Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about refugees from East Pakistan, and complete text of Press Conference questions and answers, 5 May 1971

Speeches and statements

Statement of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about refugees from East Pakistan, and complete text of Press Conference questions and answers, 5 May 1971

5 May 1971

H. C. Now, I am sure you must all be extremely interested in the recent developments in that part of the world, and I can tell you that following the influx of uprooted people from East Pakistan into India, which ahs been widely reported in the press and which I believe, was mentioned inter alia by the Secretary-General when he met you a few days ago during his visit to Geneva, we received a request from the Government of India transmitted through the Ministry of Rehabilitation, asking my Office to promote and organize assistance to help these people who have been displaced and who find themselves now in India. In the light of this I immediately decided to send a mission after assessing the request very carefully and discussing it with other UN colleagues, particularly the Secretary-General himself. This mission is leaving tonight for New Delhi headed by the Deputy High Commissioner, Mr. Charles Mace, and composed of Mr. Jamieson my Director of Operations, who has been to India before quite frequently to deal with the Tibetan refugees, and of my Legal Consultant, Dr. Weis. They will be discussing the problem in Delhi with the Indian authorities to see in what way the Office might be instrumental in seeking some kind of permanent solution in due course to the problem of the uprooted who find themselves in India. I want to stress here, that as in all previous requests and as in all previous action this Office will be stressing very much once more the humanitarian non political role of UNHCR. This may be a political problem, but the role of my Office here, and I believer I can say this also of the other United Nations humanitarian agencies like FAO. The World Food Programme UNICEF, the World Health Organization, all these agencies will be dealing with the problems in a humanitarian and non-political spirit. There is a need for coordination here obviously, we know how any kind of relief operation depends largely on coordination. We have seen how in countries like Nigeria or even recently in East Pakistan with the natural disaster of the cyclone, last of coordination can be extremely counter productive and what I hope very much to achieve by sending this team to New Delhi, is better coordination of the UN system, to try to see what the others are doing and what we can do and assess the problem in a very precise way. We also will be, of course, extremely interested in trying to do what we have always done in any problems of uprooted peoples i.e. to promote voluntary repatriation. My Office tries to look towards permanent solutions. We cannot afford to just set up huge feeding programmes and temporary housing which tend to become permanent.

We have seen what this has produced in other parts of the world. We have to find our quickly the ultimate solutions will be, and no one has to e a prophet to see that the best solution would be to help these people to return to homes if and when the situation allows this to take place. It seems to me that the various sources of goodwill should try to initiate measures which provide people with an incentive to return to their homes rather than to suffer all the terrible tragedy of being permanently uprooted living in temporary housing, makeshift arrangements, camps or what have you, for too long. There is a demographic problem on both sides of that border and if people can return home them that should certainly be encouraged. My Office can play a role here as we have in so many other situations, like in the case of the return of the Nigerians particularly the Nigerian children after the end of the conflict in Nigeria. The role of the Office would be here most valuable in trying to initiate a dialogue, to be an intermediary of good will. We should try to encourage conditions in East Pakistan to return to normal, possibly initiate some sort of arrangement whereby people who want to come home can do so and be received in such a way that they are given the necessary relief that they require, even in their own homeland. These are all measures which obviously can only be assessed on the spot. Now I am in very close contact with both Governments concerned here and certainly wit hall my other UN colleagues, executive heads of the various agencies, and I will certainly keep you informed of the results of this mission. These are the main points which I wanted to raise with you today and once more I would like to thank you for your understanding and your constant support in as job which could not be done if you did not assist us in getting public opinion to understand the problem and help us to solve it. I would like now to open the floor to discussions.

Voice of America: Have you an idea of how many refugees there are? What sort of coordinating role will you be playing?

