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Briefing by Mrs S. Ogata, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Security Council of the UN on the Situation of Refugees in Africa

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New York, 13 January 2000
Mr President,

I wish you and all members of the Security Council a happy new year.

In saying this, at your second "Month of Africa" session, my thoughts go to the African people. A majority of them have spent Christmas, Ramadan, and the turn of the millennium, struggling to survive, in misery and fear. Let me therefore congratulate you for launching the "Month of Africa". I hope it will also be the "Month of the Africans" - because, while we celebrate this time of extraordinary hope, energy and opportunity, it is important that we also speak about the millions of dramatically deprived people living on the African continent. As the head of an organisation which devotes 40% of its resources to Africa - where UNHCR takes care of about six million people - I feel encouraged by your initiative, and wish to thank you for inviting me.

Twice last year, discussing African problems with the Council, I shared my hopes and expressed my concerns - concerns which, I should add, have further deepened. In July, at the OAU Summit in Algiers, new and dynamic leaderships in some key African states, and the signing of the Lomé and Lusaka ceasefire agreements, had been the cause of some optimism. Six months later, however, the situation in many areas, especially in Central Africa, is becoming more critical.

Mr President,

In the last few years, the pattern of refugee crises, especially in Africa, has undergone significant changes. Refugees continue to flee violence and conflict - almost invariably compounded by poverty - and to seek asylum in safer countries. Others - and increasingly so - seek refuge as internally displaced people in safer parts of their own countries. In Angola, for example, almost 20% of the population has fled - both outside and inside the borders of the country.

Dealing with the internally displaced is often more arduous than with refugees who cross borders. The difficulty of having access to large numbers of people in insecure and isolated areas is compounded by the complexity of assisting civilians in their own country - where their own state authorities, or rebel forces in control, are frequently the very cause of their predicament. Hundreds of thousands of people at risk in war areas such as South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Angola and Sierra Leone - a majority of them internally displaced - are presently not accessible to humanitarian agencies. And where such access is possible, it is often very dangerous. The killing of two United Nations staff members in Burundi last November is just the last of many such fatal incidents affecting humanitarian personnel.

Current refugee crises also have other complex aspects. The security, socio-economic and natural environment of countries of asylum are severely affected by large forced population movements. It is the countries which have most generously hosted refugees that have paid the highest price - such as Tanzania and Guinea, for example. Other countries, in spite of their own difficult situations, have nevertheless received large refugee groups - Liberia, for example, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. War-induced, mass population movements have also contributed to the spreading of conflicts, as has been the case in Central and West Africa.

Throughout your recent African tour, Mr President, you have repeatedly declared that we need to bring quick, or should I say quicker solutions to refugee crises. Who would not agree, knowing of the desperate plight of refugee women and children in makeshift, inhospitable and dangerous camps? Seeking solutions to refugee problems has always been part of UNHCR's mandate, along with the need to ensure the protection of refugees. The international context also demands faster solutions. Following the end of the Cold War, the narrowing links between forced human displacement and conflicts have increased the concerns of governments about human displacement problems - pressure to resolve them rapidly is constantly mounting, and not only in Africa, as Kosovo and East Timor have demonstrated.

However, there can be no solution to refugee crises - and especially no voluntary repatriation - if wars that force people to flee are not stopped. Conflicts, in turn, will not be resolved unless some basic power sharing problems are addressed. In some regions of Africa, controlling natural resources - oil, diamonds, wood - appears to be a more pressing concern, for governments and rebel groups alike, than the welfare of people living in embattled areas. The relative ease with which arms are trafficked between countries all over the world means that conflicts are continuously supplied. The worst pages of colonial history seem to live again in situations in which people struggle to survive while small groups benefit from Africa's wealth, and enormous resources are wasted in pursuing war.

There are no effective conflict resolution mechanisms in Africa - on the contrary, armed groups waging war against governments are often openly supported by other governments. And inputs to turn war into peace - and even to consolidate peace when it is attained, as in Rwanda and Liberia, for example - are very timid and piecemeal: can we speak of any substantive reconstruction programme, like those generously funded by governments in Kosovo or East Timor, in any African country today?

The effectiveness of humanitarian action can thus only be limited. This kind of war offers little opportunity for international humanitarian law to be promoted and respected. With human displacement having become a military objective, upholding the rights of refugees often has unwarranted consequences, because armed groups frequently infiltrate refugee populations. Clearly, refugee crises cannot be resolved in a vacuum. I wish to insist on this point. The "Month of Africa" should be an opportunity for the Council to seek more decisive measures to address the problems that I have mentioned - the indiscriminate struggle for resources, the uncontrolled flow of arms, the lack of conflict resolution mechanisms, and weak support to post conflict situations.

