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Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 22 November 1961

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 22 November 1961

6 November 1961

Mr. Chairman,

I thank you for the opportunity you give me to introduce the annual report of my Office, for the period 1 May 1960 to 31 March 1961, and to supplement the information contained in the report at this time by commenting on some of the more recent activities of my Office.

Two salient features emerge when one views this period of activity of the High Commissioner's Office. First of all, the progress made, inter alia thanks to World Refugee Year, in all the traditional fields of activity of my Office; further, the developments which within the framework of General Assembly resolutions 1388 (XIV) and 1499 (XV) have led this Office to extend its concern to new groups of refugees outside of Europe. In a constantly moving world, a body to which the task has been entrusted of alleviating human suffering cannot remain passive to or apart from problems of the present time. By adopting the resolutions which I have just mentioned the Assembly undoubtedly wanted to confirm the essentially dynamic character of the High Commissioner's Office and also to recall its universal mission. To enable the latter, therefore, to express itself in facts, an effort of adaptation to the new task which confronts the High Commissioner's Office had to be made and this can be done only in full agreement with, and with the support of the international community who has entrusted the Office with its mandate.

Before elaborating further on these new problems, I believe that it might be useful, Mr. Chairman, if I recall very briefly the initial objectives corresponding to the mandate of my office and the main developments in this regard. The basic task of my Office is, as you know, to ensure the international protection of refugees coming within its mandate and to assist refugees by seeking permanent solutions; solutions which can be summed up in the well-known three ways: voluntary repatriation, integration in the countries of asylum, resettlement to other countries. Experience has shown, however, that in order to completely reach its objective, international protection must be associated sometimes with material assistance. This was from the outset the raison d'être of the programmes elaborated on behalf of refugees in Europe. But while the international community thus gave evidence of its spirit of solidarity in respect of countries of asylum and of the refugees themselves, it also put limits and conditions to its own intervention. The fundamental principle which the international community never ceased to recall is that the responsibility for the well-being of refugees is primarily incumbent upon the governments of the countries where the refugees reside. The material assistance which the Office of the High Commissioner might be able to grant to refugees is therefore of a supplementary character; it is meant to stimulate and to complete the task assumed by the governments themselves. On the other hand, the action of the High Commissioner's Office should be essentially of a constructive nature; it is not to perpetuate the refugees' problems but on the contrary to try and solve these problems through the means I have already enumerated: voluntary repatriation, integration and resettlement to which one should add, of course, such ancillary mean as the rehabilitation of handicapped refugees.

Concerning repatriation, it is not easy to indicate precise figures concerning the number of refugees who return to their country, as not all the cases are being brought to the attention of my Office. I might state, however, that generally speaking the operations in the field of repatriation took place, to my knowledge, in a satisfactory manner. Furthermore, my office has given its co-operation to the voluntary repatriation of individual cases by sharing in the cost of the return journey when the refugees themselves were not in a position to afford this expense.

Regarding the programmes of material assistance, the first target of the High Commissioner's office has been, as you know, the clearance of refugee camps. Thanks to World Refugee Year and the exceptional effort it stimulated with governments as well as with public and private agencies and with the public at large, the regular United Nations High Commissioner's programmes for 1960 - the target for which had been set at the exceptionally high figure of $12,000,000 and which included the last part of the camp clearance programme - could be financed almost in its entirety.

The implementation of these programmes is being continued at present and to illustrate the progress achieved I should like to mention only two figures: 2,330 refugees were in a position to leave the camps and to be resettled under the camp clearance programme during the first half of 1961; during the same period seven camps were closed, including five in Austria, one in the Federal Republic of Germany and one in Greece. As of June 30, of those refugees eligible for the camp clearance programmes there remained in camps only 8,360 refugees, including 6,816 in Germany, 1,100 in Austria and 300 in Italy.

