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"Refugees in Asia: from Exodus to Solutions" - 1995 Charles Rostov Lecture on Asian Affairs by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, John Hopkins University, Washington D.C., 27 November 1995

Speeches and statements

"Refugees in Asia: from Exodus to Solutions" - 1995 Charles Rostov Lecture on Asian Affairs by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, John Hopkins University, Washington D.C., 27 November 1995

27 November 1995

I am very pleased to have this opportunity to address the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the John Hopkins University in Washington. Forced migration is one of those subjects which are at the cutting edge of international concern today. We are all long aware of its dire humanitarian dimension, which is the primary focus of my Office, but especially during the last few years there has been increasing recognition that refugee problems more often than not, pose formidable political challenges to the international community. It is also in this light that I welcome the increasing interest of the academic world in the causes and consequences, and in the management and resolution of forced displacement. As practitioners, we can greatly benefit from your research and analysis; as advocates of the millions who are fleeing from war and persecution, we would welcome your help in mobilizing political thinking and action to address the root causes of conflict and to enhance the protection of the victims.

Today's theme concerns refugees in Asia. I shall first comment on the nature of current forced displacement in general, then discuss with you the international response to refugee outflows in Asia, including UNHCR's orientation and role in this regard. I will explain how this response was affected by the political parameters of the Cold War, and how later the changed international climate has facilitated a more pro-active search for durable solutions in countries of origin of refugees. Next, I shall make some comments on humanitarian action in favour of internally displaced persons. I shall end with a brief outlook for the future.

When I became High Commissioner in 1991, UNHCR spoke of 17 million refugees in the world. Today, UNHCR takes responsibility over some 27 million people uprooted by war, violence and gross violations of human rights. This number includes refugees who have been forced to flee abroad, returnees who have come home, but are yet to be properly reintegrated, and people who find themselves displaced inside their own countries or otherwise affected by war and violence.

A period of transition and upheaval in world affairs has generated massive population movements, as demonstrated by the crises in former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda and Burundi in Africa. New emergencies have, however, been paralleled by opportunities for repatriation. Despite the uncertainties and insecurities of the current international order, in recent years more than 9 million refugees have returned home, in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Iraq and Tajikistan, in Central-America, and in Namibia, Mozambique, Rwanda and South Africa, to name the most important. Population movements are therefore reflecting the mixed landscape of promise and peril of current international politics.

This mixed picture is also visible in Asia. After Africa, the Asian continent still hosts the second largest number of refugees, 5 million, whereas well over 2 million people are assisted by my Office as internally displaced persons. Afghans and Iraqis constitute respectively the first and fourth largest refugee population in the world. Ongoing instability and eruptions of violence, in Afghanistan and, again recently in Sri Lanka, have halted earlier progress towards repatriation, and are causing more people to flee. On the whole, however, the continent has witnessed a steady decline in refugee numbers, just when they are spiralling in Africa and Europe. The two major factors responsible for this positive development, are the repatriation of 1.5 million Afghans following the ousting of Kabul's communist backed government in 1992, and the near resolution of the Indo-Chinese refugee problem through a combination of third country resettlement and repatriation. I will revert to the Indo-Chinese exodus in a moment.

Whereas worldwide the number of refugees has declined from its peak of 18.2 million in 1993 to 14.4 million in 1995, movements of flight within States are clearly on the rise. The total number of internally displaced persons is now estimated to surpass the number of persons fleeing across borders.

Today's forced displacement, whether taking place within countries or spilling over across borders, is in most cases a product of conflict between various communities within states borders. In the past internal conflicts were often fuelled by ideological rivalry between the superpowers. Today, as I see it, cultural group identity, along ethnic, religious or linguistic lines, has become more of a divisive factor of its own, although political and socio-economic inequity amongst other factors may be at the root of the problem. Increasingly, people translate feelings of separateness into political claims, especially when they are discriminated against or persecuted. In the worst instances, this can lead to state fragmentation. The risk of violent disintegration increases following the collapse of authoritarian structures within existing States, such as in Somalia and Afghanistan, or as a sequence of the disappearance of overarching systems of "imperial" rule into the formation of new States. New borders risk to exclude people who fear to become oppressed, or second class citizens in another State. Majorities fear to become minorities. In reaction, they either oppose the formation of the new State, which happened in former Yugoslavia, or they move, often under pressure, to the ethnic or religious "mother" state, as was experienced on a massive scale in the Indian Subcontinent in the second half of the 1940s.

