Statement by Mr. Søren Jessen-Petersen, United Nations Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, at the 1999 Substantive Session of ECOSOC

from UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Published on 27 Jul 1999
Geneva, 27 July 1999
Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The High Commissioner, Mrs. Ogata, regrets that she is unable to be here today, as she is absent on mission. She has requested me to present the report of her Office to ECOSOC on her behalf.

My remarks today will focus on main developments in UNHCR operations around the world - especially in Africa, in response to the General Assembly's call in Resolution 52/101 for an oral report on the situation of refugees, returnees and displaced persons on the continent of Africa. Mr. President, you may also wish to know that the High Commissioner addressed the Security Council yesterday in a chamber session focusing mainly on Africa.

Mr. President,

Before beginning the overview of developments, I should like to share a few thoughts on some pressing issues and challenges facing UNHCR - especially as these are relevant to the theme of this year's humanitarian segment.

As emphasised by the High Commissioner at last year's session, the nature of human displacement has undergone profound and far-reaching changes in recent years. First, conflicts of an internal nature, often pitting deeply divided communities against each other, are a significant feature of recent forced displacement. Furthermore, flagrant and intolerable violations of humanitarian law have affected large segments of the civilian population, such as in Angola, Sierra Leone and Kosovo, unleashing untold suffering on non-combatants and triggering flight. The broad term "displaced" today embraces refugees as well as internally displaced persons and other victims of conflict. Drawing an operational distinction between these categories is growing increasingly difficult, particularly where humanitarian assistance needs to be delivered and protection provided in a hostile environment equally affecting all populations in a given area.

Second, at the same time, massive forced displacement has caused outflows of populations in which people of concern to UNHCR are mixed with armed and other elements, who may even be excluded from international protection under prevailing norms. Movements have also occurred into insecure environments, such as into northern Albania, where widespread insecurity and banditry, combined with the presence of armed elements, exposed humanitarian workers to grave risks and obliged UNHCR to encourage refugees to move away from border areas. Indeed, humanitarian workers are routinely exposed to risks, as humanitarian action is drawn into situations of open hostilities or rampant insecurity. It is clear that host Governments bear primary responsibility for the maintenance of law and order in refugee-populated areas, but the ability to discharge this responsibility effectively varies widely. Everything must be done to encourage and assist States to assume this responsibility. In this context, local capacity-building, with an emphasis on preventive approaches, is key. The issue of staff safety must continue to be at the forefront of our concerns, especially as the trend is towards more, not fewer, insecure situations.

Third, as highlighted in the Secretary-General's report on "Strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations", there is a growing number of situations where humanitarian agencies are denied access to affected areas for long periods - such as in rebel-held areas of Sierra Leone - exacerbating the suffering of victims. Lack of access has resulted not only from insecure conditions, but also by deliberate policies of Governments and parties to conflicts, often in direct contravention of international law.

Fourth, the lightning speed of today's movements - and the imperative to respond just as rapidly - is a relatively new feature. In Kosovo and in neighbouring countries in South-Eastern Europe, UNHCR and our partners were obliged to shift gears from a major relief operation for the internally displaced to a massive refugee relief operation in neighbouring countries, only to shift gears again, within a matter of weeks, to respond to the speedy spontaneous return of over 700,000 refugees and internally displaced persons. UNHCR's strategic priorities in this region are now to continue facilitating spontaneous repatriation movements, as well as organizing voluntary repatriation movements, to provide humanitarian assistance to returnees with a view to easing the reintegration process, and to monitor the protection situation inside Kosovo, with a focus in particular on the situation of ethnic Serb and Roma minorities. In addition, UNHCR will continue to support asylum countries in the region, mainly FYROM and Albania, to enable them to deal with the residual refugee population and cope with post-influx rehabilitation needs. At the same time, UNHCR, in cooperation with IOM, is working closely with countries who participated generously in the Humanitarian Evacuation Programme to help back those who want to return now. Meanwhile, UNHCR will maintain its regional approach to displacement and solutions throughout the region of and around the former Yugoslavia.

Fifth, in view of the urgency of responding to swift, large-scale movements of refugees, the High Commissioner called for the support of the military to speed the delivery of life-saving assistance, both owing to their logistical capacity and their ability to move available assets rapidly. There may be no alternative to the involvement of the military in situations of extraordinary speed, size and complexity, but the humanitarian operations must always retain their civilian and independent character.

Sixth, the multitude of actors in the humanitarian field and the complexity of recent peace agreements - envisaging even closer cooperation between an array of organizations and institutions working on civilian as well as military aspects of peace implementation - pose new challenges to international cooperation. As in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, the mammoth job of consolidating peace and reconciliation whilst spurring reconstruction and development will require the sustained commitment of the international community and the development of comprehensive approaches, to ensure the sustainability of return. This sustained commitment is especially needed in Africa where many programmes are failing to meet essential returnee and rehabilitation needs for lack of funding.

