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Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Inter-Action, 20 May 1986

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Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Inter-Action, 20 May 1986

20 May 1986

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since I am going to explore the vitally important issue of the co-operation between UNHCR and NGOs with you, I should like, if I may, to remind you of the general pattern into which this co-operation fits and its particular setting. You are well aware, because you too have been involved, that this setting has changed over the years; it has evolved and has become universal. If we look carefully, we see that today no continent, no region of the world is spared the problem of refugees, either directly or indirectly.

Everyday, you are faced, as we are faced, with intercontinental migration, irregular movements and large-scale flows of populations, and the proportions now assumed by this new concept of enforced exile are confronting us with difficulties which we have to tackle as soon as possible if we are to avoid being overtaken by events whose consequences would be incalculable. The problem is no longer confined to a simple distinction between donor and recipient countries which was valid 30 years ago. Its repercussions affect all of us and therefore prompt us to undertake a concerted search for new answers.

Indeed, while the humanitarian aspect is now virtually indissociable from the other features of interdependence that characterizes the relationships between the contemporary international community, we must nevertheless do our utmost to prevent humanitarian problems from becoming trapped within a series of political deadlocks.

How can this be achieved?

I believe it can be achieved by sharing the responsibilities arising from an acceptance of the facts as they are, and by changing them, instead of rejecting them. The rapid escalation of refugee problems and the increasingly frequent emergencies with which we have had to cope have overshadowed very fundamental concerns which are re-emerging today and which only go to show that the definitions established in the early 1950s only partly encompass the complex phenomena of exile in the 1980s. (This situation may also explain the confusion that reigns in people's minds, and which last year produced negative attitudes, either on the part of the public or of Governments.)

In the beginning, and in conformity with the reality of the situation at the time, the Convention sought to offer a recognized refugee the he opportunity of staying permanently in a host country. The intention, as it were, was to issue him with a one-way ticket. The major population flows occurring today have redefined the essential and crucial problem for which we must find a solution.

Asylum is becoming a temporary phenomenon and it should encourage the authorities concerned in conjunction with UNHCR to set about creating conditions conducive to enabling all people living in host countries to return home one day of their own free will. Ladies and gentlemen, I am sure that you will appreciate that this goes beyond, far beyond, UNHCR's initiative, since such conditions presuppose a return to normality. It presupposes talks and negotiations, durable settlements and a desire for peace. Fundamentally, it is a matter that falls within the sphere of competence of Governments.

In the meantime, this is why it is extremely important that activities be launched and successfully implemented, in the light of the emergency and the needs, the priorities and respect due to those who are uprooted: the child reunited with his family, the elderly man who finds his children, groups of particularly vulnerable civilians who are allowed to return to their homes.

Parallel to these activities, we must continue to develop assistance programmes that allow refugees to live temporarily, and with as much dignity as possible, in the host countries. If the option of return or voluntary repatriation cannot be contemplated in the short - or medium-term, solutions must be devised to enable the refugees to achieve some measure of self-reliance, since this is the best way of maintaining their dignity. Anyone who is rendered totally dependant feels abased and loses the will to return to his home. Finally, for a small proportion, the solution will continue to be resettlement in a country of permanent asylum.

I am firmly convinced that a combination of the three kinds of activity, carried out simultaneously, will gradually lead to more comprehensive and fundamental solutions. And we must all work together towards these solutions, all of us together.

As far as problems related to temporary asylum are concerned, it is equally important to implement three kinds of programmes almost simultaneously:

  • Immediate assistance (food and medical care);
  • Projects relating to health, water supply and sanitation, as well as education, thus guaranteeing an adequate infrastructure for sizeable groups of refugees;
  • Programmes offering employment to refugees, as well as to the local population. Here the intention is to provide resources through work, as well as to compensate as it were for any damage inflicted on the infrastructure of the host country by the presence of the refugees (reafforestation, etc.)

Today, UNHCR is in even less of a position than in the past to perform all these tasks alone. It often happens that these programmes cannot be formulated without the assistance of partners who have a thorough knowledge of a population: its agriculture, customs and economy. Moreover, in the emergency situations that have increased so dramatically in recent years, capacity for rapid and effective intervention has only been possible thanks to the flexibility, mobility and initiative displayed by UNHCR's partners: the voluntary agencies.

This co-operation must, and will, continue. Because of the sizeable financial resources that donors do make available to us, UNHCR is anxious that there should be the utmost vigour in assessing needs, programme credibility and maximum stringency in executing and monitoring projects. It is in the field that we are able to assess the worth of our activities. It is in the field that crises arise and where the victims are born. It is in the field that we shall fail, or succeed, together.

In concrete terms, UNHCR's chief merit is its presence at the side of the refugees, its presence where they are, in order to provide them with protection and assistance.

Ladies and gentlemen, the experience you have acquired over the years enables us to identify the efforts and activities which I have just elaborated and which I submit to you for your consideration.

It is this experience and the hopes that more than ten million suffering human beings have placed on you and on us that prompt me today to express my earnest hope and desire that UNHCR can continue to rely on its operational partners and that they will be able to help us to act in compliance with our Mandate. UNHCR is bound by specific humanitarian principles and its programmes must be implemented with extreme stringency. In working with UNHCR, our partners must be prepared to exercise impartiality towards refugees, independence vis-à-vis Governments and neutrality in respect of political controversies in a context in which everything has gradually become very politicized.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am relying on the strength you represent. I need that strength and I know that you realize that, together, if you are willing, we have a tremendous task to carry out. We know that we can neither let down those who look to us for help to regain their dignity; nor let ourselves down by failing to give them the best of ourselves: our hard work, our influence, our conviction and our enthusiasm.