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Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, twenty-second session, 4 October 1971

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, twenty-second session, 4 October 1971

4 October 1971

Half a century after the inception of international refugee work by Fridtjof Nansen and 20 years after my Office embarked upon the challenging task of solving refugee problems, it is painful for me to have to report that the world refugee situation has, if anything, become grimmer and increasingly explosive. Year after year, we have lived with the idealistic hope that the humanitarian work of UNHCR, would cure the disease of refugee problems. It is symptomatic that this year when observing our twentieth anniversary, present events remind us of the harsh and sad realities of a world in turmoil which is far from meeting our hopes. The plight of vast masses of refugees is not past history; it remains very much a current phenomenon.

While the basic structure of UNHCR has remained the same, the problem of uprooted people throughout the world has greatly developed in dimensions and in variety. As a result of the ever-changing nature of the situation of displaced persons, my Office has been called upon increasingly to perform functions not foreseen when its original mandate was evolved. The use of UNHCR's "good offices" role is a natural by-product of this evolution. By striving to promote rapid solutions to refugee problems, UNHCR surely contributes to the lessening of tensions between States. The more complex a situation is and loaded with political overtones, the more we are required to be flexible in our work and diplomatic in our approach. While determination of refugee status remains a matter for the host country to decide upon, we must spare no effort to alleviate human suffering.

Although it is heartening to recall such highly successful operations as the repatriation of Nigerian children or the useful work carried out in delicate political, social and economic conditions in African countries and many others in various parts of the world, it is nonetheless both alarming and tragic to note that these successes are dwarfed by a challenge of unprecedented magnitude that this year has brought with it for the international community and which preoccupies you all as much, I am sure, as it preoccupies me. I am now thinking of the gigantic and cruel problem of displaced persons from East Pakistan in India and other neighbouring States.

After the events of last March in East Pakistan, the Government of India, faced with a sudden and most serious influx of East Pakistanis into its territory, requested the Secretary-General on 23 April 1971 to make available necessary assistance from the United Nations in order to alleviate the suffering of this mass of refugees and to ease the burden on the Indian economy which their presence inevitably carried in its wake. This request was brought to the attention of all heads of United Nations agencies and programmes at a meeting of the Administrative Committee on Co-ordination at Berne on 26 and 27 April and presided over by U Thant. It was clear during this meeting that a problem of such magnitude required a concerted and co-ordinated effort of all members of the United Nations system. The varied and colossal nature of immediate relief measures - be it food, shelter or medical care - was such that it was far beyond the financial of technical means of UNHCR alone. The Secretary-General was therefore convinced of the need to set up a mechanism of co-ordination without delay. His decision was also in line with the thinking of the Government of India which, in its request, addressed itself to the whole United Nations system. After consultations with all executive heads the Secretary-General decided on 29 April that the High Commissioner for Refugees should act as the focal point for the co-ordination of assistance from the United Nations. By then, the increasingly large numbers of refugees were already imposing great sacrifices on India and its administration and many more were yet to come.

Immediately after assuming these additional functions, I sent to India a team of three senior staff members headed by the Deputy High Commissioner to investigate and assess the situation. A succinct report of the findings of this mission was made available to Governments. An analysis of the situation and or the views of the two Governments principally concerned, that is to say India and Pakistan, made it clear from the beginning that the United Nations action was to concentrate upon two things: first, urgent relief measures for refugees in India and whenever possible promotion of their voluntary repatriation, which was generally agreed to be the only lasting solution to the problem. Consequently, on 19 May 1971, the Secretary-General launched an appeal for assistance to East Pakistani refugees. While emphasizing his deep concern for their plight, U Thant expressed the hope that these refugees would be "voluntarily repatriated at the earliest possible time", indicated that, "pending such repatriation, massive external assistance will be required on an emergency basis" and appealed "to Governments, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, as well as private sources, to help meet the urgent needs".

