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Paper presented by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Conference on "Europe and Japan: cooperation and conflict" at the European University Institute, Florence, 5 June 1992

Speeches and statements

Paper presented by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Conference on "Europe and Japan: cooperation and conflict" at the European University Institute, Florence, 5 June 1992

5 June 1992
Definitions and Legal RegimesChanging patterns of migrant and refugee flowsRefugees and Migrants in the ECRefugees and Migrants in JapanFuture OutlookA future strategy

The images of refugee camps in Europe, unknown since the end of the Second World War, and talk of a fortress Europe highlight the pressing nature of the problem of refugees and migration in Europe, and particularly in the European Community countries. At the other end of the Eurasian landmass, Japan appears at first sight isolated from the problem - but it is a myth which this paper will explode. Massive and disorderly population movements are of equal concern to all, Japanese, Europeans or others, because it touches global values and affects international stability.

Currently about 75 million people are on the move as refugees, displaced persons, transient workers, and legal or illegal migrants. Within these larger dimensions, this paper seeks to examine the distinction between refugees and economic migrants and the problem which increased numbers of asylum seekers and economic migrants pose for the EC countries. It makes a comparison with the problem in Japan, and proposes broad recommendations for designing a comprehensive response to this difficult issue.

Definitions and Legal Regimes

Refugees are compelled to move in order to save their lives or liberty; economic migrants on the other hand move to improve their livelihood. Although on occasion, as we shall see, this distinction can become blurred, it is a good starting point for rationalising the different regimes which have developed in response to the differing needs of the two categories.

While economic migration has been traditionally regarded as a matter of national policy by States within their sovereign jurisdiction to control the entry and stay of aliens, refugees have been covered by an international legal regime, the roots of which go back to the League of Nations. Under international law a refugee is defined as a person who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country". This definition has been expanded, particularly in Africa and Latin America, to include also those fleeing war and violence. The essential characteristic of refugee status thus is the denial or lack of protection from danger to life and liberty. The international community provides this protection through the principle of asylum. International conventions regulate the quality and nature of asylum. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been established by the UN General Assembly to protect and assist refugees, on behalf of the international community, and to seek solutions to their plight. The main international legal instrument of refugee protection is the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, to which the EC countries as well as Japan are States Parties.

Changing patterns of migrant and refugee flows

This system for refugees and economic migrants worked reasonably well until the early 1980s. The refugee problem was essentially a European one. A political consensus existed among Western democracies that the citizens of the East were persecuted by their communist governments. The limited numbers who managed to flee were automatically granted asylum. There was thus a comfortable convergence between the humanitarian traditions of the West and its Cold War political objectives. Economic migration did not pose a serious problem either. In the 1950s and 1960s many European countries were entering a phase of reconstruction and economic expansion and needed additional labour. Rather than staving off illegal migrants, they set up a variety of schemes to import migrant workers from actual or newly independent colonies.

For geographical and historical reasons, Japan was largely bypassed by the main route of refugee flows in these early decades. As for economic migration, in the post-Second World War years, the ethnic homogeneity of Japan, its dense population and low standard of living deterred economic migrants. Japan alone among industrial nations did no resort to foreign worker schemes to meet its labour needs in those years. Indeed, even just after the Second World war, Japan was a country of emigration.

In the intervening years, the situation changed dramatically for the EC and Japan, as for refugees and migrants.

Firstly, the global refugee problem worsened. The extension of Cold war rivalries into an increasingly heavily armed Third World precipitated many regional and internal conflicts, resulting in a veritable explosion of refugee movements throughout Africa, southwest and southeast Asia, Central America and the Middle East. The number of refugees around the world rose inexorably, reaching 8 million by the end of the 1970s and 17 million today. Today, despite the end of the Cold War, refugee-producing conflicts have not disappeared. Internal conflicts previously fought along ideological lines are now finding roots in political instability resulting from under-development and in ethnic tensions. Tragic events in Yugoslavia have demonstrated how ethnic tensions can degenerate into armed conflict, leading to over 1.2 million displaced persons and fears of more to come. Further east, conflict and displacement have continued to escalate in the Caucasus. and could spread further in the Commonwealth of Independent States. In Africa, political chaos, bitter tribal warfare and state fragmentation continue to intensify refugee flows, particularly in and around the Horn of Africa. In Asia, over 250,000 Rohinga refugees have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

Secondly, war, recession and debt have intensified the pauperisation of large parts of the globe. The numbers of rural poor are rapidly increasing, real per capita incomes continue to fall progressively, levels of malnutrition are growing and ever more people are being forced to eke out a living on lands affected by desertification and other forms of environmental degradation. The world population of 5.3 billion is growing by about 90-100 million per year, the bulk of it in developing countries.