To be effective, these comprehensive approaches to rehabilitation and reconstruction must be devised and implemented through strong, bottom-up cooperation on the ground - including with the beneficiary communities themselves - and in an ongoing constructive dialogue among all concerned. Bridging the gap between humanitarian assistance and longer-term development is essential not only to achieve adequate returnee reintegration but also to eliminate causes of further displacement. The results of a recently concluded survey of returnees to Kosovo show that although some 700,000 Kosovars have returned from neighbouring territories, thousands have not been able to return to their homes of origin. Of those who have not gone back to their homes, 76 per cent cited damage to their dwellings as the reason for continued displacement while 31 per cent mentioned lack of access to food and other basic needs. Only seven per cent pointed to insecurity or fear. This is a clear example where the sustainability of return will hinge on rapid implementation of basic reconstruction activities. In other situations, however, relief to development transitions cannot wait until peace has arrived. Planning has to begin while conflicts are ongoing - especially to reduce the lead-time before mainstream development institutions can come fully on board. An initiative taken recently by the High Commissioner under the auspices of the Washington-based Brookings Institution and in close coordination with the World Bank and the United Nations has made a significant contribution to our thinking and action in narrowing both the institutional and financial gaps in such situations.

Seventh, the above challenges are exacerbated by uneven levels of funding to Consolidated Appeals. Uneven geographical funding means that some countries have been critically under-funded, literally crippling urgent relief programmes. Some large voluntary repatriation programmes have had to be cut down, leaving refugees stranded abroad or limiting activities crucial to reintegration. Even more significantly, UNHCR's protection solutions and coordination activities have suffered from under-funding. Present funding projections indicate a 1999 year-end shortfall of as high as US$ 275 million, against total planned expenditure of US$ 1.2 billion. Already today, the pace of implementation of some programmes has had to slow down, while others have been requested to review their priorities in view of limited funding.

Mr. President,

Turning to major operational developments, I should like to begin with Africa, where UNHCR continues to mobilize international attention and support for the plight of over 6.5 million refugees and displaced persons. For the same reason, the High Commissioner has travelled extensively to Africa over the past year, most recently to attend the OAU summit in Algiers, following a week-long visit to the Great Lakes region in June. At the OAU summit, the High Commissioner appealed to African leaders with whom she held bilateral meetings to renew their commitment to refugees and displaced persons. It should be recalled that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the landmark 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.

The signing in Lusaka on 10 July of the cease-fire agreement on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a welcome development, raising hopes for a lasting peace in the DRC and the region as a whole. Diplomatic efforts must continue, however, to encourage the leaders of rebel movements to sign the agreement, which is the only way of bringing about national reconciliation. Fighting in the east of the country has unfortunately continued, forcing over 40,000 new refugees to cross into the United Republic of Tanzania - bringing their number to over 70,000 since August of last year. Fighting in the north of the country has triggered in recent days an influx of some 18,000 persons into the Central African Republic. The presence of an estimated 6,000 former soldiers amongst these new arrivals is a matter of great concern to the Government of the Central African Republic as well as to UNHCR. Although they are being disarmed upon arrival by the Government, UNHCR has emphasized that our assistance will primarily target civilians, with special attention given to women and children. It is our ardent wish to see the two Governments work out modalities for the return of disarmed soldiers to the DRC.

The internal war in the Republic of the Congo has triggered fresh refugee flows. Over 25,000 Congolese refugees from the Pool region have crossed into Bas-Congo in the DRC, with hundreds of new arrivals daily. Fleeing the advance of rebel forces in the Katanga region, 25,000 Congolese refugees sought refuge in March of this year in the Luapala region in northern Zambia, obliging UNHCR to set in place an emergency programme amounting to US$ 2.4 million. Close to half of the refugees are accommodated in Mwange camp, while the remainder have settled spontaneously.

Gabon is also witnessing an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting in the Republic of the Congo. We estimate that some 20,000 refugees have crossed into Gabon. A UNHCR emergency team has been deployed to Gabon and we are working with the authorities to find suitable sites to shelter the refugees. Many of the refugees are being temporarily housed by the local population. The UNHCR Regional Director for West and Central Africa, who is based in the field, is proceeding on mission to both Gabon and the Central African Republic to engage in discussions with the authorities on how best to assist both groups of refugees. The ultimate solution to this crisis, like any crisis for that matter, lies in the political settlement of the conflict, which has been going on since June 1997.

