right to seek and enjoy asylum. And indeed, refugee protection falls within the legislative and institutional mechanisms governing migration at the national level throughout the Americas. A positive example of this is the incorporation in Mexico's domestic law of the broadened refugee definition from the Cartagena Declaration of 1984.

Within the broader field of migratory movements, UNHCR's objective is to preserve and defend the rights - a specific space, I would almost say - for persons who seek and deserve international protection. It is with this objective in mind that my Office has participated, as observer, in the Regional Conference on Migration, better known as the "Puebla process", because its first session was held in Puebla in 1996. This inter-governmental forum for co-ordination and co-operation on migration issues, of which Mexico is a government member, has adopted a Plan of Action that specifically refers to the international protection of refugees under the subject of human rights.

You may therefore ask what is to be done: how can refugees be protected, in the narrow opening between powerful transnational forces, and equally strong localised trends? What is the response of the United Nations refugee agency to this seemingly intractable situation? There are no ready answers to these difficult questions, but I can perhaps indicate directions in which to move.

The priority is to address the root causes of large population movements. The issue is of course very complex. Let me just highlight that in addressing the problems of countries producing refugee (and migratory) flows, the international community must adopt a much more comprehensive approach, combining efforts to solve conflicts, with broad reconstruction programmes encompassing urgent humanitarian needs, as well as social and economic reconstruction.

I wish to insist on the comprehensiveness of the approach. This is key. If you analyse many refugee-producing situations, such as Afghanistan, the Kurdish area, and several countries in Africa, you will notice how dispersed and fragmented, if any, are the efforts of the international community to address the problems of conflict and poverty. In this sense, Kosovo represents a formidable challenge to the international community and to the United Nations in particular. True, we may have faced bigger and even more complex situations. However, the task to rebuild a civilian administration, restore essential services, create a law enforcement capacity, reconstruct and rehabilitate people's houses and public structures, and last but not least to do so after hundreds of thousands of people left their homes and returned to them within a few weeks' time, is a task that is unprecedented, in its comprehensiveness, in the history of the United Nations. As such, its lessons will be useful in future situations - not only will they enrich the world organisation with additional experience, but also, hopefully, with the energy, boldness and vision necessary to reaffirm its indispensable role.

As the world moves into the next millennium, and the awareness of the importance of global security spreads, I believe that there should be more efforts to address the fundamental causes of forced population flows. People, however, will continue to move, and also continue to be compelled to move. As we strive to address the causes of flight, we must therefore also keep improving the management of refugee flows, adapting it to new situations, but safeguarding basic principles upon which it has been designed - chiefly the rights to asylum and not to be returned. Much has been achieved to improve the speed, volume and techniques of material assistance in case of mass influxes - this is also, of course, an important aspect of protecting refugees, because it helps host states uphold the principles of refugee law. Much less progress, however, has been made in determining who deserves international protection, and who does not, among those crossing borders in very large numbers.

I have dwelled on refugees, but let me also add that governments, international agencies including my Office, and NGOs managing refugee flows, must also co-operate much more closely with those dealing with migration matters. Here I am not only referring to states: I am also thinking of the private sector, which employs most migrants and is therefore responsible for granting them adequate working conditions. Compared to the rights of refugees, who - at least theoretically - are protected by an international regime, the safeguard of the rights of migrants is much less structured. I believe that there is a need to establish solid, internationally agreed instruments providing a normative foundation to migratory movements, and to ensure that they are observed. There is also an urgent need to deal with transnational, criminal human trafficking - not to block safe routes for those fleeing persecution and violence, but to control and prevent serious abuses committed by criminal traffickers against innocent men and women. Helping people migrate in more humane and dignified conditions will also be of great benefit to the protection of refugees.

It is inevitable that the weaknesses of the global system will continue to exist, and perhaps even worsen, as globalization expands further, eroding the ability of states to provide social and economic protection to people. Whatever the progress of the global economy in the next few decades, there will be a growing number of people who will not benefit and will fall between the cracks of the system. People that I have defined "on the move", refugees and migrants, will be among the losers.

Unless we believe that the system, left to itself, will eventually correct these flaws and bring back into its fold those currently excluded - and history teaches us that it is unlikely to be the case - it is clear that pro-active, I would say "affirmative", gestures need to be made. Solidarity must be as ambitious and widespread as the scope and range of the global economy. To fill the cracks of globalization, we must promote what I like to call global solidarity.

It may sound abstract, and you may also ask why it is necessary. I have two answers. First, because it responds to the compelling moral imperative of sharing with those who are less fortunate. Second, because the larger the number of people living a relatively secure life, the more secure everybody will be: global solidarity contributes to overall human security.

And in this context, it is of foremost importance that we convince political leaders to integrate global solidarity into the system of values on which their action is based. People in democratic countries should make support to political leaders conditional on their commitment to address and resolve global problems. This is urgently needed. Despite declarations to the contrary, I am worried by the receding commitment of states to provide real leadership and "social stewardship". Their focus and attitudes are generally becoming inward-looking. They are often based on domestic issues, and even more often on an electoral agenda, rather than on a broader commitment to international leadership. But this is not enough. It is the private sector that is benefiting most from globalization. Business indeed has key responsibilities in the evolution of the global economy, and in its aberrations. Social stewardship is also the responsibility of corporations. I believe it is important to adopt a "positive conditionality" approach, and give public recognition to socially responsible business.

And finally, the role of civil society in promoting global solidarity is obviously crucial. I am thinking of course of non-governmental organisations, whose extraordinary growth is not only a sign of the increasing importance of non-state actors in the globalising world, but also an essential instrument in addressing its flaws.

A few weeks ago, leading experts on refugee asylum from 15 Latin American and Caribbean countries participated in a seminar co-organized by El Colegio de México and UNHCR, under the auspices of the government of Mexico. The seminar addressed many of the issues I have just referred to. The 1999 Tlatelolco Declaration adopted by the participants to the seminar, builds upon the ground-breaking Cartagena Declaration and on the very advanced legal and political framework developed in this region in the last 15 years - CIREFCA and the San José Declaration are other important examples. I wish to commend this initiative and take this opportunity to encourage governments and civil societies to further develop the foundations of humanitarian action within a principled framework.

Ladies and gentlemen, next year - in December 2000 - UNHCR will observe its 50th anniversary. We do not plan to hold large celebrations, but we would like to take that opportunity to insist on two key points.

First, we will remind the world of the importance of maintaining and strengthening the international refugee protection regime. People fleeing persecution and violence will continue to seek protection away from their homes - we shall have to stand by them. To underline this issue, in 1998 I launched a campaign for the universal accession of all states to the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, and to its 1967 Protocol. I hope governments will respond favourably to this campaign. And by the way, the Ministers of Interior and of Foreign Affairs have informed me that the government will soon request the Senate to ratify Mexico's accession to these key international protection instruments, thus providing a solid legal framework to its already generous refugee policy. I am extremely happy about this crucial development and I hope it will soon be formalized.

Second, we shall insist on the positive contribution that refugees can make - and usually make! - to the countries and communities hosting them. And in this respect, let me say again how extraordinarily encouraging it was for me to be in Campeche yesterday, with the Presidents of Mexico and Guatemala, celebrating the end of many years of refugio for Guatemalans in Mexico. By allowing thousands of them to stay in their country, and become their fellow citizens, Mexicans have given the world a powerful message of tolerance and understanding. On the occasion of our 50th anniversary, we do not want to honour UNHCR, but to honour refugees. There will be no better way to do so than to cite Mexico's example of generosity and vision.

Thank you.