H.C.: Well, first of all in answer to the first point, I think in any refugee problem, whether it happens to be in this situation or in any other situation like those we faced in Africa, it is extremely hard to have a very precise estimate of the figures involved. I know that the Indian authorities are now in the process of distributing identity cards to people; that presumably is going to give them a chance to have more of a precise census. One also has to be extremely careful I think, to distinguish what particular groups we speak of when we say refugees. You know that there has always been a huge problem of displaced persons in both India and Pakistan, going back to the days of partition of India when Britain grated Independence to the sub-Continent. The refugees are something that both countries have learned to live with now for more than 2 decades and therefore when we speak of refugees we must fine out whether we mean people who came a long time ago, people who came during all the disturbances during the recent elections, people who came since the developments in March. It is very difficult to establish a head count because most people are living in the same areas and anybody who had been to India and particularly to the area of Calcutta, will know that many people there are still refugees in the sense that they have not been permanently resettled. The question is when did they come? So I think in terms of the figure, I have heard many different estimates: the one you referred to, the one mentioned on the BBC, I think yesterday, which was 600,000. It is very hard to assess and especially from Geneva. This is why I am sending as mission to India. Now, on the second point, I know through this coordination which has been established, that the Indian Government has appealed to individual U.N. agencies. The Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Food Programme, have been approached. I know that UNICEF has an office in Delhi, and they have also been in contact and some supplies are already in the process on being sent, some have already been sent, some food stocks which were available locally are being made available on an emergency basis. I know that there has been some bilateral assistance both offered and provided for governments including the United States. I know that some private agencies which have considerable resources have made themselves available but in all this I think Indian authorities are very anxious to establish their own effective coordination and to have all these various offers very carefully discussed and coordinated with them, which is perfectly natural. I think Pakistan would feel the same way for relief in East Pakistan. I think this is a tendency which is developing. You all recall the difficult situation in the Nigerian crisis, where the problem of the many agencies, too many operational volunteer groups, too many people running around the country created problems sometimes problems for the efficiency and the distribution of relief, and political problems. So I think we must be aware of this and if funds of supplies are provided I am quite sure that it will have to be coordinated very carefully with the governments of the countries where help is required.

Voice of America: What would be the budget implication for your Office?

H.C.: We have an emergency fund of $500,000 in my Office, it is small in relation to that kind of problem and obviously it would not go a very long way, but this is the only amount we have which is available for emergency situations In Delhi my team will be able to assess what proportion we can provided and what the United Nations contribution as whole will be. You know that U Thant has been approached directly by the Indian Government, before UNHCR was. It was an appeal addressed by the Ambassador of India in New York, so it is clear that the UN Family, will have a role to play in this.

Finnish Radio: Sir, I have been doing some additions and I want you to confirm whether two and two really make four. I am referring to your recent trip to India and Pakistan.

Further question about the role of various U.N. Bodies.

H.C.: I think it is very early to say, quite frankly. My team is leaving tonight they will have substantial talks in New Delhi and it will be there presumably that we shall be able to assess what everybody's role will be. As far as the United Nations is concerned we are keeping each other informed. Most people realize that this is a problem of displaced persons so they get in touch with us to tell us what they are doing or ask us for our advice as to what they should be doing.

Finnish Radio: asks whether UNHCR will be the coordinator.

H.C.: I think it is premature to define our "good offices" as the role of coordinator. First of all what do we mean by coordinator exactly. I think we have to find out what the Indian Government really wants. This have not yet been very clearly established and I think that can only be done in New Delhi.

Austrian Radio asks how the distinction can be made between refugees and others.

H.C.: I am very glad that you asked that question George, because it is very fundamental. It may be difficult to assess precisely what made these people leave. There may be people who are fleeing because they are afraid of famine. Right now, the situation in that part of the world becomes very difficult with the monsoon. Many people are afraid for their lives, always for political reasons. Now obviously for this reason the Office cannot and will not proceed on the basis of individual eligibility to decide whether a man is a refugee under the UNHCR mandate or not. With these numbers of people, with the distances involved, it would be absolutely futile to try to determine whether or not people left because of well founded fear of persecution and therefore come under the mandate. This is a purely humanitarian "good offices" action. The League of Red Cross Societies has also sent a fact finding mission. As you know they announced it in a press release. We are going to go to see what the United Nations can do just as the League has gone to see what the League can do. It is not going to be on the basis of deciding exactly what categories these people belong to, it is a basically humanitarian approach.

O. Globo Rio de Janeiro asks whether the High Commissioner has been in touch with the Pakistan authorities.

H.C.: Once again it would seem to me that one of the most satisfactory solutions from every point of view would be for people to go home, if they want to go home and if they can go home. That obviously means that we have to be in touch with the Pakistan authorities. My Office has always been very anxious to maintain the best relations with all governments, governments of the countries from where the refugees come and the governments of the counties where the refugees go. This is essential if you want to play a role, a really humanitarian role, to try to facilitate repatriation if it is possible. Now I am very much in touch with the Pakistan Government and am always available to send either a personal representative there or to go myself. This will be vital if we can effectively assist in promoting conditions for people to go home.

O. Globo, Rio de Janeiro, asks a question about the role of the Red Cross.

H.C.: The International Committee tried at one point as you know, to send a plane at the beginning of the outbreak of unrest to East Pakistan and the plane came back. Now the League of course, will be active if the Indian Red Cross requests the League for an important programme, but so far I think their mission to New Delhi is largely a fact finding mission. They want to find out what the Indian Red Cross expects from them. This is a very large problem, and I think it is very difficult for the Red Cross alone to deal with it. Since the Indian Government has appealed to the Secretary-General and to other agencies, including mine, we at least have to see precisely what they expect from us and what we can provide. I think our partnership with the League of Red Cross Societies will continue in this situation as in many other parts of the world.

