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Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 16 November 1981

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 16 November 1981

16 November 1981

Mr. Chairman, it is a great pleasure for me to be able to address this Committee once again. I highly welcome the close working relationship that has developed between my Office and the Third Committee, and this annual opportunity for dialogue in the framework of the General Assembly of the United Nations. It has also been extremely encouraging to bear witness during the general debate in the General Assembly to the unfaltering commitment of the international community to the increasingly complex refugee problems in the world today.

Mr. Chairman, the thirty years since the establishment of UNHCR have been a period marked by conflict and violence. Rather than disappear, as governments somewhat optimistically hoped in 1951 when a three-year time limit was set on the work of the Office, the refugee problem has become a major feature of our time. The evolution of the world situation has led UNHCR into dramatically increased commitments, particularly during these past few years.

I should like first of all to dwell for a moment on what from the outset has been and remains the essential function of my Office: the international protection of refugees. There has been a significant growth over the years in the scope and importance of this aspect of UNHCR's activities, though less visible than our endeavours in the field of material assistance.

In the twelve months since I last addressed you, events have again called for vigorous action to ensure that the principles of international protection are scrupulously observed, and in the first instance asylum and non-refoulement, i.e. non-forcible return of refugees to a country where they may fear persecution. International protection also implies ensuring that refugees are treated in a decent and humane fashion for as long as the situation in their country of origin does not permit their return home. Many of these standards are contained in the basic refugee instruments the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol t o which 91 States are parties today, and which are the most comprehensive code of refugees' rights. Wider concerns of UNHCR which have developed through the years have enabled my Office to afford international protection to persons not strictly falling within the definition of the refugee as originally conceived in the UNHCR Statute and the 1951 Convention, thus fulfilling an important function in the humanitarian sphere. In this respect, I would like to mention that my Executive Committee has been paying increasing attention to the large-scale influx situations in different areas of the world. The basic minimum standards for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers in such situations were identified by the Executive Committee at its session in October of this year.

Attention has also been given, in our protection work, to refugee situations offering specific regional characteristics. In Africa, the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention lays the basis for the scope of our activities, following the 1979 Arusha Conference, which recommendations were endorsed by the OAU Summit that same year, and subsequently by the General Assembly at its thirty-fourth session. In Latin America, we are paying close attention to the question of the links between the universal refugee instruments and the inter-American treaties on asylum.

Encouraging developments in international protection, as reflected in the reports before you, should not overshadow the difficulties in this field, with which my Office is confronted daily. In recent years, the focus of our most serious concern has been in regard to the infringements of the physical safety of refugees. The reports tell of incidents involving violations of the fundamental principle of non-refoulement; it also refers to abduction, disappearance, or unjustified detention of refugees. Among the most appalling of these infringements are the pirate attacks on asylum seekers at sea, which I first drew to the attention of the international community some three years ago, but which today continue unbated. My Executive Committee has asked me to seek in co-operation with the International Committee of the Red Cross, other interested organizations and governments "the support of the international community for the continuation and intensification of efforts to protect refugees from acts of violence at sea and to assist the victims." Of no less grave concern are the military attacks on refugee camps in Southern Africa, which involve untold hardship and which have been widely condemned by the world community.

Thus, the sphere of international protection has steadily increased to keep pace with new developments. Some specific situations require immediate and urgent action. At the universal, regional, national or individual level, protection continues to demand a sustained and alert response at all times.

The UNHCR material assistance programmes also had to be developed substantially to face new dimensions and the increasing size of humanitarian refugee needs. in 1977, UNHCR's annual budget exceeded one hundred million dollars for the first time. This figure more than doubled in 1979 and again in 1980, to exceed 500 million dollars. As can be foreseen today the amount may be somewhat lower in 1981 and 1982. The point of stabilization, which thus seems to have been reached, remains at a high level, and still constitutes an on-going challenge to the international community. The aim of all UNHCR assistance is to make refugees self-supporting and enable them to again become useful and dignified citizens. But, before satisfactory durable solutions can be found, relief aimed at meeting the refugees' most immediate needs is often required. In certain situations, there is a need for relief programmes of long duration and considerable magnitude.