In such conflicts, displacement is increasingly not only a by-product, but an objective of war and persecution. De-population and re-population tactics, in support of territorial claims of self-determination, are the abominable features of the conflicts in the Balkans and in the Caucasus. Fortunately, population engineering does not seem to be a major characteristic of the internal conflicts in Asia, either in Afghanistan or Sri Lanka, however violent these are.

Refugee problems being inherently political in nature, have always tended to affect international political relations. With the end of the Cold War, the international security dimension has not disappeared, but has changed in nature. Although the expansion of political and economic influence in a given region may still play a role, overt or covert backing by external powers which was common during the great ideological divide, has lost much of its relevance. Instead, the security factor is to a much larger extent regionalized; ethnic kinship or religious ties feature amongst reasons why asylum States have often an interest in the outcome of conflicts in neighbouring countries.

Let me now turn to the analysis of the international response to compelled displacement in Asia. According to UNHCR's statute, my Office is mandated to ensure international protection and assistance to refugees and to promote durable solutions to their plight. During the Cold War both the humanitarian management and resolution of refugee problems were influenced as much by national, regional and global security concerns and foreign policy considerations, as by genuine humanitarian compassion for the refugees.

The response to the Indochinese refugee crisis bears witness to this theme. When the first boats began to arrive in Southeast Asia in 1978, the countries in the region feared they would be stranded with the refugees, who were unacceptable to them for economic, social and political reasons. Economically, there was no demand for surplus labour in the ASEAN states or Hong Kong. Socially, the governments feared that the refugees, who were mainly Chinese in the early days and later Vietnamese, would upset the delicate balance of the local communities and arouse historic enmities between the races. If the Laotians were treated more generously by Thailand, it was precisely because of their ethnic kinship with the host community. Politically, the Asian states saw the refugee outflow as a deliberate policy of the Vietnamese government to destabilize the region and refused to legitimize it by accepting the refugees. As a result, non-refoulement, a fundamental principle of refugee protection came under serious threat. By 1979, countries began pushing off overloaded boats and pushing back refugees. If Vietnamese refugees were viewed with suspicion in the region, the Cambodians were used as pawns by various powers to further political and military goals. A number of States within and from outside the region actively supported the Khmer Rouge on the Thai border, who were left in control of camps accommodating 270,000 Cambodians, as a buffer against the Vietnamese-supported regime in Phnom Penh. Newly arriving refugees from Laos were at times used in military activities aimed at destabilizing their home country.

These developments show how geopolitical realities influenced the admission and treatment of Indochinese seeking international protection. As a result humanitarian action was severely constrained, and practical compromises had to be found. In Thailand, not UNHCR but an ad hoc body, the UN Border Relief Operation (UNBRO), was set up to provide relief to the Cambodian border population, but was left without a protection mandate. For the boat people, the first International Conference on Indochinese Refugees, organized by UNHCR in 1979, recognized the principle of admission and refuge in the region, but on a temporary basis only: it was coupled with the commitment to resettle the refugees in third countries. This compromise, which was essentially a burden-sharing arrangement, was to survive for a decade, providing temporary refuge as well as resettlement to over a million refugees.

Ideological rivalry did not only affect protection, it also stymied solutions. Wholesale resettlement, as in the case of the Vietnamese, reflected the Cold War bias in favour of exile, and led to the permanent integration of refugees fleeing from Communist regimes in non-Communist societies. By concentrating on the obligations of the regional countries of refuge and the international community, the 1979 arrangement ignored the responsibilities of countries of origin towards their own citizens. It failed to recognize the right of people to return, far less the right of people to remain in their own homes in safety and security. Even though UNHCR sought to promote voluntary repatriation, especially to Laos, and signed a voluntary repatriation agreement with the Provisional Government of Laos, it became very quickly evident that international support was not forthcoming.

If the Indochinese exodus highlighted the geopolitical limits to protection, it also demonstrated, a decade later, the opportunities for new solution-oriented approaches offered by an improved international climate. The second International Conference on Indochinese Refugees held in 1989, and the resultant Comprehensive Plan of Action, or CPA, and the later successful repatriation of Cambodian refugees as part of UNTAC, were two milestones in this regard.

