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Speaking notes for Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the International Protection Training Course, San Remo, 21 February 1992

Speeches and statements

Speaking notes for Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the International Protection Training Course, San Remo, 21 February 1992

21 February 1992
Protection Role of UNHCR Today

Protection Role of UNHCR Today

I. Having come to the end of your training course you need hardly be reminded that international protection is the primary function of UNHCR. However, to fully understand UNHCR's protection role today we must look at the political, economic and social factors which are influencing population movements today:

(a)Changing nature of refugee movements. UNHCR original protection mandate based on notion of persecution. Although fear of persecution continues to be cause of flight, more refugees today forced to leave their home as a result of armed conflict and internal disturbances, aggravated sometimes by severe poverty. Same factors also leading to more people being displaced inside their own countries. Despite legal provisions for ICRC protection, non-observance of principles by parties concerned as well as lacuna of law on internal disturbances leave plight of internally displaced largely unaddressed.

(b)Increased migratory pressure resulting from greater demands for migrant labour, disparity between rich and poor nations, ease of travel, impact of media, is aggravating the refugee problem as economic migrants seek to enter industrialised countries through asylum procedures. Confusion between refugees and economic migrants. Over-burdening of asylum procedures, prohibitive cost of processing, yet only a small percentage are deported and majority are allowed to remain on humanitarian grounds. Disorderly boatloads of Albanians last summer reinforced negative public opinion, xenophobia, racism, pressures for stricter border control in western Europe. US reaction to Haitian boat people illustrates Western dilemma between humanitarian principles and domestic considerations.

(c)End of the Cold War: on the one hand, political and economic factors, resurgent nationalism, fragmentation of States, have intensified risks of displacement. On the other hand, many regional and internal conflicts which had previously prevented people from returning are on the way to being resolved. So, in the twelve months since I became High Commissioner, I faced emergencies in the Persian Gulf area and the Horn of Africa, exodus from Albania, displacement in Yugoslavia, boat people from Haiti, while also having to prepare for repatriation of refugees to Cambodia, South Africa, Angola and El Salvador.

II. Given this scenario of peril and promise, what is UNHCR's strategy for protecting refugees? Three-fold: firstly, prevention, to reduce or remove the reasons which force people to flee, secondly, protection when prevention fails and people are compelled to move, and finally solutions which can allow people to return home voluntarily in safety and dignity. Thus strategy combines traditional activities in countries which receive refugees with new activities to prevent or resolve refugee problems in countries from which are forced to flee.

III. Prevention: Must take account of causes of displacement: armed conflict, human rights violations, as well as economic deprivation. Lesson of Albanian exodus: political and legal reform not enough to keep people at home if they have no economic prospects. Long term measures against underdevelopment such as trade expansion and foreign direct investment obviously beyond UNHCR's competence, but somethings we can do and are doing:

  • catalytic role to encourage development aid, eg. joint research project with ILO on role of official development assistance to reduce migratory pressure;
  • in Eastern Europe, mass information. campaign jointly with IOM on emigration possibilities, advice to governments on key legal reforms, etc.
  • closer cooperation with human rights bodies, such as Human rights Commission;
  • developing information data base on actual and potential refugee producing situations.
  • addressing the plight of internally displaced so that they are not compelled to seek refuge abroad:
  • UNHCR involvement likely to increase with UN more willing to engage in peacekeeping inside countries (SC resolutions on Yugoslavia, Somalia, El Salvador), UNHCR being seen as humanitarian arm to deal with returning refugees and displaced. UNHCR's humanitarian presence itself can sometimes have a pacifying and hence preventive effect, eg. Sri Lanka.
  • UNHCR has no mandate as such for the internally displaced, must relie on specific request of SG or GA or SC: e.g. northern Iraq, Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka.
  • new kind of protection, e.g. Yugoslavia where we are to help people return to UN protected areas prior to political settlement.
  • need to work closely with ICRC which has a clear legal mandate in such situations, and reinforce existing humanitarian law principles.
  • at pragmatic level need at least acquiescence of State concerned. Challenge is how to ensure humanitarian access without ignoring national sovereignty.

IV. Protection: I am convinced we must strive to maintain asylum for refugees and humane treatment for non-refugees within a framework which clearly distinguishes between the two groups. This means:

  • immigration policy for migrants in western Europe so that they do not need to resort to asylum procedures for entry;
  • fair and expeditious procedures for those seeking asylum;
  • liberal asylum policy for all those in need of protection, even if only for a temporary period;
  • enhanced public information activities to improve understanding of refugee issues;
  • development of a humane code of practice guiding the orderly and safe return of those who do not need international protection. Lessons to be learnt from return of Vietnamese to Vietnam under the Comprehensive Plan of Action.

V. Solutions: political settlements offer enormous prospects for return: South Africa, Cambodia, Angola, El Salvador. Basic protection principle - voluntary return in conditions of safety and dignity. But conditions not always perfect for returns:

  • mines, eg. Cambodia, have now convinced UN peacekeeping forces to undertake "humanitarian demining";
  • security problems, as in northern Iraq or Ethiopia. Monitoring of guarantees for safety of returning refugees crucial part of our protection responsibilities, particularly when return is to areas of disturbance or tensions. Monitoring involves active intervention with authorities in case of violations, eg. El Salvador, South Africa.
  • economic reintegration in countries devastated by war. No return in dignity if returnees unable have some economic prospects. Unless there is national reconstruction and the returnees are made part of it, could lead to new population flows. UNHCR working actively with other UN agencies, NGO, donors to make voluntary repatriation a lasting solution, e.g. QIPs in Nicaragua.

Conclusion: UNHCR's protection role much more comprehensive now, focusing not only on countries which receive refugees but also those from which people are forced to flee. But we need support, from NGOs, other agencies, ICRC. Also support of governments to exercise political will to resolve conflicts, encourage respect for human rights, more equitable economic development and liberal humanitarian policies which respond to the plight of refugees and displaced persons. Hope this course has helped broaden understanding of all our joint responsibilities in international protection.