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"Refugee Crisis in Today's World" - Public Lecture given by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule, Zurich, 9 June, 1993

Speeches and statements

"Refugee Crisis in Today's World" - Public Lecture given by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule, Zurich, 9 June, 1993

9 June 1993

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you on the subject of refugees. The issue of refugees is not only a matter of humanitarian concern, but also of international security. As such it is becoming one of the main issues of our era. Today, I would like to share with you a few thoughts on the global refugee problem, how it affects Europe and what kind of a strategy Europe must adopt to address the problem.

Let me begin by giving you some facts and figures about my organization and what we do. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established in 1951 to protect and assist refugees, and to find solutions for them. From Togo to Tajikistan, from Afghanistan to Angola, from Bosnia to Bangladesh, from Mexico to Mozambique, in 109 countries across the globe UNHCR is helping some 19 million refugees. In the course of the past year alone, we have mounted emergency programmes for almost 4 million people in the former Yugoslavia, for 260,000 refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh, for some 420,000 refugees in Kenya, mainly from Somalia. In early December we sent emergency teams to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. Earlier this year we have had to cope with the influx of some 200,000 refugees from Togo into Benin and Ghana.

The return of refugees has become an important aspect of our work as more and more conflicts are resolved in the post-Cold War era. Our most recent success story has been the repatriation of Cambodians. In late March I travelled to Thailand to close down the last of the Cambodian refugee camps. We have helped some 370,000 refugees to return to Cambodia, in time for them to participate in the elections which have just concluded. In the course of the past year 1.5 million Afghans have also returned home. We are just about to begin large scale repatriation to Mozambique of 1.5 million refugees and hopefully of 500,000 refugees also to Eritrea. Let me add, however, that many refugees are returning to situations of devastation and conditions of uncertainty, sometimes even insecurity, threatening the durability of repatriation and reintegration.

Most of UNHCR's work occurs away from the glare of cameras in inaccessible and harsh corners of the globe. But of late, our efforts in northern Iraq and Bosnia have received considerable media exposure. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, my Office assisted in the return of 1.7 million Kurds from neighbouring countries, and in the reconstruction of some 1,500 Kurdish villages, allowing some 6,500 families to survive the winter at home. UNHCR deployed some 180 staff alongside 500 UN guards and hundreds of NGO staff as a confidence-building measure to enhance security.

In former Yugoslavia UNHCR has been involved in a massive humanitarian operation since November 1991. We went in initially to help those displaced by the Croatian War. Our objective was to meet humanitarian needs as well as to contain displacement. When the conflict spread to Bosnia, UNHCR began the airlift to Sarajevo, which is the largest humanitarian airlift since the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948. Since 1 July 1992, in close to 4,000 flights, almost 40,000 MT of food and relief supplies have been brought to sustain half a million residents of Sarajevo. The humanitarian relief operation helped many thousands to survive the winter. Today, UNHCR is providing life-sustaining assistance to almost 4 million people in former Yugoslavia, including people in the besieged enclaves of Bosnia. More and more people are being forced to flee the fighting as well as the ethnic cleansing. We are also working with UN peace-keepers to establish safe areas in enclaves such as Srebrenica. On 16 April, the Security Council adopted a resolution (SC res. 819) requesting the Secretary-General to increase the presence of UN peacekeeping troops in Srebrenica town, the centre of Moslem besieged enclave in Eastern Bosnia in order to monitor the humanitarian situation. The Council defined "safe area" as free from armed attack or other hostile acts. The safe area concept as it is evolving in Bosnia-Herzegovina is that of population centres which are being placed under international protection, with the UN presence of peace-keepers and humanitarian organizations to provide relief. As the Security Council expands the designation of safe areas to Zepa, Gorazde, Tuzla and Sarajevo, a new humanitarian approach may be developing that links more directly the protection of civilians in the process towards achieving peace. Safe areas, however, should not turn into large-scale refugee camps. It is important that safe areas be seen as a temporary means of providing protection and assistance until an overall political settlement can be reached. They must bring safety to people where they are, rather than moving people to safety.

Northern Iraq and the former Yugoslavia clearly highlight the fact that the refugee issue has become one of the most pressing problems today. Why is it so pressing?

For one, it is no longer limited, as it had been for much of the past, to distant parts of the world. Sarajevo is closer to Zurich than Madrid. There is a refugee problem today in the heart of Europe, thirty three years after UNHCR closed the last refugee camp in Europe. Let me remind you that in its first decade, UNHCR mainly cared for victims of communist persecution from Eastern Europe. Liberation wars and ethnic strife in the 1960s moved the refugee problem south to Africa. And in the 1970s and 1980s, proxy wars fought in the Third World meant that massive numbers of refugees, without access to solutions, lived for decades in camps in neighbouring countries. The end of the Cold War, however, has not led as hoped to an end to the refugee problem. Resurgent nationalism in the former Yugoslavia and the CIS republics has brought refugees back to Europe's doorstep.

