Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement of Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Informal Meeting of Permanent Representatives of African States accredited to the United Nations Office at Geneva, 14 July 1983

Speeches and statements

Statement of Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Informal Meeting of Permanent Representatives of African States accredited to the United Nations Office at Geneva, 14 July 1983

14 July 1983

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

First, may I extend a warm welcome to you and say how happy I am to have this new opportunity for informal discussions on the refugee situation in Africa.

Africa, as we all know, continues to extend generous hospitality to the largest number of refugees on any continent. In support of the efforts of African governments and people towards these uprooted, the international community has mobilized resources to bring them emergency relief and assistance towards more durable solutions. The search for durable solutions has been gaining momentum, in the form of new voluntary repatriation initiatives and an increased quest for local settlement possibilities. We must make these coming years, years of long-term solutions. In this spirit, beyond direct assistance to refugees themselves, the world is rightly becoming sensitive to the need for reinforcing the infrastructure of asylum countries in Africa in order to help them cope with the flux of refugees and returnees. Countries facing their own development problems must be enabled to take care of huge numbers of refugees as required.

It is in this context that I wish, at the outset, to talk of the International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa. ICARA II. this is a cornerstone of our drive for solutions. The planning that precedes it, the Conference itself and the pledges made, will, I hope, allow us and your governments to consolidate our solution-oriented approach. At the same time, I hope that it will largely contribute to make the world aware of the real scope of refugee problems in Africa. Let us hope that it will mobilize a substantial response and will aid Africa to tackle the refugee crisis in depth.

General Assembly Resolution 37/197, in its operative paragraph 5, requests the Secretary-General, in close co-operation with the Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to convene such a Conference " consider the continuing need for assistance with a view to providing, as necessary, additional assistance to refugees and returnees in Africa for the implementation of programmes for their relief, rehabilitation and resettlement..." and to "consider the impact imposed on the national economies of the African countries concerned and to provide them with required assistance to strengthen their social and economic infrastructure to cope with the burden of dealing with large numbers of refugees and returnees".

Preparations are actively under way for the Conference. Many of you have attended meetings with interested governments convened by UNHCR, on behalf of the ICARA Steering Committee. Other meetings have taken place with representatives of the United Nations agencies and the non-governmental organizations community. Similar meetings were convened by the United Nations Secretary-General in New York.

Projects to be submitted to ICARA II are under preparation. The related ongoing and additional needs under the UNHCR 1984 programme have been established. They amount to some 125 million US dollars. They will be submitted to our Executive Committee in October as the 1984 General Programmes in Africa. Meanwhile, our Field Offices have been requested to pursue their efforts to identify any further additional needs which may not be covered in the 1984 General Programmes, but which should nevertheless be presented to ICARA. May I add that a significant part of our general programmes, in fact, 65 million dollars out of the 125 million - has been identified as activities directly related to the achievement of durable solutions.

UNHCR is thus doing everything possible to carry out its direct responsibilities relating to ICARA II. But our responsibilities and commitment go beyond that. In fact, a successful ICARA is of the utmost importance, not only to the refugees and returnees, but also to those countries affected by their presence and in need of infrastructural assistance to cope with the resulting burden. We have therefore instructed all our field representatives in Africa to assist and work closely with the Governments and UNDP, in order to help elaborate projects of a developmental nature falling beyond UNHCR's competence. This is being done in the framework of pertinent guidelines for the elaboration of developmental programmes despatched by the Secretary-General to the Governments concerned.

UNHCR is determined to play an active role in ICARA II in close co-operation with all interested parties. I am confident that such a joint endeavour will bring us a substantial step further towards our common aim to seek lasting and dignified solutions to the problem of refugees in Africa.

This great effort in the field of assistance, in which we all place so much hope, must not, of course, overshadow the international protection of refugees. International Protection. as you know, is a fundamental function of my office. In many areas of the world, protection problems give rise to utmost concern.

Countries in Africa are not only opening their doors to refugees and asylum-seekers, but are also making constant efforts to establish minimum standards for their treatment. This attitude has always been a profound source of support and encouragement for the work of UNHCR. A large number of African States are parties to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, and to the 1969 OAU Convention relating to the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. In several countries, internal refugee legislation applying the principles defined in these instruments, is under preparation.

