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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, thirteenth session, Geneva, 10 May 1965

Speeches and statements

Opening Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, thirteenth session, Geneva, 10 May 1965

10 May 1965

At the opening of this thirteenth session of the Executive Committee, I should like as usual, Mr. Chairman, to give a brief account of the present position with special reference to the sector of UNHCR's activities which arises out of its social function this being viewed as a separate function, though one closely associated with protection, its other essential function.

I shall begin by saying a few words about an activity which is now only a steadily diminishing adjunct to assistance activities as a whole, namely, the residue of the last major aid programmes for "old" refugees. The progress report, prepared this year as usual, shows the advances made in this sector and also the difficulties facing us. In Greece and at Hong Kong, for example, the solution of the problems which we are tackling will be considerably delayed. We have encountered legal and practical difficulties in Greece, which have already been partially overcome and which we are attempting to dispose of one after another. At Hong Kong, the rate at which refugees arrive from mainland China is, as you know, not under our control. The resettlement of those who have succeeded in leaving China and are now at Hong Kong has slowed down sharply in recent months for a variety of reasons. Thus we have had to bear, for an abnormally long period, the cost of maintaining at Hong Kong a group of some 300 refugees belonging to the set known as "Old Believers". The steps taken, in liaison with ICEM and the voluntary agencies, to overcome the obstacles holding up resettlement will, I hope, shortly result in a rapid improvement in this situation. Before passing on to current assistance activities, I feel I should point out that a sum of $350,000 is still needed to cover all the projects approved by the Executive Committee under its old programmes. I continue to hope that specific contributions will be forthcoming to meet the residual deficit, so that we can finally close a chapter in our work which should shortly become past history.

It will be remembered that financial target for the 1964 current programme was approximately $3 million. As will be seen from document A/AC.96/277/Add.1, almost the whole of that sum had been disbursed or committed, in so far as it was actually available, by the end of the year. The part which had not been disbursed related to a number of projects whose implementation has been postponed or which have been the subject of readjustments. These are primarily projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and projects for Cuban refugees in Spain the implementation of which was in any case to be spread over a period ending in mid-1963. With these few exceptions, by 31 March of this year, all allocations had been disbursed or cancelled. Thus a practice has been established which is in all respects in keeping with the aims and character of the current assistance programme.

Over and above this programme, funds amounting to $1.2 million were committed for operations outside the programme in order to increase its effectiveness in various ways. If we add to this the sum of more than $5.5 million representing the supporting contributions which could be evaluated and which do not include the sometimes substantial bilateral and obtained from certain countries like the United State, it will be seen how far our constant references to the essentially complementary nature of the current assistance programme are borne out by the facts.

So much for the past. What is the position with respect to the assistance programme for the current year? Though their importance should not be exaggerated, some reference must nevertheless be made to the difficulties inherent in the extreme fluidity of the main problems confronting us, more particularly in Africa. The diversity of these problems and their tendency to spread is already putting the services of the Office to a severe test, since it is being called upon more and more frequently to assist Governments in dealing urgently with situations which cannot but cause them serious concern and which they are anxious to bring to an end before they get more or less out of control. But when each problem is considered individually, it also becomes clear that the basic facts sometimes change in such a way as to call for the revision of all or part of the plans already drawn up or for the alteration of at least some of the projects previously worked out or contemplated. There are many examples of this. I will mention in particular the refugees from Rwanda in the Congo and Burundi and some groups of refugees in Uganda. It is not, therefore, surprising that the office has some difficulty in making forecasts on which firm programmes, requiring only occasional minor adjustments, can be based, as was usually the case with the "old" refugee problems in Europe.

Quite apart from the changes occurring in the situation of existing groups of refugees, change which frequently merely mirror surrounding political developments and which affect the nature and choice of the solutions to be adopted in resolving the problems which arise, We are now often faced with a perceptible worsening of these problems, which are unquestionably tending to increase in magnitude. These are the background facts which should be borne in mind in considering the projects which are now being submitted to the Executive Committee, and which, we regret, do not always meet the time limits we are normally allowed.

It is this development, too, which forces us to request the Committee to raise the target for the 1965 Programme, which we propose should be increased from $3.2 to $3.5 million. It is, of course, only after deep reflection and a careful study of the new situations that we have decided to make this request to the Committee. A senior member of my staff recently visited the areas concerned in order to review once again, together with the Governments and all the authorities concerned, all the facts relating to these problems and the possible practical solutions. It is the result of this review, which was carried out only a few weeks ago, which is now being submitted to the Committee.

In the proposals we have made to the Committee, we have taken into account, after consultation with my local representatives, both existing needs and the prospects for the effective implementation during this year, by the Governments concerned, of a certain proportion of the over-all programmes submitted. As the final factor, we have also considered the financial resources on which we felt we ourselves could reasonably count. I do not think that it is realistic, Mr. Chairman, to commit ourselves vis-à-vis these Governments to carrying out a programme which is too ambitious for the resources we believe we can normally command. Although we recognize that the effort thus called for from Governments prepared to support. UNHCR's humanitarian work covers only a part of the known and assessed needs, it seemed to us preferable to confine ourselves for the time being to the indispensable minimum which, in our view, is represented by the projects submitted to the Committee, relying on complementary action, particularly bilateral action, to fill any gaps, which we will, of course, attempt to cover ourselves, if the need should arise.