Then there is the sheer magnitude of the refugee problem. In 1970, UNHCR cared for 2.8 million refugees across the globe, by 1982 that figure had risen to 11 million. Today almost 19 million people are assisted by my Office. An additional 25 million people are displaced within their own frontiers. These figures mean that about one in every hundred world citizens has been forced to leave his home.

The projection of what is to come is yet more dismal. One of the main causes of refugee flight is conflict. Some 35 such conflicts are now underway across the globe. With the recent resurgence of nationalism rekindling age-old feuds, that figure could increase to 75 by the year 2000, potentially doubling the number of those compelled to flee. From central and eastern Europe through the Caucasus to Central Asia, new tensions and divisions are opening up along ethnic and national lines, rousing fears of large-scale population displacement.

Severe socio-economic problems are also at the root of population movements. The global economic recession is hitting hardest on the poorest, and environmental and population pressures are exacerbating their plight. The gap between rich and poor nations is continually widening, increasing the migratory pressure from those countries to western Europe. Sometimes, political and economic factors are so closely inter-linked that the distinction between refugees and economic migrants cannot be easily drawn. Is a Tamil from northern Sri Lanka who arrives at Zurich airport, escaping the violent consequences of civil war or the debilitating effects of poverty, which itself is aggravated by a decade-long war?

In parallel with the pressures to encourage movement are growing the possibilities to move. Modern transport has narrowed distances while international media and communications has increased the aspirations of the less well off to seek a better future for themselves and their children in distant lands.

In short, we are living in an era where more people are moving than ever before. In Europe alone the number of asylum seekers have increased from 30,000 in the 1970s to 400,000 in the late 1980s. In 1992 they reached close to 750,000. In the case of the Switzerland, asylum applications have almost doubled from 9,700 in 1985 to just over 18,000 last year. These increased numbers reflect on the one hand the larger numbers of refugees in search of protection, and on the other, the greater numbers of economic migrants who use asylum procedures as a door to Europe in the absence of immigration programmes.

The drama and complexity of the refugee problem in Europe today is evident - whether in the tragic displacement in former Yugoslavia, the passionate debate on asylum in Germany, the long discussions on harmonizing asylum procedures in the European community, the concern over illegal immigration and xenophobia in many European countries. It was much easier in the past when the numbers were more manageable, and there was greater public acceptance and support. Now the political and strategic value of granting asylum have diminished. Unemployment and economic recession have deepened in receiving countries. The cost of processing asylum applications has skyrocketed. The number of racist attacks against refugees and asylum-seekers have grown. Deeply troubled governments have resorted to new laws and regulations to control their borders. The object is to discourage illegal immigrants, but some of it regrettably affects the admission of asylum-seekers.

It was in Europe that the institution of refugee protection was born, it is in Europe today that the adequacy of that system is being tested.

The challenge is not how to keep refugees away or ignore them, but how to manage refugee and migratory movements in a way which uphold basic human rights and humanitarian principles and meet the needs of the victims as well as the concerns of the States and communities which receive them.

There are many other Yugoslavias out there. It would be short-sighted to equate priority with proximity. In an inter-dependent world, distant problems can rapidly become domestic ones. I believe that we need to adopt a strategy which is outward-looking, a strategy which recognizes the inter-linkage of causes which force people to move today and the inter-dependence of our world, a strategy which advocates increased international involvement.

Our response must not only be outward-looking, but also a comprehensive and concerted one. For too long, refugee policies and practices, conditioned by the Cold War, have concentrated on the countries of asylum. Today, the growing scale and complexity of the refugee problem, as well as the changed international context, make clear the inadequacy of asylum as the whole response. An effective and adequate strategy must focus on the country from which refugees originate. It must address the entire continuum of refugee flows from its root causes and prevention to emergency response, protection and eventual solution.

I would like to outline six main elements of the strategy, as I see it.

Firstly, there must be protection to those in need. Despite all its shortcomings, the 1951 refugee Convention remains the strongest expression of international solidarity for the persecuted, and governments must continue to apply the Convention liberally.

