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Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the luncheon organized by Capital Research International, Geneva, 28 September 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement of Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the luncheon organized by Capital Research International, Geneva, 28 September 1993

28 September 1993

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to you today on the issue of refugees.

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 Benin to Bangladesh, from Afghanistan to Azerbaijan, from Somalia to South Africa, in 109 countries across the globe UNHCR is helping some 19 million refugees.

We respond to their emergency needs for food, shelter and health, as in Azerbaijan where several hundred thousand people have been displaced by the recent fighting. On a happier note, we also help refugees to return home. Last March we completed the repatriation of some 370,000 Cambodians from Thailand. I have just returned from a trip to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan*. The Afghan refugee problem was one of the largest in modern times, with 6 million refugees in Iran and Pakistan. Today more than 1.5 million Afghans have returned home with our help. The challenge now is to ensure the minimum conditions of safety and economic and social well-being for those who have chosen to return to a country which is still strife-ridden. Refugees have also begun to return to Mozambique, where my Office is preparing to reintegrate them.

Seventy five per cent of UNHCR staff live in or close to refugee camps, monitoring distribution of relief, negotiating with the authorities to allow those fleeing to cross borders, setting up camps and helping people, when peace comes, to go home.

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-Herzegovina have received considerable media exposure. In the aftermath of the Persian 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, which allowed 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 to Sarajevo is the largest humanitarian airlift since the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948. Since 1 July 1992, in over 5,500 flights some 60,000 metric tonnes 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 almost 4 million people in former Yugoslavia, of whom over a million are refugees in Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. The rest are displaced inside Bosnia-Herzegovina or in besieged cities, and dependent on international assistance and protection for their survival. Whatever form of political settlement is eventually reached, the humanitarian implications are going to be severe, particularly with the onset of winter.

Northern Iraq and Former Yugoslavia clearly highlight the pressing nature of the refugee problem today, which has become a major issue affecting the stability and security of our societies. As such it is an issue of concern also to 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. Europe is not only receiving refugees, it is also producing them.

Another important change is the sheer magnitude of the refugee outflow. In 1970, UNHCR cared for 2.8 million refugees. 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 persons has been forced to leave his home.

The projection of what is to come is even 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, possibly 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.

In parallel with the pressures to move are growing the possibilities to move. Modern transport has narrowed distances while international media has increased the aspirations of the less well off to seek a better future for themselves and their children in distant lands.

In Western Europe alone the numbers of asylum-seekers have increased from 30,000 in the 1970s to 400,000 in the late 1980s. In 1992 they reached close to 750,000. In the case of Switzerland, asylum applications have almost doubled from 9,700 in 1985 to just over 18,000 last year. The increase reflects on the one hand the larger numbers of refugees in search of protection, and on the other, the greater numbers of economic migrants who use asylum procedures as a door to Europe in the absence of immigration programmes.

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 political stability and economic welfare. This is why the refugee issue is the issue of our times and of concern to all of us.

Refugees are more than images of despair, crying out for charity. They are also symptoms of the deeper social, economic and political problems which plague the world. The challenge is not how to build barriers to keep refugees away, but how to manage refugee and migratory movements in a way which upholds basic human rights and humanitarian principles. The needs of the victims must also be met, as well as the concerns of the States and communities which receive them.

I believe that we must 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. 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. In sum, what we need is sincere and concerted international cooperation on the political, economic and humanitarian fronts before the victims become headlines.

For its part, UNHCR will continue to pursue a strategy of trying to prevent and solve refugee problems, as well as respond to them when they do occur. But in order to do this we require wide-ranging support - political, financial and material.

Our budget for this year is 1.3 billion US dollars. Planning occurs from the bottom-up, i.e. from the field, to ensure that our programmes meet the needs of our clients, the refugees, and avoid duplication with other humanitarian agencies. All expenditure is subject to regular internal and external audits and we also have a permanent evaluation unit. Over 80 per cent of our budget goes directly to refugees. The remainder covers administrative and staff costs, which are necessary to ensure that the refugees are protected and that assistance reaches those for whom it is destined. Our programmes are carried out in partnership with and complementary to those of non-governmental organizations such as the Red Cross, Médecins sans Frontières, the International Rescue Committee and other UN agencies such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme.

Virtually 95 % of our funds come from voluntary contributions by Governments, which is understandable given the nature and size of the problem. However, I do believe the private sector can and must play a greater role. By your financial contributions you can show your governments, employees and customers alike that you care, that you are willing to make a difference.

Let me outline three specific ways in which you could help us:

Firstly, we are seeking corporate support for specific refugee projects - which vary from health care to education, in all corners of the refugee world. It is up to the company to decide how it wants to assist us, whether through employee participation, company foundation if there is one, or other corporate funds. Just to give one idea of recent corporate support, the Nestlé Company donated some 60,000 US dollars to help fund a prosthesis workshop in Cambodia for returning refugees who have lost their limbs due to mines or war-related causes.

A second possibility could be to license our logo and name for the promotion of - most probably - a consumer product. UNHCR is daily in the news. Our visibility would be a marketing advantage for the company we license.

Yet a third possibility for cooperation could be to form a volunteer group of business men and women. The objective would be to raise awareness of UNHCR's work and build support among the business community. Mr. Villaneuva, who is responsible for private sector funding in UNHCR is present here and will be happy to give you more details on these proposals.

Please put the refugee issue on your agenda. Help those who are forced to flee. Support UNHCR and other organizations working for refugees.

I feel the directness of my appeal is justified in view of the gravity of the problem. Let us work together to promote global stability and security. Thank you for your kind attention.