Today's date:
Fall 2000

From Refugees to Global Migration Management

Sadako Ogata is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954 and 1981.

Geneva—When the United Nations High Commission for Refugees was established exactly 50 years ago, it was entrusted to help 1 million refugees still homeless in the aftermath of World War II. The agency was given deliberately modest means—a staff of 34, a budget of $300,000 annually and a three-year mandate—to accomplish this seemingly straightforward mission. Member states of the UN General Assembly, which created the agency, should perhaps have taken a glance over their collective shoulder and studied history a little more carefully before settling on this quick-€x solution.

People have been persecuted and driven into exile from the moment they came together to form communities. And although the world was briefly awash in idealism in the wake of the second global conflagration of the century, history has again proved to be a stern teacher.

While the original victims were eventually resettled, the refugee contagion spread from Europe to Africa in the ’60s, then to Asia and the rest of the world. The number of uprooted people spiraled to a record 27 million in the mid-1990s. UNHCR’s original mandate was, of course, repeatedly extended, but to underline the enormity of the problem, its first budget of $300,000 rose to an annual outlay of more than $1 billion in the 1990s. Hundreds of other humanitarian agencies were established as the "refugee business" exploded into a multibillion-dollar growth industry at the close of the 20th century.

There were undoubted major accomplishments in those last five decades. My agency alone helped an estimated 50 million people, either to return to their original homes or to resettle in adopted countries where they often rose to positions of prominence or became good citizens as doctors, teachers and professional workers.

While that is no little accomplishment, the new millennium has begun with no visible improvement in the well-being and security of millions of new victims and the global humanitarian crisis is likely to become even more complex in the years ahead.

The very nature of war has begun to change. Conventional conflicts between states are increasingly being replaced by internal crises that can linger unresolved for many years and are liable to restart at any time. New groups of uprooted people are being created.

The institution of asylum has been under assault by some governments which feel themselves beleaguered not only by genuine refugees, but also by millions of other people on the move in a global exodus of truly extraordinary size, who are simply seeking a better economic life for themselves or escaping the ravages of famine or deserti€cation.

To break down this stubbornly tenacious barrier of human misery, to begin reducing the overall number of people needing help at any one time, to meet the emerging challenges of a new century, will require sweeping adjustments from governments and humanitarian agencies. Indeed, we are living in a revolutionary world of change where traditional ways of refugee protection, management and solutions are no longer applicable.

The 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention has been at the very heart of UNHCR’s protection mandate for the last €ve decades, but it may now be time to expand that key instrument with a new protocol, a General Assembly declaration or a combination of these tools, to address this century’s new realities.

A series of consultations will be held with governments in the coming months to discuss an updated framework, particularly for dealing with mass movements and mixed flows of people seeking asylum and those in search of better economic opportunities. And while the convention itself must remain sacrosanct, perhaps we can resolve some outstanding issues and attempt to €ll gaps in areas that the convention does not currently cover.

Indeed, this will be one of many threads of any new system of global migration management, which is needed to tackle the ever increasing movement of people. It is curious that while the globalization of information, money and trade has developed very rapidly, no comparable system has yet emerged to handle the widespread movement of human beings. If and when one is put into place, it should include a much more effective screening system of peoples on the move and hence a strengthened refugee asylum process.

The 1951 instrument, of course, protects only refugees, or people fleeing across an international border to a second state to seek sanctuary. Another pressing challenge for the global community is the plight of so-called internally displaced persons who are also in flight but have stayed within their own country. They now number around 20–25 million worldwide compared with nearly 12 million refugees.

The refugee agency has already intervened on behalf of the internally displaced in some earlier crises, especially where their plight has been inextricably linked with that of refugees. But clearly a more sustained and comprehensive approach to the problem of internal displacement, which is only likely to grow in the future, must be established.

Beyond simply helping people reach safety and sustaining their lives, we must also put into place expanded programs for assisting devastated countries and communities to simply live together again.

Consider Bosnia. The Dayton Peace Accords promoted refugee return, but four years later the results have been disappointing and hundreds of thousands of people have still not gone back to their original homes. For the refugees who have returned and the mixed communities they are living in, suspicion, distrust and hatred remain widespread.

How do you persuade people who saw family members persecuted and butchered by neighbors to live side by side again in permanent accord? And in Rwanda, how do you get Tutsis to really coexist with Hutus after that country’s genocide? It is clear that peace agreements can help stop wars, but they rarely achieve lasting peace.

Relief agencies have been involved for many years in developing reintegration projects for refugees going home, but it is clear that this traditional approach must be both reinforced and expanded.

An immediate practical problem in virtually all humanitarian emergencies, for instance, has been the need to try to bridge the time gap between the end of so-called emergency aid provided by relief agencies and the start of long-term development aid organized by other groups. In this field, there has to be far greater cooperation and coordination between a whole range of actors and the development of a series of realistic joint projects.

And before communities can fully reintegrate they have to learn the very basic step of coexisting. This most fundamental approach has perhaps been overlooked in the past, but until former adversaries can learn to work together, to go to school together and play sports together, all our efforts to rebuild communities and countries will be built on foundations of sand.

In fact, helping groups of people who have killed each other to live together again may be the most crucial humanitarian challenge of the 21st century.

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