To repeat one telling statistic, between 1990 and the year 2000, the working age population in the southern Mediterranean region is projected to grow by about 27 per cent (some 22 million), as compared to 1 per cent (some 1.5 million) in the European community. No doubt similar figures could be produced for regions contiguous to Japan. Over-population, poverty and unemployment are strong inducements for emigration, especially where historic ties or labour-market relationships exist, as between northern Africa and southern Europe or developing countries and their colonial powers in the EC.

Thirdly, the fall of the Berlin Wall has opened possibilities for free movement of East Europeans, for which the West had long insisted but which, once attained, has become a source of consternation rather than jubilation. While in 1984 about 100,000 persons moved out of Eastern Europe, the number had risen to 1.2 million by 1989. Since then, however, the upsurge of immigration has generally subsided, although continued economic problems and ethnic conflicts keep alive the fears of future exodus.

Fourthly, mass communications, inter-continental trade and easy international travel have worked to make the world a smaller place, raising expectations of a better life and making long journeys easier for all, including refugees and migrants.

Refugees and Migrants in the EC

The combined effect of these factors has been to increase transcontinental movements of refugees and migrants from the South as well as the East to the North. The pressure is felt most strongly in Germany, France and Italy, followed by U. K and Belgium.

The numbers of asylum seekers in Western Europe and particularly the EC countries have grown tremendously in the last ten years or so. To give some idea of the scale of the problem, asylum applications averaged around 30,000 a year for Western Europe in the 1970s, had surpassed 400,000 a decade later, and last year, exceeded 570,000. Although the figures represent only a small percentage of the global refugee population, there is no doubt that the systems for receiving them in EC countries have come dangerously close to a breakdown. The highly sophisticated asylum procedures under the 1951 refugee Convention have become administratively over-burdened, taking months, if not years (as in Germany) to determine claims. They are onerously expensive. According to OECD sources, the OECD countries and Canada currently spend around US$6-7 billion every year for the administration of asylum procedures and the upkeep of asylum seekers pending determination of their claims. At the end of the procedure only a small percentage, between 6-7% in 1991, are recognised as refugees. Yet, very few of those whose claims are rejected are removed from the country.

A closer analysis of the problem reveals two important points:The first is that many of the asylum seekers in EC countries (around 60% of the total) who do not qualify as refugees under the 1951 Convention are nevertheless deserving of some form of international protection (and indeed in many EC countries receive some intermediate humanitarian status). They are not so much the objects of political persecution as victims of violence, conflict and chronic insecurity. Outside Europe, they would fall under the wider refugee definition and benefit from the OAU Convention Governing the specific aspects of refugee problems in Africa and the Cartegena Declaration on Refugees in Latin America. The failure in Europe to adequately recognise the existence of the wider category of refugees has contributed to the public perception of abuse of asylum procedures.

The second point is that just when the pressures of economic migration grew, the channels of legal immigration and import of migrant labour closed down in western Europe. Today, apart from family reunion the possibilities, immigration to EC countries is virtually non-existent. Even though some demographers and economists argue that Western Europe would stand to gain from an increased level of immigration, the pressures of seemingly uncontrolled migration have led to the development of a siege mentality that militates against any relaxation of controls. Under these circumstances, asylum has been increasingly perceived by would-be immigrants as a way of circumventing immigration control. The number of abusive claims for refugee status has increased, bringing asylum procedures to the verge of collapse and reinforcing both public suspicion of asylum seekers and the restrictive attitude of governments towards them.

Not surprisingly, the distinction between refugees and migrants has become dangerously blurred both in the public mind and on the political agenda. This situation has been exploited by unscrupulous politicians and has led to rising levels of xenophobia and racism, including attacks against asylum seekers and refugees in some EC countries. In a reaction of self-defence governments have sought to increase border control measures and mechanisms to limit access to asylum procedures through, for instance, visa restrictions and fines against airlines.

Despite the negative perceptions about refugees and migrants arriving in Europe, I should emphasise that the support of the EC countries for refugee programmes in other parts of the world remains strong. In 1991, UNHCR received contributions amounting to a total of over US$ 219 million from the EC countries in addition to US$ 123.5 million from the European Commission. Furthermore, the European Community continues to participate actively in UNHCR's Executive Committee and is a stalwart political and diplomatic supporter of UNHCR.