Although these positive developments are heartening to report, we must not lose sight of very serious events brutally affecting the refugees' security on several continents. I have especially in mind the problem of military attacks on refugee camps and settlements in southern Africa and elsewhere. I have appointed Ambassador Felix Schnyder, a former High Commissioner for Refugees, to survey the various aspects of the problem. His report, making a number of recommendations, is now being studied by some of the members of my Executive Committee. The report will be presented to the Executive Committee itself at its thirty-fourth session next October. Let us strongly hope that substantial headway can be made in protecting refugees in this appalling humanitarian problem.

Let me now turn to some specific refugee situations, and firstly, the Horn of Africa. As required by the United Nations General Assembly resolutions, I have reported on the three countries concerned to the Economic and Social Council on Monday of this week.

Let me summarize the situation here. In Somalia refugees are concentrated in 35 established camps in the four regions of Gedo, Hiran, Lower Shebelli and the North West. A review mission, whose report will be presented at the next session of the United Nations General Assembly, was sent to Somalia in March this year and visited 27 of the 35 camps. This was an almost comprehensive exercise, in co-operation with the Somali authorities, aimed at taking stock, consolidating, and improving the programme at all levels. The Somali Government, in a highly welcome approach, is aiming at durable solutions where these are possible. This enabled the review mission to examine how some measure of self-sufficiency can be encouraged, within a programme where relief assistance has so far been predominant. This shift of emphasis represents a new opening for a number of refugees beyond the day-to-day survival on the internationally-donated food ration.

Thus, in the framework of the solution-oriented perspective, increased attention is being given to agriculture and income-generating activities. A variety of projects are being undertaken, according to the possibilities of each Regarding the relief aspects, food assistance has continued and its storage and distribution has improved in all camps) close attention is given to the question of increasing the provision of potable water; the health sector is being integrated into an infrastructure oriented towards primary health care, under the responsibility of refugees and national staff) teacher training for primary schools, scholarships for secondary schooling and vocational training, are among other measures pursued. All these measures are studied and implemented in close co-ordination with the office of the Extraordinary Commissioner of the National Refugee Commission of Somalia.

While all attention is given to each aspect of the programme, we bear in mind that another option is offered to refugees, that is voluntary repatriation to Ethiopia. Following a pilot project in 1980 for assistance to returnees to Ethiopia, UNHCR last year launched a larger-scale programme for returnees, budgeted at 20 million US dollars. The programme, implemented in co-operation with the Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner of the Government of Ethiopia, is conceived as part of a regional approach to solving refugee problems in the Horn of Africa. It is designed to provide basic relief and rehabilitation assistance for spontaneous returnees already in Ethiopia, and to create the necessary infrastructure and incentive for refugees who live outside Ethiopia and who may wish to repatriate voluntarily. We have expanded our presence in Ethiopia as required in order to provide technical assistance and on-site monitoring of programme implementation: we have established a sub-office in Asmara in the Eritrea region, and another at Dire-Dawa, in the Hararghe region. In addition, we have strengthened our Regional Liaison Office in Addis Ababa. Overall responsibility for the programme rests with the Government of Ethiopia. The League of Red Cross Societies has, since January 1982, been UNHCR's implementing partner.

In general, assistance is made available through a network of registration and resettlement centres, where returnees receive immediate primary health care and basic relief items. After an initial period, the refugees are given an option as to where they wish to go for the rehabilitation phase, for which they are provided with agricultural or pastoral self-sufficiency kits. Numerous items have been procured under UNHCR programmes, such as food, blankets, health kits, refrigerators for health clinics, generators, bulldozers, water or fuel tanks and fertilizers.

The completion date of the programme, originally scheduled for 30 June 1983, has been extended to 31 December of this year.

In Djibouti, we have continued to assist some 35,000 refugees, the majority of whom - some 32,500 - come from a rural background and are located in camps in the districts of Ali Sabieh and Dikhil. Assistance measures, kept constantly under review have consisted so far of food distribution, construction of communal facilities, improvements in the supply and storage of potable water as well as sanitary conditions. As far as possible, small handicraft projects of a self-sufficiency nature were launched and they benefit today about 500 families. Rural settlement as such has not proved feasible, except for some garden plots on identified arable land with available underground water - a project involving refugees and nationals equally.