As priority was given to camp clearance, the problem of non-settled refugees living out of camps could not be tackled, up to the present, generally speaking, with the same vigor. A substantial effort remains, therefore, to be made for these refugees, more particularly the physically and socially handicapped among them. Increasing difficulties are being met in the finding of suitable solutions for handicapped refugees, inasmuch as while the problem shrinks to a constantly smaller umber of cases, they are of an increasingly complicated nature. It is obvious that it will be possible to solve this problem only to the extent that governments will give it their particular attention. I was therefore very gratified by the initiative taken by some governments which decided to admit to their territories a certain number of handicapped refugees for rehabilitation and resettlement. This initiative, which was taken mainly within the framework of World Refugee Year, is a proof of the radical change in attitude of a great number of countries and particularly of the great immigration countries where the existing criteria had not made, so far, the admission of this category of refugee possible. I cannot stress enough how essential it is that this liberal attitude also further inspire future policy. Only if this happens can we possibly avoid the future reappearance of this serious and painful problem originated by the slow accumulation of refugees in camps and all its physical, moral, social and financial consequences.

As regards integration of refugees in countries of asylum, this was greatly facilitated during this past year by the favourable economic position of Europe. If this economic position remains favourable, there is every reason to hope that it will be possible to bring to an end the programme for non-settled refugees.

It is precisely my intention to submit to the Executive Committee of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees at its 1962 spring session a comprehensive plan calculated to bring to an end the basic programmes of material assistance to refugees in Europe. This plan will rely on the support of Governments as well as voluntary agencies, who will be asked to make a final effort in order to give full efficacy and to insure an implementation as quick as possible of the large projects of material assistance. I also propose to inform the Executive Committee of the current needs which should possibly continue to be met, with means however which are noticeably smaller.

As a whole, the picture which I briefly outlined, Mr. Chairman, with respect to the developments of material assistance for old refugees appears to be encouraging. Equally encouraging progress was recorded during the period under review in the field of international protection. Three new countries, Colombia, Argentina and Turkey, have adhered to the Convention of 28 July 1951; in respect of Turkey, only the formality of depositing the instrument of ratification remains to be complied with. Furthermore, the Government of Niger has declared that it considers itself bound by the Convention, of which 30 States are by now contracting parties.

Also, following its ratification by the Federal Republic of Germany, the Agreement Relating to Refugee Seamen will enter into force on 27 December next. The same country has also adhered to the European Agreement on the Abolition of Visas, which is now applicable to eight countries in Europe, between which refugees may travel freely on equal terms with nationals of those countries. The United Nations have adopted on 29 August this year a Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness which has already been signed by the Governments of Israel, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The essential purpose of this Convention is to enable children who normally would have remained stateless to acquire a nationality. A recommendation was also adopted inviting signatory States to assimilate de facto stateless persons, who very often are refugees, to de jure stateless.

Such are, Mr. Chairman, the new developments of the recent past with the view of assuring refugees a status as favourable as possible, and as near as possible to that of the nationals of the countries where refugees reside. I shall not conceal my satisfaction in respect of this slow but certain progress towards one of the essential objectives of my Office.

What about, Mr. Chairman, the new tasks which I mentioned at the beginning of this statement? First of all, there is one of these tasks which deserves particular mention, since it has been the subject. of special resolutions of the General Assembly and since it is of considerable magnitude. I refer to the relief programme on behalf of refugees from Algeria in Morocco and Tunisia. The Assembly may recall that in the Report which is at present before you it was stated that my Office was consulting with the League of Red Cross Societies regarding the further participation of the latter in the operation which has been carried on in Morocco and Tunisia for more than two and a half years. In a meeting held last month in Prague, which I had the privilege to attend, the Board of Governors of the League took a favouable decision. The participation of the League in the joint operation is thus ensured at least until 30 June 1962, when the President and the Secretary General of the League may prolong this participation until the meeting of their Executive Committee scheduled for September, 1962. I should like to mention, however, that this decision was taken on the explicit understanding that the Office of the High Commissioner would assume the responsibility of financing the relief operation so far as it depends on cash contributions. Thanks to the favourable response which Governments have given to my various appeals, which I had to direct to them during the past year, the financing could be ensured in respect of the year 1961. I would not have been in a position, however, to guarantee the continuance of this financing as I was asked to by the League of Red Cross Societies, had I not been able to rely in this circumstance on the Emergency Fund of my Office. I shall have occasion, Mr. Chairman, to come back to the important role which the Emergency Fund had to play in these circumstances.

