Committee debates past failings, future path of refugee-protection efforts

Report
from UN General Assembly
Published on 08 Nov 2000
GA/SHC/3620
Speakers Evoke 'Forgotten Emergencies', New Forms of Population Movement

Failures to implement peace accords were blamed for the large numbers of refugees in Africa, without recognition that support to make those accords sustainable was inadequate, the representative of Ghana told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) this morning, as it concluded its present discussion of issues related to refugees and displaced persons.

Speaking on behalf of western African countries, Ghana's representative said it was true that peace accords had been violated in spite of tremendous efforts by leaders to restore peace. And while the region had not been denied support by the international community, such assistance had been grudging, both in magnitude and in timeliness. "They have lacked the zeal with which humanitarian assistance has been brought to Kosovo and East Timor," she said.

Moreover, great importance had been attached to stabilization and post- conflict recovery. The international community had been called on to adopt broader, regionally based peace-building approaches to assist regions and countries trying to emerge from the spiral of conflict, poverty and human displacement. But the international community must comprehend the enormous burden on States of hosting large numbers of refugees while they were attempting to put sustainable development programmes into effect.

The representative of Ethiopia called for a comprehensive refugee strategy based on African values, to be worked out with the UNHCR. It should be designed in cooperation with the international community to meet African needs. Since the underlying cause for most refugee crises in Africa was armed conflict, addressing those situations should be given priority. Furthermore, the strategy should address the issue of sustainable solutions, including such steps as voluntary repatriation, integrated rehabilitation and reconciliation.

Referring to the Commonwealth of Independent States region, Croatia's representative stressed the urgent need to bridge the gap between humanitarian and development assistance in post-conflict situations. The central point was to recognize that because of its complexity and magnitude, the problem was essentially not political, but rather one with humanitarian and financial dimensions. She said efforts must encompass a socio-economic component to ensure an enabling environment essential for durable and sustainable refugee returns.

Georgia's representative said a new strategy had been developed for Abkhazian refugees in his country. Its hallmark was to address both the short- term humanitarian needs and the long-term development needs of displaced people. An undercurrent of endemic violence had required implementation of certain options in the UNHCR's "ladder of options" within the zone of conflict, in addition to taking steps against a culture of impunity.

Representatives from the Asian region stressed the need to address the problems of modern migration. The representative of the Republic of Korea noted the new challenges deriving from a mass influx of refugees and asylum-seekers, mixed with illegal immigrants, in all regions of the world. He called for an effective, universal international protection regime to counter the growing governmental backlash against asylum-seekers and the confusion, in the public mind, about perceived asylum abuses.

The modern situation, in which asylum-seekers were confused with migrants searching for a better way of life, was a result of compelling social forces at the global level, Bhutan's representative said. Those included the population explosion, environmental degradation and the extreme poverty which forced millions of people to move in search of better livelihoods. Those conditions had caused his people to move to Nepal and vice versa. Bilateral talks had not yet resolved the problems.

In concluding remarks on issues related to refugees and displaced persons, the Director of the UNHCR's New York Office said that, as the Office moved beyond its fiftieth anniversary, it would continue to search for durable solutions, to dialogue with governments and to continue to "live with the times" and "be on the ground with the people in need".

Also addressing the Committee this morning were the representatives of Yemen, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Canada, Pakistan, Algeria, Eritrea and Thailand.

The representative of the World Food Programme spoke to the Committee.

The Committee will meet again at 3:00 p.m. to consider a large number of resolutions.

Committee Work Programme

The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) met this morning to conclude its general debate of issues related to refugees, including the report of the High Commissioner for Refugees and questions related to refugees, returnees and displaced persons, as well as humanitarian questions. (For background, see Press Release GA/SHC/3616 of 6 November.)

Statements

AMEER S. ALAIDEROOS (Yemen) said it was impossible to imagine the last 50 years without the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The agency had not only successfully tackled many of the difficult situations with refugees and people of concern over those years, it had evolved to address new and even more complex challenges, including increasing numbers of persons displaced by armed conflict and civilians targeted in conflicts.

