Statements by High Commissioner, 28 January 1960
I should like to thank you very much indeed, Mr. Chairman, and through you the Staff Association for your kind invitation to address this gathering. I should like to compliment the Association on its World Refugee Year initiative which is, I think, the most recent and most outstanding of the many initiatives that the Staff Council and the Staff Committee for Refugees have promoted over the past several years. I should like to thank all those who have helped us in these years to achieve things which could not have been achieved with our normal funds.
Although it may be in a way like carrying coals to Newcastle or olives to Athens, I might perhaps just say a few very short things about World Refugee Year. After years when both of the U.N. refugee organizations, the UN Relief and Works Agency and the High Commissioner's Office, had met with one financial crisis after another, after years in which my colleagues and the staff of UNRWA had realized all what could be done if only money were available, after years in which public opinion had grown tired of refugee matters because they were disagreeable to remember, after all those years of frustration, it is indeed extraordinarily encouraging to realize that there is something like a World Refugee Year.
When I think over the origin of World Refugee Year, it is typical of a good idea starting with a few people and then suddenly spreading all over the world, and becoming embodied in a UN resolution. Perhaps we were first sceptical. The first need was for people who had never heard about refugees, or who had heard about them immediately after the war and since thought that the problem had been definitely solved, to realize again that the refugee problem still existed. Already now, the success towards achieving this objective is in many countries rather extraordinary. In a country like England there is hardly a single man, not only in London but also in outlying places, who has not heard of World Refugee Year and who does not ask himself what will happen to those people. The same is true in Norway and in the Netherlands, and I think it will be true in the near future in many other countries.
This will mean not only that a special effort will be made in those countries during World Refugee Year, but also that for years to come persons not directly connected with World Refugee Year will ask themselves how are those people, the refugees, faring now. And if this first objective of the Year is reached, it may mean that never again can the refugees be referred to as a forgotten people.
The second objective of World Refugee Year is emigration. Emigration is perhaps one of the things a refugee most desires, at least in the first stages of his new and difficult existence. In the past, as everyone knows who has visited refugee camps, we have witnessed a skimming process, whereby people are still left in the camps once the general interest in a special refugee problem has disappeared. We now hope that, under the impact of the World Refugee Year, many governments will really liberalize their selection criteria for immigration. The burden of the refugee problem would then be shared both by countries who by their geographical position are countries of first asylum and by others who are protected from a refugee influx by buffer states. It would then be really possible to talk about a truly international responsibility for refugees.
The third aim of World Refugee Year – it is very sad to mention it – is the collection of money, money to help people establish themselves, especially those who cannot emigrate. We must here think of a mosaic of many local efforts, a mosaic in which the staff effort will be a very important stone.
Among the refugees needing help are the Arab refugees from Palestine, who are under the care of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. It is one of these cases which, when the exodus from Palestine started, stirred the conscience of the World. That was twelve years ago. Since then public opinion has become accustomed to the existence of these refugees. One knew they were not starving, UNRWA was doing its duty, there was a medical service, there was some education. But let us look again at the situation. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled into countries which were suffering from under-employment, into desert areas, into countries where refugees became a very big proportion of the total population. In Jordan, for instance, every third person is a refugee. In the Gaza Strip the local population is a very tiny majority. In an area full of potential political tension, it is an important achievement to prevent people from starving, since hunger considerably increases tension. But much more can be done. The Director of UNRWA, Dr. John Davis, has worked out a special programme for World Refugee Year. He does not want to use World Refugee Year money for the normal programme; he thinks that is the obligation of governments. Up till now UNRWA has never really been able to go in a big way into education and training, to teach the young refugees a skill. In an area like the Middle East I think there is absolutely no doubt that a skilled refugee can find a job and that he will thereby cease to be a refugee. To do something worthwhile, UNRWA needs three million dollars – a small sum.
Other refugees needing help are those under mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner. It is quite incongruous that in a Europe which is more prosperous than ever in history, it is still possible to find refugees living in misery. I never know anything more depressing than to drive through a European town which is like any Swiss town or any town you know, where life is completely normal, where everybody is well clad, where everybody has money to spend, where everybody looks to a rosy future, to see suddenly a few hundred yards outside the town the blackness of a camp, as if the sun had disappeared behind a cloud. There you will find the whole boredom, the whole misery, the whole despair of a camp population. There is absolutely no earthly justification for the continuation of this state of affairs. It is just as inexplicable that, in this prosperous Europe, you can find refugee families outside camps but living in old railway carriages, in abominable hovels from which with a little aid, they could be integrated into the prosperous economy of European countries. During World Refugee Year, we should be able both to solve the problem of the old refugees in camps, and to make a real improvement in the conditions of the much larger numbers of refugees living outside camps.
"the whole boredom, the whole misery, the whole despair of a camp population."
There are other refugees under the High Commissioner's mandate, such as the earlier refugees of European origin in the Far East, for whom visas are still required, for whose transportation funds are still needed. Again World Refugee Year could solve this problem.
There are also the 200,000 refugees from Algeria in Tunisia and Morocco, for whom the General Assembly has expressed their concern in two resolutions. These refugees are living in mud huts. When I visited them last, in December 1959, I could hear from far away the coughing of the children. In Tunisia these little mud huts are mostly in mountain forests, where is bitterly cold in winter. Thanks to the first efforts of World Refugee Year, all the children, who make up fifty percent of the refugees, will within a month have a complete new outfit of clothing; then the coughing might stop.
World Refugee Year will work if there is a chain reaction, if there is also a rather healthy competition between different associations, between different national committees and between different countries. It can already be said that the chain reaction has started. Completely new and undreamed of things are happening. Canada, for instance, has very generously decided to take one hundred tubercular refugee families. The misery of the thousands of children who were born in camp is best summed up in what one little boy in Austria asked the Canadian mission now selecting the tubercular families, "When we go to Canada", he asked the Canadians very innocently, "Will we also have to live in a camp?" It is rather marvellous to know that thanks to World Refugee Year there are people who, having given up all hope of ever emigrating, will find themselves in Canada, with all the opportunities which this country can offer.
It is in this World Refugee Year chain reaction, Mr. Chairman, that the effort of the staff will form a further link.