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Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Annual Corporate Programme Dinner of the Council for Foreign Relations, New York, 27 May 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Annual Corporate Programme Dinner of the Council for Foreign Relations, New York, 27 May 1993

27 May 1993

I am delighted to have this opportunity of being with you tonight. The issue of refugees and migrants is no longer a matter for a few charitable organizations. I believe that refugees and migrants increasingly affect all aspects of our society - at home or abroad. As such, it is becoming one of the main issues of our era.

Let me begin by giving you some facts and figures about my organization and what we do. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established in 1951 to protect and assist refugees, and to find solutions for them. From Togo to Tajikistan, from Afghanistan to Angola, in 109 countries across the globe UNHCR is helping some 19 million refugees, responding to their emergency needs for food, shelter and health, as well as assisting those who wish to return home. Most recently UNHCR repatriated some 370,000 Cambodians, and 1.5 million Afghans. Mozambique and Eritrea are among the upcoming large scale repatriation programmes to be managed by my Office. Seventy five per cent of UNHCR staff live in or close to refugee camps, supervising food distribution, negotiating with the authorities to allow those fleeing to cross borders, setting up camps and helping people, when peace comes, to go home. Almost all our professional staff must serve in field duty stations and have direct experience of refugee operations.

Most of UNHCR's work occurs away from the glare of cameras in inaccessible and harsh corners of the globe. But of late, our efforts in northern Iraq and Bosnia have received considerable media exposure. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, my Office assisted in the return of 1.7 million Kurds from neighbouring countries, and in the reconstruction of some 1,500 Kurdish villages allowing some 6,500 families to survive the winter at home. UNHCR deployed some 180 staff alongside 500 UN guards and hundreds of NGO staff as a confidence-building measure to enhance security.

The UNHCR airlift into Sarajevo is the largest humanitarian airlift since the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948. Since 1 July 1992, in close to 4,000 flights some 40,000 MT of relief supplies have been brought in to sustain the nearly half a million residents of the city. In total, UNHCR provides life-saving assistance to close to 4 million people in former Yugoslavia, and is working together with the UN peace-keeping forces to establish safe areas in enclaves such as Srebrenica. We are presently looking at the implications of the proposed expansion of the safe area concept. It is important that any such project be seen as a temporary measure in the process towards a just and lasting peace settlement. Safe areas, to be relevant and acceptable, must bring safety to people where they are, rather than moving people to safety.

In both Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, UNHCR's initiatives have been experiments in prevention - protecting and assisting people so that flight becomes unnecessary, and establishing an international presence to monitor human rights and direct conflicts towards peace. Thus, while the bulk of our work continues to be with refugees, we are increasingly involved with internally displaced people and people in conflict situations.

Our budget for this year is 1.3 billion US dollars virtually 95 % comes from voluntary contributions from Governments. In terms of financial management, UNHCR works along much the same lines as private enterprise. Planning occurs from the bottom-up to ensure our programmes meet the needs of refugees, our clients, and to prevent duplication with other humanitarian agencies. All expenditure is subject to regular internal and external audits and we also have a permanent evaluation unit. I believe, this allows us to achieve a certain cost-effectiveness in our operations. For example, in Sudan, the average cost to UNHCR of sustaining a single refugee for a year, including food, basic education, health care, shelter and protection is some 230 US dollars, what an average US family may spend for the week's groceries. Over 80 per cent of our budget goes directly to refugees. The remainder covers administration and staff costs, which are necessary to ensure that the refugees are protected and that assistance reaches those it is destined for. Our programmes are carried out in partnership with and complementary to those of Non-Governmental Organizations such as CARE, the Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee and other UN agencies such as UNICEF.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe the refugee issue has become one of the most pressing problems of our era, a major issue affecting the stability an security of our societies. As such it is an issue which should concern corporate leaders.

Why is the refugee issue such a pressing one today? For one, it is no longer limited, as it had been for much of the past, to the distant Third World. Srebrenica is closer to Geneva than Madrid, Haiti closer to New York than Los Angeles. With the facility of transportation by air and by ship, refugees from Vietnam or Somalia can reach anywhere in the world.

Another important change has been in the sheer magnitude of refugee outflow. In 1970, UNHCR cared for 2.8 million refugees across the globe, by 1982 that figure had risen to 11 million. Today almost 19 million people are assisted by my Office. An additional 25 million people are displaced within their own frontiers. These figures mean that about one in every hundred world citizens has been forced to leave his home.

The projections of what is to come are yet more dismal. One of the main causes of refugee flight is conflict. Some 35 such conflicts are now underway across the globe. With the recent resurgence of nationalism rekindling age-old feuds, that figure could increase to 75 by the year 2000, effectively doubling the number of those compelled to flee.

Severe socio-economic problems are also at the root of population movements. The global economic recession is hitting hardest on the poorest, and environmental and population pressures are exacerbating their plight. One billion people live on less than US$1 per day. The total debt of many Third World countries exceed their total economic output. Furthermore, because of debt servicing, there is a net capital flow from developing countries to the industrialized ones. The gap between rich and poor nations is continually widening.