For the majority of the refugees, voluntary repatriation would be the only durable solution. A tripartite Commission was constituted by the Governments of Djibouti and Ethiopia, and UNHCR, to study this option. The Commission met in Djibouti on 31 January and 1 February this year, and in Addis Ababa on 15 and 16 April. The three parties concerned have, during these meetings, reiterated the purely voluntary character of the repatriation. The Commission emphasized this point, and adopted specific conclusions to promote organized repatriation and to provide appropriate relief and rehabilitation assistance to the returnees. The programme, for which my office has launched an appeal, is planned to run from 15 August 1983 to 15 August 1984, and covers immediate relief, reintegration in towns and villages, as well as the rehabilitation of pastoralists.

According to the latest Government statistics there are some 650,000 refugees in the Sudan. Over 90,000 are assisted in organized rural settlements in Eastern Sudan, and 160,000 in Southern Sudan. Some 10,000 are in towns, the rest are outside organized settlements. The main objective in the Sudan programme is to obtain self-sufficiency for the refugees, mainly in agricultural settlements complemented by other activities as required. To assist towards this end, we have requested the International Labour Office to undertake a number of studies. As a result, we concluded a Memorandum of Understanding with the ILO last May, aimed at the promotion of income-generating activities in east Sudan. The measures devised will apply initially to 10,000 heads of family. This is an interesting and welcome example of inter-agency co-operation with the United Nations system, for the benefit of refugees who may thus find a solution to their problems and become valuable assets to the country which has given them hospitality.

In October 1982, tens of thousands of refugees and displaced persons moved inside Uganda and across the border into Rwanda. At the invitation of the Government, I visited Rwanda early this year. Over 40,000 refugees had arrived as from October, and together with the authorities, I visited a very well-organized refugee camp where some 23,000 refugees were receiving relief assistance under the responsibility of the Ministry for Social Affairs, with the Rwandese Red Cross acting as main operational partner. I was received by the President of the Republic and met with competent members of the Government. A few days after our discussions, a Joint Ministerial Committee of both countries met in Kabale (Uganda) from 6 to 8 March 1983, under the chairmanship of UNHCR, with a view to finding long-term solutions for the plight of those uprooted. Arrangements and criteria were agreed for the screening of the persons concerned in order to determine their status persons determined to be of Ugandan or Rwandese nationality, and who wish to repatriate, should be permitted to return to their respective countries, while UNHCR would co-operate in seeking solutions for those who do not desire repatriation. Registration is well under way in both countries. A survey was carried out in Uganda on a new site designated to settle those refugees who following the events - had moved into existing refugee settlements, thereby causing overcrowding.

Zaire is another country which has received large numbers of refugees coming from five different countries. The main focus of our activities today is a rural settlement programme in favour of some 55,000 refugees in Upper Zaire. On land made available by the Government, essential infrastructure is being established on six different sites. Tools and seeds have been distributed and some initial crops have been obtained, permitting a gradual reduction of outside food distribution for approximately two-thirds of the refugees. The shift of emphasis from relief assistance to more durable solutions is taking place in comparatively smooth conditions and logistical problems which were most acute in the past have by and large been overcome.

Assistance continues to refugees in Angola. Here again, the approach is to reduce the dependence on relief and give priority to improving living standards in the longer-term. The programme for Namibian refugees is formulated and implemented in co-operation with SWAPO. The main objectives are the establishment and consolidation of projects in the sectors of education, agricultural and vocational activities, with a view to improving the self-reliance of the refugees. For South African refugees, the programme under implementation covers agricultural equipment, vehicles, construction equipment and materials to enable a rural site of 6,000 hectares in the Province of Malanje to be prepared for housing, cultivation, and establishment of a poultry farm.

