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Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Annual General Meeting of the Save the Children Fund, 1 May 1961

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Annual General Meeting of the Save the Children Fund, 1 May 1961

1 May 1961

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great honour and a real pleasure for me to address, here in the country that gave birth to World Refugee Year, the Annual General Meeting of the Save the Children Fund, which I look upon as one of our oldest and most devoted fellow organisations.

There are indeed many links between the humanitarian task which the Fund started over forty years ago and the work of international assistance to refugees originated in 1921 by Fridtjof Nansen, whose centenary has just been celebrated. Our common objective is to help human beings in distress. As regards refugees, this means in concrete terms to help them to cease being refugees.

Both the Save the Children Fund and the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees have been conceived in a spirit of universality to deal with children or refugees wherever they may be, irrespective of their colour or creed, with human need as the exclusive criterion.

The last decades, with their tremendous increase in world population and the establishment of many new states in Asia and Africa, have witnessed a geometric progression in terms of human problems, needs for food, accommodation and medical assistance. With its vastly expanding system of communication, the world has become smaller and these problems have come closer to us than ever before. It is not without reason, therefore that the Fund, as stated in its last Annual Report, has helped children in nearly 50 countries just as the Office of the High Commissioner has been called upon to bring assistance to refugees in many countries throughout the five continents.

Parallel with this upsurge of human problems that have to be faced throughout the world there has been a rewarding demonstration of international solidarity between nations, peoples and organisations, which found its most universal expression in the success of World Refugee Year.

It is a pleasant duty for me to bring a tribute to your Organisation for its very considerable share in the United Kingdom contribution to World Refugee Year which, as you know, amounted to approximately one quarter of the total of 90 million dollars donated by a some 97 countries, or areas.

I should like, at this meeting, to record my sincere appreciation for one of the most important tasks for which you assumed responsibility: the rehousing of refugees living in Camp Wegschied, near Linz in Austria, and also for the projects which you financed in Germany and in Greece. But the concern and interest of your Organisation go back much further and, at the same time, reach far beyond Europe. I would just like to recall the assistance you gave to UNHCR during the Hungarian Refugee Crisis to relieve the plight of new Hungarian refugees, your co-operation with the United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency, and your assistance to refugees in other parts of Asia and the Middle East.

After these many years of devoted effort you will, I am sure, wish to know how the matter stands today. And I feel, as High Commissioner for Refugees, it is my duty to tell you frankly what has been accomplished and what remains to be done.

The most concrete single task which has been made possible through World Refugee Year is the financing of the clearance of refugee camps in Europe. As you know, the exceptional financial target of 12 million dollars set for the UNHCR Regular Programme for 1960 was practically met; and the approximately 11,000 refugees who, at the beginning of this year needed assistance from this Office in order to establish themselves outside refugee camps, are now in the process of leaving the barracks and settling in newly-built houses. I need not emphasize that their move takes place as rapidly as construction permits, and that every effort of my Office is geared to emptying the camps as quickly as possible.

In this connection a second major effort of World Refugee Year deserves a special mention: the relaxing of selection criteria by several immigration countries overseas which, as a special contribution to World Refugee Year, have opened their doors wider and wider to handicapped refugees. As a result, more of them were resettled in other countries in '59 and '60 than throughout the preceding eighty years.

But more important still than the actual numbers taken, experience has now shown that, with modern methods of rehabilitation, many of these refugees could rapidly become useful members of the new community, and in several of the countries concerned, this temporary humanitarian gesture has been continued as a proved and successful policy of immigration.

The Effect of World Refugee Year on the International protection of refugees can be described in terms of five more ratifications or accessions to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, improvements in the legal status of refugees in several countries, and a greater understanding of the legal and administrative problems with which refugees within the mandate of UNHCR are faced. Owing to the particular nature of this form of assistance, the long-term effects will match, if not surpass, the immediate results as evidenced by the fact that in 1961 a further three countries ratified or have approved ratification of the Convention.

Finally, World Refugee Year has focused the world's attention on new refugee situations, some of which have been our concern for several years, such as the refugees from Algeria in Morocco and Tunisia. Others are only now receiving increasing attention as, for instance, the Tibetans in Nepal, the Chinese refugees in Hong Kong, and refugees in Cambodia.

Through the so-called Good Offices Resolutions which have been adopted at its last three sessions by the General Assembly in the universal spirit which, from the start, characterized World Refugee Year, my Office has been enabled to channel for assistance to these refugees contributions received for this purpose.

