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Text of the speech by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Council of Europe, 1954

Speeches and statements

Text of the speech by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Council of Europe, 1954

1 January 1954

Mr. President,

Apart from the very valid reasons for which anyone would consider it a great privilege to appear before the Council of Europe, I have particular reasons of my own to thank you, and through you the members of this Assembly, for having given me the opportunity of meeting you on your own ground. The first of those reasons is that the Council of Europe has continually demonstrated in many ways its genuine interest in the refugee problem with its varied aspects and implications. This means that I have the honour to appear before a group of distinguished friends of my office, who are truly interested in the programme which it is trying to carry out. The second reason is that my appearance provides me with an opportunity - of which I avail myself with particular pleasure - to express my gratitude for that interest and to pay tribute to the three main organs of the Council, that is to the Assembly, the Committee of Ministers and the Secretariat, for what they are doing for refugees.

If I may elaborate that second reason for feeling privileged a little further, I would like to express particular appreciation for the action taken under the auspices of your principal organs by the Committee on Population and Refugees, and for the approach of M. Pierre Schneiter to his heavy and difficult task as Special Representative of the Council for those two problems. Already at my first meeting with him I received the fullest evidence both of Schneiter's ability and of his spirit of co-operation in matters of common concern. I would like to reciprocate M. Schneiter's approach by giving the Council my firm pledge that I shall try to the best of my ability to equal his constructive spirit of positive co-operation.

However, Mr. President, the third special reason I have for considering this appearance an unusual privilege is still more important than the reasons I have mentioned so far. I have been brought up in a country where true democracy is the pride of the people. As a student I have indulged in such healthy literature as John Stuart Mill's unequalled essay "On Representative Government". As a victim of national-socialist oppression I have known the days when the voice of the population was completely silenced. As a Minister for Justice in the Dutch cabinet in exile in London I have had the experience that it is impossible to govern unless there is a permanent exchange of views between governors and governed which is the essence of parliamentary democracy. As a Senator in my country after its liberation in 1945 I had for more than three years the privilege of participating in discussions between Cabinet and Parliament. Therefore I know that no important work can be carried out on the national plane without active co-operation between the governors and the governed, between the executives and the representatives.

In my present work I often miss the opportunity of speaking to the peoples themselves, that is to those who have their mandates directly from the peoples. True, the Charter of the United Nations starts off by "We, the peoples" and I am glad it does. But the United Nations' machinery does not yet provide us with a body composed of the direct trustees of the peoples. Assembly delegations in the United Nations are "governmental", not "parliamentary". It is here, in Strasbourg, that a further imaginative step has been taken. The consultative assembly is a body of parliamentarians. For anyone who believes, as I myself do, in real democracy, to be permitted to speak to such a body is a very special privilege, for which he must feel exceedingly grateful.

Mr. President, the development in the Council of Europe in the work on behalf of refugees has been both rapid and fascinating. I should like to remind you that my Office is responsible to the United Nations not only for all refugees who were the concern of the I.R.O. and for whom no final solutions have been found, but also for all genuine refugees who, for valid reasons, are unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of their country of nationality. However, all refugees who enjoy the rights of nationals are not within my mandate. For the same reason the Turkish are also excluded from my mandate.

This situation is the reason for the decision of the Committee of Ministers, taken at the request of the Assembly, to accept special responsibility for what are called "national refugees", a term which was certainly not meant to have scientific value but which for practical purposes is, I think, acceptable. However, if you realize that the Volksdeutsche refugees in Austria are within the mandate of my Office, because, although they are "expellees" of German ethnic origin they do not enjoy the rights of nationals in their present country of residence, which was not their country of destination according to the intention of the Potsdam Agreement, it could be argued that certain groups of "national refugees" can claim status both under M. Schneiter's terms of reference and under mine.

It will always be true that in the field of one and the same problem no two mandates can be absolutely mutually exclusive, and that therefore in addition to even the most inventive definition a firm determination to avoid duplication and overlapping on the part of those who received those mandates is essential. In that respect, as I have said already, there is no reason for fear. If I succeed in being as co-operative as M. Schneiter there will be no danger of duplication and overlapping arising out of our respective mandates. However, there are certain other problems which concern our relations with the Council of Europe, but this is not a matter on which I should wish to elaborate at the present time.

Meanwhile, there is a basic difference between this Council and myself as far as freedom of action in the refugee field is concerned. As far as I am concerned, I have no mandate for dealing with "national" refugees but fortunately, this Assembly has a mandate for refugees who do not enjoy the rights of nationals. It is not a mandate, written, as is mine, in more or less clear terms by an international body. It is a mandate, derived from political and geographical factors, based on self-interest as well as on considerations of a humanitarian character.