In Pakistan - a country that I visited last September refugees form one of the largest concentrations of uprooted persons anywhere in the world. They have been received with great generosity. During my visit, I went to Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province where assistance in the form of tents, food, quilts, medical care and other commodities and services is distributed to some 1.7 million people. It was a deeply moving experience to meet the refugees in their tented villages or traditional houses, in the desert or in the foothills of huge barren mountains. The majority of the refugees remain dependent on care and relief assistance. In addition to substantial efforts deployed by the Pakistan authorities, the refugees receive invaluable support from the United Nations system - notably the World Food Programme and several voluntary agencies. Nevertheless, this massive humanitarian task presents UNHCR with a heavy and costly operation.

In Somalia, too, durable solutions remain a long way off for the majority of the refugees, and UNHCR continues to mobilize humanitarian assistance for relief purposes. With reference to ECOSOC Resolution 1981/31, I would like to refer to document A/36/136/Add.1 which reports on the evolution of the programme. I wish to recall that in January of this year, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, in conjunction with UNHCR, arranged an inter-agency review mission to assess the international relief effort undertaken in 1980 and to identify the requirements of refugees in Somalia for 1981 onwards. Some of the assistance measures proposed by the mission are reflected in the UNHCR programmes for 1981 and 1982; others were presented by the Somali Government for consideration by the international community at the International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa.

Problems observed in transport and distribution of assistance in Somalia had led, in 1980, to preparations for a restructuring of the transport and logistics system, and a comprehensive new transport and distribution programme was formulated and implemented as from April 1981. The programme includes the setting up of an Emergency Logistics Unit staffed by international experts, the stationing of commodity monitoring teams in all regions, the construction of regional warehouses and mechanical workshops, the improvement of access roads and the training of local transport staff. Considerable progress has also been observed in the extension and effectiveness of health services in the camps and water supply schemes are being implemented involving construction of water purification units and shallow wells. As a main objective of the UNHCR - programme, attention is given to the development of self-reliance schemes, in the field of agriculture.

Djibouti is another example of a long-term relief operation. A report, as requested by ECOSOC Resolution 1981/4 has been issued as document A/36/214. The situation in Djibouti continues to be demanding and UNHCR provides assistance to some 30,000 refugees. Relief assistance is provided to refugees in the camps, as well as to a number of urban refugees in the town of Djibouti. Standard rations, high-protein supplementary food, fresh food for mother and child centres, household utensils are distributed. Sick refugees receive medical assistance thanks to the active support from non-governmental organizations and voluntary agencies. Serious efforts are underway to identify durable local solutions, in the hope that a gradual shift from relief assistance to activities oriented towards a degree of self-sufficiency may take place. In addition to a small and successful agricultural pilot programme, projects are planned for handicrafts activities, for regular primary instruction and vocational training, at a transit centre with training facilities.

At UNHCR, we are acutely aware that relief operations, which are a vital necessity, can only be temporary. Ultimately, our work must be directed towards durable solutions, and if we now turn to this area there are encouraging developments to report. Durable solutions involve, first of all, voluntary repatriation to the refugees' countries of origin when circumstances permit the best and most rewarding of all solutions. The voluntary return of thousands of refugees has been achieved in the past few years on all continents.

This year saw the successful winding-up of UNHCR's operation providing for the initial settlement and rehabilitation of 660,000 Zimbabweans, either returning refugees or displaced persons within Zimbabwe. Voluntary repatriation to Laos is also underway, and negotiations are going ahead in Bangkok and Phnom Penh to ensure the safe voluntary return and reintegration of further numbers of Kampucheans. In Ethiopia, meanwhile, assistance measures for returnees from neighbouring countries have continued. In co-operation with the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, an initial project has been undertaken to develop the infrastructure of five reception centres, and cover the returnees' basic necessities such as clothing, medicine and food, as well as provide them with some material for agriculture. As the returnee movement to Ethiopia gains momentum, the current programme will be expanded.