From UNHCR's perspective, I would also like to insist once more on two security priorities: the need to build everywhere an effective law enforcement capacity, and the need to provide systematic support to regional peacekeeping. I will not elaborate further on these themes, but would like to remind you of our proposal to develop "middle" level security measures in the overall available ladder of options of which I have frequently spoken, and which some governments have decided to examine. I hope that these initiatives, with the support of the Council, will yield some concrete results in the near future.

I am not saying that my Office should abdicate its responsibility to promote the respect of refugees' rights - particularly the right to asylum - and in assisting refugees in need. It is important that UNHCR makes efforts at the community level to assist affected populations, and ultimately to help refugees return home. Helping communities is an area in which humanitarian work - with its emphasis on vulnerable groups - can be a valuable complement to conflict resolution and peace-building efforts. Mr President, you have seen for yourself that - even in the absence of large developmental activities - UNHCR and humanitarian agencies have been able to carry out a substantive reintegration programme in Rwanda, a country where 25% of the population are recent returnees - many of them women and girls heading large households. All these efforts, however, will be neither effective nor durable if they are not complemented at the political level by African states, supporting governments and developmental institutions.

Therefore, I agree with anyone who argues that refugee crises should not be allowed to linger; that for humanitarian reasons - and in order to protect the security and prosperity of areas affected by human displacement - they should be resolved quickly. But without clearer, more decisive action by governments, which the Security Council has a responsibility in inspiring, designing and leading, refugee crises cannot be resolved - unless we force people back from where they have fled, violating principles, threatening the security and stability of entire regions, and ultimately failing to address the root causes of conflict and human displacement.

The situation is critical in many parts of Africa. Nowhere, however, war and violence affect millions of exhausted civilians more than in Central Africa. There are unresolved and closely linked conflicts in or around at least seven countries - Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda. This is an area in which refugee movements have continued to occur almost uninterruptedly since independence, and have worsened in the last few years. Armed groups control vast areas in which security is very precarious and ethnic tensions are being exacerbated again - witness the attack in North West Rwanda at the end of December, in which 30 people were killed and 40 were injured.

From the point of view of UNHCR, I would like to draw the attention of the Council to three Central African countries in particular.

First, Burundi. In the last quarter of 1999 alone, 30,000 new refugees have fled to Tanzania. The total number of Burundian refugees in that country is now about 300,000. The number of internally displaced people has also increased. There are an estimated 300,000 people in "regroupment" sites - virtually, internally displaced people created by a government policy. This is an issue of great concern to humanitarian agencies. Although we understand the government's security priorities, it is imperative that a number of conditions be fulfilled for assistance to be provided at the sites: people must be "regrouped" only on a voluntary basis; access by humanitarian agencies to "regrouped" people must be granted; and the internally displaced outside the sites must also be assisted. The government must also give fuller and clearer guarantees for the security of humanitarian staff.

Most importantly, however, the Arusha peace process must be revitalized and strengthened. The appointment of Nelson Mandela as Facilitator is a most welcome development - I hope that his statemanship and charisma will allow negotiations to yield positive results soon. If Arusha fails, we can only expect more violence and - inevitably - more forced human displacement in Burundi, with unpredictable consequences for the stability of the entire region.

Second, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There is a real risk that the Lusaka agreement will not be implemented. This would have frightful repercussions - although, from the vantage point of the refugee agency, the consequences of protracted war are already a humanitarian tragedy. In my last visit, I was struck by the visibly deteriorating conditions of the people, in spite of the natural wealth of the country and the traditional Congolese resourcefulness. On the one hand, in spite of all difficulties, UNHCR continues to support the repatriation of Rwandans - 36,000 have returned through Goma in 1999. On the other, however, over 130,000 Congolese have fled abroad - a large majority in Tanzania; and a very large number - millions, probably, although nobody can really estimate their total - are internally displaced. In spite of their urgent humanitarian needs, there can be little or no access to those internally displaced unless hostilities end and peacekeepers are deployed to protect humanitarian operations.

It is crucial that the Security Council provides more decisive support to conflict resolution in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The priorities are clear: stop conflict, and deploy peacekeepers; obtain full access to all people with humanitarian needs, particularly the internally displaced; and start reconstruction and development. The efforts of Ambassador Morjane, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, to establish UN presence throughout the country, must be supported.