I have actively followed up this appeal and I am gratified to say that the response of the international community has been generous though it may yet seem inadequate in relation to India's needs. I should like to avail myself of this opportunity to express my gratitude and appreciation to all donor Governments, non-governmental organizations and voluntary organizations which, so speedily, made available contributions in cash and in kind. While it is heartening to note that the response of the international community to this refugee problem has been of unprecedented magnitude - with contributions in cash and in kind amounting to date to some $115 million - I must emphasize that much more is still required. I intend to make available shortly to all Governments a detailed account of priority needs for their immediate attention.

As for the actual mechanism of the "focal point", immediately after assuming these responsibilities I set up in Geneva a standing interagency consultation unit. Its task is, first, to mobilize and secure international support and contributions; second, to arrange for the procurement of supplies in a co-ordinated manner and to deliver the supplies to India; third, to maintain close liaison with the Government of India. Parallel to this consultation unit, the Government of India has set up in Delhi a co-ordinating committee, where all operational ministries of the central government as well as the United Nations agencies directly interested are represented. This double mechanism, in Geneva and in Delhi, for consultation on and co-ordination of all activities is yielding positive results to the satisfaction of all concerned. I wish here to extend my warmest appreciation to the specialized agencies of the United Nations system for their immediate response and effective co-operation.

I should like to stress, for better understanding of the combined efforts in this situation, that this new United Nations role is not an operational one. We have subscribed to the express wishes of the Government of India and left the operational responsibility to the authorities. The "focal point", consequently, does not have any operational staff in the field. My representatives in India, Mr. Jamieson, who is well known to you, and his "focal point" team, act essentially as a liaison and co-ordination link and their duty station is Delhi, though they frequently visit the States where the refugees are concentrated. The responsibility of the United Nations system is restricted to taking action at the international level for raising funds for assistance and contributions in kind; to channel these to the Government of India and to co-ordinate activities as regards their use in order that the "focal point" may be able, with the help of the Government of India, to give a satisfactory account of the use of their contributions to the donors. The most significant characteristic of this non-operational role is that it goes against the danger of the institutionalization of refugee camps and limits the threat of this United Nations operation becoming yet another permanent political and economic burden on the international community. The principal incentive must remain the promoting of conditions leading rapidly to a permanent solution. Being non-operational on the other hand, it is relatively less easy to report on and have readily available all details relevant to the assistance measures taken. It is difficult to neglect this aspect of the work in view of the natural desire of donors to receive full satisfaction that their contributions have been used to the maximum benefit of recipients. This being said, I cannot express sufficient admiration for the countless men and women of India who are joining together against frightening odds to being succour to the refugees.

As for the over-all assessment of the situation, I need hardly point out, particularly to this Committee that relief measures now being provided in India will never be a solution in itself. What is eventually going to happen to these suffering masses of displaced persons? As is already recognized, it is the expressed wish of both the Government of India and the Government of Pakistan that these refugees be repatriated. You are aware that in refugee situations voluntary repatriation has traditionally served as the best solution. UNHCR has had recourse to this in many countries all over the world. I should point out, however, that UNHCR achieved results because there was a consensus of opinion between the host country and the country of origin and both sides agreed not only on the solution but also on modalities leading to this solution. In our past experience, if and when a settlement had occurred in the country of origin, a system of mutual co-operation and help was established with the active participation of UNHCR which facilitated repatriation. Until this stage is reached, substantial and well organized repatriation cannot be a success and the trend is difficult to reverse. It is with this in mind that I established contact with the Government of Pakistan at a very early stage. The Government extended full co-operation and agreed to the stationing of a UNHCR representative in East Pakistan who is now working and has a small team of field assistants. His activities are closely co-ordinated with the United Nations East Pakistan relief operation. The Government of Pakistan has set up reception centres in order to receive refugees and facilitate their return to their homesteads, and these are visited regularly by UNHCR.

