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Address by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, delivered before the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe, 27 September 1961

Speeches and statements

Address by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, delivered before the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe, 27 September 1961

27 September 1961

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very glad to have this opportunity today of myself presenting the 9th Report of our activities and of telling you something about the many problems connected with refugees - problems which, for the most part, are closely linked with general developments in Europe.

What confronts us is not a single problem but a complex series of problems, the common factor in which is that they are all a source of misery, suffering and social instability. These problems had their beginnings in Europe and it was in Europe that the community of nations first became aware of their existence and of the obligations they entailed. It is enough for me to mention the work of Fridtjof Nansen and the organisations by which that work was carried on after his death in 1930. It was in Europe too that the idea of a statute for refugees first took root and that thousands of them found a generous welcome. It was from Europe that the first suggestion came for World Refugee Year, which has stimulated world-wide interest in the fate of those unfortunates.

In spite, however, of the immense progress achieved as are a result of World Refugee Year, we have not yet reached the end of the road. While we are still searching for a final solution to the refugee problems that are the legacy of the Second World War, new problems are already arising in other parts of the world which are a further source of unrest and from which I am convinced that Europe cannot dissociate herself.

Hence, the field of action of the Office of the High Commissioner can be divided into two main sectors. The first covers the long-standing problems of the refugees who are its raison d'être. These refugees number some 1,350,000, about 850,000 of whom have found asylum in the member countries of the Council of Europe. The second sector covers those who have become refugees since the end of the Second World War, especially during the left few years. The problem here is partly the result of the changes that have taken place in Africa and in Asia and involves hundreds of thousands of human beings who have been forced to abandon their homes with the loss, in most cases, of all their possessions.

Before describing the situation with regard to the refugees coming under my original terms of reference, I should like to say a few words about the problem of the new refugees and the measures we have taken to help them. For the most part, they are refugees in the widest sense of the term: people, that is to say, who have been forced to abandon their homes for reasons over which they have no control. For example, in Europe itself there are the national refugees who are the responsibility of the Special Representative; in Asia, there are first the Hindus transferred to India when the two independent States of India and Pakistan were established, followed by the refugees from Korea, the Chinese refugees in Hong Kong and the Tibetans in Nepal. In Africa, there are the refugees from Angola now in the Congo.

Given the political, economic and social structure of most of the countries where these refugees are to be found, it would be difficult, not to say useless, to try to deal with the problem in terms of the situation as it presented itself in Europe immediately after the last war. There are innumerable cases in which the essential need is to provide urgent help and try to ensure the survival of a flood of dispossessed persons by the distribution of food and first-aid.

Ever since 1957, the United Nations General Assembly has been concerned with the fate of these refugees who seemed to be relegated, on legal grounds, to a back place and who were receiving no attention from the community of nations. To fill this gap, the General Assembly began by authorizing the High Commissioner to collect contributions for the Chinese refugees in Hong Kong. Thanks to World Refugee Year, knowledge of the new problems has spread throughout the world and penetrated to many different levels of the population. It has also forced itself on the attention of Governments, with the result that the General Assembly has decided to extend the powers of the High Commissioner to take in all new categories of refugees. This does not mean that he can, or is obliged to, intervene each time a new problem arises. As the servant of the community of nations, he has the dual task of improving the lot of the refugees for whom he is responsible, within the limits of the means at his disposal, and of serving the interests of the nations to the best of his ability.

By a Resolution adopted at the last Session of the General Assembly, any Government faced with a new refugee problem within its own territory may be given advice by the High Commissioner and ask him for help. In the cases that have occurred so far, the first task of the High Commissioner has been to supplement the aid already given by local authorities or charitable organisation. It is here that the humanitarian aspect of the High Commissioner's terms of reference is given its full scope, the more so because, if all members of the community of nations are sure that the High Commissioner's activities are completely divorced from politics, they will be the more ready to contrition towards his work.

Although World Refugee Year has enabled us to help a certain number of those refugees - I am thinking especially of the Chinese and the Tibetans in Nepal - their very number poses a problem for which no solution is yet in sight.