At this time, Mr. Chairman, when I am compelled to appeal to the generosity of Governments to provide the Office with the additional $300,000 needed to deal with the extension of certain refugee problems in Africa, and to cover the existing deficit of $600,000 in the budget of the 1965 Programme, it is comforting to note that the number of Governments contributing to our assistance programme has shown a spectacular increase during the past twelve months or so. Nineteen Governments, twelve in 1964 and seven in 1965, have now for the first time expressed their willingness to participate in this work of international solidarity. I need hardly say that we find this a great encouragement to continue our efforts to persuade other Governments to become participants. Although this progress is undoubtedly largely due to the geographical extension of the refugee problem, and consequently, of the work of the High Commissioner's Office, it also reflects, I hope, a wider understanding of these problems on the part of the international community, and a recognition, which might now be described as unanimous, of the purely humanitarian aspects of our work. The fact cannot, however, be overlooked that these new contributions, being in many cases necessarily of a token character, are unfortunately not enough to relieve the High Commissioner's Office of all concern regarding the financing of the programme. That will obviously require a further effort on the part of those countries which are in a position to make a substantial contribution, and I cannot too strongly urge the Governments concerned to give immediate consideration to this problem, upon whose solution depends the ability of this Office to meet its most pressing commitments.

It is hardly necessary to remind the Committee that the sole purpose of the work of the Office is to give refugees an opportunity of regaining living conditions adapted to their needs and to the circumstances, while encouraging the Governments of countries of reception to maintain a liberal attitude towards those seeking asylum. I must at this point draw attention to the generous and understanding attitude shown by the African countries as a whole, despite difficulties of all kinds. I have no doubt that they are firmly resolved to continue honouring the sacred principle of asylum. It is nonetheless certain that by helping them to deal with problems which are often out of all proportion to their resources and means of action, the international community will spare them from the tragic decisions which might be forced upon them by certain situations resulting from the large-scale influx of refugees, situations which might well become desperate if remedial action were too long delayed.

And it is here, Mr. Chairman, that assistance once again is merged with protection, and these two functions of the High Commissioner's Office complement and support each other, as a pillar supports an arch. For if, in brief statements of this kind, protection does not always receive such full attention as assistance programmes, that is certainly not because it is less important or in any sense less topical. The fact that the needs are often less obvious and palpable, and the results in that field less tangible than in the field of assistance, of course, in no way detracts from the importance of the High Commissioner's constant efforts to improve the statute, to consolidate advantages already won and to combat all infringements of the rights of refugees as recognized by the Convention. In that connexion, I am happy to be able to inform the Committee that two more countries, Liberia and Peru, have recently acceded to the convention of 28 July 1951, thereby bringing up to forty-seven the number of States which have acceded to it.

With reference to that Convention, I should also like to refer briefly to the hope expressed here by some delegations which, anxious to see its benefits extended to new refugees meeting the general requirements, raised the question of the dateline of 1 January 1951. At our suggestion, and thanks to the financial assistance generously provided by the Swiss Governments, the Carnegie Endowment arranged a colloquium at Bellagio last month, attended by a group of experts and jurists of wide experience and international reputation. After giving particular consideration to this question of the dateline, the colloquium submitted a report, the text of which will be circulated to members of the committee at this session. There can be no doubt that this was an event of great significance and one which is likely to lead to valuable developments in the future. I hope to have an opportunity to return to the question at the Committee's next session, and possibly to make some suggestions with a view to taking full advantage of the thorough study made in this connexion.

I cannot leave this matter of protection without saying a word about the approaches which we made last summer to the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with a view to persuading it to repeal the measures for expulsion and sequestration taken in respect of the refugees from Rwanda who had been given asylum in that country. We obtained first assurances that those measures would not be put into effect, and the Central Government has now in principle acceded to our request and we hope that a decree rescinding both these measures will shortly be signed.

I think, Mr. Chairman, that the Committee will also be interested to hear that, at the request of the Governments of several Central African countries, we have taken up the question of the future of the Congolese who took refuge in those countries after the events which occurred in certain regions of the Congo. At my request, the International Committee of the Red Cross asked one of its representatives in that area to make an inquiry on the spot, and his conclusions are now being studied. The purpose of all our efforts is, of course, to make it possible for all those wishing to return to their country to do so as soon as circumstances permit. With regard to those refugees who are unable or unwilling, for reasons other than personal convenience, to be repatriated, the time will certainly come when we shall have to concern ourselves with their establishment or resettlement. The important thing, for the moment, if to ensure that both categories of refugees can survive and obtain appropriate assistance if necessary. Limited amounts have already been drawn for this purpose from the Emergency Fund, when urgent needs arose.

These, Mr. Chairman, in brief, are the principal points concerning the work of the High Commissioner's Office which I thought should be brought to the attention of the Committee before it takes up the various documents before it. I am sure the Committee will understand our reasons for postponing the submission of some of those documents, and also the absolute necessity for us to take immediate action, as soon as we have all the facts of any problem, within the financial limits which the Committee itself has imposed on us, to provide the refugees and their countries of reception with the assistance they need and which is the only means of preventing these problems from developing into social scourges, acting as an additional source of unrest and unsettlement in the countries concerned.