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Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the Inter-Governmental Consultations on Asylum, Refugee and Migration Policies in Europe, North America and Australia, The Hague, 18 November 1994

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the Inter-Governmental Consultations on Asylum, Refugee and Migration Policies in Europe, North America and Australia, The Hague, 18 November 1994

18 November 1994

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Patijn, Mr. Purcell, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is a great pleasure for me to participate today in the Inter-governmental Consultations on Asylum, Refugee, and Migration Policies. I wish to thank you, Mr. Patijn, for the hospitality of the Dutch Government, and to commend Mr. Demmink and Mr. Olesen for the efficiency with which they and their staff have prepared this meeting.

At a time when refugees have become part of larger and more complex movements of people, the Inter-governmental Consultations provides an opportunity to discuss the linkages between refugee and migration movements. It is an occasion to exchange views on the difficult issues confronting us and to examine ways through which we can strengthen our cooperation with governments.

In my statement last year in London, I outlined UNHCR's position on the need to adopt comprehensive policies to address effectively the issue of large-scale forced population movements and stressed that if a comprehensive strategy is to move from the realm of the rhetoric to the sphere of action, it must be translated into concrete and coordinated measures, tailored to specific situations. Today, I will discuss in further detail the development of such a policy.

Responses to complex movements of people which focus primarily on the entry into and the conditions of stay in the receiving country are far from adequate. We all realize that while large-scale forced population movement is caused by political insecurity and conflict, it also impacts on the stability of countries and regions. The examples of former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Somalia, northern Iraq, and Rwanda amply illustrate the threat which forced population displacements pose.

Our efforts should concentrate on a comprehensive policy which stands in contrast to uncoordinated, ad hoc and reactive measures. The scope of an effective strategy must encompass the entire continuum of forced population flows from their causes to their eventual solutions. The aim is not only to respond to forced movements by providing protection, but also to find ways to mitigate their root causes and to find durable solutions. A concerted and coordinated approach linking all the actors, ranging from governmental, inter- and non-governmental organizations, as well as affected communities and refugees, is essential. This necessitates that the policy discussions are of an inter-disciplinary nature, linking immigration and refugee issues with foreign affairs and development cooperation so as to ensure close inter-governmental and inter-agency cooperation.

In recent years, the number of refugees has continued to increase, the most dramatic recent manifestation being the two million Rwandese who fled to Tanzania, Burundi and Zaire. There are currently more than 23 million people in need of international protection around the world, and many more internally displaced. Europe today is both a refugee hosting as well as a refugee producing region. With approximately 6 million refugees and other persons of concern to my Office, Europe is ranked second, after Africa, as the continent generating the largest number of refugees.

At the same time, the number of persons seeking asylum in western Europe has declined and continues to show a downward trend. The number of asylum seekers in western Europe increased from 179,000 in 1987 to a peak of 684,000 in 1992, but has steadily fallen thereafter. For 1994, the number of asylum seekers has been, so far, some 40 per cent less than in 1993. This decrease, however, has not occurred evenly as in some countries the rate of new arrivals has declined significantly whereas other countries have registered a large increase.

The high number of new arrivals in combination with a reported increase of irregular migration, has resulted in strong political pressure in the countries which you represent to control migration, be it of migrants or asylum seekers. Often it is difficult to distinguish between them. On the one hand, migrants claim to be refugees in order to be admitted, on the other, immigration control measures are often indiscriminately applied to asylum seekers. Illegal immigration is enhanced by trafficking of aliens, whereas a trafficker might be the only resort for a refugee to reach safety and protection. While the number of asylum seekers declines, there is evidence that trafficking of aliens and illegal immigration is on the increase. The Inter-governmental Consultations and IOM have, rightly, drawn attention to these aspects of the migratory issue.

But there is a fundamental difference between refugees and migrants, as we all know. The need for protection distinguishes a refugee from a migrant and this distinction is essential for an organization like UNHCR, mandated to provide international protection. Given the relationship between the different forms of displacement, a comprehensive approach should address the problems of refugees and migrants, in order to find the appropriate response to each of them. In this context, I welcome the close cooperation between my Office and IOM.

