Statement by Mr. Jean-Pierre Hocké, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the International Conference on Indo-Chinese Refugees, Geneva, 13 June 1989

Statements by High Commissioner, 13 June 1989

Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

A decade has elapsed since the international community met here in Geneva, under the chairmanship of the then Secretary-General of the United Nations, to address a crisis caused by the massive influx of Indo-Chinese asylum-seekers into the South-East Asian region. That crisis was one of vast proportions and a response of an equal scale was required from the community of nations. Looking back from the vantage point of the present at what has been accomplished over the last ten years, we see an achievement that is almost without parallel in the history of my Office as a concerted and sustained effort by the international community to ensure asylum and protection and provide durable solutions to such a large and diverse refugee population. On the basis of the burden-sharing arrangements agreed upon in July 1979, first asylum has been secured and durable resettlement solutions made available to well over one million refugees, allowing them to begin new and productive lives in security and dignity.

Nevertheless, Mr. President, we are all painfully aware that what has been achieved in this spirit of international solidarity has required constant vigilance and ever renewed efforts in the face of the appalling tragedies and less spectacular human misery that have accompanied the Indo-Chinese refugee exodus. There have been occasions when the political will to provide asylum and durable solutions has faltered and even failed resulting, inter alia, in the outright denial of asylum, including tragic "push-offs" of refugee boats, in restriction of access by my Office to asylum-seekers, or in prolonged internment of persons of our concern under difficult conditions which fall below minimum accepted standards. The passage of time, perceived changes in the nature of the outflow from the countries of Indo-China and, since 1986, a sharp upturn in the scale of the boat exodus from Viet Nam have progressively eroded the consensus on which our approach to the Indo-Chinese refugee question has been based. The complex situation we now find ourselves in demands a new approach which takes due account of changed realities and different needs ten years after our last international meeting and fourteen years after the exodus of Indo-Chinese asylum-seekers began. I nevertheless wish to preface my remarks with an urgent appeal to all here present to ensure that the same spirit of humanitarianism as was so apparent in 1979 again guides our deliberations today and informs any new arrangements that may be decided upon by this Conference. It is my firm belief that, in maintaining that spirit in this humanitarian forum and in avoiding a partisan and adversarial approach to the problem that faces us, we will not only find a solution acceptable to all parties but also make a significant contribution to the development of the universally applauded peace process in the South-East Asian region, wherein lies an eventual overall and durable solution to the refugee problems we are here to discuss.

Mr. President, the past year has been marked by an intensive series of multilateral consultations with countries of origin, of first asylum and of resettlement which have been conducted in an effort to find a new comprehensive and solution-oriented approach to the Indo-Chinese refugee problem. The draft Comprehensive Plan of Action that we have before us today embodies the results of that process. It attempts to address and reconcile a range of complex political, diplomatic, legal and humanitarian issues, not all of which are easily reconcilable. The pressures and inclinations to succumb to simpler and harsher responses are great, and are not new. Yet if the history of this refugee exodus has taught us anything, it has shown that such responses are counter-productive and, in the longer-term, unsustainable. In insisting on the proper protection of the asylum-seekers concerned, we are not blindly ignoring the intense and dynamic political realities which circumscribe this problem. Rather we are attempting to establish the only viable framework within which the complex balance of interests reflected in the provisions of the Comprehensive Plan of Action can be maintained. The fragility of the balance is well-known to us all, and nothing is more likely to destabilise it than hasty and harsh unilateral action to deal with any one of its components.

