UN refugee agency hails 2003 as ‘good year in bad world’ despite growing risks

UN refugee agency hails 2003 as ‘good year in bad world’ despite growing risks

Calling 2003 “a good year in a bad world," the head of the United Nations refugee agency said today significant progress has been made toward finding lasting solutions for some of the 20 million people currently of concern to the agency despite increasing danger for humanitarian workers.

“We continued both repatriation and reintegration operations in Afghanistan despite the problems which persist there," UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers said, noting that some 3 million Afghan refugees and displaced people had returned home over the past two years.

“In Africa, a major repatriation operation began in Angola, a similar programme continued in Eritrea, there were continuing discussions to solve the Congo crisis and in Liberia we saw the departure of Charles Taylor and renewed hope for that country," Mr. Lubbers added in a year-end message to staff and an interview with UNHCR's "Refugees" magazine.

But those positive developments came against a worrisome backdrop of growing insecurity for humanitarian workers in many parts of the world, he said.

"The external environment in which we operate has become increasingly dangerous and polarized," he added, citing the 19 August attack on UN headquarters in Baghdad that left 22 people dead, including UN High Commission for Human Rights Sergio Vieira de Mello, and the November murder in Afghanistan of a UNHCR staff member.

Declaring that "security is foremost in our minds," Mr. Lubbers stressed that by its very nature UNHCR performs the bulk of its operations in the field, where it faces new pressures and must forge a distinct identity of its own in dealing with a variety of refugee situations.

“We need our own eyes and ears on the ground and to do our own homework," he said, underlining UNHCR’s dilemma. "We are an operational field agency, but we must have the field intelligence to be able to judge not only when to go into operational zones, but also when not to go."

Mr. Lubbers said 2004 would be devoted to overhauling the agency's mandate, work, funding and governance to strengthen its overall capacity.