In the search for an appropriate policy response, it is imperative to safeguard the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Allow me to raise in this connection some questions:

  • how do you in practice distinguish between the irregular migrant and the person in need of protection?
  • how do you ascertain that the necessary immigration control measures will not render impossible admission to safety of those in need of protection?
  • how will re-admission agreements take into account the special position of asylum seekers?
  • how do you guarantee that your immigration and asylum policies do not get confused? How do you avoid the public perception that equates refugees with illegal aliens, and weakens the awareness of the plight of those in need of protection?

Mr. Chairman,

During 1989-1993, some 171,000 asylum seekers were recognized in western Europe as refugees under the 1951 Convention; but the recognition rate varied from 30 per cent in one country to 6 per cent in another. During the same period, some 183,000 persons were allowed to stay for humanitarian or similar reasons. I believe these statistics reflect some of the gaps in protection, which are described in this year's Note on International Protection. They are related to some extent to the varying interpretations of the refugee definition contained in the 1951 Refugee Convention, in particular regarding the question of agents of persecution. In this connection, the Note on International Protection pointed to the importance of harmonizing policy to ensure that all those in need of international protection actually receive it.

One of the ways to bridge the existing protection gap is through the granting of temporary protection. It has been used successfully in the context of the former Yugoslavia and most recently in response to the outflow of boat people from Haiti. Although it is preferable to provide assistance and protection to the refugees and displaced within the region, the crisis in the former Yugoslavia has clearly demonstrated the need for granting protection beyond the immediately affected region. Following this year's Executive Committee conclusion on international protection, my Office will, in close cooperation with the Governments concerned, continue to coordinate and to provide guidance concerning its implementation as a pragmatic and flexible method of affording international protection of a temporary nature in situations of conflict or persecution involving large scale outflows.

One of the principal reasons for applying the term "temporary" within this context is that international efforts will, within a reasonable time, produce results which allow refugees to return home in safety and dignity. This leads me to durable solutions as an element of a comprehensive response. While negotiating conditions conducive to return, my Office needs the strongest political support of the international community. Minimum guarantees for physical and material security must be met to ensure that returnees are able to reintegrate back home. Rwanda and Georgia are good examples illustrating the importance of these minimum conditions in order to promote return in safety and dignity. For the same reason, I called a meeting of the Humanitarian Issues Working Group in June 1994 to consult with you on the conditions for return to Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am pleased that you agreed with the suggestion to include the return issue on your agenda. The Coordinator for the Special Operation in the former Yugoslavia, Mr. Bijleveld, will brief you tomorrow in detail about the latest developments in that region.

I believe that in a comprehensive approach the issue of return as a durable solution should be addressed both to refugees and economic migrants, although obviously the role of UNHCR is directed toward the former. With regard to the return of individuals who have been determined not to be in need of international protection, my Office and IOM have formulated a joint view in September 1993. The discussions in the Inter-governmental Consultations on the return issue, prove, however, how difficult it is to arrive at a coordinated approach including the country of origin, such as in the case of Sri Lanka.

Mr. Chairman,

I have made voluntary repatriation one of the priorities of my Office. Linked with it is the need for reintegration assistance. Humanitarian assistance by definition aims to meet only the most basic human needs and is mostly of a short term nature. Reintegration assistance however calls for a long-term vision and is closely related to development efforts. Particularly in countries ravaged by conflict and war, short-term humanitarian return assistance should be integrated with rehabilitation and development programmes. If this is not the case, circumstances may force returnees to move again.

Targeted reintegration assistance coupled with development efforts, in effect not only contributes to the implementation of a durable solution but has a preventive effect. By prevention I do not mean putting up barriers to stop people moving. True prevention is a multifaceted and complex concept, involving policies which seek to reduce or remove the causes forcing people to leave their country. It is an extremely ambitious undertaking, including a wide variety of activities such as promotion of human rights, economic development, conflict resolution, ethnic and religious tolerance and the adoption of an accountable political system.