While conscious of that fragility and deeply preoccupied by the very high current rate of arrivals in the South-East Asian region with the danger implicit in it for any new set of humanitarian arrangements, my Office is greatly encouraged by the extent of the agreement which has been reached in the process of drawing up the draft CPA, which was endorsed by all twenty-nine directly concerned governments which attended the Preparatory Meeting held in Kuala Lumpur in March this year. The source of that encouragement lies above all in the assurances of temporary refuge contained in the Comprehensive Plan of Action. As we have stated on many occasions, including at the Kuala Lumpur Preparatory Meeting for this Conference in March, an international commitment to the principle and practice of first asylum and to the humanitarian treatment of all asylum seekers in South-East Asia must be a basic objective of this Conference. For my Office it is the fundamental starting point of this important international exercise. If tragedy is again to be averted in South-East Asia and the principles of international protection safeguarded, asylum must be provided, without exception, to all who seek it, so that their claims to refugee status can be properly evaluated and determined and subsequent appropriate solutions sought.

Mr. President, my Office is acutely aware of the heavy burden imposed upon countries of first asylum by a seemingly endless and even swelling tide of asylum-seekers, and of the serious domestic problems that the influx can cause for governments in the region. In recent weeks, a situation of acute crisis has emerged in Hong Kong, where some 18,000 asylum-seekers have arrived at a rapidly accelerating rate so far this year. In other parts of the region, average arrival rates have been running well above their equivalents for 1988. The total population of boat refugees from Viet Nam has risen sharply from some 31,000 in 1986, when there was widespread hope that the exodus may have been reaching an end, to some 89,000 at the present time.

In the face of an influx of these proportions, concern has been widely voiced by both countries of first asylum and resettlement, and much emphasis has been placed on the need to bring clandestine and disorderly departures from Viet Nam under control. We are as concerned as States that the international refugees structures should not be exploited and over-loaded by non-refugees, however humanly understandable their wishes to seek better lives may be. This is a problem by no means unique to South-East Asia but one which increasingly affects the rest of the world and which has to be globally addressed by speedy, fair and efficient procedures to determine those who are properly of concern to the international community. The temptation to short-circuit this process by arbitrarily denying asylum or by harsh measures of treatment equally intended to dissuade further arrivals, is not the way to achieve this. Such measures are not only both inhumane and ineffectual but may also have a far-reaching and disastrous impact on the situation in the region and, by inevitable extension, on the rest of the world. In this context, we must also not lose sight of the fact that the right of freedom of movement is one which has been fought for, and strongly defended, by the majority of States for many years. The right freely to leave one's own country and, if necessary, to seek asylum in another, is a basic, internationally endorsed right which has been formally enshrined for more than four decades in one of the earliest proclamations of the United Nations. In recent years, and even months, we have seen some of the major impediments to this freedom being removed in other parts of the world. We must be extremely careful, in our anxiety to resolve a prolonged refugee problem such as in South-East Asia, that in doing so we do not give encouragement, whether wittingly or unwittingly, to the restoration of such impediments. There are a range of other measures which are both acceptable and viable, even if politically more difficult, to address the underlying causes of refugee movements.

My Office fully endorses efforts to bring about a reduction in unauthorised departures from Viet Nam through the widening and administrative improvement of the Orderly Departure Programme. We also support plans to give extensive publicity in countries of origin and abroad to procedures for departure through regular channels, to the dangers of clandestine departure, to the new arrangements for the determination of refugee status in countries of first asylum and to the limitation of third country resettlement programmes to those determined to be refugees. Particular grounds for optimism have been found in the considerable expansion of the Orderly Departure Programme that has occurred in recent months and in the constructive approach taken by the Vietnamese authorities in discussing further enlargement and administrative improvements. While, some 13,000 persons left Viet Nam through this authorised channel in 1987 and some 21,000 in 1988, over 16,700 have left in the first five months of 1989. We are confident that continued expansion and facilitation of this programme will continue to be achieved and trust that it will eventually include all categories mentioned in the Comprehensive Plan of Action, thereby becoming a fully viable alternative to clandestine departure from Viet Nam. While measures taken or planned have not yet had an impact on the outflow from Viet Nam, which has increased sharply in the pre-Conference period, it is our firm hope that, as an integral part of the set of new arrangements foreseen under the Comprehensive plan of Action, they Will play a significant role in bringing about a marked reduction in the clandestine exodus.