The fact that the majority of the refugees who do not enjoy the rights of nationals arrive and are in countries belonging to the Council of Europe, and that those countries on account of their geographical situation are bound to fulfil the role of areas of first or second asylum for these refugees, constitutes the geographical justification for special interest in this refugee problem.

Furthermore, the fact that the refugee is a victim of persecution, a living proof of man's love for freedom, and that it is this principle of freedom which underlies the conception of the Council of Europe, constitutes the political justification for your mandate for refugees who do not enjoy the rights of nationals.

And the fact that, rightly, minimum standards of living and the possession of basic human rights are considered to be among the conditions for lasting freedom and peace, explains why on humanitarian groups you cannot and do not dodge your responsibility for those refugees who do not enjoy the rights of nationals.

Finally, the fact that the existence of an extensive group of outcasts, of people without hope or means, in your countries, means a threat to their political and economic stability, makes action on behalf of refugees a matter in your own immediate interest.

For all those reasons, geographical, political, humanitarian, and those of self-interest, the Council of Europe has a "mandate" for refugees who do not enjoy the rights of nationals, as well as for "national" refugees and it is encouraging to note that this mandate has always been recognized.

One more remark seems to be pertinent in this connection. It is true that there is a difference between the collective responsibility of the Council of Europe for refugees and the responsibility of its member-States. It seems reasonable to state that the collective responsibility of the Council is primarily concerned with refugees within the territories of its member-States; it is, however, surely also concerned to a certain degree with refugees of European origin who are stranded outside Europe. On the other hand, the States, members of the Council, are, or act as if they were, members of the world-wide community of States and accept as such co-responsibility for the world-wide refugee problem. That world-wide responsibility is not in conflict with, but complementary to, the European and collective responsibility of which I spoke, although it seems advisable to see to it that action based on the different responsibilities is taken in the appropriate place by the most suitable organ in the international field.

The problem of refugees who do not enjoy the rights of nationals, Mr. President, is not "insoluble". We have, fortunately, no reason to throw up our hands in despair, feeling that adequate action to cope with that problem requires bigger efforts than the international community of States can afford to undertake. For the sake of brevity I shall refrain from speaking about the encouraging and most instructive development of this refugee problem in the past nine years. I confine myself to stating that, as far as Europe is concerned the problem, apart from the question of legal protection, is one of a limited, but not yet precisely known, number of difficult cases to be solved and a number of relatively small problems of emergency aid. In addition, a solution must be found for some 350 thousand refugees who are not completely assimilated, and especially for the 88 thousand refugees living in camps.

If we base ourselves on these facts we will see immediately that our interest must be directed to (a) emergency aid (for the most needy groups of refugees including the difficult cases), and (b) permanent solutions through (i) repatriation (that is, voluntary repatriation), (ii) resettlement overseas, (iii) economic integration on the spot. Of these, repatriation can be ignored as a solution for refugee problems on any mass basis. The number of applicants for voluntary repatriation is infinitely small. Moreover, in our times (which in so far differ from the days of UNRRA and the IRO) no international agency has a mandate for any operational programme in the field of repatriation. No one therefore can do more than to facilitate the establishment of contacts between a volunteer for repatriation and the nearest representative of the country to which he wants to return.

Thus, our more important concerns are emergency aid, which implies charity, resettlement and economic integration. The order in which I put them does not indicate any preference. Were I to do that, I would even mention charity last; not because of any lack of appreciation of the great humanitarian significance of charity, but only because of the fact that to help rebuild the existence of hundreds of thousands is more fascinating than to administer assistance to needy individuals. That preference does, however, by no means affect the need for charity in the refugee field, which is ever absolute. Nonetheless, it seems appropriate to me that I should first make a few remarks on resettlement and economic integration. There again I shall not even attempt to exhaust the subjects. It is my intention, on the contrary, to deal with them mainly from the viewpoint of the relationship between the United Nations and the Council of Europe.

Resettlement overseas has become a much more complicated operation than it was, say, fifty or even ten years ago. Not only have considerations of security greatly influenced any immigration legislation that has been enacted; not only have the problems of transport costs a considerable effect on migration and its statistics; but the main difficulty seems to be that our modern times have left but little room for adventurous undertakings. Migration has to be well planned in three phases: preparation of the migrant, transportation of the migrant, and assistance to the migrant during the first difficult period of his adaptation to the conditions prevailing in his new country.

