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Introductory Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, fifth session, 25 May 1961

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Introductory Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, fifth session, 25 May 1961

25 May 1961

Mr. Chairman,

It is a real pleasure for me to make this first contact with the Executive Committee today. I am fully aware of the prestige and authority which the Committee enjoys, and of the support which it can accordingly give to the work of the High Commissioner's Office. The Office which I have been called upon to direct, being an instrument of the international community, represented here by the Governments most directly concerned with the refugee problem, cannot indeed do without the Committee's guidance and advice. It can act only if there is a real meeting of minds between us; only if that exists can the work entrusted to the Office faithfully reflect the will of the international community and be really useful, efficacious and lasting. I shall accordingly venture to expound to you all the thoughts which strike me as I face up to a task whose magnitude and difficulty are well known to you.

UNHCR, being an instrument of the international community, cannot do without the Executive Committee's guidance and advice.

As you are aware, at its regular session the General Assembly signified its approval of the account that my predecessor, Dr. Lindt, had given of this Office's activities. At the same time the Assembly once again expressed its wish that the High Commissioner for Refugees should in case of need assist refugees other than those normally within his mandate. Although there is, of course, no question of abandoning in any way what has hitherto been the very essence of the High Commissioner's mission, the wish was thus clearly expressed that Governments might take advantage of the existence of a body dealing exclusively with the refugee problem on behalf of the international community by requesting, if need be, its advice and support. The position thus adopted on two occasions and more recently formulated in resolution 1499 (XV) undoubtedly reflects the General Assembly's desire that the UNHCR should adapt itself to the circumstances and events of the world of today. It also implicitly reaffirms the universal and essentially dynamic as well as the exclusively humanitarian and social nature of the mission entrusted to the Office which I have the honour to direct.

The General Assembly's desire to place the UNHCR in the orbit of a world in full development further enhances the exceptional importance attaching, in my view, to the present session of the Executive Committee. Not only shall I have to report to the Committee on the activities of the High Commissioner's Office during the past few months and to sum up the present state of affairs now that the end of the vast programmes of assistance to the former European refugees is in sight. We shall also have to try to define the lines along which this Office will have to work in the future, bearing in mind both the circumstances of the residual problem as it exists today and certain changes which seem to be required both by circumstances and by the wish recently expressed by the General Assembly. It is therefore unnecessary for me to repeat how much I shall value any opinions, advice and guidance which the spokesmen of the Governments here represented may wish to give me at this time.

Let us look first at the High Commissioner's immediate task. I am sure that the Committee will unanimously agree with me that the first of his tasks is to complete as speedily as possible the vast programmes of material assistance designed to solve one of the most serious human problems of post-war Europe: the problem of the refugee camps, and of the non-settled refugees living outside them in conditions sometimes even more precarious and wretched. It would be inconceivable to halt on the road with the goal in sight. If the campaign were interrupted, or even merely slowed down, it would lose its momentum and final success would be endangered, along with all that has already been achieved at the cost of so much effort. That would be particularly regrettable now that World Refugee Year has created such a fund of goodwill throughout the world for the benefit of refugees, and has given so powerful an impetus to UNHCR activities.

We must therefore continue to act, and to act fast, to finish off the work undertaken for the former European refugees. I propose, in accordance with my predecessor's method - which I think has proved successful - to set a term and precise limits to this task. I intend to submit to the Executive Committee at its session in the spring of 1962 a clear and concrete objective which can be achieved in a specified time. If the Committee approves this idea, my staff and I will busy ourselves in the meantime with defining the work still to be done and drawing up an over-all plan to cope with it. But in order to complete an enterprise so well begun and now so near to its conclusion, I shall of course need the active collaboration of the Governments and of all the intergovernmental and voluntary agencies which have hitherto played an important part in it and occupy such a prominent place in the whole range of activities conducted on behalf of refugees. I do not think I am being over-optimistic in saying that I am assured in advance of their valuable support.

But while the current programmes for camp clearance and for the resettlement of refugees not yet integrated and living outside camps, are, I hope, thus being completed, we must not lose sight of what I will call the UNHCR's continuing tasks. I mean the sum total of the Office's basic activities which are aimed at first ensuring a place of refuge for the refugees and then bringing their status as closely into line as possible with that of the nationalities of the countries in which they are living, consolidating and improving upon what has already been achieved in that direction, so that problems once solved do not gradually recur, and so ordering things that the coming of new refugees does not, for lack of continuing and appropriate action, give rise to a new problem more or less comparable in magnitude to the one which we are now solving. These activities are known as: international protection; search for opportunities of emigration; and material assistance, either in emergencies or in order to facilitate the integration or resettlement of handicapped refugees.