I have myself had occasion to visit both India and Pakistan in order to make a personal assessment on the spot and to consult with the two Governments regarding the situation which is causing so much concern not only to both of them but also to the whole international community. I proceeded not only to the two capitals and had discussions at the highest level but also saw the border areas on both sides. In India I visited some refugee camps and in Pakistan some reception centres.

The situation remains very grim indeed and demands much greater efforts and more generosity on the part of the international community. Interest must not slacken and apathy should not set in. The recent floods have had a devasting effect on the camps and distribution problems as a result of the floods have added a new dimension to this tragedy. The fragile health of the young and old will be further affected.

I have given a very limited account of UNHCR's role as this "Focal Point" and of the magnitude of the task which confronts us. The information paper which is being made available will give you the updated details. While no solution is yet in sight for this refugee problem, we must clearly not allow it to distract or monopolize our attention from other refugees in other parts of the world and particularly in Africa where progress has been achieved.

I should now like to turn to these situations which are the direct concern of my Executive Committee in its more traditional and very essential role.

The evolution on other continents is favourable on the whole and refugees are now for the most part definitely integrated. In Africa, however, the number of asylum-seekers is increasing and we must adapt our activities constantly to changing circumstances. Despite new arrivals, the rural settlement of large groups of people who were previously uprooted is constantly being consolidated by the further development of interagency co-operation, a matter which has been discussed in great detail in this Committee in the past.

Our links with UNDP and the specialized agencies have been substantially strengthened involving in particular our active participation in country-programming established in accordance with General Assembly resolution 2688 (XXV). This ensures optimum utilization of the United Nations system's services and resources in a given region. Countries which have adopted this method for their development planning have invited UNHCR to become associated with it. They include the Central African Republic, Zaire, the Republic of Tanzania and Uganda. Under this new procedure, the Government concerned itself decides, within the limits of the funds allocated, the UNDP projects to be carried out on its territory. Governments therefore have a major role to play from now on with regard to the inclusion of refugee settlements, at the consolidation phase, within the UNDP country programme. Moreover, if as it appears in document A/AC.96/456, UNHCR cannot as a general rule count on the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development to finance important infrastructure costs included in our projects, methods of possible co-operation with other members of the system can now be discerned more clearly. We will continue to prime the successful inclusion of refugee settlement centres in this country-programming approach by timely investments from our own limited resources in close consultation with the Governments concerned. It is interesting to note that a chain reaction is frequently initiated by UNHCR rural integration schemes which often stimulate Governments to make a parallel and sometimes more far-reaching effort in the interests of the surrounding local population. The result is that the Office is often led, particularly in the educational field, to undertake more than was originally planned.

The smooth implementation of the programme is still affected by some of the handicaps which I stressed at our last meeting. These are linked to three principal causes: first, the uninterrupted flow of arrivals quite frequently in areas where refugees have already been settled, particularly from colonial territories, which, in certain regions, interferes with projects in the course of execution; second, the weakness of certain projects which had to be hastily conceived and which did not always have the benefit of appropriate technical advice; third, political considerations which induce Governments to demand the transfer of settled or partly-settled refugees from one region to another, usually farther away from the borders, in line with the OAU resolution on the subject, transfers which are not always accepted willingly by the refugees themselves and which add to the uncertainty and the difficulty of producing accurate estimates.

These experiences are teaching us to be less pragmatic in our desire to settle problems as quickly as possible and at the least cost. Study and evaluation missions with skilled technical advice from outside partners should hopefully minimize the risk of recurring set-backs of this kind in the future. The prerequisite of a solid infrastructure cannot be improvised and lasting integration depends, in Africa, as elsewhere, on health, education, roads, water supplies and the possibility for the refugee to work productively. Many regions lack this basic framework and it cannot be established overnight.

Against hazards of a political nature, our possibilities of action are evidently limited, when they exist at all, particularly since they often reflect preoccupations of good neighbourliness between the countries of asylum and the countries of origin.

