Last Updated: Monday, 25 October 2021, 09:39 GMT

Military Attacks on Refugee Camps and Settlements in Southern Africa

Publisher UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Publication Date 1 October 1982
Citation / Document Symbol EC/SCP/23
Reference 33rd session
Related Document(s) Attaques militaires contre des camps de réfugiés et des zones d'installation en Afrique australe et ailleurs
Cite as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Military Attacks on Refugee Camps and Settlements in Southern Africa, 1 October 1982, EC/SCP/23, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae68cbcc.html [accessed 25 October 2021]

1          At its 32nd session, the Executive Committee considered the question of military attacks against refugee camps and settlements of concern to UNHCR. In its conclusions on this question, the Executive Committee "Noted with grave concern the inhuman military attacks on refugee camps in southern Africa and elsewhere, involving extreme and indescribable hardships to refugees and called upon the High Commissioner to examine the serious humanitarian problems resulting from military attacks on refugee camps and settlements which are the concern of UNHCR, and the need or special measures to protect and ensure the safety of such refugees, and to report thereon at the earliest possible date to the Executive Committee" (A/36/12/Add.1 paragraph 57 (1)(h)).

2          Pursuant to this conclusion of the Executive Committee the High Commissioner held necessary consultations with a number of concerned Governments, the United Nations Secretariat and the International Committee of the Red Cross with a view to recommending appropriate measures to protect and ensure the safety of refugees in camps and settlement of concern to UNHCR.

3          As a result of these consultations the High Commissioner decided to call upon a personality especially conversant with the problems of refugees and their protection to carry out such a survey of the various aspects of the problem. The task of carrying out such a survey and submitting a report with appropriate recommendations was entrusted to Ambassador Felix Schnyder, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

4          Ambassador Schnyder has now submitted a preliminary report in a letter to the High Commissioner dated 29 September 1982. The text of this letter is attached.


29 September 1982

Dear Sir,

May I refer to the conclusions adopted the Executive Committee at its 32nd session concerning military attacks on refugee camps and settlements of concern to UNHCR. In this conclusion the Executive Committee "Noted with grave concern the inhuman military attacks on refugee camps in southern Africa and elsewhere, involving extreme and indescribable hardships to refugees and called upon the High Commissioner to examine the serious humanitarian problems resulting from military attacks on refugee camps and settlements which are the concern of UNHCR and the need for special measures to protect and ensure the safety of such refugees and to report thereon at the earliest possible date to the Executive Committee" (document A/36/12/Add.1. paragraph 57 (1)(h)).

Pursuant to this conclusion of the Executive Committee you entrusted me with the mandate to examine the various issues involved. I would now like to submit to you the following, preliminary report.

I was able to begin my work after the middle of August with contacts in Geneva followed by meetings in New York from September 8 until September 15. My first discussions were with members of the staff of UNHCR, with representatives of particularly interested governments, with the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, high-ranking associates of the Secretary- General of the United Nations and finally with the Secretary-General himself. These discussions proved very useful. They have helped me to grasp the nature and the implications of the problem which you asked me to examine.

Since I have been asked to submit to you a preliminary report on the problem, in connection with the forthcoming 33rd session of the Executive Committee of UNHCR's Programme, I may already give you a brief indication of how I intend to approach it.

I have received in Geneva, especially from your Office, and at United Nations Headquarters in new York quite substantial factual information concerning the "inhuman military attacks on refugee camps in southern Africa, and elsewhere involving extreme and indescribable hardship to refugees to use the terms of the conclusion, adopted by the Executive Committee at its 32nd session.

Indeed, from the standpoint of the humanitarian task entrusted to you, it is certainly important to voice the feelings of profound sorrow and indignation to which such events must obviously give rise all over the world. It would also be appropriate to address a pressing appeal to all governments and organisations concerned to use every possible means in order to ensure that the integrity and dignity of refugees - victims of the turmoils of our time -- are respected and to avoid any action endangering their lives and well--being.

I am impressed by the fact that, in the years following my term of duty as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 1961 to 1966, the nature and the magnitude of refugee situations outside of Europe have undergone most, significant changes. Refugee situations have not only become much more widespread, involving many times the number of uprooted persons but also very much more diverse and complex. In these situations it seems to become progressively more difficult to distinguish between the political and purely humanitarian aspects of the many challenges which arise. This is particularly true in the case of such tragic events as military attacks on refugee camps.

It therefore seems to me to be all the more imperative for UNHCR, in the very interest of the effectiveness and credibility of its action, to draw the necessary line in order to safeguard the purely humanitarian and non-political character of its important mission. It is certainly one of my essential tasks to examine this particular question, for which I have met a great deal of affirmative interest in my discussions both in Geneva and New York.

On this subject, I would, at this time, only remark that a solution can evidently not be found without a careful clarification of the division of labour between the different organs of the United Nations and in their relationship with governments and other institutions, e.g. the International Committee of the Red Cross. Speaking of such a division of labour among interested agencies. I have in mind arrangements for effective practical co-ordination and co-operation, each agency, of course, acting within the framework of its specific responsibilities. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, in his conversation with me on September 15, made it very clear that he also attaches greatest importance to an effective division of labour with UNHCR, and that, he would, for instance, be willing to envisage joint missions with UNHCR whenever indicated.

Attacks on refugee camps have been brought to the attention of the political organs of the United Nations, frequently the Security Council since they affect the sovereignty of countries of asylum. Under these circumstances UNHCR, while using all its influence with governments and other agencies to ensure the safety of refugees, has certainly to focus its particular attention and its endeavours on the need to bring help to the refugees affected by these attacks.

One of the main duties of UNHCR is the promotion of legal principles to improve the status of refugees and their chance of ceasing to be refugees. Military attacks on refugee camps are a relatively new phenomenon which was therefore not specifically considered when existing refugee conventions and the Geneva Conventions relating to the protection of civilian persons in armed conflicts were elaborated. Under these circumstances the question arises for UNHCR as to whether, more generally, measures and principles could possibly be worked out in a proper international setting, to ensure a better protection of refugee camps. In this context one might examine whether camps for refugees the latter being expressly mentioned in the Geneva Convention of 12 August 1949 as "protected persons" -- could be made to benefit from a special status comparable perhaps to that of military hospitals placed under the emblem of the Red Cross. I shall try to study these ideas more thoroughly. I am encouraged to do so by the spontaneously positive response I have received especially from representatives from areas where major refugee camps, exposed to the risk of attacks, are presently situated.

This is what I am in a position to state at this time. I expect to be ready to submit to you my final report in a few months.

Yours sincerely,

Felix Schnyder

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