The purpose of international protection is, as I just mentioned, to ensure for refugees a status as closely akin as possible to that of nationals in all respects - until the moment when they cease to be refugees, either because they have returned to their country of origin of their own free will, or because they have acquired the nationality of the country in which they have settled. That is certainly a delicate and lengthy task, which calls for constant effort and a policy which must be steady of aim but flexible in application, in order to take account of all the circumstances of time and place and to grasp every opportunity to improve in one way or another the status of the refugees for whom the UNHCR is responsible.

The purpose of international protection is to ensure for refugees a status as closely akin as possible to that of nationals in all respects.

Another of the Office's continuing tasks is to seek countries of final settlement for all refugees who for one reason or another cannot or do not wish to become integrated in the country which first received them. I cannot lay too much stress on the importance of maintaining in the future the new facilities granted in recent years by the countries of immigration, and more particularly the overseas ones, to refugees wishing to emigrate. If this safety-valve, in the shape of emigration for refugees fit to work as well as for those not fully fit or unfit, were to close again, and the influx of refugees remained only what it is today, there would be every reason to fear the gradual reappearance in Europe of those black spots of bitterness and despair which the refugee camps used to be.

In order to avoid a recurrence of that frightful process, and also for reasons of fact or of plain justice, provision should I believe also be made for a certain amount of material assistance in all cases where circumstances or the refugee's special situation justify it, as a supplement and a stimulus to legal protection and to resettlement. Thus, assistance for resettlement will, I think be needed in certain cases, especially for handicapped refugees and where the economic or social situation in the receiving country so requires. I am thinking, in connexion with such assistance, of projects limited both in aim and in funds allocated, and flexible enough to be adaptable both to individual situations and to the special circumstances of each country.

These observations are of course of an entirely general nature, which will later have to be submitted to the Committee for approval in the form of concrete and precise proposals. The formulation of such detailed proposals cannot however be usefully undertaken unless I am assured in advance of the Committee's concurrence with general policy which I am now attempting to define.

While I am thus trying to summarize the essential duties of this Office, I cannot refrain from mentioning three of its present activities which, though they have some aspects peculiar to themselves, nevertheless receive our constant attention. I wish to refer first to a problem that has long been a matter of concern to the international community and which should likewise be capable of final solution before long - that of the refugees of European origin who are still in mainland China and wish to emigrate. An account of the present position is given in one of the documents before you. It is gratifying to note that, with the help of the Governments, my Office, acting in close co-operation with ICEM, has been able to cope with the crisis caused by the sudden influx of these refugees at the end of last year and to ensure their resettlement out of Hong Kong fairly rapidly. I must, however, stress that, among the factors governing the solution of this problem, some of which, I should remind you, lie outside our purview, the factor still causing us concern today, apart from the financing of the operations and particularly of transport, is the procurement of visas for a receiving country for the thousand or two persons who have not yet got them. I am convinced that the Governments of the many countries which have hitherto shown how eager they are to help settle this problem will be willing to open their doors to such of these refugees as do not yet have a country of destination in view.

At the end of last year, as you know, an agreement was concluded with the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany providing in particular for the establishment of an indemnification fund for refugees persecuted under the National Socialist regime by reason of their nationality. My Office has been made reason of their nationality. My Office has been made responsible for administering the fund, and this is at present one of its important tasks, though it is limited in time, since the whole matter has to be settled within a specified period.

On the fringe of these traditional and essentially European problems there arose some time ago another problem to which the UNHCR is at present devoting every attention in compliance with an express recommendation by the General Assembly: that of refugees from Algeria in Morocco and Tunisia. An early solution of this problem, it may be hoped, will ensue from the negotiations now in progress. However that may be, the humanitarian task entrusted in this matter to the UNHCR, which he has undertaken so far in close collaboration with the League of Red Cross Societies, must in the meantime be pursued unfalteringly till its conclusion. We shall therefore continue to help the Governments concerned to maintain these refugees and meet their essential needs. The generosity of many Governments, of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and of voluntary agencies, together with the results of World Refugee Year, have so far enabled the UNHCR to honour his obligations. But the financing of this operation is entering a critical phase, and I shall be compelled to appeal once more during this session to the generosity of Governments to help me by additional contributions to fulfil the task assigned to me by the General Assembly.

