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Opening Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, tenth session, 30 September 1963

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Opening Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, tenth session, 30 September 1963

30 September 1963

The session which opens today is, for a variety of reasons, of unusual importance. As you are aware, we have reached the last phase of the Major Aid Programmes on behalf of the residual group of persons whom we have agreed to call the "old" refugees. If the expected assistance materializes, this task, which for so many years has been our main concern, can now be rapidly completed. At the same time, the work of UNHCR must be carried on, and it must, in particular, face up to the substantial new refugee problems which have arisen in other parts of the world. This day-to-day action, which falls within the terms of the mandate and of the most recent resolutions adopted by the Assembly, we have sought to define in specific terms and to organize it as efficiently as possible, having regard to the Office's facilities and the support it can expect to receive from governments. In doing so we have become aware of the need for certain adjustments in our financial arrangements and methods of work; those adjustments will be referred to as the work of this session proceeds.

In view of the importance of the question raised, I have thought it fitting to submit to the Governments members of the Committee, in advance, a few general ideas on the principles which, so far as assistance is concerned, should, I think, guide the Office's present and future action Those ideas are set forth in document A/AC.96/213.

However, before turning to the programme for 1964 I should like, with your permission, Mr. Chairman, to survey briefly the progress made since the Committee's previous session, last April, with regard to protection and material assistance. It affords me particular pleasure to begin by informing the Committee of the accession of three further countries to the Convention of 28 July 1951. Those countries, in chronological order of accession, are Senegal and Cyprus, in both of which the Convention was put into effect before the States in question achieved independence, and Burundi, whose leaders have entered into consultation with the office of the High Commissioner concerning the procedures for the Convention's implementation. The Convention thus has forty-two contracting States at the present time, a fact which, as was stressed by the United Kingdom representative at the recent session of the Economic and Social Council, testifies to an increasingly wide acceptance of the general principles defining the status of the refugee. I need hardly say that it is my ardent desire to see the number of signatories continue so to increase that those principles may soon be regarded as having been accepted by the international community in its entirety. As that number grows, the task assigned to my Office will naturally increase in magnitude, for it is required to keep in constant touch with the countries concerned and to give them, at their request, guidance and advice on the implementation of the Convention's provisions, which cannot always be fitted straight-away into the legislation, sometimes still at an embryonic stage, of the developing countries.

As you will have seen, moreover, from document A/AC.96/204, the United Nations Conference on Consular Relations finally adopted the text of the resolution to which I referred at the previous session and which, without commitment as to the substance, fully reserves the position of refugees vis-à-vis the Vienna Convention.

I should also like to mention here efforts made in the United Nations to draw up a declaration on the right of asylum. The preamble and article 1 of the draft were adopted last year by the Assembly; discussion of the following articles will normally be resumed this year in the Third Committee. I need hardly say how much we hope that a clear unambiguous text, constituting as it were the legal basis of a right which has not yet been embodied in an international instrument of this nature, will be adopted. For, from the point of view of the refugee, the right of asylum takes precedence over all others and should normally have its place among the many conventions or recommendations formulated under United Nations auspices.

I have had occasion earlier to inform the Committee of a question that is particularly prominent at the present time, namely, the efforts made to enable refugees to benefit by the regional agreements concluded between various States, and more particularly between the members of the European Economic Community. There have been frequent discussions on this topic, as the outcome of which a working party has been set up under the Commission of the European Economic Community to study and discuss concrete measures which could be taken to enable refugees to participate fully in the movement for European integration. I attach the greatest importance to the Further development of this question, to which we shall continue to give the closest attention.

The Committee will doubtless wish me to say a few words also about the progress of the work of the Indemnification Fund established under the agreement concluded on 5 October 1960 with the Federal Republic of Germany . A decision has already been taken on 26,000, or about two-thirds, of the 40,000 applications registered. Consideration of the remaining third has now reached a relatively advanced stage. At this point in our work it has been possible to determine more accurately what share each successful applicant ought to receive. I have already been able to make a second payment, much more substantial than the first. The payments authorized to date represent more than half the total amount of the Indemnification Fund. Obviously, we are doing everything we can to complete this exceptional task as quickly as possible: as you know, it raised many delicate problems at the outset. I should like at this point to stress the importance of the assistance rendered to refugees by the voluntary agencies and similar organizations in dealing with the prescribed formalities, and also the importance of their participation in the appeal procedure. The presence of their participation on the Appeals Board has made possible constant exchanges of views with the administration of the Fund, and that administration, being better informed of the special aspects of certain situations, and confronted with the requirements of the refugees, has taken them into account as far as possible. So far, 1,500 applicants have resorted to this appeal facility.

On this same subject of indemnification, I must mention the new development constituted by the submission to parliament, by the government of the Federal Republic of Germany, of a bill designed to settle once and for all the question of the indemnification of victims of Nazism. Conversation have been begun with that Government concerning some of the provisions of the proposed act. I hope they will be of benefit to various groups of refugees who were the victims of persecution and have so far been unable, under previous legislation, to obtain adequate compensation.