He commended the report of the High Commissioner, but noted that the statistics therein did not reflect the true number of refugees in Yemen. Thousands of refugees from the Horn of Africa entered Yemen daily, he said. Those persons were accepted in his country and granted asylum, shelter or aid out of Yemen's commitment to humanitarian principles and to the relevant international instruments. Yet, there were others who infiltrated the country unaccounted for, and who overburdened the government, as well as Yemen's economic, social and environmental resources. That was particularly troubling, since Yemen's resources were limited. There was a glimmer of hope, however, with the election of a new President in Somalia and the identification of certain "safe areas" in the region. He called on national and international organizations to work towards achieving peace and national unity in Somalia so that refugees could return home in a dignified manner. He also called for the help and cooperation of the internati

onal community. The problem of refugees and internally displaced persons was a specifically humanitarian issue, which should be approached from an international perspective, with the help of governments, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), as well as the UNHCR and other agencies. Yemen also supported innovative solutions for coordinating action to find comprehensive remedies to fill institutional and financial gaps.

ELDAR KOULIEV (Azerbaijan) said that, as a result of aggression and continued occupation by the Republic of Armenia, about 1 million refugees and displaced persons had sought safety in Azerbaijan. That statistic was catastrophic for a country of only 8 million. That situation had drawn the attention of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Displaced Persons, who made Azerbaijan his first stop when his mandate began. The purpose of that visit had been to monitor the situation with displaced persons and possibly to identify solutions. The Special Representative had noted that the problem was, indeed, a serious one and a cause of great concern for the government and citizens alike. Azerbaijan's delegation would continue speaking out on the issue until a political settlement to the protracted conflict had been achieved. It was his firm position that the solution lay in the withdrawal of Armenian troops, as well as the safe and dignified return of displaced persons. His Government supported a peaceful solution but, unfortunately, there had been no movement. He urged the United Nations to make all necessary efforts to ensure that no actions would stand in the way of the displaced persons' attempts to exercise their inalienable right to return home.

International cooperation was the key to solving those issues. And while he thanked The United Nations community for its support, he noted that because of the protracted nature of the conflict in his country, the international community had been giving the issue less attention and the amount of aid had decreased. He was also concerned that some international organizations had opted to prematurely phase out programmes of rehabilitation and move away from emergency humanitarian activities. He was convinced that long-term development projects should be implemented parallel to basic humanitarian assistance. That view had been emphasized recently at a conference where Azerbaijan's President had introduced a strategy to create jobs for internally displaced persons with the aim of making them self-reliant. He urged the international community not to reduce humanitarian assistance to Azerbaijan. He also said that his Government did not regard subregional cooperation as a constructive solution, unless the conflict was resolved. It might even lead to greater tensions throughout the region. He drew attention to the fact that Armenia had signed an agreement with a "puppet regime" in southern Azerbaijan in September. According to the agreement, that regime intended to increase the population of the region dramatically over the next three years. That revealed the hidden aim behind the agreement.

ALFONSO VALDIVIESO (Colombia) said protection of refugees was based on the universally recognized right to request political asylum in other countries. His delegation was, therefore, concerned by the practice of some countries of adopting specific measures that addressed internal concerns rather than international obligations. He urged all States to ensure acceptance and protection of refugees as well as their voluntary repatriation. Colombia worked actively to accept, protect and assist refugees and other persons of concern, in accordance with United Nations humanitarian principles. The government had responded to the needs of internally displaced persons with programmes to assist their return home. His country had relied on the help of the international community in that regard, and had also entered a pact with Ecuador to jointly manage border areas.

Turning to the statistics on internally displaced persons worldwide, he said that calculations were generally trusted out of a belief they had been gathered through cooperative work between the UNHCR and governments. That was not always the case, however. Some figures, including those on his own country, were approximations, often provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or other bodies. Accurately calculating those figures was made more difficult because they often did not include numbers of refugees who had returned home, those that had relocated or those whose economic situation had stabilized. Those important statistics should be included in all calculations, he said. Another confusing aspect was that estimates of refugee populations generally included people who traditionally moved -- most often for economic reasons -- from the country to the city. He went on to note that incomplete statistics on refugee populations often placed heavier stress on the tragedy of the situation than on the recovery process. As a result, there was greater difficulty in receiving assistance that would allow the transition from emergency situation to rehabilitation, particularly in a country emerging from conflict.

FESSEHA TESSEMA (Ethiopia) said the numbers of refugees and displaced persons continued to grow despite the significant developments that had gone into improving responses at the national, regional and international levels. An effective and comprehensive system of response was needed -- a daunting task calling for concerted effort at all levels. That programme of response should apply to people all over the world and should focus on Africa.

