9 May 2002


Press Briefing


About half of the 21 million refugees in the world were children, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, told correspondents this morning at a Headquarters press briefing.

The 21 million refugees included 5 million internally displaced persons, he said.  Although concern for refugees had started in 1950s, concern for the protection of children was more recent, as the Convention on the Rights of the Child dated from 1982. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had partnered with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other organizations in dealing with the special needs of refugee children, such as the fact that refugee minors often had been separated from their parents.  Also, too many children were in detention camps, sometimes alongside criminals, which was a “totally unacceptable” situation.

The UNHCR should not only provide assistance in food and shelter for refugees, but also offer education and a new life, Mr. Lubbers said.  Children he had talked to in refugee camps always wanted education.  He stressed that refugee children should not be seen as miserable people, but rather as people with a dignity and an identity, who wanted to do the “normal things youngsters want to do”.  The Olympic Aids Initiative had set money aside for refugees, but it was more important, Mr. Lubbers said, that sports be brought to the camps.  Refugee youngsters could be very valuable and needed some meaning in their lives.

The largest operation of UNHCR today was the return of 1.25 million Afghans. The fact that there was now a solution for Afghans was the good news.  However, funding, not only for organization, but also for food provisions to camps, was not sufficient. Especially in Africa, the food rations were unacceptably low, he said.

Answering correspondents’ questions about exploitation and abuse of women and children in refugee camps, Mr. Lubbers said there were reasons to be concerned in Western Africa, but an ongoing professional investigation had so far revealed that the problem was not widespread, as earlier reported.  “But even one case is one case too many”, he said.  Sexual relations between humanitarian workers and beneficiaries should not happen at all.  The problem was being addressed with a zero-tolerance attitude.

That zero-tolerance attitude had to be translated into practical steps, such as in the organization of camps, through food distribution by women and through strict rules forbidding sexual relations between humanitarian workers and recipients.  Employees who violated those rules would be fired.  In cases of criminal behaviour, the government in question could prosecute.  Those rules had been put in place already.  He stressed that, as of now, not one case against any of his humanitarian workers had been proven.  “It is just gossip, hearsay”, he said.

The plan for returning Afghan refugees was to bring home 400,000 people from Pakistan, 400,000 from Iran, 400,000 internally displaced persons, and 50,000 from

Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.  The process of return had started in Pakistan, because the situation in refugee camps there was horrible.  Some 350,000 refugees had already been returned from that country, along with more than 40,000 from Iran.

The downside was the lack of money, he said.  Refugees needed more than transportation home.  They needed shelter, seeds and food assistance before they could become self-sufficient.  Monthly, $20 million to $25 million was spent on that.  One should keep in mind, however, that the military spent that amount in one hour.  There was also a political consideration to the operation.  As Hamid Karzai, Chairman of the Interim Administration, had said, to build stability, people had to be brought home.

The problem of internally displaced persons in Afghanistan was concentrated near the border with Iran and Pakistan and also in the north of the country, he said.  The problem was not so much caused by recent air strikes and fighting, as by earlier war, violence and closed borders.

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For information media. Not an official record.