The overall aspect of this relief operation is well known. It includes essentially food distribution, distribution of milk and clothing to children and some ancillary services, for instance, to maintain and improve health conditions. The number of persons benefiting from the operation is at present approximately 300,000, of whom more than half are children. When I made a visit on the spot in June of this year, I was struck by the fact that these refugees have kept entire confidence in their destiny. It appeared to me that they all desire to return to normal living conditions as soon as circumstances permit them to return to their homesteads. The development of the situation enables us to consider, I believe, this desire as very realistic and it is within this perspective that a modest amount of $250,000 was inserted in the operational budget of 1962. This should enable my Office to possibly facilitate the repatriation of these refugees. Be this as it may, the needs are still there and even if we may hope to visualise the end of this operation in a not too far distant future, we have the duty to frame the plans needed to ensure its continuation. We have thus, in agreement with the League of Red Cross Societies, drawn up an operational budget for 1962. This budget is in the amount of 8 million dollars, of which approximately 6 million are expected as contributions in kind and 32,200,000 is needed in cash. I hope, Mr. Chairman, that as in the past, Governments will wish to assist me in ensuring the financing of these emergency relief operations and will enable, therefore, the further maintenance of these refugees.

Other problems relating to new groups of refugees have also been brought to my attention. These problems are not all of equal importance and I should like to mention here only those which are of particular current interest.

In May, 1961, the Government of the Republic of the Congo (Leopoldville) requested the United Nations for assistance with respect to refugees from Angola and the Secretary-General of the United Nations informed me accordingly. One of my staff members, who was at that time seconded to ONUC, visited the refugee areas and gave me a preliminary report. Later I was approached directly by the Congo authorities and a special consultant of my Office, together with one of my collaborators, went to Leopoldville for a direct consultation with the Government of the Republic of the Congo. The brief description of the present situation, which follows, is based on the information thus obtained and also on more recent data provided by the League of Red Cross Societies.

The refugees from Angola were received by the Government of the Republic of the Congo and by the local population. The majority of them belong to the Bakongo tribe, which inhabits both sides of the border. Their common language is Kikongo and there is a strong feeling of tribal solidarity between the Congolese citizens of the area south of Leopoldville and the refugees who are not Congolese nationals. Thus, because of the close ethnic relationship with the Congolese population, the refugees are not looked upon as foreigners. Furthermore, the area of their present location is not new to them, in view of their previous occasional visits, for instance, to find temporary employment.

Refugees started to arrive in the Congo in March, 1961, as a result of events in Angola. In the initial stage they received assistance from the local population in the villages along the border but they soon outnumbered the local inhabitants. After a survey of the needs, in co-operation with the local authorities, several voluntary agencies organized in April, 1961, the distribution of food, blankets, medical and other supplies, which were brought in from the outside. This assistance became, however, inadequate as the refugees continued to stream into the Congo and in May, 1961, in response to the Government's request, ONUC made available 50 tons of relief supplies in order to enable the voluntary agencies to continue their distribution. ONUC had considerable stocks of relief supplies on hand and the League of Red Cross Societies had received from national societies funds for the general relief programme in the Congo. The resources thus available made it possible to satisfy the immediate needs of the refugees. Thanks to the co-operational of all those involved, ONUC, the Red Cross Societies, the voluntary agencies and the Congolese authorities, the problem of material assistance could be tackled up to the present in a satisfactory manner and this assistance is ensured until the end of 1961. It was also possible to provide for medical assistance to the refugees. The number of assisted persons was, as of 6 November 1961, 148,500. The operation was made easier by the fact that local conditions make it possible to build the dwellings with material to be found on the spot. Quite apart from this emergency relief operation, measures have also been taken in agreement with the central and local authorities of the Republic of the Congo to enable the refugees to become self-supporting as soon as possible. In addition to the few measures of secondary importance, the main objective has been to further agricultural activities, as the refugees are prominently of agricultural background.

The necessary tillable land has been offered by the local communities in the territories of Boma, Seke-Banza, Songololo, Thysville, Madimba and Kahemba. Where there is no suitable land, as in Matadi, the refugees are given the opportunity to move to a more suitable location. Within this agricultural programme, for which financial support came from various quarters, corn, bean and peanut seeds, as well as tools - e.g. machetes and hoes - were made available to refugees.