With regard to individual cases we have translated the Committee's views into concrete action. UNHCR has undertaken to establish, with the help of interested Governments and voluntary agencies a modest network of social services in the African cities where they appear to be essential, notably Addis Ababa, Dakar, Nairobi. This is a prerequisite to any settlement or resettlement effort through the Bureau for the Placement and Education of African Refugees. It is gratifying to note that various countries have recently admitted refugee students as residents who will be able to work there. In Kenya, for instance, these students have been allowed to benefit from the UNDP/FAO project to set up an Animal Health and Industry Training Institute which provides vocational training in veterinary science, animal husbandry and tanning. This most welcome tendency must develop.

Since no permanent solution is conceivable without a legal status, UNHCR constantly seeks to ensure that refugees are given not only asylum but also rights guaranteeing the exercise of fundamental freedoms. There have been two new accessions to the 1951 Convention - Malta and Uruguay - bringing the total too 61. Burundi, France, Luxembourg, Morocco and Uruguay have also acceded to the 1967 Protocol, bringing the total to 48. I am concerned that some Governments give such priority to preoccupations of a political or security nature that innocent refugees are unjustly victimized by a strict and inflexible application of protective measures, particularly in the field of manpower. We sometimes note with regret an incomplete and incorrect application of the letter and spirit of the Convention. Thus, certain Governments persist in opposing the definite and lasting settlement of refugees for whom there is no other solution, at least in the immediate future. Recently again our representatives called our attention to the case of refugees from South Africa who, although residents for many years in a country where they were allowed to follow an occupation corresponding to their abilities, have been suddenly deprived of their employment and requested to leave the country. Sometimes also the return clause is refused a refugee who is asked, for no other than an economic reason, to seek another country of asylum, thus in fact depriving him of the possibility of obtaining a visa for the country where he would settle.

The 1972 programme reflects the developments which I have outlined above. In addition to the need to extend settlement areas or create new ones for new asylum seekers or refugee groups transferred from other parts of the host country, we are also faced with the general rise in prices. It is for this reason that I had to increase, most reluctantly, the financial target over that of the previous year by some $900,000. The greater part of these funds is intended for Africa whereas the global totals are lower for Europe and Asia and identical to 1971 for Latin America. When Mr. Jamieson introduces the programme, he will, I am sure, give the distinguished delegates additional details and breakdowns according to the country needs.

Since we speak of the programme, I wish to stress that governmental contributions have increased by 12 per cent sine 1970, from $4.6 million to $5,2 million. Last year I expressed the hope that 80 Governments would contribute to the programme. It is with great satisfaction that I can report that this number was surpassed and that the number of contributing Governments last year eventually reached 82. The number must be even higher this year. So far, 70 Governments have announced their contributions including 6 which did not contribute last year and 27 which have made substantial increases in their regular contributions over the level of 1970. Owing to this encouraging support, we are able to foresee the full financing of the 1971 programme. At the same time, good financial support continues to be received for the Education Account and for other projects outside the programme. This amounts to some $900,000 so far in 1971.

The sudden tragic size of the man-made disasters of 1971 has shown once more, as in great natural disasters, I believe, that this small planet is ill-equipped to meet an upheaval of such magnitude. Our international mechanism had to react in an ad hoc way, cutting across established practice and providing United Nations analysts of the future with additional material for debate. Though UNHCR must remain exclusively humanitarian, the common objective - inside and outside the United Nations - should be to seek ways and means to eradicate the cause of refugee problems and to solve the political, social and economic ills which trigger off large movements of population. As we scan the 20 years of UNHCR, the results speak for themselves. Equally, and through sustained efforts, the new problems must be met. Their size or complexity should not bring despair. In 1971, one should not "choose" one's refugees: they must all be helped within or outside your programme. The problem may be unprecedented this year but it is useless to wring our hands, words that are not translated into effective action are so many insults to the human beings who look to the United Nations with fresh hope and faith which so many seem to lack. I refuse to accept that such a sustained effort will not continue to yield results. With the resources at our fingertips and the technological imagination of our age, it would only be in the minds of men that this battle could be lost - or won.