The foregoing are, very briefly, the chief results obtained during the last few months in the all-important domain of protection, with which the day-to-day work of my Office is primarily concerned.

How then does the programme stand at present? I cannot, of course, anticipate the progress report to be drawn up later on the basis of detailed information received annually which is not yet available. I am, however, glad to be able to tell the Committee in very general terms that, in spite of the difficulties we have encountered, the picture before us today may be said to be encouraging. The Committee will, of course, be well aware of the fact that we have had to conduct our campaign on several fronts at the same time: to get vigorously under way and maintain the rhythm of the last Major Aid programmes for the "old" refugees in Europe; to follow very closely the development of the "complementary" programme which will ultimately become the normal programme - which shows the great importance we attach to the current experiment; and, lastly, to devote the requisite attention, within this Complementary Assistance Programme, to the new refugee problems.

With regard to the Major Aid Programmes, a distinction should be draw between the problem of the camps and that of refugees living outside the camps. The former may now be regarded as resolved in Austria and Greece, where only a few dozen non-settled refugees remain to be settled. The same is true as a whole in Germany and Italy, save for a residual core of particularly handicapped cases for whom solutions are at present being sought. In Germany more especially, a few "pockets" of refugees may be expected to remain temporarily in the Camps until certain problems have been overcome, and in particular until new land has been acquired for their rehousing.

As to the refugees living outside the camps, the position differs somewhat in countries where large-scale efforts have been made for a long time past and in countries where the action of the High Commissioner's Office has been more restricted or started later. In the former countries, such as Austria and Germany, the financing of assistance to the old refugees is virtually assured and only very small allocations, mainly intended for social welfare services, have been included in the 1963 Programme. The implementation of certain more or less long-term projects, such as housing projects, has still to be provided for. Although the Federal Government of Germany has itself undertaken to provide refugees living outside the camps with housing in accordance with lists submitted by the High Commissioner's Office two years must be expected to elapse between the time when the first dwellings are ready for them next spring and the completion of this undertaking, the importance of which will be obvious to all. In Italy the problem of refugees outside the camps may be regarded as virtually resolved. In Greece, however, much remains to be done owing to the special difficulties connected with the settlement of these refugees because of the economic and social conditions obtaining in that country. There are not, however, so many of them that solutions cannot be found within the framework of the programmes already approved, but it is impossible to say, how long it will take to implement them. It will be noted with interest that the thorny question of housing contracts and the ownership of dwellings built for the refugees in Greece has been settled satisfactorily following on the recent enactment of a long-awaited law.

In France and Latin America, where the programmes have not been as broad in scope or have been applied more recently, the projects approved within the Major Aid Programmes will be carried out normally within the next two years.

Generally speaking, the implementation of the programme in the various countries has been speeded up considerably. This is, of course, the result of the experience acquired over the years and the sustained efforts made to stimulate their implementation and come to grips with the problem by making the projects more flexible and adapting them precisely to actual requirements. The system of "funds for permanent solutions" applied in France and Latin America provides an admirable illustration of what may be expected from this method, which has consequently been extended to other countries in the Complementary Assistance Programme for 1963.

The collaboration with national administrations required for the administration of the programme has become increasingly closer and more confident as the joint work has progressed, each side becoming more clearly aware of its own responsibilities. For instance, a governmental body in Italy is now resolutely taking over the functions of the major international agencies, which had hitherto been responsible for most of the work involved in preparing refugees for emigration.

These facts cannot fail to encourage us, and I therefore feel most optimistic about the prospects of a speedy liquidation of these residual problems for the solution of which the major aid programmes for the "old" European refugees were originally designed. I have pleasure, in this connexion, in mentioning the appeal which has just been launched by the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe, renewing the invitation it addressed to its members last year to take part in the movement of European solidarity on behalf of the "old" refugees. I should like to express my gratitude to it for its unfailing support of our work and I shall ask its representative, who is always welcome to our meetings, to be good enough to convey to his organization the sentiments I have just expressed.

With regard to current work, the main purpose of which is to see that the machinery of international co-operation remains lively and effective and always on the alert, as this alone can ward off the most serious ills by helping to heal the less dangerous or more scattered wounds as they arise, we also have good reasons, I think, to feel satisfaction at the way in which the first Complementary Assistance Programme has got going. We have, of course, been obliged to advance by trial and error, as is inevitable, due for the most part to the difficulty of coming to grips with the problem closely enough to determine its specific scope. That is true of Europe, where it was not always easy to draw a clear distinction between the new problems and the old ones covered by the previous major aid programmes. But it is even truer, of other regions, particularly Africa, where we have had to tackle without any previous experience entirely new problems arising within a setting completely different from any we had previously encountered. However that may be, the results achieved, which are described in documents submitted to the Committee, show, I believe, that on the whole our action has been effective. With regard to the new groups of refugees, the Deputy High Commissioner will have an opportunity before this session ends of giving you an account of the results of the mission he is at present carrying out in Africa. He will no doubt then be able to inform the Committee of the most recent developments in the problems which are now plaguing that part of the world and which call for speedy and bold solutions.