I am well aware of the interest that the Council of Europe takes in these questions which my office is following very closely, and I will not fail to keep you informed of all the steps we take to deal with them.

Now I come to those refugees covered by my original terms of reference and still needing international assistance, whom we have decided to call the "old refugees". The term is all the more appropriate, I think, because it refers to people who, in many cases, have known no others life than that of a refugee since they wore children, sometimes even since the day of their birth.

We are now reaching the final phase in the large-scale programmes which have, over the last 10 years, enabled us to bring relief to some 100,000 refugees, by means of funds totalling 72,000,000 dollars, of which 31,000,000 wore contributed from international sources and 41,000,000 from the receiving countries themselves.

Thanks to World Refugee Year the closing of the camps is now possible financially, but it will call for a further determined effort both on our part and on the part of the voluntary organisation and local authorities, among whose projects housing, as you know, occupies a vital place.

The most serious and most distressing problem today is, however, that of the physically and socially handicapped refugees. Though they are relatively few in number, their problems are nevertheless complex, particularly because they have lived for so many years in extremely difficult conditions. Whether they be physically handicapped, aged, members of large fatherless families, or refugees who have lost all moral resistance as a result of living too long in camps, their problems call for individual solutions. The Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme has consequently authorized special projects covering a wide range of forms of aid, designed to "help the refugee to help himself" - a principle of which I wholeheartedly approve as being the best method of helping a man to preserve his human dignity.

To this end, a network of social assistance services with specialized advisers has been formed in those countries which have the largest number of handicapped refugees, in order to find out their needs and help them to choose the most appropriate permanent solution, starting from the principle that every refugee for whom the Commission is responsible should be free to choose between three types of solution offered him: repatriation of his own free will or resettlement either by emigration or local integration.

Thanks to this system, a certain number of handicapped refugees can find their own way to a new life. It is sometimes sufficient to put them in touch with a visiting selection board, to find them work which they are capable of doing in spite of their handicap, or have them follow a course of suitable occupational training to enable them to practice a trade.

In this way a proportion of these handicapped refugees will be successfully integrated into the community; we know of numerous examples already. But what is to become of the aged, the sick, the disabled and the maladjusted? There are solutions for them too, albeit more difficult more complicated.

For many years now, they have been hospitably received by the Scandinavian countries, Belgium, France and Switzerland. In Austria, Germany and Italy special steps have been taken to resettle locally those who are unable to emigrate. The United Kingdom, too, has for the past few years been facilitating the admission of certain categories of handicapped refugees. Other European countries such as Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, the principality of Monaco, Iceland and Turkey have also made their contribution.

Thanks to modern methods of physical and mental rehabilitation, many of these refugees who, ten or fifteen years ago, would have been condemned to inactivity for the rest of their lives, can be cured, learn a new trade and become once more useful members of the community in their adoptive countries. To illustrate the progress made, let me remind you that the method, widely practiced in the initial stages, of assigning refugees to "homes" was replaced by a new system, better adapted to individual needs, which was successfully applied in Austria and Germany. It consisted in providing refugees with individual living accommodation and communal meals. They were granted social assistance and free medical attention. To enable severely handicapped refugees to recover a certain measure of independence, we subsequently devised a new type of project modelled on rehabilitation centres with sheltered workshops. These are already operating very satisfactorily in France. The aim behind these projects is to provide refugee with occupational training adapted to their physical condition and to provide those unable to work full-time with an honourable means of contributing towards their keep and making themselves useful to the community at the same time.

As Mr. Selvik, Rapporteur to the Committee on Refugees and Over-population, pointed out in his Report, we are studying a special project designed to establish sheltered workshops in Stuttgart which will accommodate some sixty handicapped refugees. We are also examining the possibility of a similar project at San Antonio in the province of Salerno, Italy, which should house and employ approximately 150 handicapped refugees who are unable to emigrate.

I am especially grateful to the Committee on Refugees and Over-population for the interest it has taken in these two projects, whose realisation will represent a new step towards the final solution of the problem of "old" refugees.