Refugees and Migrants in Japan

Like many EC countries, Japan, for long an emigration country, has also begun to feel in-migration pressures. However, unlike many EC countries, Japan has traditionally avoided reliance on foreign labour and has exercised strict immigration control. Therefore the scale of the problem is markedly different. According to a paper submitted at a 1991 OECD conference on migration, Japan's foreign population is limited to 0.3 percent as compared to 12 percent in France, 9.5 per cent in Germany, 7.5 per cent in the United Kingdom and 6.7 per cent in the United States. Nevertheless, the total numbers of foreigners entering Japan, whether legally or illegally, have grown in the last two decades, particularly from the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Korea, Malaysia and Iran. Rising living standards, emerging labour shortage, the sharp appreciation of the Japanese yen and the consequent widening of income gaps between Japan and its neighbours, diversion of job opportunities from the weakening Middle East economies to the growing economies of the Far East are all factors increasing migratory pressures on Japan.

There is opposition to increasing migrant labour, both for social as well as economic reasons. Government policy has tended to follow a cautious line so far. The new law, which came into effect on 1 June 1990 has expanded the purposes for which foreigners can be allowed to enter Japan, while increasing the punishment for employment of illegal migrants. At the same time it has eased the entry of foreigners of Japanese origin, leading to increased number of Latin Americans of Japanese origin entering the country. Yet, the ageing population makes inevitable a greater reliance on foreign labour in the future.

As far as refugees are concerned, Japan's interest can be traced to the inception of the Indochinese refugee problem in the late 1970s when Japan participated in the international resettlement effort on behalf of Vietnamese refugees, and assumed one-half of the UNHCR budget required for Indochinese refugees. Japan's contribution to UNHCR increased six-fold, from 10 million to 65 million in one year between 1978 and 1979. Since then Japan has remained among the top donors of UNHCR, contributing over US$ 100 million.

Japan acceded to the 1951 Convention in 1982, much later than the EC countries. The number of asylum seekers in Japan are still extremely low, numbering about a few hundred every year, the major group being Vietnamese boat people. To some extent, the low number of asylum claims result from administrative impediments in the asylum procedure and it is likely that many more potential claimants may be residing illegally in Japan. It is also true that lack of cultural and ethnic links and integration problems have tended to deter large numbers of asylum seekers from travelling to Japan. Despite the low numbers, the tendency of the authorities has been to apply the refugee criteria restrictively, leaving in legal limbo - and administrative detention - many cases deserving of international protection.

Japan's geographical and economic position in a populous part of the world makes the country peculiarly sensitive to the fear of abusive asylum claims and illegal immigration. The arrival in 1989 of 3,000 "Vietnamese boat people" who turned out to be economic migrants from China served to underscore the issue. Although Japan's problems at the moment are insignificant compared to Europe, the situation may dramatically change if that region experiences social or political upheaval in the future.

Future Outlook

So what can we realistically expect for the future?

One can expect, at least in the short term, a more volatile world in which nationalist and communal tensions are likely to escalate giving rise to new movements of refugees. One can expect a world in which economic and social disparities will grow, forcing more people to move. One can further expect that in a non-ideological world where conflicts are going to be rooted more and more in socio-economic causes, it will become even more difficult to maintain the classical distinctions of refugees and migrants. The boatloads of Albanians who arrived on the shores of Italy last summer demonstrated the effects of the most appalling economic and social misery which long years of political repression can produce. Their flight was economically motivated, but does that make their plight any less compelling than that of refugees?

It is clear that as political and economic repression continue to produce more human suffering, the international scene is set for massive movements of the most vulnerable groups of people, from which neither the EC nor Japan can be immune.

However, the outlook is not entirely without hope. Just as the end of the Cold War has reopened ethnic wounds, it has also helped to resolve many of the conflicts underlying long-standing refugee problems, e.g. in Cambodia, South Africa, El Salvador, Angola, Afghanistan and Eritrea, making possible the return of many more refugees than ever before. The realisation of these repatriation movements, if properly organised, resourced and sustained, could help to reverse the trend of major population movements.

A future strategy

There are obviously no easy solutions to such a complex problem. Nevertheless the humanitarian urgency of the problem as well as our own self interest demands that we move away from a reactive, short-term approach and consider developing a longer term strategy, which integrates the various interests of refugees and migrants with the concerns of States in a comprehensive, solution-oriented, yet humane, policy.

