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Opening Address by Dr. Auguste R. Lindt, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Thirty-sixth meeting of the United Nations Refugee Fund (UNREF) Executive Committee, Geneva, 3 June 1957

Speeches and statements

Opening Address by Dr. Auguste R. Lindt, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Thirty-sixth meeting of the United Nations Refugee Fund (UNREF) Executive Committee, Geneva, 3 June 1957

03 June 1957

I should like to start by congratulating the Chairman, Vice Chairman and Rapporteur upon their election and also to pay tribute to the outgoing Chairman, Mr. Tuncel, for the outstanding manner in which he conducted the business of the fourth session of this Committee. I am glad to welcome the Representative of Canada, but the Chairman has stolen my thunder so perhaps I may express this on a personal note. I met Ambassador Wershof at the Atomic Conference which I attended as a national representative. I am delighted that we shall have the opportunity to work together again in different capacities, and am certain that his co-operation will be most fruitful.

I must apologise for the fact that the documents submitted to the Committee were issued so late. The fault is entirely mine since I insisted on carefully examining the papers myself, particularly those which concerned important matters of policy. I must point out also that my Office is now handling more problems without having many more personnel. It was my decision, for which I take full responsibility, to give priority to the operations of the Office over the issuance of documents. I can promise, however, that this lateness will not be repeated.

There are three most important problems dealt with in the documents before the Committee. The first is the dramatic problem of Hungarian refugees, the second is the re-appraisal of the UNREF Programme and the third is the review of arrangements for my Office by the General Assembly.

I should like now to say something about the first of these matters, the problem of Hungarian refugees. When I visited Austria in December 1956 I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. The Austrian Government was wondering what was going to become of it. The refugees were in improvised camps and were wondering what was going to happen to them. I went back to Austria in March of this year and it seemed as if a miracle had happened. The camps were well directed and the food was of uniform standard. There were many offers of emigration and the financial situation of the Austrian Government was under control. A remarkable display of international solidarity had manifested itself. Of some 174,000 Hungarian refugees who arrived in Austria about 140,000 have now been resettled, 4,700 have chosen voluntary repatriation and there are still in Austria some 30,000 Hungarian refugees, perhaps a little more perhaps a little less, it is difficult to say. At the last session of the Executive Committee I estimated that there would be an average number of 70,000 Hungarian refugees in Austria during the first six months of 1957 but it is now evident that this was far too pessimistic.

At the moment there are about 16,000 refugees in camps where the League of Red Cross Societies is providing care and maintenance. The League of Red Cross Societies has done an excellent job in securing basic care and maintenance and in helping to raise the standard of the camps in Austria. It has also undertaken to supply basic foods for Hungarian refugees in Yugoslavia through the Yugoslav Red Cross. I am delighted by the recent decision of the Nansen Medal Committee, which gives its award each year for outstanding work on behalf of refugees, to give its next medal to the League of Red Cross Societies in recognition of its outstanding assistance to Hungarian refugees. The accomplishments of the League of Red Cross Societies are the result of a truly international effort to deal with this problem entirely independently of any political or national dividing lines. The award of the Nansen Medal will also recognize the remarkable work done by national Red Cross Societies, not only in sending personnel to work in refugee camps in Austria but also in raising funds to finance the care and maintenance operation and in assisting the integration of Hungarian refugees in their own countries.

The progress in resettlement of Hungarian refugees has been far better than was expected at the time of the last session of the Executive Committee. I am afraid, however, that there may be some signs of a slow-down: it must be remembered that the job is not yet finished. There is evidence that the morale of Hungarian refugees in camps in Austria is sinking - for instance there have been hunger strikes. The Hungarian refugees must not be allowed to think that they have been forgotten by the international community. I am determined to prevent them becoming "old refugees" and remaining in camps for many years. It is so much easier to resettle new refugees than to resettle old refugees. It must be done now.

It is impossible to prophesy, but I asked the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM) for its ideas and ICEM thinks that there might be 8,000-10,000 Hungarian refugees left in Austria at the end of this year. This is too many. We can, however, settle in Austria those who cannot or do not wish to emigrate. I am therefore seeking the guidance of the Executive Committee on a permanent solutions programme for those refugees remaining in Austria.

I have been most encouraged by the promise of large financial contributions from the Netherlands and Switzerland, contributions which are outstandingly generous considering that these are two relatively small countries. Both contributions are still awaiting parliamentary approval. The two Governments concerned have, to a certain extent, earmarked their contributions for a permanent solutions programme. I hope many other countries will be stimulated to do as much: the financial problem will then largely be solved.

The financial situation of the Austrian Government in relation to Hungarian refugees has now changed. It was previously estimated at the fourth session of the Executive Committee that at the end of 1957 the Austrian Government would have spent many million dollars not covered by international assistance. Thanks to international aid and to bilateral assistance from the United States, it is now estimated that the outstanding balance of the Austrian Government will be reduced to under $1,000,000 when the bilateral aid comes into effect. The important principle has thus been established that a country of first asylum must not be left to bear its financial burden alone.