Third, Angola. The humanitarian crisis there is perhaps the worst in Africa. Once again, human displacement statistics are an indicator of the gravity of the situation. There are 370,000 Angolan refugees in neighbouring countries, and the outflow continues. Zambia has already 200,000, and since it also hosts other refugees, particularly Congolese, it is now one of the largest asylum countries in Africa. The number of internally displaced people is very large - one to two million! - but it is impossible to estimate it precisely, since access by humanitarian agencies is limited. Security is the main obstacle. Fighting has resumed in many parts of the country. There are - perhaps - up to 10 million landmines. The peace process is all but stalled. Unless peace makes some progress, with concrete and positive consequences on security on the ground, it is difficult to envisage the resumption of large assistance programmes in Angola, let alone a rapid solution to the problems of human displacement, including the return of refugees and internally displaced people.

In all three countries, renewed population movements are therefore a clear consequence of unresolved, and sometimes worsening conflict. Everywhere, there is a pattern of growing internal displacement, with decreasing possibilities of access by humanitarian agencies. This is of great concern.

UNHCR assists internally displaced people when there is a request by the Secretary-General, or when the crisis is closely linked to a refugee or returnee situation. Other humanitarian agencies - particularly UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and NGOs - intervene in some situations. However, there is no established mechanism for the assistance - and particularly the protection of the internally displaced. Donor governments are very reluctant to allocate resources for programmes in fragile, insecure areas - UNHCR activities in Angola, for example, had to be drastically curtailed because of insecurity and lack of funds.

Yet, the presence of internally displaced people throughout Central Africa is not only a humanitarian problem, but also one of security. Action needs to be taken urgently to compensate for the lack of protection mechanisms for internally displaced people. However, I would like to warn against isolating them as a separate category - today, the root causes of displacement, be it of refugees or of internally displaced people, do not fundamentally differ: look at Kosovo, for example, or at the situation in the North Caucasus. What is most important is to devise comprehensive mechanisms to protect people fleeing their homes because of persecution and violence, and comprehensive, regionally-based solutions to their predicament.

In West Africa, there are more reasons for optimism, although some of the complex, conflict-related displacement problems persist.

For the 450,000 Sierra Leonean refugees, mostly in Guinea and Liberia, the objective is voluntary repatriation - this is clearly the solution of one of the largest refugee problems in Africa, and UNHCR is tentatively planning for the return of up to 170,000 refugees in the course of 2000, with organized repatriation - for those who need it - starting in April. However, conditions in Sierra Leone must improve. Action must be taken in three priority areas. First, adequate pressure must be put on the signatories of the Lomé agreement to abide by its provisions - recent episodes of renewed fighting inside the country are very worrying. Second, peacekeepers and military observers must be swiftly deployed to field locations. Third, the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration programme must be given the necessary resources and implemented as swiftly as possible. In all these areas, the Security Council can play an important role. And from the humanitarian viewpoint, the rehabilitation and reintegration of amputees - particularly children - is a very important priority that needs to be adequately supported.

Concerns about Sierra Leone should not make us forget the situation in Liberia. The country has received about 330,000 returnees from Guinea, Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana in the last few years, and some 190,000 Liberians remain in exile. UNHCR would like to end the organized repatriation by mid-2000. The situation in the country, however, remains fragile. In some areas, like Lofa County, security is particularly precarious. Because this is a region of return, and also of refuge for Sierra Leoneans, UNHCR is promoting capacity building programmes for the local administration and police. Broader programmes, however, are needed throughout the country to consolidate peace and prevent renewed human displacement. Resources for rehabilitation and development are woefully lacking.

I should also mention the Horn of Africa, where attempts to resolve refugee problems are conducted against a background of on-going political tensions, with uneven results. There are many unresolved conflicts in the region - civil war in Sudan; internal unrest in Northern Uganda; war between Ethiopia and Eritrea; an unsettled situation throughout Somalia. In spite of this, UNHCR is working with governments to try to bring solutions to the plight of hundreds of thousands of people who have lived - sometimes for decades - away from their homes.

The situation in Somalia is fragile, but repatriation from Ethiopia to more stable areas in the North-West continues, and should be supported. Eritrea has recently agreed to resume the repatriation of the remaining Eritrean refugees still in Sudan - this is a very positive development. With respect to Ethiopian refugees, UNHCR is pursuing the implementation of the "clause of cessation" of their refugee status, since the conditions that prompted their flight from Ethiopia do not exist any longer: this is being discussed with host governments. In Northern Uganda, in spite of many security problems, we are proceeding with the local integration of refugees from South Sudan, and we hope to be able to promote the same solution for those in Western Ethiopia.