The example of European countries has been followed overseas. For, and this is another happy sequel to World Refugee Year, several immigration countries whose over-severe regulations restricted the admission of handicapped refugees have in recent years relaxed their selection criteria. By their more indulgent policy towards those cases, they have brought nearer the solution of the problem, are alleviating the burden on the countries which first offered asylum to the refugees, and thereby strengthening the international co-operation so necessary for the attainment of our objectives.

Now that emigration is open to most refugees we may hope that it will be possible to keep pace with the spate of refugees into Europe - which has abated somewhat at present - provided that the countries which receive them are alert to their needs take as speedy action as possible and retain the same human understanding for their problems.

I have told you of the main problem, a material one, with which the "old" refugees still face us. I hope in the near future to complete an overall plan specifying the number of people still in need of help, the period of time that will be required in order to deal with their problems and the resulting cost. The purpose of this plan is to provide a final solution to the problems of "old refugees" and to put an end to programmes of assistance.

It remains for me to speak, Mr. President, about the fundamental task of my office, that is, the legal protection which, as you know, extends to all refugees coming within my terms of reference. The object of this task, may I state again, is to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of refugees and to help them to cease to be refugees.

In this field too, considerable progress has been made thanks to a growing understanding of the complex legal position of refugees and to the favourable atmosphere created by World Refugee Year. Thus there have been three new accessions since 1959 to the Magna Carta for Refugees, that is to say the 1951 Convention relating to their status, and when I was leaving Geneva I was told that three further ratifications were expected at any moment, bringing the number of Contracting Parties to thirty-three.

In the national Parliaments, also, measures to ease the position of refugees have been adopted, particularly in member countries of the Council of Europe and I should like to pay homage to them for the support - as spontaneous as it is effective - which they give to my work.

Again at the European level, new measures have been taken on behalf of the refugees within ray terms of reference and I would quote as examples: the entry into force of the 1957 Agreement concerning Refugee Seamen, the provisions concerning refugees in the European Social Charter, the steps taken by the Committee on Population to facilitate professional practice for refugee doctors and dentists and the recommendations of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation concerning the free movement of refugee workers.

While these measures in themselves are not the final answer to the integration of refugees, they nevertheless point to a new drive towards a final solution of the remaining problems of the 850,000 or so refugees who have adopted one of the member countries of the Council as their new home.

But who are those refugees, of whom there are still so many in Europe? Hundreds of thousands of them left their country more than twenty or thirty years ago and the majority of the rest have been here since the end of the second world war. In other words, financially and economically, they have received international aid ever since it was introduced by the League of Nations. Like the other inhabitants of the countries in which they live they have known good and bad times and some of them would have died of poverty had it not been for the joint aid of their country of residence and the international community. There are also many who, thanks to our assistance programmes, are gradually coming to supply their own needs and to build up an independent existence for themselves once again. Today they are in a relatively good position but a last step remains to be accomplished: to put them on an equal footing with national of their country of residence in order to help them truly to cease being refugees.

At national level I hope that I can continue to count on the support of the authorities to facilitate naturalisation for refugees who apply for it. However, this is a relatively slow process which will have to extend over many years. At European level on the other hand results could be achieved more quickly if member States would agree to allow refugees permanently resident in their territory the same advantages they already give to nationals of other member countries. This would be a means of giving an opportunity to the refugees themselves to participate in European integration.

The draft Resolution Mr. Gram, the Rapporteur of the Committee on Population, has presented to the Consultative Assembly on this subject reflects exactly our thoughts and our aims in this field and I should like to extend my thanks to him.

The Council of Europe has already adopted several measures on these lines. I would quote as an example the protocols appended to the Convention on social security of the Council of Europe which apply particularly to refugees. I think that new measures of a similar kind associating refugees more closely with European integration would be a constructive factor enabling the European Community to speed up the solution of refugee problems while at the same time making the most of the contribution that they are able to make to Europe.

In conclusion, Mr. President, I should like to thank the Committee on Population and its distinguished Chairman, Dr. Paul, the Special Representative, Mr. Pierre Schneiter, the Secretary-General and their colleagues, for their support and their devotion to our common cause.

Lastly, Mr. President, may I also thank all the members of this Assembly and you yourself for the deep interest you have always shown in the refugee problem.