My own visit to Australia and New Zealand last June gave me a striking and most stimulating illustration of the persistence and vigour of this feeling of solidarity to which I referred a moment ago. The admission of a large number of Jensen cases into Australia is the best example of this state of mind, of which I received much evidence during my trip and the importance of which cannot be overstressed. Indeed, the understanding thus shown by oversea countries of the difficulties with which the countries of first asylum are faced offers the greatest encouragement to them to pursue a generous policy in granting the right of asylum. I had much the same experience a few days ago when I visited Austria, where I was able to satisfy myself that the procedure for the admission of persons seeking asylum in that country with a view to subsequent emigration is now no problem.

Reference to the current assistance activities of the High Commissioner's Office naturally brings me to say a few words about the programme submitted to the Committee for the forthcoming year.

I would point out that this programme, in spirit and content alike, reflects the directives laid down by the Executive Committee; moreover, it takes into account the financial assistance to be expected from the governments interested in the activities to be expected from the governments interested in the activities of the Office of the High Commissioner. We have endeavoured, so far as possible, to submit detailed projects to the Committee. In the absence of sufficiently accurate information, we were, however, obliged, in some cases, simply to propose to the Committee a framework, into which specific projects will subsequently be fitted. These projects will, of course, be submitted as soon as possible to the Committee for its formal approval.

In this connexion, I should like to say how valuable we found the recent discussion in the Committee concerning a withdrawal I proposed to make from the Emergency Fund, in order to cope with unforeseen developments in a situation which, as usual, we endeavoured to remedy with extremely limited funds. A similar approach, reflecting the wishes of the Committee, could, in my opinion, be usefully adopted and developed in future, so that we could obtain its views or its formal decision, either to enable us to cope with an unforeseen situation or in connexion with projects which, owing to circumstances, we had been unable to submit to the Committee at its previous regular session and whose urgency was such that they could not be held over until the nest session. I should be particularly grateful, Mr. Chairman, if the members of the Committee would, at the present session, intimate their views on this subject. It is, I think, vital, in view of the nature of the problems with which we are faced at the present time outside Europe, that closer and more permanent contact should be established with the Committee, without in any way imposing on its members obligations which they might consider too onerous.

I should like to emphasize once again that the assistance programme is only a means, and not an end in itself; the importance of the problems involved and of the work done by UNHCR cannot, therefore, be measured by size of a programme which varies from year to year according to circumstances. The fact that efforts at present being made in Europe to deal with current tasks are on a smaller scale than in the past does not, of course, mean that we are dissociating ourselves from the remaining problems there. On the contrary, I feel that the new programme in the form in which it has been devised, will make it possible, in co-operation with our customary partners, and by means of increasing efforts on the part of the host countries, to solve these problems satisfactorily. During my recent visit to Austria, I found that the facilities made available under our previous programme, designed to resolve long-standing problems, will play a much greater part in our current activities, than the modest allocations under the Complementary Assistance Programme. For example, of the 4,000 or so dwellings constructed in Austria for refugees, about 80 will become vacant every year, and will be made available to new refugees. This fact also illustrates the idea which I have often touched on here, namely, that by eradicating the sequelae of the past, the work of this Office relating to current problems will itself be strengthened.

As I remarked at the beginning of my statement, our primary aim should be to keep alive the spirit and machinery of international co-operation. No one, I feel, would nowadays dream of questioning certain of the ideals on which the activities of the High Commissioner's Office are based. Yet history teaches that only recently have these ideals taken shape and been translated into a practical effort of international co-operation on behalf of the refugees. Nevertheless, they are still like a fragile plant which requires the most attentive care if it is to survive. These ideals must be nurtured through our daily activities. It is obviously the duty of UNHCR to see that they do not perish but grow stronger and become rooted more and more deeply in the public mind. My Office is gratified that it can count in this connexion on the active co-operation of the voluntary agencies, which are continuing to make the greatest efforts to transform these humanitarian ideals into an everyday reality. It is in recognition of their efforts that the Nansen Medal Award Committee has, as you know decided to award the Nansen Medal For 1963 to the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, which comprises 74 organizations particularly devoted to the cause of the refugees. This medal will be awarded to them on 10 October 1963, the anniversary of Nansen's birth, at a ceremony to be held here, in the Palais des Nations. Although I have already had occasion to tell these organizations how delighted we are about this, I should once again like to express to them my sincere congratulations and my deepest gratitude.

As to the UNHCR, it could obviously not play the part assigned to it in this union of men of goodwill unless it possessed task and to bind up, wherever and whenever necessary, the succession of wounds that continue to appear before they become infected. I am therefore convinced that Governments, and particularly those which are here represented, will realize how imperative it is both at the present time and in the immediate future, that they should not relax their efforts, so as to enable the activities of the UNHCR to continue. In this way they will help to strengthen, if need be, and to confirm the idea which is so full of promise, that the United Nations can, outside all political controversy, serve as a framework and bulwark for strictly humanitarian activities, and thus ensure to the victims of the upheavals, so common in our day and age, the benefit of effective international co-operation.