Such a strategy could be based on five points:

(a) safeguarding the principle and practice of asylum for refugees fleeing persecution, violence and conflict. This wide category of persons includes not only refugees under the 1951 Convention but also persons whom UNHCR has been enjoined by the General Assembly - and supported financially and politically by donor nations - to protect around the world. While most of them never leave the Third World and are granted asylum there, the relatively small number among them who arrive in industrialised countries should be given asylum at least on a temporary basis and treated with respect for their basic human rights. Once there is a common understanding on the protection needs of people, then the measures to consolidate, harmonise and accelerate asylum procedures within the European community could make a more effective and efficient distinction between refugees in need of protection and others for whom the only option is return.

(b) examining possible immigration policies for EC as well as Japan. There are political hurdles, and also practical arguments that it would open yet another channel for movement but do nothing to stem the flow. It is true that modest opportunities of immigration to the industrialised countries will little impact on the overall population pressures in the Third World. Nevertheless, there are strong economic, demographic and other arguments for opening the EC and Japan to controlled immigration. There are proposals in Japan, for instance, for migrant worker schemes which could meet the labour shortage and at the same time facilitate transfer of skills and technology to the developing countries from which the workers originate. While fully recognising the limited contribution of such measures, appropriate policies in this area which take account the interests of receiving States as well as the needs and aspirations of those who wish to migrate could make an important contribution to bringing some order in the movements.

(c) countering increased xenophobia and racism. Greater public awareness should be developed on the reasons for refugee flight and the problems which exist in other parts of the world. More generally, the media, education policy as well as politicians should seek to ensure a better understanding of other cultures and the important contribution they can make to a prosperous and stable society. A pragmatic approach to help overcome cultural and racial objections to foreigners would be to devote more thought and money into the proper integration of immigrant and refugee groups already present in the EC and Japan, particularly of the second generation.

Despite the negative tendencies, there is enormous goodwill towards refugees and humanitarianism in these countries. As this conference is being held in Florence, it should be acknowledged that the region of Tuscany has made a special contribution to UNHCR for Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq. It was unique gesture from a local government. In Japan, the goodwill of the public has been evident in their financial support to UNHCR, which has amounted to 70 % of all private contributions. These are hopeful signs on which a future public information strategy should build.

While the above points [(a) to (c)] have concentrated on action which could be take within the EC and Japan to respect the freedom of move, the following elements are geared towards the corollary right to remain in one's country. They concentrate therefore on root causes which compel movement.

(d) increasing commitment to the promotion of human rights and preventive diplomacy. These include human rights monitoring by the international community, the establishment of effective early warning systems to alert the world to the emergence of situations likely to precipitate exodus, improved mechanisms for conflict resolution and the creation of national or regional structures for protecting minority rights. UN peace-making and peace-keeping initiatives, e.g. in El Salvador and Cambodia indicate a greater international willingness to deal with human rights matters. Much more can be done and which the EC and Japan could encourage. The UN human rights machinery which was long paralysed by ideological confrontation must now be used to greater effect to hold governments accountable for abuses. Human rights must also be placed firmly on the bilateral agenda.

Along with promoting human rights, preventing and resolving conflicts is gaining greater prominence. A notable example is Yugoslavia, where UNHCR's humanitarian activities are supporting political and peace-keeping efforts of the EC and the UN. Preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution in a volatile world will continue to require even greater political will and financial resources.

(e) focusing greater attention on sustained development, balanced economic growth and population stabilization in refugee and emigration countries. If a repetition of the Albanian boat people type of crisis is to be avoided, then alleviating economic misery must be given as much priority as meeting asylum needs of refugees. A comprehensive, long-term strategy embracing trade measures, increased development assistance and debt relief is urgently needed if there is to be any real hope of redressing the situation. Development strategies must however be formulated in such a way as to promote democratic forms of governance and better compliance with international human rights standards. The recent policy of Japan and some EC countries to link official development assistance to human rights records and objectives is a welcome step in this respect.

Economic development is important not only for tackling the root causes of displacement but also for promoting solutions, particularly voluntary repatriation of refugees. Most of the countries to refugees are returning or will return have been devastated by war, littered with mines and bereft of any infrastructure, expertise or resources. Large scale repatriation can succeed as a solution to refugee problems only if they are accompanied by concerted and comprehensive efforts to create proper conditions of return.

In conclusion, the domestic impact of refugee and migration issues are substantially different for Europe and Japan. However, the problem as a whole is not peculiar to any one region, nor susceptible to unilateral solution. If it is to be tackled in any meaningful fashion, isolationism must be avoided. International cooperation and solidarity must be into courageous and tangible action. The EC and Japan can take the lead in meeting this challenge.