Here, then, are some of the most significant results of World Refugee Year. Its lasting effect, however, is it has created awareness of the refugee problem throughout the world in many layers of the population where the problem was hitherto unknown; that it has fostered the spirit of international solidarity which is indispensable for the achievement of this humanitarian task, and that it has set in motion the machinery which can be put to its fullest use to achieve final solutions for the remaining problems of old refugees.

...the spirit of international solidarity which is indispensable for the achievement of this humanitarian task.

These problems today are those of the non-settled, handicapped refugees outside camps, and of the remaining European refugees in the Far East and in a few places in North Africa and the Middle East. For the handicapped in the Far East and in other outlying areas, and for those in a few European countries where they cannot fend for themselves, special projects are required.

The number of these refugees is relatively small, their position is particularly complex, as borne out by the fact that they are the last remaining "old" refugees requiring international care to resume a new life. A master plan for the solution of their problems will be presented to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme at its next Spring Session.

Before concluding I would like to sum up the activities of the Office of the High Commissioner for refugee children. There is not just one problem of refugee children, but a complex series of distinct problems which vary according to their family position, to their age, to their origin and to their country of residence.

Broadly speaking, the fate of refuge children follows that of their parents, that is in a majority of cases where children and parents remain together. Immediately after the end of the Second World War there was, as you will recall, a problem of unaccompanied children in Europe - children of sixteen years of age and under, whose parents could not be traced. In previous years solutions for the problems of these children have been worked out in accordance with the best interests of each child concerned. This same policy has also been followed by my Office in those more recent instances where similar problems occurred.

The second problem, wider in scope, arises in those countries where, on account of prevailing legislation, children follow the nationality of their parents, which often means perpetuation of refugee status from one generation to another with all the psychological handicaps entailed. It is hoped that this problem which mainly concerns the "old" refugees in Europe will be gradually brought nearer to a solution through the combined efforts of interested governments and of my Office in the field of legal protection.

However, the most crucial problem of children remains that of their day to day life; the problem in other words of providing them with adequate food, accommodation and medical assistance. Not long ago a child who was leaving camps with his parents in order to embark for Canada asked "What kind of camps will there be for us in Canada?" I am in the happy position today to say that the whole situation reflected in this question will soon belong to the past, and that the problems of "old" refugees in camps will be solved as soon and as fast as the necessary house building has been completed.

But there still is a problem of children of non-settled refugees living outside camps, of children whose parents are ill or infirm or for other reasons unable to give them a normal upbringing. And also the children who belong to so-called "uneconomic families", where the breadwinner cannot possibly make ends meet and bring up five, six or more children.

It is largely with these children in mind that I would again emphasize the need, in a final and determined effort, to achieve permanent solutions for the problems of the limited number of handicapped refugees outside camps who cannot fend for themselves without some help from the international community.

There is also a positive contribution which refugee children can make to the assimilation of refugee families resettled in new countries. Through their adaptation and ability to learn a new language and to make friends, the children constitute a vital factor in speeding up the successful integration of their parents and have come to be regarded by immigration countries and the major link between the "old and the new." This is one more reason why there is such a close connection between international help to children and the work of assistance to refugees.

children constitute a vital factor in speeding up the successful integration of their parents.

Finally, there is the much vaster problem of refugee children in those areas where new refugee situations have arisen in recent years, such as those in North Africa, Hong Kong and other parts of Asia and more recently still in Nepal, in the southern part of the Congo and in Togo.

These children are by far the most vulnerable victims of the new world today because of their often precarious state of health, of the risk of contagion and epidemics, and because of the difficulty of ensuring adequate nourishment for them. Moreover they constitute a high proportion of the refugee population in the areas which I have just mentioned. There are for instance over 50 per cent of children among the refugees from Algeria in Morocco and Tunisia. To meet the needs of these children the co-operation of all organisations, national and international is fully needed.

I should like on this occasion to pay tribute to UNICEF, Rädda Barnen and various other organisations for their substantial share in providing food to the children concerned.

the need for a united effort on the part of the international community for the relief of human beings in distress is more pressing today than ever before.

I have tried to give you a picture of the effects of World Refugee Year, of the present position of refugees, including refugee children, and of the new problems which are facing us. Looking back at the evolution of the last four decades, I am tempted to suggest that the need for a united effort on the part of the international community for the relief of human beings in distress is more pressing today than ever before. Within the framework of international co-operation it has been most gratifying for me to find such a warm response from the Save the Children Fund to our appeals for help to refugees. I would like to take this opportunity to express to this general meeting my deep gratitude for what the Fund has done and is doing, and also my sincere wish to carry on our co-operation for the benefit of children and of refugees.