According to the plans which have been prepared in co-operation with FAO, the corn planted in October, 1961, should be harvested in January, 1962. Expecting the refugees from Angola to be in a position to provide for their own needs around the beginning of next year, the agencies engaged in the operation have decided to bring the general relief programme to a halt at the end of this year. They intend, however, to continue to meet the special situations of individual needs resulting from crop failures or other exceptional circumstances.

With land, seeds and tools at their disposal and the ability to plant subsistence crops which grow very rapidly in the Congo, those refugees who choose to remain will be, in the opinion of the agencies, economically in the same situation as their Congolese neighbours in the area.

For those refugees who choose to return to their homes, the Portuguese Red Cross has established ten reception centres on the Angolan side of the border. Their function is to provide food and lodging to potential repatriants on their return journey. An inspection of these centres by two delegates of the League of Red Cross Societies is to take place shortly.

The fact that the majority of the assisted refugees are children raises special problems of care, nutrition and education. These have been called to the attention of UNICEF, WHO and UNESCO, which are providing their respective services to the Congolese population. The participating agencies have reported the creation of special classes in the area of their operation and these schools are open to the Angolan children, who are taught there in their tribal language.

Viewing the situation in the light of the purely humanitarian and social purposes of my Office, the plans for further action require careful study. The objectives of the programme are to help the Congolese authorities to meet the needs of the refugees until the final solution of the problem becomes possible. The solution is to be sought in two directions which can be promoted simultaneously:

(i) voluntary repatriation, it being the final aim, and

(ii) the realisation of self-support until the refugees can return to their homes.

In the meantime, full-scale material assistance is well under way. In order to strengthen the action of the League of Red Cross Societies, I have already earmarked from my Emergency Fund $100,000. A quarter of this sum was allocated to meet a shortage of transportation vehicles.

Inasmuch as the scope and the character of material assistance are subject to change with the circumstances and as full-scale assistance is only assured by the agencies concerned until the end of the year, it has been considered desirable for my Office to get in a more continued and direct contact with the problem. As a result of consultations with the Congolese Government and ONUC, I appointed a Chargé de Mission to be stationed in Leopoldville, where he would be able to keep in permanent contact with the Congolese authorities, the authorities of ONUC and the various voluntary agencies dealing with the refugees from Angola. My staff member arrived in the Congo on 6 November 1961. In a situation such as that created by the presence of refugees from Angola in the Congo, which requires the active and generous attention of the international community, I believe that my Office has the duty to extend its good offices, within the humanitarian perspective of its work and within the limits of available means, to enable the country of asylum to provide the refugees with the essential aid of which they are in need.

As it has a representative on the spot who is in a position to follow the situation on a daily basis, I hope that my Office will be able to play a useful role by bringing its experience of refugee problems and by helping in co-ordinating and stimulating the required efforts.

I should like to stress that my Office is in no way supposed to take the place of the existing infrastructure which is the only one which can ensure in an efficient manner and within the more general framework of the provision of assistance to the Congolese population, the relief operation undertaken on behalf of these refugees. On the contrary, my Office will give its support to this relief operation and is prepared to strengthen it if need be.

The second example which I would like to mention is in relation to the few thousand refugees who reside at present in the Republic of Togo. As a result of the request which I received from the Government of Togo, I recently sent one of my collaborators to undertake a preliminary investigation on the spot. I am now consulting with the Togo Government concerning such measures as might possibly be taken with a view to meeting the immediate needs of the refugees on the one hand and to ensure their integration into the local economy on the other. This problem was recently mentioned during the last session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme in the presence of His Excellency, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Togo. Several Governments have already shown their interest in the matter and one of them has declared its intention to participate in the plan of assistance which is actually being prepared. To illustrate the variety of new problems to which my attention has been drawn, I would like to mention that of refugees from Ruanda Urundi in Tanganyika and Uganda. At the request of the authorities concerned, an official; of my Office will go to the area shortly to make an on-the-spot investigation of the situation.