Agence France Presse: Si mes informations sont bonnes, je crois que vous avez attendu une semaine pour envoyer cette mission?

H.C.: Il y a une semaine, le Secrétaire général nous a communiqué, au C. A. C. à Berne, la requête de l'ambassadeur Sen qui représente l'Inde à New York, qui avait adressé une lettre à U Thant après l'avoir contacté et avoir eu des conversations liminaires avec lui, lui demandant promouvoir et d'encourager une aide de la part de la famille des Nations Unies. Dans cette lettre, nous sommes mentionnés aussi. Cette lettre était adressée au Secrétaire général. Premièrement, cela s'est passé il y a une semaine. Deuxièmement, nous avons un bureau à Delhi, avec un représentant, qui est en contact avec le gouvernement indien et qui a eu des conversations avec le Département de la réhabilitation lequel est chargé de la coordination de l'aide à ces gens déracinés qui se trouvent en Inde, et ces contacts ont toujours été des contacts préparatoires, des demandes d'explication de ce que nous pourrions faire. Cela n'a jamais été une requête vraiment formelle. Cette requête formelle nous est arrivée il y a deux jours seulement. Et cette requête a dû être étudiée; j'ai dû en parler avec le Secrétaire général pour voir dans quelle mesure il allait poursuivre ses propres efforts. J'ai tenu à savoir ce que les autres institutions spécialisées faisaient et dans quelle mesure nous pourrions coordonner nos efforts. En ce qui concerne l'assistance d'urgence le gouvernement indien en a assumé la pleine charge dans l'immédiat. Les différents moyens qui étaient disponibles en Inde, et probablement une aide bilatérale, ont permis de donner l'aide d'urgence à ceux qui arrivaient. Je crois qu'ils continueront de faire cela. Je crois que c'est une opération qui restera une opération du gouvernement indien. C'est tout à fait normal. Le gouvernement voudra certainement rester au contrôle de toute cette opération. Nous sommes là pour l'aider dans la mesure où nous pourrons le faire à répondre à sa requête, mais jusqu'à présent toutes les opérations ont été menées et coordonnées par les autorités indiennes.

Figaro: Avez-vous des contacts avec le Pakistan?

H.C.: Mes contacts avec le gouvernement du Pakistan ont toujours été constants. Je n'ai pas pris d'initiatives particulièrement révolutionnaires, puisque j'étais là moi même il y a quelques semaines. Nous avons parlé de ce problème tout le temps. Je continue d'avoir des contacts et je suis convaincu que la seule solution, c'est d'arriver à faciliter le rapatriement des gens. Il y avait ce matin même un article dans le Herald Tribune faisant état d'une déclaration de Mme Chandi. Je ne sais pas si vous l'avez lue. Le premier ministre de l'Inde espère que ce soit un problème provisoire. Elle espère aussi que les gens vont rentrer chez eux.

Finnish Radio: Remarks that UNHCR appears to have taken the lead.

H.C.: Because, it is a situation of displaced persons. You see everybody has been talking about a refugee problem so people think of this Office. It is perfectly normal. But we have to find out first of all what the Indian Government wants, and I certainly do not want to speak of our Office as a coordinating point until we know exactly what the situation is and what the Indian Government wants. s far as the United Nations, is concerned, certainly people have been keeping us informed and we have been coordinating in an ad hoc way as a kind of focal point.

Finnish Radio: Asks whether other members of the United Nations Family will take part in the discussions in New Delhi.

H.C.: As far as I know, most of them are represented in New Delhi. UNDP has a resident representative there, Mr. McDiarmid, who represents the specialized agencies. Some specialized agencies have people there. I know, that WFP, UNICEF have people there. I do not know whether they intend to send separate teams or whether they want to handle it with their local staff taking advantage of the visit of my team, to join in on talks with the Indian authorities. This is a matter for them to decide, but I think that it is probably the case.

Figaro: N'avez vous pas un problème financier?