On 1 October, a voluntary repatriation programme was launched in Chad. Large numbers of refugees are returning either spontaneously or with UNHCR assistance from the United Republic of Cameroon, Nigeria and the Central African Republic. At the request of the Secretary-General, UNHCR also assists those people displaced during the disturbances in and around N'Djamena who did not leave the country. This formula seems to be the most appropriate for it would be practically impossible to distinguish between returnees and internally displaced persons. In total, the programme today applies to some 160,000 persons. It should be emphasized that as a rule, unless there is already a substantial programme for refugees, externally displaced persons or returnees, UNHCR does not engage in assistance to those internally displaced.

When voluntary repatriation is not possible, local integration in the first asylum country is the best solution. The task is compounded by the fact that the majority of refugees in the world are in developing countries often in the group of the least developed where existing resources may be severely strained by the arrival of newcomers.

In the Sudan, where the Government estimates the number of refugees at some 500,000, major emphasis is laid on rural settlement projects or on integration of refugees in suburban areas. Progress is currently under way, and some 100,000 refugees are permanently settled in the country today. We should note that, meanwhile, refugees continue to enter the Sudan from several bordering countries.

In the United Republic of Tanzania, large numbers have been settled and have become productive farmers; as a highly welcome development, 36,000 have been naturalized. Similar integration projects have been, or are being, pursued in a number of other countries in Africa and also in Latin America.

Two months ago I was in China, where some 265,000 refugees have been received. The majority are being resettled in the countryside on state farms. In the Kuangsi autonomous region, near the town of Beihai, we visited another type of interesting settlement: 11,000 refugee fishermen are being integrated in their own profession. The authorities, partly with UNHCR support, are providing the refugees with housing, a hospital, a school, and the necessary means to continue their traditional activity: fishing boats are being repaired, new boats are being provided, including trawlers for fishing on the high seas.

There has also been satisfactory progress in the other area of durable solutions resettlement in third countries. Over 700,000 Indochinese refugees have been resettled since 1977 with the help of UNHCR. Of this number, over 400,000 are boat people. We continue to follow the situation very closely - and hope that the resettlement momentum can be maintained. Although the total number of boat people in countries of first asylum dropped below 50,000 September 1981, there are still some 250,000 persons awaiting durable solutions in South East Asia while a few thousand new arrivals are registered every month. While much attention is being paid to voluntary repatriation, resettlement remains a major component to an overall solution of the problem in South East Asia.

I would add that we had an interesting and productive meeting with representatives of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam in Geneva early in October. During our discussions, we agreed on measures intended to accelerate the legal departure of persons wishing to leave Viet Nam. This should contribute towards discouraging illegal departures. Legal departures exceeding one thousand persons per month are now taking place in a regular and uninterrupted manner.

Positive results have thus been achieved in terms of durable solutions - whether it be voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement. While the refugees are being assisted to attain a level of self-sufficiency comparable to that of the local population, and are being enabled to participate in the social and economic life of the host country, we encourage governments at an early stage of the integration process to include and to harmonize refugee programmes in their national development plans. Thus, UNHCR's programmes as such will constitute the basis for subsequent action within the wider framework of national development. Further relevant measures, as far as international assistance is concerned, will become the responsibility of other appropriate bilateral and multilateral agencies.

In mobilizing funds, staff and equipment in response to refugee crises, UNHCR takes careful account of the resources available outside its programmes. We are aware of the views expressed, notably in the Economic and Social Council, on improved co-ordination of humanitarian assistance. The co-operation of the various agencies and programmes of the United Nations system has proved very valuable. Our close relationship with the World Food Programme is a model in this respect, ensuring complementarity and avoiding duplication of effort. Our co-operation with the non-governmental organizations is also an invaluable asset in refugee work. The NGOs act as operational partners for us, as donors, as technical advisers. They also participate in the world-wide effort for dissemination of information on the refugee problem. A consultation was held in Geneva in May this year, between NGOs and UNHCR in order to enhance co-operation and strengthen links even further. Over 125 agencies participated in this historic meeting, which is actively followed-up.