The CPA, adopted in 1989, recognized that while conditions in Vietnam and Laos stabilized, many boat people were no longer escaping from persecution, but from poverty. The lure of resettlement had turned into part of the problem. The objective of the CPA was twofold: to protect genuine refugees from Vietnam and Laos, and to prevent further outflow of non-refugees. Although the obligation of regional countries of first asylum to admit asylum-seekers was maintained, the group recognition of refugees ceased as did wholesale resettlement. The comprehensive approach under the CPA was unique to the extent that the responsibility of two countries of origin, with a communist leadership, to cooperate with the safe return of citizens who were determined not to be refugees, was brought into the equation. It was also unique because UNHCR was allowed to monitor all returnees in Vietnam, in order to help to assure their safety and to contribute to a climate of confidence. Five years later, the outflow from Vietnam and Laos virtually stopped, almost all those identified as refugees were resettled and more than 70,000 returned to Vietnam. Vietnam, on its part, has scrupulously respected its safety assurances, as ascertained by my Office and others concerned.

The CPA helped to solve a refugee problem by permitting the reintegration of non-refugees. The comprehensive approach adopted under the Paris Peace Accords with regard to Cambodia went much further. While the former was comprehensive in managing a massive refugee outflow, the latter paved the way for solving the Cambodian refugee problem through voluntary repatriation, as an integral part of the UN operation (UNTAC) which implemented the Peace Accords. This time the political and humanitarian interests converged more clearly. Refugee repatriation was seen as a key element in the political process of peace building and national reconciliation, and the refugees themselves were eager to return.

As part of a new generation of peace-keeping operations, UNTAC sought to address humanitarian and human rights issues in conjunction with the underlying political and military problems. Between March 1992 and Spring 1993, 370,000 refugees repatriated under UNHCR's auspices from the Thai border to areas of their choice in Cambodia, in time to participate in the UN-supervised elections. My Office monitored the treatment of returnees in all parts of the country, including areas under the control of the Khmer Rouge. In cooperation with UNDP, we launched a host of small community-based quick impact projects to help reintegrate the returnees. Today, the returnees are in no different situation than the local population, which is no mean achievement when one considers their long and difficult exile.

The UN's multifaceted operation in Cambodia served as a further stimulus for new, comprehensive approaches to resolve problems of forced displacement. Unlike the past, the international community is increasingly interested, not only in what happens to refugees after they cross a border, but why they have fled and how they can be helped to return home rapidly and safely. Coupling traditional concerns for sanctuary with a more innovative search for solutions, UNHCR has attempted to develop strategic thinking and action which promotes the comprehensive prevention and solution of refugee problems, together with the protection of refugees. The bias towards the country of asylum is being replaced by a growing focus on the country of origin.

In South Asia too, more and more governments have come to realize that the real solutions lie in the home country, whether for the Muslims from Myanmar, ethnic Nepalis from Bhutan, Tamils from Sri Lanka or Chakmas from Bangladesh. In the past, the tendency has been to seek bilateral agreements with limited or belated UNHCR involvement. The repatriation of refugees has often been long and arduous, and hampered by lack of physical and material security for the returnees. The Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh, however, benefitted from a different approach. While Bangladesh exerted strong pressure for their return, conditions inside Myanmar were still less than ideal. Faced with this situation, UNHCR negotiated agreements with the governments of both countries. Through deploying staff in Bangladesh to verify the voluntary nature of return and in the Rakhine state of Myanmar to monitor the treatment of returnees and to assist with their re-integration, UNHCR's presence and assistance facilitated over 190,000 persons to repatriate since 1993.

I will now address the issue of action in favour of internally displaced persons.