In Burundi, the slow progress of the Arusha peace process has dampened hopes that large-scale repatriation could commence in 1999. Returns from the camps in Tanzania, which house close to 270,000 refugees from Burundi, have come to a virtual stand-still. In the face of growing concern by the Government of Burundi regarding military activities in the border region, UNHCR continues to support the strengthening of the local Tanzanian police and has recently deployed an international Security Liaison Officer to work with the authorities to ensure the civilian character of the camps.

Mr. President,

The High Commissioner was pleased to note in June that the reconciliation process in Rwanda is steadily taking hold, despite the volatile situations in some Western parts of the country, given the fighting across the border. By the end of this year, UNHCR hopes to consolidate its reintegration programme, which has channelled some US$ 160 million since 1996 to assist more than one million refugees who have repatriated to Rwanda. An inter-agency Joint Reintegration Programme Unit - in which UNHCR will remain actively involved - will be key to ensuring a smooth transition from relief to development. Strong donor support is needed for this effort. UNHCR will also continue to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of the 70,000 Rwandan refugees who are still in the region.

In West Africa, which the High Commissioner also visited earlier this year, UNHCR has actively supported peace talks between the Government of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front in Lome which culminated in the signing of the peace agreement on July 7. UNHCR's efforts, in our capacity as Humanitarian Coordinator, are now focusing on facilitating access of international aid agencies to rebel-held areas in Sierra Leone. We are also reactivating repatriation planning in the various countries of asylum. We sincerely hope that the peace agreement will pave the way for the voluntary repatriation of 430,000 refugees from Sierra Leone, currently the largest refugee population in Africa.

A total of 120,000 refugee have returned home to Liberia with the assistance of UNHCR since the inception of the organized repatriation programme in 1997. The Government of Liberia estimates that an additional 160,000 refugees have gone back spontaneously. Organized repatriation of Liberian refugees will officially end by December of this year and UNHCR hopes to phase out its reintegration activities in Liberia by the middle of the year 2000. Repatriation will not be sustainable, however, unless bilateral donors and financial institutions provide the necessary funds for longer-term reconstruction and development programmes to get under way.

In Southern Africa, owing to the resumption of hostilities in Angola in June 1998, UNHCR was obliged to suspend repatriation last October. The fighting has furthermore forced some 40,000 Angolans to seek asylum abroad, mainly in the DRC, bringing the total number of Angolan refugees in the region to 263,000. The number of newly internally displaced rose by 950,000 to over 1.5 million. UNHCR is deeply concerned about the situation of IDPs in UNITA-held areas, where lack of access has blocked the delivery of urgently needed relief.

In the Horn of Africa, UNHCR is also concerned about the situation in Eritrea and Ethiopia, where border fighting has left some 600,000 people homeless. Political obstacles continue to hinder the return of 150,000 Eritrean refugees residing in the Sudan. On a more positive note, the organized repatriation of Somali refugees from eastern Ethiopia to Northwest Somalia, which was suspended in November 1998, resumed this month, although certain difficulties are yet to be resolved.

Mr. President,

Let me now turn to developments in Central and South West Asia, North Africa and the Middle East but, before doing so, allow me Mr. President, on behalf of the High Commissioner, to express our deepest condolences on the passing away of the great statesman, King Hassan II of Morocco, who played such an important role in the resolution of so many conflicts. On Western Sahara, UNHCR deeply appreciates the continuing efforts of the Secretary-General to resolve the remaining political issues standing in the way of implementation of the UN Settlement Plan. According to the Plan's revised timetable, the return of refugees is now scheduled for March of next year, to enable their participation in the referendum planned for July. In this connection, registration in the camps near Tindouf began in May and is continuing.

While relative stability has returned to large parts of Afghanistan, a negotiated peace still remains elusive. The High Commissioner is deeply concerned regarding the serious lack of funding which continues to impede HCR from adequately addressing the needs of 2.4 million refugees in Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as the reintegration needs of returnees within Afghanistan. Over 100,000 refugees returned in 1998 alone, and over 60,000 have gone back so far this year. It is expected that more than 150,000 Afghan refugees will return home during 1999. Lack of funding is also exacerbating asylum fatigue, particularly in the Islamic Republic of Iran. UNHCR persists in its efforts to mobilize support from donors and, at the same time, we appeal to States in the region to continue to offer protection to the refugees. A major concern within Afghanistan relates to the current security regime which only allows for a relatively small, rotating international presence. This is too modest to enable us to have any significant impact on the ground, particularly in response to the needs of returnees. UNHCR has proposed that the United Nations launch an Afghan Women's Initiative to implement activities inside Afghanistan as well as in refugee-hosting countries, based on similar initiatives by UNHCR in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Rwanda.

In Central Asia, the situation in Tajikistan remains fragile. It is heartening to note, however, that a recent Swiss Government-UNHCR evaluation mission found that the repatriation programme had contributed positively to the peace process.