Needless to say, these efforts to resolve refugee problems are greatly complicated by the tension prevailing in the area, within certain countries and between others. The Horn of Africa is another example of a situation in which UNHCR's humanitarian efforts on the ground would be much more effective if they were carried out in the context of broader political initiatives. I hope that the Security Council will take the opportunity of the "Month of Africa" to strengthen its support for the OAU initiative towards the resolution of the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict; I also hope that regional efforts to bring Somalia back into the fold of nations will receive international encouragement and support.

In spite of some improvements, the situation in West Africa and the Horn is far from settled. The end of acute emergency situations, however, should allow the international community to adopt broader, regionally-based peace-building approaches. In West Africa, UNHCR is planning to promote such an approach to address, for example, the negative consequences of refugee movements on the economy and the environment in some West African countries. And there is a host of problems which should be tackled through a comprehensive, regional strategy in both areas, ranging from the need to strengthen administrative structures to the collapse of civil society institutions to abuses of human rights. The Security Council should promote regional initiatives - following for example the model of the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe - that could involve states in the respective regions, supporting governments, regional and international organizations, and civil society. Human displacement being of course a regional problem by definition, my Office would warmly welcome any such initiative.

There are other refugee problems that I have not mentioned, of course, such as those concerning the Sahrawis; and the refugees from the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Gabon. The examples I have given, however, show that conflicts in Africa continue to have the most serious humanitarian impact on people's lives, especially when they compel people to flee their homes.

Let me say once more that humanitarian action alone will not be able to solve any of the problems leading to forced human displacement; it cannot substitute for governments, and the Security Council, in areas for which they have a clear responsibility, such as peacekeeping and peace-building. The Council has an essential role to play in preventing, containing and resolving conflicts - and hence refugee problems - in Africa: by taking clear, strong and united positions; by supporting more decisively, rapidly and substantively the follow-up to peace agreements; by promoting the mobilization of resources for reconstruction and peace-building: in short, by moving from issuing statements to taking action.

The success of the "Month of Africa" - I am sure you will agree - will depend on how rapidly and effectively your discussions here in New York will be translated into concrete action in the field. We must strive to obtain what we have too often failed to achieve: that what is discussed and decided here, in the Security Council, actually helps the lives of women and men in African cities and in African villages become safer and better. We at UNHCR know very well that solutions are difficult - that to have a positive impact on situations that have deteriorated beyond description is a very, very tall order. But we must make the effort. In your discussions, different approaches will certainly emerge. This is inevitable. The plight of the Africans has become so critical that - I hope - the Council will be able to put aside differences, and devise concrete measures to address it.

This is now dramatically urgent.

Let me go back to where I started - to the African people. Africa - as the rest of the world - will not be "secure" unless its people feel secure. Those in particular who are of concern to my Office - refugees, internally displaced people, returnees - are first and foremost human beings in need of protection and care. I am thinking especially of the most vulnerable among them - refugee women and children exposed to even greater risks than their peers living at home: rape, AIDS and other epidemics, forced recruitment; and the elderly, whom I so frequently meet in my field trips, and whose fear, and despair, and exhaustion, never fail to anguish me. They, above all, are the victims of the wars that we do not stop.

I agree with you, Mr President: their plight demands quick solutions. I have spoken of the support which my Office expects from the Security Council. Let me conclude on a humanitarian note, by saying that their plight also demands immediate attention. In spite of all the problems that I have mentioned, states must continue to uphold the rights of refugees, and provide asylum when people flee war and persecution. Donor governments must share the burden of asylum by ensuring an adequate level of basic assistance in camps and settlements, and for returnees going back home.

In both areas there has been little, if no progress at all, in the past few years. What is provided to refugees in Africa, including food and other basic survival items, is far less than in other parts of the world. This is unacceptable. I hope that the "Month of Africa" at the Security Council will prompt the international community to address - seriously - this grave imbalance in material assistance.

On our side, at the end of the year 2000, we shall observe the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Among other initiatives, we are planning to launch a special Refugee Education Trust, which would allow refugees - especially in Africa - to pursue post-primary education during their exile, an opportunity sadly lacking today. True, it will be impossible to meet the needs of all refugee students - but I hope that we shall be able to provide at least some support to the most deserving and needy.

Amidst so much violence, terror and despair, it will be a powerful symbol of the willingness of the international community to support refugees - to help them make a contribution to their host communities, and prepare themselves for a stable life after their plight is resolved.

We must give them hope for a better future.

Thank you, Mr President.