I must now say something about the problem of Hungarian refugees in Yugoslavia. I am glad to see the Yugoslav Observers present at this session of the Executive Committee. Yugoslavia opened its frontiers to Hungarian refugees and took in between 18,000 and 19,000 refugees who could not cross into Austria. It has taken a very considerable effort to convince governments that what was done for the refugees in Austria should also be done for refugees in Yugoslavia. The way was shown by Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium, France and Australia which gave immigration quotas for Hungarian refugees from Yugoslavia. I have been able to open a Provisional Branch Office in Belgrade, and ICEM, various voluntary agencies and USEP are operating in Yugoslavia within the framework of the activities of my Provisional Branch Office. Resettlement opportunities have been found for approximately 8,500 Hungarian refugees but further resettlement offers are needed for the 6,500 refugees still expected to remain. The outstanding balance of the Yugoslav Government at the end of this year is likely to be in the neighbourhood of $7,000,000. International solidarity has not yet been manifested in the same way towards Yugoslavia as towards Austria.

The problem of Hungarian refugees can be and must be settled this year and the international effort must not be allowed to slow down.

It should be possible to mobilise for the benefit of the older refugees the general interest created by the problem of Hungarian refugees. The question has often been put to me: "Is it humane to give priority to the Hungarian refugees as compared with the older refugees?" My invariable reply is that there are no different categories of refugees. When public and governmental opinion wants to do something for refugees, let us see that it is done and be thankful. But a considerable moral debt has been accumulated towards the older refugees.

When public and governmental opinion wants to do something for refugees, let us see that it is done and be thankful.

The second problem to which I referred in my opening remarks is the reappraisal of the UNREF programme, which is submitted at the request of the Executive Committee. Unless contributions to UNREF are increased there is almost a certainty that there will be a shortfall of $2,700,000 in governmental contributions at the end of 1958, and that there will be a residual camp population of some 30,000 refugees. Of these it is estimated that 17,500 will not be eligible for assistance under USEP and will thus be of primary concern to the Executive Committee. This is, I think, a manageable figure. I am convinced that this problem can be solved if there is as determined an attack made upon it as there was upon the Hungarian refugees problem. In six months resettlement opportunities were found for 145,000 Hungarian refugees. Is it impossible to find permanent solutions for 30,000 older refugees? If the $16,000,000 UNREF target were met, a further $4,800,000 would be necessary to close all camps containing refugees not eligible for USEP assistance.

We must do everything possible to close camps in 1958, but this needs the close co-operation of governments, and involves finding opportunities for the difficult-to-settle cases, whose number is increasing in proportion with time. I have been greatly struck on my visits to older refugees camps to find that there is still a large proportion of these earlier refugees who have not given up hope of emigration. For these people we need the same relaxation of immigration rules that was given for Hungarian refugees. Intra-European resettlement schemes for difficult-to-settle cases have been accepted by the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and by Belgium. Could such schemes not be extended to overseas countries?

To solve the problem of the camp population expected to remain at the close of the UNREF programme we therefore need a two-pronged attack, through further funds for UNREF and through a relaxation of immigration criteria.

There will also remain the problem of refugees living outside camps. Some statistics are already available, varying in reliability from country to country. Before we can decide how this problem should be tackled, we must know the magnitude of the task that may await us. It is therefore proposed to make a survey in order to discover how many refugees are living outside camps and are in need of assistance, and to ascertain the type of assistance that should be offered.

In addition, the problem of refugees of European origin in China will have to be dealt with. I am happy to report in this connexion that exit permits from China are now being granted more quickly, and it is possible that 3,000 refugees may be able to leave China this year. There will still be the problem of staging in Hong Kong for those refugees in the course of resettlement. There are some 900 difficult cases among the refugees of European origin in China and these refugees must be found places in homes for the remainder of their lives.

The third matter on which I must seek the advice of the Executive Committee is the review of arrangements for my Office. A document on this subject is submitted at the request of two governments. I must say at once that I have no opinion either way: the question can only be decided by the General Assembly. The General Assembly would, however, undoubtedly be glad of guidance, which the UNREF Executive Committee could give to the Economic and Social Council to be passed on to the Assembly. The main problem involved is the continuation of international protection for refugees, including the supervision of the implementation of the Convention and the determination of the eligibility of new refugees. I am neither implying nor excluding the possibility that there may be new refugees.

The most important thing at the moment, however, is not so much to review my mandate as to set ourselves the task of solving the problem of Hungarian refugees this year, and to make a determined attack on the problem of the older refugees, so that the foundation can be laid in 1958 for a final and definite solution of the problem of the refugees living in camps.