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Remarks by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the 9th Extraordinary Meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Doha, Qatar, 10 October 2001

Speeches and statements

Remarks by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the 9th Extraordinary Meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Doha, Qatar, 10 October 2001

10 October 2001

Your Highness
Secretary-General Belkeziz
Distinguished Delegates
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be with you today at the 9th Extraordinary Meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. I wish to thank especially His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, for his hospitality and for allowing me to take part in this important conference.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) works to ensure protection and assistance for some 22 million refugees, internally displaced persons and other people of concern. This includes almost 9 million Muslim refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide. It does not include Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza who fall within the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). As High Commissioner for Refugees, my principal responsibility is to ensure the safety of those fleeing from generalized violence, and to ensure that they are provided with the basic material assistance for their survival. To achieve this, we need the support and solidarity of host countries. We also need to encourage effective burden sharing. An important priority is to ensure solidarity with the 9 million Muslim refugees and internally displaced persons who are of concern to my Office. This is my mission and I need your support.

I spent 21 years in politics, out of which I served 12 years as Prime Minister working for the people of my own country, the Netherlands. Since January this year, I have found myself addressing the needs of people who do not have the protection of their own government. This includes Muslim refugees and internally displaced persons. But protection and assistance are not enough for these uprooted populations. We also need to find lasting solutions for them, and I am very much committed to this cause. The best solution is voluntary repatriation, where people return to their own homes. Other solutions include local integration in countries of asylum, and resettlement to other countries.

Finding solutions is an important aspect of our work. Failure to provide solutions results in the degradation of refugees and internally displaced persons. They may experience discrimination and hostility from local people, and they can become vulnerable to exploitation by criminal elements. Since the shocking events of 11th September, I must say that the work of my Office has become very difficult. There is a growing risk that people will associate terrorist attacks with Afghans, refugees and sometimes even with Muslims. I have taken, and will continue to take, a strong stand against such discrimination and xenophobia. The recent UN Security Council resolution on terrorism is an important step forward, but we must ensure that it is not used as a pretext for associating genuine refugees with criminal acts or terrorist activities. Those who have committed crimes should be brought to justice and should be clearly distinguished from asylum-seekers who qualify for protection under the UN Refugee Convention. To equate the two is dangerous and seriously undermines efforts to protect and assist refugees. My Office will be diligent and forceful in speaking out, where needed, to convey such message.

Let me now turn to the situation in Afghanistan and its people. When I assumed office at the beginning of this year, the two major refugee hosting countries, Iran and Pakistan, had decided not to receive any more new arrivals of Afghan asylum seekers. They insisted that there were already too many refugees in their countries. They also questioned whether or not the new arrivals were genuine refugees, since most of them were poor people coming from drought affected areas. This illustrates the complexity of the situation, and the long and complicated history Afghans crossing into Iran and Pakistan that started more than two decades ago.

During the battle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Afghan refugees were considered as brothers and sisters by people in Iran and Pakistan. Then in the 1990s, civil war in Afghanistan continued to produce fresh waves of refugees, and the sympathy and hospitality shown towards Afghans gradually diminished. The host countries considered that the burden was simply too much, and there was no effective international mechanism of burden sharing. It was not only Iran and Pakistan that decided to step back, but also other Islamic countries to which Afghans had fled. New arrivals were not welcomed, and there was increasing pressure for Afghans to return to their country.

Against this background, I visited the region in May and developed a two-pronged approach to bring about a breakthrough. This involved an agreement in which countries hosting Afghan refugees - particularly Iran and Pakistan - would continue providing protection and assistance for the existing Afghan refugee population, while at the same time the international community would set up new assistance programmes inside Afghanistan. The aim was that reconstruction and rehabilitation programmes in Afghanistan would help to prevent the need for further outflows and would also help to facilitate returns to safe areas.

This two-pronged approach failed to materialise in any significant way due to the continuation of the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. There was no fighting in the Taliban-controlled areas, but the Taliban authorities made it practically impossible to carry out humanitarian assistance programmes and reconstruction work. After the killing of Ahmad Shah Massoud and the terrorist attacks of 11 September in New York and Washington, the situation in the region became ever more uncertain. UNHCR immediately reviewed its contingency plans and set up an emergency operation for the region. We are now preparing for a worst case scenario of 1.5 million Afghans who may cross the border, mainly to Pakistan and Iran. Our contingency planning also extends to the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

As we meet here in Qatar, US military action in Afghanistan continues. With the support of the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, I was able to get the consent of the governments of both Iran and Pakistan for new arrivals from Afghanistan to be granted temporary protection and assistance. This ensures that the fundamental principle of asylum is maintained, while it also indicates that the international community is fully aware of the major burden that Iran and Pakistan have to shoulder. Today, the borders with Pakistan and Iran are still officially closed. It is my sincere hope that those in need will be given the possibility of crossing the border, so that they can be given temporary protection and assistance.

As part of our emergency preparedness measures, UNHCR plans to establish several refugee sites in the neighbouring countries. We have sent emergency teams to the region and our immediate target is to prepare to meet the needs of 300,000 refugees in Pakistan and 80,000 in Iran. To accommodate them, site planning in several locations is ongoing. We are trying to ensure that this is done in a way that respects our own minimum standards concerning access, water availability, distance from the border and, above all, safety. The recent violent demonstrations in Quetta, Pakistan, when the UNICEF office was destroyed and the UNHCR office was damaged, illustrate the tensions in the country and the dangers already being faced those involved in the humanitarian operation. Every effort must be made to ensure the security of both refugees and humanitarian personnel.

At this moment, I must say that the conditions of the available sites are far from satisfactory. In Pakistan, for example, the selected sites are mainly in the Tribal Areas, where the security situation is poor and where there is little access to water. In Iran, the Government has still not agreed to the preparation of refugee sites inside the country. Both countries understandably insist on the importance of providing assistance inside Afghanistan. They see this as a way of containing people inside Afghanistan, avoiding the need for a major outflow of people across borders. In a situation of peace and stability inside Afghanistan, where rehabilitation and reconstruction work can be carried out, I fully agree that this should be the major focus of attention. But this is simply not possible at the moment. This is why we insist on the need for temporary protection and assistance in neighbouring countries. For our part, we stand ready to assist them.

During my visit to the region in May, I proposed a cease-fire as a first step to prevent further outflows. This was intended to serve as a basis for a political solution, eventually helping to facilitate voluntary returns. But the fighting between Taliban forces and those of the Northern Alliance did not stop. Now again, the question of the future of the Afghans is on the table.

I would like to make a strong plea for Islamic countries to play an active role in showing solidarity with the Afghans. It was gratifying to hear that His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Emir of the State of Qatar, has established a Fund to assist the Afghan people, amounting to US$ 10 million. I heard a similar announcement from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and other countries. UNHCR is ready to assist the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and individual countries to translate these grants into effective rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance. Afghanistan is an Islamic country and it is essential that Islamic countries help to lead the way there. Neighbouring countries have a particular responsibility in helping to find a suitable political solution.

Our humanitarian mission should not only be about protection and assistance but also about supporting political solutions and good governance, as the people of Afghanistan deserve and desperately need. Only then will peace return, allowing for significant rehabilitation and reconstruction. And only then will refugees and the internally displaced go home to live side by side with fellow Afghans who remained in their local communities.