While the pressures that encourage movement are greater than ever before so too are the possibilities to move. International media and communications encourage the less well off to seek a better future elsewhere for themselves and their children. Modern transport has narrowed distances.

In short, we are living in an era where more people are moving than ever before. The causes of movement are intimately linked to conflict and the global economy. How we handle these movements will in turn have far-reaching implications for our future stability and economic welfare. This is, in brief, why the refugee/migrant issue is the issue of our times and of concern to all of us.

While free movement of people should be upheld in principle and promoted, the issue of involuntary population movement should be fully examined as the traditional means by which States and the international community deal with them, have come to a near crisis. In the US alone, 300,000 people applied for asylum last year and even if no more were to come, it would require well into the next century to clear this backlog. Four Bills now lie before Congress calling for tighter and more efficient procedures.

The situation in Europe is all the worse. As there is no possibility of immigration like in North America, asylum procedures are often used by economic migrants as the method of entry to Europe. The distinction between refugees and migrants has thus become dangerously blurred, while the procedures are overburdened, as well as discredited in the public mind. Rising xenophobia in Europe has added to tendencies to call for yet tighter restrictions.

Are restrictions and border controls really the answer? I believe that this is a shortsighted approach, and could even prove to be counter-productive. Which country better than the United States understands the importance of granting sanctuary to those fleeing war and persecution ? Which society knows better than the United States the benefits which refugees bring with them? How many of you here tonight were refugees? How many of your parents or grandparents fled repressive regimes? And had it not been for the generous immigration and asylum policies of the United States would this Nation have achieved its greatness today?

Refugees and immigrants are more than the images of those in despair crying out for charity or work. They are agents of change, of cultural cross-fertilization, of development and of growth. But they are also symptoms of the deeper social, economic and political problems which plague the world. The challenge is not how to keep refugees away or ignore them, but how to manage refugee and migratory movements in a way which uphold basic human rights and humanitarian principles and meet the needs of the victims as well as the concerns of the States and communities which receive them.

I believe that we need to adopt a strategy which is outward-looking, a strategy which recognizes the inter-linkage of causes which force people to move today and the inter-dependence of our world, a strategy which advocates increased international involvement. Let me hasten to add that a concern with domestic priorities and a belief in a pro-active international role are not mutually exclusive. Indeed I believe a recognition of their interdependency will prove crucial for the future of the developed and developing world alike.

By increased international involvement, I mean a concerted effort to bring international legal and economic instruments in line with the interdependent world in which we live, a concerted effort to revamp international institutions to become more effective in responding to the needs of our age. To begin with, it means ensuring that Governments will be held accountable for their responsibility over their citizens. It means more active preventive diplomacy, peace-making and peace-building efforts both bilateral and multilateral. It means increased and better targeted economic aid, debt relief and international trade. I do not want to enter here into the complex debate about the extent to which international migration and trade mitigates for or against domestic economic growth, but I do believe that these are areas which need much more careful consideration as factors influencing population movements. In sum, what we need is sincere and concerted international cooperation on the political, economic and humanitarian fronts before the victims become headlines.

Turning more directly to the refugee front, UNHCR is willing to play its role in forging a comprehensive to prevent and resolve refugee problems, but in order to do this we require wide-ranging support - political, financial and material. In terms of gross contributions the USA is our largest donor, just ahead of Japan and the European Community. In 1992 the USA contributed about 22 per cent of our budget. A very generous amount, but a substantial decrease in percentage terms from the 33 per cent of our budget financed by the USA in 1979. Although first in gross terms, in terms of contributions relative to number of inhabitants, the USA is 14th on the UNHCR donor list. Whereas Norway, Sweden and Denmark, to mention only three examples, contribute per capita between six and 12 dollars to UNHCR annually, the USA contribution to UNHCR in 1992 per inhabitant was 95 cents.

While the bulk of UNHCR's support, given the nature and size of the problem, must necessarily come from governments, I do believe the private sector can and must play a greater role. The American business world has considerable financial and political power. By your financial contributions you can show your governments, employees and customers alike that you care, that you are willing to make a difference. In addition to direct financial contributions, in Europe and Japan we have pursued innovative fund raising ventures with private enterprise. Your ideas on how to carry out such activities in the U. S. would be invaluable.

You may also send powerful messages of support to your political leaders. Please put the refugee issue on your agenda and in your contacts promote the strategy and ideals I have outlined before. Join the advocates of those forced to flee. Support UNHCR and other organizations working for refugees.

I feel the directness of my appeal is justified given that the future of the world is at stake. If we are to respond adequately to migratory movements as one of the major dramas of our times, then we must act together within a comprehensive strategy and avoid the temptations of national or professional isolation. Together we can contribute to global stability and security. Together we can shape the world for our children and promote what has made this country such a success, the ideal of liberty and equal opportunity for all including the refugees and the migrants on your shores.

Thank you for your kind attention.