At the same time, we need to recognize that the 1951 Convention, while essential, cannot be the only means of protection when there are large-scale refugee flows of the kind we are witnessing today. New concepts of protection must be devised based on the notion of temporary sanctuary, followed by voluntary return in safety and dignity. UNHCR has advocated such temporary protection for the Yugoslav refugee problem. What we are talking about is quite simple: admission to safety and assistance for survival until conditions in the country of origin are such as to allow safe return. Through such a concept, victims of war and violence can find the sanctuary they badly need, while governments can afford to be more generous in the knowledge of the temporary nature of their burden.

Secondly, there must be a clear distinction between refugees fleeing persecution and violence, and migrants fleeing poverty. The plight of both groups are equally deserving of attention. But differing needs require different responses. Therefore, efforts must continue to establish fair and efficient procedures to ensure that valid claims to asylum or temporary protection are duly and expeditiously recognized. Efforts must also be made to establish procedures and mechanisms for the orderly and safe return of non-refugees, along the lines of what UNHCR has promoted in Vietnam. We are playing a limited role also in the return of Tamils whose asylum applications have been rejected.

Many rejected asylum-seekers are in reality would-be immigrants using the asylum channel, because there is not much opportunity for immigration to Europe. This brings me to my third point on immigration. Just as protection policies must address those fleeing war and persecution, migration policies should be developed to cope with those moving for economic and social reasons. Some demographers and economists argue that western Europe would stand to gain, at least in the medium-term, from an increased level of immigration. Governments must be more forthcoming in considering appropriate immigration policies which meet the labour needs of an ageing and affluent Europe as well as the aspirations of the poorer countries of eastern Europe and the Third World. Such a mix of asylum and immigration may give European governments greater flexibility to respond to some population movements, as well as preserve the asylum procedures from abusive claims.

The fourth element is greater assistance to refugee programmes in the poorer parts of the world, both to enable asylum countries to continue to provide sanctuary, and to promote solutions in countries from which refugees originate. I have already mentioned Cambodia. There are opportunities for repatriation of refugees, for instance to Angola, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Ethiopia and now Mozambique and Eritrea. Return however is not under ideal conditions. People are going home to areas where security is fragile, mines abundant and economic prospects virtually non-existent. If voluntary repatriation is to be a lasting solution, then returning refugees must be reintegrated properly in their communities. Opportunities for economic and social development must be created to sustain political developments.

My fifth element is about prevention:the prevention of refugee flows through the promotion of human rights, better governance and economic development. Respect of human rights in general, and the protection of minority rights in particular, are crucial for greater stability. Without that respect and protection, minorities and other groups will feel increasingly marginalised and exploited, and could be provoked into seeking escape in virulent forms of nationalism and sectarianism. We must be as vigilant about the right of people to remain where they are, as we have been about the right of people to seek asylum. The international human rights machinery, which was long paralysed by ideological confrontation, must now be used to greater effect to hold governments accountable for abuses.

At the same time, western governments must look beyond their traditional emphasis on political and civil rights and broaden their receptivity to the economic and social rights and aspirations of the citizens of the developing countries. Poverty not only creates migratory pressures but also leads to unrest and social upheavals which in turn may result in refugee flows. Development assistance, with an emphasis on priority human needs, including job creation, poverty alleviation, education and health could help to reduce some migratory pressure. In fact I would urge development cooperation policy makers to include migration considerations as part of a larger international cooperative effort encompassing aid, trade and investment.

The sixth and final element is public information. Information in the largest sense of the word must bean important part of any strategy to manage population movements. Today, television beams the life-style of the west into the homes of the poor, generating new expectations and aspirations. It must be balanced with accurate information so that individuals who wish to leave their country can make an educated decision after weighing the consequences of movement against the possibility of staying at home. A massive UNHCR information campaign in Vietnam has played a significant part in directing those who want to leave towards orderly migration programmes rather than risking their lives in dangerous boat journeys. In Albania, UNHCR is cooperating with the International Organisation of Migration in a similar campaign to reduce illegal migration.

Information can be used also to create a more positive understanding of the plight of refugees in asylum countries. Public opinion and public policy are shaped by mass media and the statements of policy makers. Not only the media, but also academic institutions and non-governmental organisations have an important role to play in building support for refugees.

Finally, let me stress that we need political will to bring together these various elements and actors in a truly coherent and coordinated response. We have to look beyond parochial national interest. The new climate of multilateralism offers hope for the way forward. We must seize this rare moment in history.

Europe stands at a cross-roads. The risks are evident. The opportunities are abundant. The danger is of introspection, of moving away from the global village to our own little village in the absence of any clear ideological imperative. But, I am afraid, the challenge is too great, the stakes are too high for us to turn our backs. The path we follow will determine the kind of world we bestow on future generations.