The problems of refugees and displaced persons in Africa were grave and complex, he continued. African countries must come together with the UNHCR to devise a comprehensive refugee strategy based on African values. It should be designed to meet African needs in cooperation with the international community. Since the underlying cause for most refugee crises in Africa was armed conflict, addressing such situations should be given priority. Furthermore, the strategy should address the issue of sustainable solutions, including such steps as voluntary repatriation, integrated rehabilitation and reconciliation.

He said his country had been hosting a large number of refugees for over three decades. The current refugee population stood well over 300,000. The country had been long known for its generosity to asylum-seekers, but the huge swell of Ethiopians displaced by the unprovoked Eritrean aggression, since May 1998, had made the burden of generosity heavier than ever. Sustaining that generosity was becoming complex.

GOCHA LORDKIPANIDZE (Georgia) said the nature of contemporary conflicts that resulted in displacement and forced migration mandated a concerted multi-actor strategy that focused on ensuring the protection and sustainability of return. His country was hosting 300,000 refugees and displaced persons who had fled ethnic cleansing and persecutions in Abkhazia. The situation was alarming, with serious food shortages and drains on resources such as accommodation and shelter, sanitation and health care. Those were exacerbated by the demands of the country's economic development policies. The situation in Georgia could serve as a litmus test for a new strategy to address the problems of refugees and displaced persons.

To ensure the security and safety of returnees, he said a protocol on refugees and displaced persons should be negotiated and implemented between parties to a conflict. In Abkhazia, that process was being assisted by the UNHCR Working Council's Working Group on refugees and displaced persons. An undercurrent of endemic lawlessness in Abkhazia required implementation of certain options in the UNHCR's "ladder of options" within the zone of conflict. In addition, actions were being taken against the culture of impunity in the zone of conflict, by identifying genocidal ethnic cleansing activities in order to take the appropriate steps.

The hallmark of the new strategy, he said, was that it addressed issues related to short-term humanitarian and long-tern development needs of displaced people. A special organ should be established within the UNHCR Coordinating Council to facilitate and develop programmes assisting vulnerable groups such as women, children and the elderly. The new approach being implemented in Georgia was an example of the cooperation in which humanitarian and long-term development assistance converged, with human rights the crucial binding element in both.

TANIA VALERIE RAQUZ (Croatia) said the new era in refugee protection concerned those who were refugees in the conventional sense. There were refugees now outside borders, as well as displaced persons within their own borders. The number of armed conflicts between States had declined in the past 25 years, but the number of intra-State conflicts had increased, with dire implications for their populations because those people lacked the protection and resources accorded to refugees. Therefore, displaced people needed the special protection of the international community. The attacks on humanitarian workers among those people was an indication of how urgent was the need to address their condition.

She said her country had been seeking to promote the return of thousands of refugees to parts of the Balkans when the refugees themselves were looking for permanent accommodation in Croatia. Hindsight indicated that the complex dimensions and human consequences of displacement demanded a comprehensive and balanced response, with the needs of both refugees and displaced persons addressed equitably. Further, those efforts must be coupled with others in the socio- economic sphere to ensure an enabling environment essential for durable and sustainable returns.

Furthermore, bridging the gap between humanitarian and development assistance in post-conflict situations was vital. Underlying that approach was the inherent realization that the complexity and magnitude of the problem made it essentially not a political one, but one encompassing humanitarian and financial dimensions. Thus, Croatia had declared a comprehensive responsibility for the right of return of all its own citizens, in a non-discriminatory manner and independent of demands for reciprocity.

BRIGITTE DIOGO (Canada) said that, despite its many achievements, the UNHCR continued to face serious challenges. Those included new and ongoing refugee- producing situations, such as the recent crises in the Russian Federation, West Africa and the Horn, and East Timor. There was also a continued need to address protracted refugee situations, where refugees might have protection in countries of first asylum, but often spent years in camps. That was particularly true for Afghan refugees and refugees from the Great Lakes region in Africa. Insecurity in refugee camps, lack of access to displaced populations, restrictions on asylum policies and the politicization of refugee movements were also among key issues facing the Office.