There, then, in broad outline are the current and concrete tasks to which the UNHCR should, I think, be called upon to devote himself immediately or in the near future. Obviously they cannot be carried out successfully without the co-operation of the international community and the Governments concerned. Above all, nothing of value can be done without the initial and continuing co-operation of the country of residence. That is an obvious truth which must be stated once again and from it derives the primary responsibility incumbent on countries receiving refugees. Experience and common sense show, however, that one cannot go on appealing indefinitely to the spirit of collaboration and sacrifice of countries of first asylum, which often have many other urgent duties to fulfil, especially to their own nationals, if the international community itself does not display its interest and does not show its readiness, if need be, to assume its fair share of the burden which these countries have to bear owing to their generosity and to the simple fact of their geographical position. It is of course, for the international community itself to decide in the light of the circumstances what part it intends to shoulder of the burden which a particular refugee problem represents for a given country. What seems to me essential in any case, however, is to maintain the spirit of international solidarity that has been continuously displayed for many years towards refugees and which reached such impressive heights during World Refugee Year. Because it is essential for the fulfilment of the UNHCR's task, I consider it to be one of the main duties of my Office to maintain this spirit of international solidarity, on which, indeed, depends the future of the refugees in every sphere. Whether it be in connexion with their legal status or the facilities which should be given them for resettlement in one country or another, no lasting progress will be achieved, and all the ground that has been gained so far in these fields might in fact be lost again, should the international community cease to show its solicitude for the refugees in their helpless plight. It is therefore essential, and I cannot sufficiently stress this point, that the feeling of solidarity which now prevails in the international community with respect to the refugee problem should be constantly kept alive so as to ensure that the humanitarian spirit which now constitutes the basis of action to solve this problem should not be supplanted by other more restrictive preoccupations, however legitimate these might be.

I consider it to be one of the main duties of my Office to maintain this spirit of international solidarity, on which depends the future of the refugees in every sphere.

Conversely, experience shows that no refugee problem, however massive or difficult, is insoluble and can in fact resist the combined will of the international community and the Governments concerned. The UNHCR, in so far as he represents the international community, seems to be the ideal agent to initiate and carry to a conclusion this concerted action of all the public or private entities prepared to assist in solving such a problem. It is also for the UNHCR, I believe, by virtue of his very mission, to arouse or revive goodwill and to co-ordinate its manifestations if need be, so as to make them as effective as possible. The Camp Clearance Programme, started only three years ago, provides a specific example of what the international community can do when confronted with one of the most difficult problems that can face an organization like ours. It also illustrates the methods which, I believe, my Office should follow in order to achieve the positive results expected of it.

This brings me back to the subject I raised at the beginning of this statement, in connexion with the General Assembly's wish that my Office should, if need be, assist in the solution of problems hitherto outside its purview. This does in fact bring up the whole question of the lines along which this Office's activities should be directed in the future. It is therefore, I think, essential for me to try to define to the Committee the meaning and scope of decisions likely to affect the very future of the UNHCR.

Resolutions 1388(XIV) and 1499 (XV) of 20 November 1959 and 5 December 1960 refer explicitly, as you know, to refugees outside my mandate. That mandate, and in particular the definition of refugee which is an integral part of it, was drawn up in circumstances, and to meet a problem, clearly defined at the time: the object was to alleviate the miserable plight of European refugees who had been victims of events preceding or following the Second World War, of whom there was still a large number. But other problems, as I have said, are emerging in the world today, from which the international community cannot or does not wish to withhold concern. Thus, what the General Assembly apparently meant to affirm was that this Office should remain available at all times to deal with any requests that might be addressed to it by any Government anxious for the assistance or advice which it might need when confronted with a problem involving refugees who do not come within the immediate competence of the United Nations.