As is well-known by this Committee, central to UNHCR'S role in any refugee situation is the exclusively humanitarian and social character of its activities, as laid down in UNHCR's Statute This was underlined yet again at the thirty-second session of my Executive Committee held in Geneva last month. The Executive Committee reiterated its conviction that the High Commissioner's activities for the benefit of refugees and displaced persons of concern to this Office, must be kept distinct and separate from the activities of the United Nations regarding the root causes of refugee situations. Clearly, the international community must continue to address the root causes as a priority. But such an exercise must take place in the appropriate fora, leaving UNHCR's humanitarian character unscathed.

The period of unprecedented growth experienced by UNHCR and the level of activities at which a certain stabilization is occurring, has impose a review of the management tools at the disposal of my Office. The staffing proposals for 1981 and 1982, including a recommendation for the strengthening of UNHCR management, were endorsed by the Executive Committee at its meeting last month. The provisional version of a UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies has recently been completed. The Handbook is designed to improve UNHCR's emergency response capacity and ensure that the experience gained in one crisis is not lost in the next. Another important management aid, the Project Management System, has also been introduced to systematize the planning and designing of projects and provide a comprehensive framework for financial monitoring and programme evaluation.

To mobilize resources for great humanitarian causes of a much large scope than UNHCR can reasonably include in its own programmes, there may be major events evoking vigorous responses. Far-reaching recommendations emerged from the Arusha Conference on the Situation of Refugees in Africa in May 1979, and form the basis of much of our work in Africa today. An in April of this year, the International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA), held under the joint auspices of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, and UNHCR, brought together in Geneva representatives of some 100 countries. The Secretary-General's report on ICARA has been distributed under symbol A/36/316. World-wide interest and support, and pledges worth some US$ 572 million, to be channelled either bilaterally or through various organizations, reflected the will of the international community to meet the needs of some five million refugees in Africa and the host countries which struggle under this enormous burden. Arusha and ICARA have given UNHCR invaluable opportunities to continue to strengthen even further our co-operation with the OAU, to which we attach the greatest importance.

We have also been able to make our contribution to world-wide efforts in other areas. My Office is increasingly devoting attention to the needs of women refugees and has undertaken a number of activities as follow-up to last year's World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women. These include closer co-operation with governments in extending necessary protection against violence to women refugees, the promotion of training of women refugees, and a number of other measures to promote programmes for enhancing women's social and economic potential and skills.

As part of its contribution to the International Year of the Disabled, UNHCR has taken steps to institute a systematic solution-oriented identification of physically and mentally disabled refugees. In August of this year, I launched a special appeal asking several countries to give particular consideration to accepting a larger number of disabled refugees for resettlement. So far the response has been encouraging.

Before closing, Mr. Chairman, I would like to emphasize how much I appreciate the fact that, in the difficult periods we are facing, my Office has always been privileged to enjoy the support of governments. In response to specific situations, in this Committee, in the General Assembly, and other important fora where the refugee cause must be upheld, the positive approach of governments to our humanitarian task has always been a source of great encouragement, Whether governments give overall support, receive refugees with hospitality and generosity, or contribute financially to our programmes, their unfailing understanding constitutes the basis on which my Office a tool at the hub of world-wide efforts and expectations can build.

The world refugee problem is huge and will not vanish overnight. The efforts of the international community have borne and are bearing fruit. Millions who were in distress have been given the opportunity to reshape their lives. As long as persons are forced to flee and seek refuge, all concerned must continue to strive to give them a new home, a new life, and a restored dignity. Through our joint efforts, we must continue to enable the refugee to tread the road of hope.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.