Although a European co-operation can be extremely helpful and even to some extent indispensable in these fields, in principle resettlement of refugees overseas requires more than this. It requires co-operation between emigration and immigration countries and therefore a more than European forum for the discussion of problems which may arise. Without continuing effort to help establish the overall conditions for mass-admission of immigrants (including considerable investment programmes), and efforts to liberalize the admission legislation in immigration countries, a policy of resettlement cannot succeed. Much as Europe can do in the fields of preparation of migrants for their new lives and of helping to finance the transportation of emigrants, it seems unquestionable that world-wide co-operation is required to achieve the goal.

Is the situation really very different when it comes to economic integration "on the spot"? Can it be said that that solution - which, I would like to say in parenthesis, will have to be accepted by the great majority of the unsettled refugees who today are still in Europe - can it be said that integration is a "European" problem in that it does not require an extra-European contribution? The answer is a clear and definite "no". In principle resettlement overseas and economic integration "on the spot" (I include intra-European resettlement in that concept) have some essentials in common. The chances for both are dependent on the economic absorptive capacity of the areas concerned. "Overpopulation" (I personally have strong objections to using the word "surplus" - population since I deny that anyone is "surplus" on earth), overpopulation is, as we know, not an absolute concept but only the description of a factual and changing situation. When the economy of a country cannot provide all the people in that country with a means of existence, then there is (after the so-called "normal unemployment-rate" has been discounted) overpopulation to the extent to which people cannot find a living. In other words: measures to increase the economic absorptive capacity of a country tend to decrease the extent to which there is "overpopulation". Mutatis mutandis the problem of mass-resettlement and of integration are both problems of increasing the absorptive capacities of the countries of immigration and integration. The conclusion of that consideration is clear; the solution of "integration on the spot" requires not less a world-wide co-operation than does the solution of resettlement overseas. One cannot hope that the economies of many of the immigration countries shall attain a higher degree of absorptive capacity without investments from abroad being made. Neither can one hope that the countries of residence of large numbers of refugees in Europe can absorb them to the degree of full integration without such investments. The refugee problem, both from the points of view of resettlement overseas as well as from economic integration on the spot, cannot be solved by European efforts alone.

All this, Mr. President, may sound as if I were preoccupied with those aspects of the problem which cannot be solved on the European level alone.

Actually this is not the case. Refugee work abounds in tasks needing to be accomplished, and a large proportion of them are in Europe.

Europe, as the part of the world where most of the refugees who are the concern of my Office actually reside (and, moreover, will continue to arrive), had its own special responsibility for helping to solve their problems. Its old tradition of asylum only adds to it. So does the rôle it is called upon to play in the field of world-wide co-operation. In many ways Europe can develop a programme of special activities in the refugee field. Promotion of accession to, and ratification of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, would help establish some of the essential conditions for effective economic integration on the spot. Helping refugees to overcome their difficulties in meeting their costs of transportation will promote their re-establishment overseas. Liberalization of the movement of people from country to country with a view to finding employment will help refugees to create a new existence. Many concrete programmes of economic integration through intra-European co-operation can be set on foot. And in the United Nations nothing will have a greater influence on the development of a fruitful refugee programme than the fact that Europe's countries would be able to speak the same language as a consequence of the discussions in this Assembly.

Liberalization of the movement of people from country to country with a view to finding employment will help refugees to create a new existence.

Finally, Europe has to accept - and, I am glad to state has in fact accepted - that the solution for the difficult cases amongst the refugees (which is charity) has to be more than 90% European.

I do not put any blame on any country of immigration when saying that they hardly provide solutions for those difficult cases. I pay, however, a well-deserved tribute to Europe by saying that many of its countries do provide such solutions. And I am grateful to the Government of the Netherlands for having presented the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe with a number of comprehensive ideas, tending to make more concrete Europe's responsibility both in promoting permanent solutions for the problems of refugees and in providing emergency aid.

The current year is a crucial year in the refugee field. M. Schneiter is preparing his programme for tackling the problem of national refugees. My Office has presented what it feels is a minimum programme to cope with the problem of those refugees who do not enjoy the rights of nationals. Both these programmes are of special concern to Europe. Mr. President, being a European myself I firmly believe in Europe's resourcefulness and in its awareness of its responsibilities, two qualities which prove that Europe, notwithstanding its age, is still young. A bold attempt on Europe's part to get to grips with its two refugee problems will give new impetus to Europe's integration and to the activities of the United Nations in the refugees field. And the world at large will, I am sure, respond in line with that good, old principle "he deserves to be helped who tries to help himself".