H.C.: J'ai l'impression vraiment que si le problème continue d'être aussi important, qu'il n'y a pas de stabilisation du tout, que les gens ne rentrent pas chez eux, qu'à ce moment là probablement il y ait une sorte d'appel tôt ou tard, mais je crois que c'est prématuré d'en parler. Il s'agit aussi de savoir ce que sera l'aide bilatérale. Il ne faut pas se faire d'illusion: J'ai l'impression que la majorité d'entre vous savaient très bien que les moyens des Nations Unies sont limités. C'est clair sur le plan financier. Les moyens sont très limités, et de deux choses l'une, ou bien il faut que le gouvernement indien obtienne une aide beaucoup plus importante d'autres sources, ce qui parait être le cas en l'occurrence sur le plan bilatéral notamment, ou alors il faut que les Nations Unies s'arrangent pour obtenir des contributions extraordinaires, que ce soit la FAO, l'UNICEF, le HCR, mais la chose doit être coordonnée et ce n'est que le gouvernement indien qui peut le faire. Il faut arriver à estimer les besoins, voir dans quelle mesure ils peuvent les couvrir, et pour couvrir la dépense qu'eux ne peuvent pas courir eux-mêmes, faire appel à la communauté internationale. Or, pour faire appel à la communauté internationale, cela peut vouloir dire beaucoup de choses, cela peut vouloir dire des contacts avec les ambassades, les chancelleries qui sont à Delhi. Cela peut vouloir dire les missions des ambassadeurs de l'Inde auprès des gouvernements à Washington ou ailleurs pour demander certaines formes d'aide, et cela peut être également les Nations Unies, la Ligue des Sociétés de la Croix-Rouge, toutes les agences bénévoles, c'est ce qu'on appelle au fond las communauté internationale. C'est un problème qui intéresse certainement tout le monde. C'est aux Indiens de déterminer dans quelle mesure l'aide doit venir de telle ou autre source. Mais, évidemment, vous avez parfaitement raison de dire qu'on va au devant d'un problème financier. Actuellement en ce qui concerne les Nations Unies, les moyens sont limités. Si nous avions besoin de moyens plus importants, à ce moment-là il faudrait compter sur des contributions extraordinaires.

Agence France Presse: En général, avez-vous des problème politiques avec les pays dont ils sont originaires?

H.C.: Cela dépend. Quelquefois oui. Cela dépend essentiellement du contexte politique. Il y a des gouvernements qui traîtent le problème sur le plan humanitaire essentiellement. Il y a d'autres gouvernements qui voient le problème sous un angle politique. Notre rôle à nous, c'est finalement de dépolitiser le problème autant que possible. Je crois qu'il y assez de problèmes politiques pour qu'on n'ajoute pas encore la politisation des réfugiés, la politisation d'un problème des réfugiés. Dans l'intérêt même des êtres humains qui sont les victimes des événements, et qui eux, franchement, ne sont pas très initiés à la complexité de la situation politique, c'est plutôt utile de dépolitiser l'affaire et je crois que c'est notre philosophie partout. Vous me demandez si les gouvernements s'opposent ou ne s'opposent pas. Cela dépend des gouvernements. Nous avons par exemple en Afrique actuellement des problèmes de réfugiés sur l'ensemble du continent africain. Les gouvernements de pays d'origine d'où les réfugiés viennent apprécient l'action du Bureau parce qu'ils savent qu'au fond notre action tend à résoudre la tension politique, à améliorer la situation aux frontières, à promouvoir un rapatriement librement consenti, à donner à ceux qui ne peuvent ou ne veulent pas rentrer du travail, de la terre pour qu'ils puissent s'installer et qu'au fond notre action dépolitise et pacifie. C'est ce que nous cherchons à faire, c'est de dépolitiser l'assistance aux réfugiés.

Agence France Presse: Dans le thème qui nous préoccupe, vos contacts avec les autorités pakistanaises vous ont-ils donné l'impression que vous n'auriez pas de problème politiques?

H.C.: Il est clair que l'Inde et le Pakistan ont tous les deux des problèmes politiques à l'heure actuelle, et naturellement tous ceux qui sont mêlés directement ou indirectement au problème sur le plan humanitaire doivent être conscients des réalités politiques du problème, mais jusqu'à présent j'ai toujours eu des contact extrêmement utiles et productifs avec le Pakistan. Il n'y a aucune raison que cela change.

Journaliste non identifié: Est-ce que les réfugiés au Biafra sont rentrés chez eux?

H.C.: Tous les gens qui ont été déracinés pendant le conflit sont rentrés des pays voisins, les 5000 enfants que nous avons rapatriés sont réinstallés dans leurs familles, ils ont été ramenés chez eux, ils ont été rapatriés. Je crois qu'on peut affirmer que la situation est devenue tout-à-fait stabilisée. Evidemment, comme dans beaucoup d'autres pays africains maintenant, il se préoccupe de son développement, mais l'aspect politique de cette guerre civile est tout-à-fait résolu.