Those challenges were not ones the UNHCR should be left to address alone, she went on. States bore a central responsibility. Her Government agreed that UNHCR's upcoming fiftieth anniversary, as well as the fiftieth anniversary of the Convention on Human Rights, provided an excellent opportunity to take stock and examine concrete ways to strengthen the principles of refugee protection. In that context, Canada would be an active participant in the UNHCR's upcoming global consultations on international protection. She hoped that those consultations would produce concrete results aimed at finding solutions to "protection gaps" as well as improving the institution of asylum. States must work with the UNHCR to adopt and improve the comprehensive approaches needed to address refugee crises by creating a stronger relationship between relevant humanitarian actors, better linkages between assistance and development policies, and enhanced cooperation between States, civil society and the refugees themselves. Finally, she said it was unlikely that the complex nature of refugee issues would become clearer in the near future. And given the competing demands for resources, the international community must adapt quickly to better meet the needs of a changing environment. In its turn, the UNHCR must take further steps to become more effective and efficient in managing its programmes.

ALAMGIR BABAR (Pakistan) said countries hosting large refugee populations as first country of asylum were frequently developing countries with meagre resources at their disposal. The influx of large populations of refugees or displaced persons had a devastating effect on the social and economic structures of those countries, and for that reason they deserved the international community's full support in the spirit of global solidarity and burden-sharing. Indeed, burden- sharing was the strongest pillar for ensuring the sound edifice of the international refugee protection regime. He also noted with concern the High Commissioner's assertion that large numbers of refugees or other persons of concern were being increasingly subjected to detention or similar restrictive measures in various parts of the world. That regrettable trend reflected the tendency of States to move away from the principles of refugee protection and towards more discretionary arrangements that favoured domestic political concerns.

Turning to the situation in his own country, he said that Pakistan had enjoyed the unique distinction of hosting the world's largest population of refugees for the past two decades. His country had paid a staggering price for fulfilling its moral obligation and, in many districts, the demographic balance had been totally distorted, with refugees outnumbering the native population. At the peak of the exodus, there were more than 3.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The presence of such a large refugee population over such a long period had imposed enormous economic, social and environmental costs on the country. Pakistan, however, did not impose any restrictions on Afghan refugees, and continued to fulfil its commitment to protection principles. They enjoyed total freedom of movement and employment in the country. He went on to say that, in recent months, the severe drought in Afghanistan had raised fears that more refugees would soon enter Pakistan. The international community, particularly United Nations agencies, must assist the Kabul authorities in their efforts to offset the adverse impact of the drought on the population, and to avoid major population displacements in the region.

JAE-HONG LIM (Republic of Korea) said the 1951 Convention on protection of refugees should provide guiding principles for the new challenges deriving from a mass influx of refugees and asylum-seekers -- mixed with illegal immigrants -- in all regions of the world. An effective, universal international protection regime was now needed to help counter both the growing governmental backlash against asylum-seekers and the confusion, in the public mind, about perceived abuses of the asylum system. The UNHCR global consultations were moving in the right direction.

Those consultations should address specific aspects of today's conditions. That meant looking at the ever-globalizing economy and the growing complexity of population movements, including movements triggered by the need to find better opportunities. The consultations should aim at universality, including by considering measures for reaching a balance between humanitarian considerations and host-country concerns.

OM PRADHAN (Bhutan) said the modern situation, in which asylum-seekers were mixed with migrants searching for a better way of life, was a result of compelling social forces at the global level, including the population explosion, environmental degradation and the extreme poverty that forced millions of people to move in search of better livelihoods. Yesterday, however, the representative of Nepal had made some misleading references to the people in refugee camps in eastern Nepal.

First, he said, the number of 100,000 refugees was inflated by both the representative and the High Commissioner. Second, the same factors of overpopulation and extreme poverty behind the movement of Bhutanese to Nepal had also caused Nepalese to enter Bhutan. Further, the two Governments were involved in bilateral talks to solve the problems. That would be assisted by the UNHCR providing a roster of the people in the Nepalese refugee camps.

DALILA SAMAH (Algeria) said while the situations that sparked the creation of the UNHCR had been settled, new challenges had emerged over the years and placed millions of people on the path to exile. She approved of the High Commissioner's stated desire not to celebrate the Office, but the courage and determination of the refugees themselves. She went on to say that the UNHCR had seen its responsibilities increase, while financial resources for its work continued to dwindle. She, therefore, called on the international community to renew support for the Office by demonstrating greater generosity or, at least, by keeping contributions at the same level, so that relief could be ensured -- particularly in developing countries.