Mr. President, let me now move to developments in Asia.

Another chapter in the saga of Indo-Chinese refugees is drawing to a close in the People's Republic of China. UNHCR is preparing to hand over the refugee assistance programme to the authorities, twenty years after the arrival of 290,000 refugees - mainly from northern Viet Nam. The programme on behalf of the 213,000 Vietnamese boat people who began arriving in Hong Kong in 1975 is also finally coming to an end. This follows the closure of our office in Ho Chi Min City in December last year. Our office in Hanoi is scheduled to close later this year.

A welcome development was the completion in March of the organised voluntary repatriation from Thailand of some 50,000 Cambodian refugees. Efforts are now concentrating on reintegration inside Cambodia, where the widespread presence of landmines and destroyed infrastructure in returnee areas are posing major challenges.

The establishment of a UNHCR presence on the Thai border with Myanmar in October 1998 has enhanced the protection of some 99,000 Karen and Karenni refugees. The border camp population has been registered and several thousand new arrivals admitted to camps. UNHCR continues to work with the Royal Thai Government on the establishment of admission criteria and the relocation of camps at risk to safer locations. We will continue to pursue the safe return of Myanmar refugees when the situation in Myanmar so allows.

In Myanmar, the main challenge ahead is to ensure the sustainable reintegration of the 230,000 Muslim refugees who returned to Northern Rakhine State since 1994. Towards this end, UNHCR is proposing the establishment of a five-year UN Integrated Development Plan which will permit a phasing out of UNHCR assistance activities by the end of 2000. The return to Myanmar of the remaining refugees in Bangladesh, estimated at 21,000 persons, resumed in November 1998 and UNHCR has urged an acceleration of the repatriation process. Discussions are also under way with the Bangladesh authorities to pursue self reliance activities for those refugees who are unwilling or unable to return to Myanmar in the near future.

UNHCR is closely following the situation in East Timor, which has seen an escalation of violence and the displacement of over 60,000 persons. Following a request from the Government of Indonesia and in agreement with UNAMET, UNHCR will play a lead role to enhance the co-ordination and provision of emergency protection and humanitarian assistance to IDPs in East and West Timor and their return to home areas.

Mr. President, I shall now turn briefly to the Americas.

I am pleased to report that the Repatriation and Reintegration Programme for Guatemalan refugees drew to an end last month, signalling a lasting solution for this large group of Central American refugees. It is the High Commissioner's hope when she arrives in Mexico later today that 1999 will see Mexico join the ranks of States Parties to the 1951 Convention, who now number 133.

In Northern Latin America, UNHCR remains concerned at the evolution of forced displacement in Colombia and its wider regional implications. An increasing number of Colombians have begun to seek safe haven in Venezuela. The Governments of both Colombia and Venezuela have underscored their intention to comply with their obligations under international refugee law and to collaborate with UNHCR in the treatment of possible new influxes from Colombia.

Mr. President,

Let me conclude my round-up of global developments by adding a few more words on the Kosovo crisis. Let us admit that we were all surprised and overwhelmed by the unforeseen development and direction of this crisis that followed the beginning of the NATO campaign. Indeed, the speed and scale of the exodus from Kosovo, which began in late March 1999, confronted UNHCR and other members of the international community with one of the largest and most publicized humanitarian crises of recent years. I shall not go into details on the operation, as so much has been covered in earlier sessions here. Suffice it to say that the Kosovo emergency has raised a number of broader issues with regard to the role of humanitarian agencies, donor states and host governments, regional organizations, military forces and alliances, and other actors in the provision of protection and assistance to refugees and displaced people.

To examine these concerns in a rigorous and systematic manner, and to ensure that UNHCR and other actors are constantly able to enhance their emergency preparedness and response capacity, UNHCR has commissioned an independent evaluation of the organization's role and performance in the Kosovo refugee crisis. The evaluation will review the efforts of the international community, including UNHCR, to prepare for potential outflows from Kosovo in the year leading up to the crisis, as well as the response mounted following the onset of the exodus at the end of March until the end of June 1999 - by which time large-scale repatriation to Kosovo was in progress. We trust that we will learn important lessons from this exercise that will help us to respond even more effectively in future.

Indeed, Mr. President, UNHCR is committed to continue improving its effectiveness to carry out its mandate. The past year has again tested the Office's capacity to respond to large-scale emergencies of enormous complexity under the glare of international and public scrutiny. UNHCR's commitment to improved effectiveness must be supported by the commitment of States, on the one hand, to uphold the basic tenets of refugee law and, on the other, to provide UNHCR with the political and financial support to assist and protect those under our mandate. It is for this reason that we consider it essential to count on the continued understanding and support of ECOSOC for our activities world-wide.

I thank you for your attention, Mr. President.