There has been increasing recognition that the right of internally displaced persons to security, and to proper humanitarian treatment by State and non-State actors alike, is often as compelling, if not more so, as for refugees. Although a refugee agency, UNHCR has on several occasions been requested by the General Assembly and the Secretary-General to assist this category of victims. The activities undertaken in their favour not only in Sri Lanka, but also in northern Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, Tajikistan and elsewhere, demonstrate that the increased focus on countries of origin of refugees has to be viewed as part of a much broader context of forced population movement. Freed of some of the Cold War constraints today, the international community has taken a more active stand on human rights and humanitarian issues. The responsibility of States to ensure the security of their own people, including through respect of human and minority rights, is increasingly emphasized. The traditional concept of state sovereignty and the ancillary norm of non-intervention, have, as you know, come under critical review, especially since the allied intervention in northern Iraq in 1991. They become less relevant when State structures collapse and chaos reigns. Several times now, the UN Security Council has viewed the disastrous humanitarian consequences of internal conflict, including large scale refugee outflows, in the context of threats to international peace and security. Although I believe that a realistic balance must be kept between the humanitarian imperative of saving lives and the political interest of stability in international relations, I believe we should appreciate the greater international willingness to protect and assist victims of gross and systematic violations of humanitarian and human rights law, as a positive trend. While the results of collective action in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda have been mixed, millions of internally displaced persons and of other people at risk of starvation, indiscriminate shelling and persecution have benefitted from international action in their favour.

I should like, however, to add that in carrying out humanitarian activities, UNHCR relies on the consent and cooperation of the State in which it operates, a point affirmed in several resolutions of the General Assembly. Rather than relying on the yet disputed right of humanitarian intervention, we base our action on the victim's right to receive humanitarian protection and assistance. In many instances, however, humanitarian access remains problematic for political or military reasons, as we have again experienced during the recent government offensive in northern Sri Lanka. We expect to receive the continuous support of the Security Council, and of the international community at large, to ensure that the principle of unimpeded and safe access to all victims in need of protection and assistance is accepted and respected.

Let me proceed with a few observations regarding the future management of displacement in Asia, including residual refugee problems in Indochina.

Twenty years after the exodus of Indochinese refugees, the region has undergone major changes. Yesterday's enemies have become today's allies and economic partners, as we have witnessed Vietnam joining ASEAN. While sustained economic development, improved standards of living, and institutions of civic society are signs of stability in many parts of southeast Asia, it is too early to be too complacent. Having come full cycle on solutions, the work must continue on prevention. Through economic progress peace must be sustained, through respect for human rights democracy must be nurtured and stability promoted. Disparate economic growth and labour needs in the region, as well as the improved possibility for mobility of people, have led to new migratory pressures. The establishment of clear immigration policies and procedures must therefore be a priority. Within this context, the necessary safeguards must be built in to guarantee that refugees are protected.

Meanwhile, the return of Vietnamese determined not to be refugees represents a continuing and thorny problem especially when lingering doubts exist in some quarters as to the nature of socialist regimes, however reformed. The bilateral relations between the United States and Vietnam have dominated and continue to affect the design and the implementation of the CPA. I met some of the returnees when I visited Vietnam in April 1994. The economic and social changes in that county are dramatic and deeply impressive. I am optimistic for the future, and hope that those still in camps in Hong Kong and elsewhere will soon return home to contribute to the positive changes.

The current impasse cannot, therefore, be allowed to persist. Legitimate moral and political concerns, which we respect, that stem from the involvement of the United States in Indochina, cannot be addressed through an eleventh hour denigration of a carefully crafted multilateral plan that rescued boatpeople and our consciences from the chaos and violence that prevailed in 1987 and 1988, throughout the region. Persons who are not refugees in the conventional sense must return home but could, thereafter, be considered for such orderly emigration programmes that might be agreed upon bilaterally. I very much welcome recent and imaginative proposals by the United States along these lines and wish to call on those who have the interests of these persons at heart - as we have had for over two decades - to lend us their resolute support.

As regards the Laotians, who remain in Thailand, particularly the hill-tribes, my Office is very supportive of a plan currently under discussion between the United States, Thailand and Laos which is likely to bring the agony of refugee camp life to an end.

Economic development is rapidly growing not only in south east Asia, but in other parts of the continent as well. As living conditions improve and as governments respect the human rights and equal participation of all ethnic and religious groups, it should be possible to prevent or to contain ethnic or religious tension in multicultural societies. The peaceful resolution of existing disputes within a number of Asian states, represents a major challenge for the future. In my view, history teaches that repressive measures harden attitudes and tend to create and inflate political claims, instead of solving existing problems. And, once internal disputes erupt into armed conflict, such as in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, these disputes become very difficult to resolve.