We all remember with a deep sense of grievance and shock, the attack by South Africa on Maseru during the night of 8-9 December 1982. The attack was unanimously condemned by the United Nations Security Council which requested the Secretary-General to enter into immediate discussions with the Government of Lesotho and the United Nations agencies to ensure the welfare of the refugees in Lesotho in a manner consistent with their security. The Security Council also requested Member States to extend urgently all necessary economic assistance to Lesotho in order to strengthen its capacity to receive and maintain South African refugees. After the event I at once sent a mission to Maseru to join my Representative on the spot and hold discussions with the authorities on short and longer-term issues within the competence of my office in the aftermath of the raid in January, the Secretary-General of the United Nations sent a high-level mission to Lesotho, led by the Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Questions, in which my Director of International Protection took part. In addition to emergency relief in the aftermath of the attack, UNHCR's programmes in Lesotho have mainly involved measures to assist individual refugees in finding educational or employment opportunities. This is in line with the welcome policy of the Lesotho Government, which seeks to integrate refugees in the local community.

In Swaziland, where most of the refugees are South Africans living in the Ndzevane rural settlement, UNHCR's assistance programme has been directed towards developing the rural settlement, at which the refugees themselves have participated in much of the construction work and in developing community activities. The Swazi Government has provided land and technical personnel.

While talking of southern Africa, I wish to say that assistance to refugee students in that region has remained a major preoccupation of my Office. At lower secondary level we have been assisting South African students in Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zambia, as well as Namibian students mainly in Zambia with smaller numbers in Botswana. At the higher secondary level and above, South Africans and Namibians are pursuing studies at university or other institutes of higher education, in a large number of countries in Africa, Europe and North America, under the sponsorship of the United Nations Educational and Training Programme for Southern Africa. In countries where education facilities are not sufficient to face refugee needs, attention is given to expanding facilities at primary, secondary and university levels. I do hope that the international community will continue to support the generous efforts of these countries.

The overview I have endeavoured to give of the main refugee situations in Africa is by no means comprehensive. I have singled out a number of situations that particularly illustrate the variety, magnitude, and complexity of refugee problems which a large number of African countries - including many I did not mention - have to face day after day, until refugees cease to be a burden and become assets to their host countries. In our approach, whether global or in specific countries, we never lose sight of the crucial importance to co-operate with the organization of African Unity, to which I would like to pay tribute here for its untiring and productive efforts in responding to refugee problems and needs. Indeed, we consider our co-operation with the OAU a cornerstone in our endeavours to face the great challenge before us in Africa.

I would also like to mention the importance we attach to the follow-up of the recommendations of the 1979 Arusha Conference on the African Refugee Problem. Among the multiple important initiatives that came out of the Conference and that we try to put into practice, I would just like to mention two most recent developments. First, a research project is being carried out by three senior consultants to evaluate UNHCR's education programme, its impact on refugees and on asylum countries. The project covers 21 African countries. Secondly, a seminar on the situation of refugees in West Africa took place last month in Dakar. The seminar which involved active UNHCR participation dealt with a wide range of questions relating to refugees in the region, and enabled government officials from 15 countries, together with UNHCR, to exchange views and share examples.

The final point I wish to touch upon in this introductory statement is Public Information, a field in which we keep paying close attention.

Over the past year our Public Information team has endeavoured to keep attention focused on the continuing refugee problems in Africa and the burdens borne by the countries of asylum. The first ICARA conference was instrumental in sensitizing world opinion to the sufferings of Africa's refugees and we continue to foster this awareness through our films, publications and extensive contacts with the media throughout the world. Now with ICARA II on the horizon, we are intensifying our efforts.

Our emphasis is as always on radio, television and the print media. Precisely today, the Chief of the Public Information Section has returned from travelling in Somalia and Tanzania with a group of journalists. In September we are organizing two further journalists' seminars, in five countries.

Again in the context of ICARA II, we are producing a major one-hour documentary film with the BBC about the refugee situation in Sudan. Our own film team has just returned from Somalia and Djibouti. At the end of the year our new magazine will focus in depth and exclusively on the refugee situation in Africa.

Let me end by saying that it is always a privilege to meet with you and share views on the refugee problem in Africa. We are witnessing fewer alarms of new exoduses. Instead, is the possibility of concentrating on the quieter but more difficult challenge, lasting solutions. We must together appeal to the international community on the more imaginative response we require of them, to enable us all to tackle this phase of our endeavours. Faced with this awesome difficulty of finding solutions, and aware that there may always be new emergencies around the corner, there is no room for complacency. These must be the years of solutions, let us together give the refugees the future they are longing for.

Thank you Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.