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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the closing ceremony of Site 2, Thailand, 30 March 1993

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the closing ceremony of Site 2, Thailand, 30 March 1993

30 March 1993

Today is a happy day for UNHCR. Instead of our daily agenda of war, persecution, human rights violations, tragedy and death, our work today revolves around joy and hope. The joy of watching refugees going home to their own country, families and friends. The hope that after eighteen years, the Indochinese refugee problem is finally on its way to being resolved, ending an important chapter in the history of UNHCR.

For me personally it is a day of great satisfaction. It was on this border in 1979, as Japan's Ambassador for humanitarian relief to Indochina, that I was first confronted with the refugee problem. Fourteen years later, I am pleased to be able to come back as High Commissioner for Refugees to mark with you the solution of that problem.

Four fourteen years, in camps along this border, the international community has worked together with the Thai government and its agencies provide care and maintenance to over 700,000 Cambodians. Today as we close the last remaining camp for Cambodians in Thailand, let me express my heartfelt gratitude to the Royal Thai Government for its generosity in granting sanctuary over the years to such a large population in distress; to the Royal Thai Army and to hundreds of Thai citizens; to the dedicated staff of the UN, in particular the UN Border Relief Organization, ICRC and numerous voluntary organisations; to the governments which gave political and financial support and resettlement opportunities to the refugees; and to the media, which kept alive the interest of the world in this refugee cause.

The saga of the Cambodian refugees in not only a saga of international solidarity, but also a saga of the courage of a people who never lost their will to pursue their destiny in their country. Through all those years, like so many refugees around the world, the Cambodians never gave up their hope of return.

When I last visited Site 2 in January 1992, I saw more than 200,000 people living here - the largest concentration of Cambodian population outside Phnom Penh. The Paris Peace Agreement had recently been concluded and many of you told me of your eagerness, even of your impatience, to return home. At the time we were worried. Worried about the minefields, that still littered the Cambodian landscape, worried about the shortage of fertile land, worried about the lack of clean drinking water, health clinics, schools, and above all, worried about security. But you were convinced that it was time to go back. You were eager to play your part in consolidating the all-too-fragile peace, helping to build a true democracy, and bringing a new prosperity to your own country. You wanted your children who had been born in exile, who had grown up believing that rice "comes from trucks" and not paddy fields, to find their ancestral roots.

So, exactly one year ago today, on March 30, 1992, 500 Cambodian refugees took the courageous first step and crossed the border in a UNHCR convoy. Since that time, nearly 350,000 others have followed in their footsteps, leaving behind a life of despair and dependency in refugee camp for dignity and self-sufficiency in their own land.

Much preparation and hard work on both sides of the border have gone into making that desire a reality within such a short span of time. It has again been a remarkable effort of partnership between governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental actors, not least the refugees an their leaders themselves. In the camps in Thailand all sides have respected freedom of choice. In the villages in Cambodia, all sides have welcomed back their compatriots. In this sense, the repatriation operation has been a concrete expression of national reconciliation.

It has also been a good example of cooperation between the peace-keeping and humanitarian arms of the United Nations. Here I would like to thank UNTAC and in particular Mr. Yasushi Akashi, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, for the unfailing support which they have extended us in our difficult task.

But today, we celebrate not only the end of one chapter but also the beginning of a new one. There is still much work to be done. As refugees go home, UNHCR is going with them - we will be there to help you in the first steps of your new life in Cambodia. Together with UNDP and other UN and non-governmental agencies, we have launched quick impact projects, we call them QIPs, that are designed to ease return to your villages and to help your neighbours as well. QIPs are small, practical projects, like developing agricultural land, building classrooms, digging wells, fixing roads and setting up medical clinics. When our work on reintegration is to be effective, the international community must show the same enthusiasm for supporting rehabilitation and reconstruction, as they have done for the relief of refugees and returnees.

On Thursday, first April, I shall be travelling to Cambodia to meet Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the leaders of the four parties, signatories and to the Paris Agreement, I shall see for myself the situation of those who have returned.

UNHCR does not have an unrealistic picture of the situation in Cambodia. I know that there are many difficulties ahead, But by the returning, you are casting your vote of confidence in the Peace process. It is crucial for all Cambodians that elections be held, a new Constitution adopted and a new government installed. Not only peace in Cambodia but peace in the region is at stake, for which we all bear a common responsibility. The international community, and most of all, the Cambodian people and their leaders must not allow their nation to be dragged once again into the horrors of war and devastation. The ceasefire must not break down, nor political violence undermine what we have all worked so hard to achieve. We must be vigilant or all our efforts will have been in vain. Our continued solidarity for Cambodia is an investment in the future investment in the future stability of the region.