Without any doubt, this task goes beyond solely humanitarian concerns. Prevention falls to a great extent within the scope of foreign policy. As in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, many refugees and displaced persons today flee from situations of conflict and ethnic tension. Prevention would, in such circumstances, demand that diplomatic and political negotiation efforts be increased in areas of potential tension, war and ethnic conflict. How can we raise the awareness of policy makers, both at the national and international level, so that measures aimed at addressing the root causes of population movements become an integral element of foreign and domestic policy given the implications of large-scale movements upon inter-state relations?

Human rights abuses constitute another major root cause of forced displacement. Consistent human rights and related minorities policies may yield preventive effects in mitigating such root causes. How can we further explore the preventive function of human rights and minorities policies? My Office has, in this connection, established close contacts with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, other UN Human Rights mechanisms and regional institutions, such as the Council of Europe and the CSCE. I believe that this interagency cooperation should be further strengthened.

A concrete example of a common interest among my Office, the Council of Europe and the CSCE is the issue of statelessness. The General Assembly has entrusted UNHCR with certain functions in respect of the reduction of statelessness. My Office is therefore concerned about developments in central and eastern Europe which may lead to statelessness and force people to move to other parts of Europe. We have intensified our contacts with the Council of Europe and the CSCE and are discussing with Governments the adoption of laws which avoid creating statelessness. I am encouraged by the support of the Executive Committee for UNHCR's role regarding stateless persons.

While promoting the accession of States to the relevant international refugee, statelessness and human rights instruments, Governments must be assisted to enhance their capacity to meet their obligations under these international instruments. Such assistance should focus on institution building, of both government and non-governmental agencies, the drafting and implementation of relevant legislation, and the training of staff. In particular within the context of central and eastern Europe, the efforts of Governments and international organizations, including IOM and UNHCR, to provide such assistance are extremely important. I have noted with interest that the proposed workplan of the Inter-governmental Consultations for 1995 includes a project to examine the assistance programme to central and eastern Europe in the field of refugee and migration. Improved coordination and sharing of information regarding bilateral and multilateral efforts will ensure the most effective use of all our efforts.

The problems of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, unprecedented population growth and poor health conditions are all contributory factors to population movements. The recurrent humanitarian emergencies serve to remind us of the limited results of development efforts to date. Poverty has not been alleviated in many parts of the world. The relationship between development, employment and migration requires further examination. The World Summit for Social Development to be held next year in Copenhagen will address these questions in detail.

The dissemination of objective information directed to both refugee and migrant receiving and generating countries has an important protection and preventive effect. Mass information campaigns in countries of origin, as organized in Albania and Viet Nam, may help potential migrants to assess the consequences of movement against the possibilities of staying at home, and thereby reduce irregular migration. Public information campaigns in receiving countries contribute to a better awareness of the special circumstances which cause people to flee their country of origin. The preparation of our information campaign in Russia has gained momentum, and in January 1995, we will organize a meeting for Russian decision makers on this theme.

Mr. Chairman

As I stated in my introductory remarks, a comprehensive approach should not be limited to policy statements but lead to actions. For western Europe, the question is not one of solely providing protection to refugees or containing economic or irregular migration, but a more fundamental one of ensuring a secure and viable alternative for the people concerned.

It is in this context that UNHCR, upon request of the Russian Federation, is organizing a regional conference, in cooperation with Governments concerned and other international organizations, notably IOM, to develop a comprehensive strategy for refugees, displaced persons and migrants in the region. I am encouraged by the positive response to the initiative, and my Director for the Regional Bureau of Europe, Mr. J. Horekens, will brief you later today on the progress so far. Let me caution, though, that a regional strategy can only succeed if there is unequivocal and sustained commitment by all the actors involved in this process.

Mr. Chairman,

In conclusion, let me reiterate that I welcome the policy dialogue which has developed with respect to asylum, refugee and migration issues between UNHCR and the governments you represent. I hope that this dialogue can be further strengthened as well as broadened to include foreign policy and development experts. The complexity of today's refugee and migration issues go beyond measures focusing solely on asylum and immigration policies. This broadened dialogue will enable us to discuss concretely the action required to prevent population movements from occurring and to implement durable solutions.

Thank you for your attention.