Africa was the region most affected by the refugee situation. Indeed, the social, political and economic implications had been well documented. It was distressing to note, however, that the volume of assistance to that continent had been constantly falling. It was essential that the international community mobilize further to provide the same levels of attention and assistance to African refugees as it did to those of other continents. She said that with a tradition of cooperation and solidarity, Algeria had always responded positively to refugees and would continue to provide aid and assistance, with the support of the UNHCR and other international organizations. She also expressed the hope of finding a solution to the conflicts in western Africa.

AMARE TEKLE (Eritrea) said it was unfortunate that he had to take the floor again to inform the Committee of the persistence of violations of the human rights of Eritreans at the hands of Ethiopia. Indeed, that situation had taken on new dimensions, as Ethiopian human rights crimes now extended to Ethiopians who had been living peacefully in Eritrea for years, even during the conflict. The appalling story of the displaced, including tens of thousands of women and children, was a story of suffering, deprivation, anxiety and fear. He went on to highlight the findings of several reports prepared by United Nations agencies on the situation in his country. He noted that more than a million Eritreans, nearly one third of the country's population, had been displaced because of aggression and occupation by Ethiopia. It was a source of continuing pain that the occupying Ethiopian authorities were mercilessly destroying the cultural heritage of most of the occupied territories, with the aim of obliterating their traditional characteristics.

He said that governments were emboldened to commit such crimes when they were reasonably certain that the international community would not take any meaningful action against them. There was no doubt that timely action on the part of the world community could have made Ethiopia think twice before repeatedly committing such crimes. It was, thus, imperative that the international community should not only respect but ensure respect for international human rights and humanitarian laws. Unfortunately, it seemed that the Ethiopian Government would continue committing such crimes until the appropriate human rights mechanisms, including the Committee, responded in a meaningful and credible manner.

BEATRICE ROSA BROBBEY (Ghana), speaking on behalf of western African countries, recalled that of the more than 22 million refugees in the world, 2.5 million were in West Africa. The High Commissioner had attributed the condition to systematic violations of human rights, or to failures in peace negotiations or implementation of peace accords. While it was true that peace accords had been violated, in spite of tremendous efforts by leaders to restore peace, it was also disappointing that the peace accords had not received the international support that would make them sustainable.

While the region had not been denied support by the international community, she said such assistance had been grudging, both in magnitude and in timeliness. "They have lacked the zeal with which humanitarian assistance has been brought to Kosovo and East Timor," she stated.

The High Commissioner attached great importance to stabilization and post- conflict recovery, she recalled. The international community had been exhorted to adopt broader, regionally based peace-building approaches to assist regions and countries trying to emerge from the spiral of conflict, poverty and human displacement. Ghana recognized the need for international solidarity and burden- sharing in dealing with refugee problems. However, the international community must comprehend the enormous burden of hosting large numbers of refugees at a time when Africa was putting sustainable development programmes into effect and fighting the environmental degradation that resulted from large numbers of refugees living for extended periods under temporary, inadequate conditions. Those included insufficient capability to maintain security, which also strained resources and relations.

While voluntary repatriation to countries of origin was the preferred long- term solution in refugee-hosting countries, some countries, such as Benin and Burkina Faso, had successfully integrated those refugees who wished to be settled there. For either solution, however, the construction of infrastructure was a prerequisite for lasting peace. Those issues needed immediate address: refugees were finding it increasingly difficult to find safe havens due to the erosion of accepted refugee protection principles and the adoption of restrictive asylum policies.

ASDA JAYANAMA (Thailand) said that his was a country of first asylum which had been host to hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons from neighbouring countries over the past three decades. Even today, he said, more than 100,000 displaced persons were being sheltered in 11 temporary border sites. There were also estimated to be 1 million illegal workers on Thai soil. Playing host to such a large number of displaced persons had become increasingly burdensome for Thailand. The country's administration, environment, security protection and ability to control the spread of disease had all been affected. The experience had taught Thailand that it could not handle those situations alone; the international community must provide support in accordance with the principles of solidarity and burden-sharing. Moreover, the problem should be tackled in a comprehensive manner, with cooperation from all parties concerned, including countries of origin, donor countries and countries of final settlement.

He said that donor fatigue would persist if the international community allowed the refugee problem to become a "growth industry". It was time for international actors to look at the refugee problem from a different perspective -- not only by looking at the problem of protecting refugees but also by preventing the undesirable outflow of refugees and displaced persons. That was the way to address the root cause of the problem, he