The current fighting in Sri Lanka, and the prolonged absence of a political breakthrough, starkly depict the limits of proactive humanitarian action in communal conflicts. Since the mid-1980s we have been monitoring and assisting Tamil refugees returning from India, even by establishing "open relief centres" which were recognized by all parties to the conflict as neutral ground and free from military activities. However, in the second half of last year repatriation movements had to be suspended, in view of the instability in northern Sri Lanka. The recent upsurge in fighting will diminish the prospect for an early resumption of voluntary repatriation, and has instead generated major new waves of displacement, albeit thus far mostly inside the country.

Given this reality, and in spite of the many positive developments in Asia, the protection of victims of conflict and the search for solutions will continue to be necessary on the Asian continent. Drawing from the lessons we have learned especially in Indochina, I should like to end with the following concluding remarks.

First, the international refugee protection regime in Asia needs to be strengthened. While the de facto observance of fundamental principles of refugee protection is on the rise, Asian States will hopefully overcome their traditional reluctance to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. In all other parts of the world, these instruments have proved the best guarantee for international protection, without frustrating the search for specific regional solutions, including voluntary repatriation. Protection, and prevention, would also benefit from the dissemination of human rights and humanitarian principles.

Second, asylum must remain a possibility even if it is not permanent. The concept of temporary refuge has demonstrated its value in regions beyond Asia, most notably Europe, and should continue to be upheld by Asian governments. Through such a concept, refugees 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. Temporary refuge should, however, not be made conditional by countries of first asylum on any particular solution, especially resettlement in third countries.

Third, there is a need to reaffirm the non-political nature of asylum and the humanitarian character of refugee camps and settlements. In a world which has moved away from ideological conflict with global ramifications towards more and intense communal conflict with a regional impact, the danger that refugees become a source of friction or are used for that purpose, has not receded. In particular, there is a need to devise new mechanisms, with the active support of the host authorities, to protect or free bona fide refugee populations from the control of military factions, as demonstrated during the eighties in the Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand, and as amplified today in the Rwandan camps in Zaire and Tanzania.

Fourth, the capacity of local governments to assure emergency assistance in case of massive internal or external displacement must be enhanced. Local institution-building will be beneficial to displaced populations, in terms of both assistance and protection, and would facilitate their re-integration.

Fifth, I am pleading for a closer linkage between humanitarian protection and assistance. An effective and early international presence in countries of asylum as well as of origin, should help governments to safeguard the rights of refugees and internally displaced persons alike, and to facilitate their early return and re-integration. Whether in Myanmar, Tajikistan or Vietnam, international presence has served as an important confidence-building measure, for returnees as well as the governments concerned. The role my Office has played in Laos and Vietnam, in particular, in the monitoring of the well-being of returnees is unprecedented in terms of both its breadth and duration.

Sixth, the international community must insist on the responsibility of countries of origin to create the political and practical conditions necessary for the safe return of refugees and internally displaced persons, at the earliest possible stage. The advantages of an early international humanitarian presence, far from reducing this responsibility, should reinforce it. Countries of origin must tackle the causes which made people flee. Whereas protracted refugee situations should belong to the past, and whereas voluntary repatriation should be based on a flexible and pragmatic interpretation of principles, it should also be recognized that too much haste can endanger the physical and material security of returnees and compromise the peaceful settlement of disputes.

Finally, the responsibility of countries of origin must be matched, through an integrated approach, by the commitment of the international community to help these countries solve their problems. The international community should promote, as it did in the case of Cambodia, that issues of forced displacement are solved within a larger strategy of peace-making and human rights. At least as vital should be its determination to address, much sooner than has often been the case, the rehabilitation and development needs of post-conflict societies. In the latter context, existing gaps between humanitarian reintegration projects and longer-term rehabilitation must be bridged.

I am convinced that our experience in Asia has been invaluable. Here we learned, during the Cold War, to find practical solutions and to fashion new concepts. Most importantly of all, we learned to work with a wide range of governmental and non-governmental partners. In Asia too, the end of the Cold War has transformed humanitarian action, and is prompting new strategies and possibilities for the prevention and resolution of problems of forced displacement. Humanitarian action can, however, not be a substitute for political determination. At the end of the day, it is the commitment of governments to ensure economic progress, stability and democratic governance for all, that matters most.

Thank you.