I have in the initial part of my statement made a distinction between the new refugee problems and the problems relating to the old refugees. This distinction, Mr. Chairman, is not only of a chronological character but corresponds to differences of a deeper nature. indeed, at a time when the large programmes of assistance to European refugees are approaching their completion, the legal protection as it was conceived and dealt with in the Statute of the High Commissioner's Office tends to become again our first preoccupation with respect to these refugees. In contrast, there is no doubt that the new groups of refugees to which my attention is called at present create essentially, within the present circumstances, problems not of legal protection, but of material assistance. It is tempting therefore to draw a parallel between the appearance of these new groups of refugees in parts of the world where the Office of the High Commissioner had no reason to intervene thus far and the recent developments characterised by the adoption of Resolutions 1388 (XIV) and 1499 (XV) by the General Assembly. There is, however, Mr. Chairman, no necessary parallel between the terms of this dual development and neither is there a necessary link between the mandate and the old refugees on the one hand, and the good offices and the new refugees on the other.

If indeed a problem of legal protection arose in one of these new situations, I would not hesitate to examine the situation in the light of the terms of my mandate, as it is my duty to do. The importance is, in fact, that the action of my Office be actually adapted to the needs which must be met. The resolutions which I mentioned contain potentially the flexibility which is indispensable to the action of my Office. These resolutions, together with the mandate, constitute indeed a coherent "ensemble" within the framework of which it should be possible to fit in future situations, concerning old as well as new refugees, different as these situations may be.

I should like to say a word in this respect, Mr. Chairman, concerning the Emergency Fund. This Fund, as you know, is being financed by the proceeds of reimbursement of loans, and its ceiling, which soon will be reached, was fixed at $500,000. Apart from the recent earmarking of $100,000 on behalf of refugees from Angola in the Congo, the Fund has hardly been used so far. Its limited amount does not make it possible indeed to use the Fund as a financial basis for relief operations. Experience has shown, however, that the Fund is an indispensable working instrument, inasmuch as it makes it possible quickly to meet immediate and limited needs. Moreover, the existence of the Fund has been often used as the essential element in negotiations undertaken to establish a relief operation; although the final financing of the operation could be ensured without the Fund being actually used. As I already had occasion to mention, the Fund made it possible to ensure the continuation of the relief operation carried out jointly with the League of Red Cross Societies in North Africa. The usefulness of the Fund as a working instrument is especially obvious when new and unforeseen situations have to be met. Concerning the utilization of the Fund, account undoubtedly has to be taken of resolutions 1388 (XIV) and 1499 (XV) of the General Assembly and any interpretation of resolution 1166 (XII), by which the Emergency Fund was established in 1957, has to be made, therefore, in conformity with the subsequent developments, legal as well as factual.

Having had occasion now to mention at length the new refugee problems to which my attention is being drawn more and more frequently, I feel I must recall in conclusion, Mr. Chairman, the framework and limits governing any intervention by my Office. Obviously, in no case can the High Commissioner engage in any major operation without having previously consulted the international community through the qualified bodies. Furthermore, as it is not his role to substitute for sovereign governments the High Commissioner cannot assume total and exclusive responsibility for the well-being of the refugees sheltered by such governments in their territory. Also, not having at his disposal an administrative machinery enabling his Office to direct and take full charge of sizeable material assistance operations, the High Commissioner must, in a certain sense, remain behind the scenes. He will have to restrict himself to serving as an intermediary between the international community and other public or private agencies which do dispose of the necessary equipment to implement operational tasks.

Although the role the High Commissioner can play in the face of the new refugee problems is modest by definition, experience nevertheless has proved it is one of real usefulness. In fact, the High Commissioner in many cases is the initiator as well as the catalytic element, capable of mobilising and making the best use of the available energies and resources. The High Commissioner must also intervene sometimes to co-ordinate the activities of governments and voluntary agencies assisting refugees. Finally, it is essential that in fulfilling its task, my Office be enabled to work in close liaison with the Technical Assistance services and with the specialized agencies of the United Nations.

So defined, the High Commissioner's role seems to me to be in perfect harmony with the concept of "good offices" which the General Assembly set out in the two resolutions mentioned earlier, and which permit the amalgamation in the most satisfactory manner of the present and past activities of the High Commissioner's Office, without altering the Office's structure or its initial objectives because the calling of this Office is primarily, I believe, to initiate and to maintain in its field of activities the spirit of international co-operation, which, in our times, is the key to the solution of so many a problem. To the extent that it does not fail in this task and that it maintains the strict humanitarian and social character prescribed by the mandate, the Office of the High Commissioner can, I think, continue to serve the cause of refugees usefully and to render the services which the international community expects.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.