Mr. President, there have, in recent years, been increasingly widespread expressions of concern that third country resettlement has itself become a stimulus to the exodus from Viet Nam of persons who may not qualify for refugee status in accordance with generally accepted international criteria. At the same time, there has been an inevitable and increasing reluctance on the part of the international community to accept the responsibility for providing asylum and durable solutions to those whose departures from their countries of origin are not connected with refugee status. It has, therefore, been necessary to envisage the introduction throughout the South-East Asian region of systematic determination procedures so as to ensure that those with valid grounds for refugee status have that status promptly recognised and benefit from the required international protection and durable solutions. It is of paramount importance to my Office that all asylum-seekers without exception have access to these procedures, that uniform standards be applied throughout the region and that procedures be carried out in full accordance with internationally accepted criteria. In the process of consultation leading up to this Conference and notably in the work of the Co-ordinating Committee and its Sub-Committees, we have been impressed with the seriousness of the approach of the first-asylum countries to this fundamental and difficult question. Without underestimating the complexity of the issue, which will require considerable additional financial and staffing resources from UNHCR in order to carry out the required training, monitoring and advisory functions, we believe that the commitment shown by these countries in developing determination procedures augurs well for the success of this undertaking. Nevertheless, the ultimate proof of the new arrangements will lie not so much in the procedures themselves, important though these may be, as in the application of the criteria for the recognition of refugee status. My Office would wish again to emphasize the importance of these being applied in full accordance with the spirit of the Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The introduction of eligibility determination procedures for all new arrivals in the region raises the question of solutions for those not recognised as refugees. This is an issue of great concern to countries of first asylum, which are anxious not to be left with a residual burden of rejected cases, and one which has been the subject of much intense debate during the preparations for this Conference.

I believe that the Comprehensive Plan of Action is clear on this point. Those determined not to be refugees should in principle return home and all efforts should be made to ensure, in the first instance, that return is on a voluntary basis. For my Office, this issue is also clear. Should persons be determined not to be refugees under procedures and criteria which are internationally acceptable, they are not legally within UNHCR's competence or its statutory responsibilities. Nevertheless, as stipulated in the Comprehensive Plan of Action, my Office stands ready to continue to provide humanitarian assistance and to promote durable solutions on a "good offices" basis. The logic of our common endeavours over the past fifteen years indicates that we should pursue our co-operation with the international community in seeking appropriate and humane solutions for the victims of the longstanding regional crisis in South-East Asia. It is our strongly held view that the same humanitarian principles that the international community has striven to uphold in addressing the Indo-Chinese refugee question in the past should continue to guide our efforts until the problem is definitively resolved by an overall regional settlement. Any other, less humane or less principled approach may well call into question and indeed render impossible the participation of UNHCR.

In addressing the question of the return of those determined not to be refugees or of other voluntary repatriants to their countries of origin, arrangements under which they can return home in conditions of non-recrimination, safety and dignity are of crucial importance. On 13 December 1988 my Office and the Government of Viet Nam signed a Memorandum of Understanding covering procedures for the return, reception and reintegration of voluntary repatriants. To date, two groups totalling 143 Vietnamese nationals have returned home voluntarily from Hong Kong under the provisions of this agreement and individual cases have also repatriated from other locations in the regions. The reintegration of these returnees is being closely monitored by UNHCR and we are pleased to report that it has been carried out in full accordance with the terms of the agreement. There have also been encouraging recent developments in the voluntary repatriation programme for Lao refugees and asylum-seekers in Thailand, whereby the Government of the Lao People's Democratic Republic has agreed to accept the return of 150 persons each month and, given the necessary assistance, to increase its acceptance quotas progressively. Nevertheless, despite these limited successes, the numbers who have so far volunteered to return home are greatly overshadowed by new arrivals reaching countries of first asylum or, in the case of the Loa, by the large camp populations for whom solutions are yet to be found.