That being so, it does not seem easy to set in advance limits to as task of which the General Assembly confined itself - deliberately it would appear - to formulating solely the principle, leaving it to the Governments, to the High Commissioner and to the facts themselves empirically to define cases. What can, however, be inferred from it is that the decision to be adopted in each particular case and the action to be taken by the UNHCR, if any, depend essentially upon the views and wishes of the Governments of the countries in which the refugees are located, upon the circumstances and upon the ability of the UNHCR to provide really useful and effective help. It would, therefore seem that the utmost flexibility must be the essential characteristic of this incursion by the UNHCR into territories which were hitherto outside his competence, unless he was specially instructed otherwise by the General Assembly, as has happened in various circumstances. But what are, in fact, the problems which might thus require the UNHCR's attention within the framework of these new activities defined in resolution 1388(XIV) as "good offices".

There are in Europe as everyone knows, persons upon whom events, the tribute exacted by the modern age, confer the character of refugee in a broad sense, and who nevertheless do not come within my mandate. There is every reason to believe that the UNHCR might on occasion lend his good offices to Governments responsible for these refugees and help the refugees themselves back to a normal way of life. My Office has already made some moves in this direction, especially as regards emigration. With respect to national refugees, in the strict sense of the term, who for one reason or another cannot resettle in their own country, any action on a substantial scale in which my Office might be invited to participate, would naturally have to be co-ordinated with the special representative of the Council of Europe for national refugees and over-population, which is more directly responsible for these refugees and has in any case already initiated some action on their behalf. However that may be, one point is worth stressing: that is the close interrelation between problems which, although differing in legal characteristics, still affect the economic and social life of the countries concerned and the refugees themselves in a like manner. World Refugee Year, which made it possible to furnish exceptional assistance to all groups of refugees, whether within the mandate or not, provides us with an excellent example, and, as it happens, one of positive value, as the Governments in some cases agree to accept sacrifices for the refugees within the mandate that they would not have accepted so easily if parallel assistance had not been given at the same time to other groups of refugees.

It is outside Europe, however, that UNHCR action on behalf of refugees not within the mandate might, it would seem, be destined to develop further in the future. It is there, in my opinion, that it would assume its full significance, precisely in so far as it would bear witness to the interest attached by the international community to problems which, although differing in legal characteristics or general context from those which the UNHCR is traditionally called upon to solve, are still human problems which must be dealt with as such.

However that may be, the general attitude to be adopted towards the new responsibilities deriving from the resolutions I have mentioned should, I think, meet a twofold concern: to ensure that, in compliance with the General Assembly's wish, this Office is ready at all times to deal with any new tasks which might be laid upon it by circumstances and to lay down, in agreement with the Executive Committee, appropriate arrangements for such measures as the provision of immediate financial assistance, commensurate of course with the Office's limited resources, but such as to enable the High Commissioner to cope, according to the means made available to him, with emergency situations where human lives are at stake. There is no need for me to repeat how convinced I am of the need to act in this instance with all the caution and realism called for by such a projection of my Office's activities into the future and into fields alien to its original normal aims but wholly in conformity with its humanitarian and social calling. Experience in various fields has already proved the feasibility and usefulness of UNHCR action. I shall speak of that experience later when document A/AC.96/122 comes up for discussion. I should merely like for the moment, by way of conclusion, to stress the tendency which, I think, has become clearly apparent within the General Assembly to want this Office's activities to be directed towards a more effective universality by stressing afresh the strictly humanitarian and social character of the mission entrusted to it and by permitting it in consequence to act outside unduly narrow legal formulae that do not always fit the new situations which the international community might possibly wish to deal with.

Such, in broad outline, is the way in which I conceive the present and future task of my Office. I should like, of course, to hear in due course the reactions of the members of the Committee and to learn whether the analysis I have just made for them accords with their views or concerns. I am fully aware, of course, of the extent to which the questions raised here may be matters to ponder over. But I was, I believe, in duty bound to submit this general outline to the Committee at this stage, since the task is there before us and we must begin at once to draw up the plans due to be submitted to the Committee at its future sessions.

I think it necessary also to stress finally that the views which will be expressed here and the conclusions that we shall reach, as regards both immediate programmes and any new line to be followed in this Office's future activities, will greatly facilitate the work of the United Nations General Assembly when it comes to assess those programmes and to decide whether or not the UNHCR's activities should be continued. When the Members of the United Nations come to define their attitude, they will probably be anxious to know as precisely as possible what would be involved by the continuation of the work of the UNHCR within the framework of the humanitarian mission that was originally entrusted to it by the General Assembly and which has until now guided its activities.