In order to make a significant impact, voluntary repatriation will need to be vigorously promoted through a series of inter-related measures, including counselling of rejected cases, appropriate educational programmes, individual or group incentives and expanded reintegration assistance for returnees. May I add in this last respect, and in the light of experience gained in other refugee situations that there could be no more promising ingredient for the promotion of voluntary return than the extension of assistance and related incentives to include communities of origin. I would like to assure you, Mr. President, that my Office stands ready to play to the fullest possible extent, and in full collaboration with appropriate intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, its role in the promotion of repatriation and the provision of humanitarian assistance, including that directed to facilitating the reintegration of returnees. We believe that the success of such efforts should not be negatively prejudged in the climate of tension surrounding current high arrival rates.

Even given the success of efforts to promote and implement durable solutions, an interim period in first-asylum camps is a reality that will still have to be faced by asylum-seekers, refugees and rejected cases. I wish to stress how important it is that living conditions provided both for those awaiting determination of refugee status and for rejected cases take full account of the dignity and human needs of those involved. The imposition of harsh living conditions, in addition to being unacceptable in humanitarian terms, can have far-reaching effects on the physical and psychological health of asylum-seekers. It can, moreover, greatly complicate the pursuit of durable solutions by creating at both individual and group levels problems that are difficult to overcome in either a resettlement or reintegration situation and thus have precisely the opposite effect from that intended by those who may introduce them in an effort to deter arrivals and induce repatriation.

To continue to provide durable solutions to those recognised as refugees and to the population of Vietnamese boat people already in the region before the introduction of the various cut-off dates after which determination is to be applied, a renewed commitment to the provision of resettlement places is essential. My Office hopes that a concerted effort by the international community will make it possible to clear camps in the region of all refugees who arrived before the cut-off dates within a three year period. While such a time-frame may seem short, it is imperative that no further time be lost as many refugees have long been awaiting solutions under conditions which are frequently difficult and sometimes harsh and inhumane, and as severe pressures on both public opinion and physical infrastructure in first asylum countries have been generated by the recent influx of new arrivals. May I therefore take this opportunity to underline my recent appeal to resettlement countries to increase their respective intakes and to liberalize their criteria so as to take account of the more difficult cases among the population of "longstayers", and to ask governments concerned to give this matter their most urgent attention. May I also urge the rapid resettlement of those recognised as refugees under the determination procedures being established in the region.

Mr. President, certain crossroads are of particular historic significance. At them the destiny of millions of human beings is at stake. And at them occur those awe-inspiring moments when as individuals or collectively, as the international community, we have no right to fail. Such was 1979. Such again, and maybe even more so, is today. It is essential that the efforts undertaken over the last fifteen years to solve the Indo-Chinese refugees problem be pursued with determination, persistence and a sense of continuity. Since 1975, two million persons have found new homes. Others, who are comparatively few in number, expect to receive the support to which their dignity as human beings entitles them. The Comprehensive Plan of Action Places this goal within our reach. It will only be attained, however, if universal humanitarian principles are respected. It is therefore vital that the consensus achieved in Kuala Lumpur be preserved. Even more important is it to sustain, in endorsing the Comprehensive Plan of Action, the spirit in which that earlier consensus was reached. Any holding back would jeopardise its implementation. We now find ourselves again at that elusive point where inviolable principles and the legitimate interests of states coincide. The preservation of that convergence is the key to the success of our efforts. No-one has the right to disturb the balance that has been attained without incurring a heavy responsibility before the judgement of history. Let us unite in accepting the challenge of making the Comprehensive Plan of Action succeed. Therein lies the only worthy and realistic path to be followed by those who refuse to resort to expedients which would inevitably entail unacceptable consequences in the region and throughout the world. The struggle and sacrifice that have been devoted over the last two centuries to winning respect for human rights forbid us to take any other path.

Thank you Mr. President.

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