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Speech by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the 14th session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), 1 January 1954

Speeches and statements

Speech by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the 14th session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), 1 January 1954

1 January 1954
Basic needs of refugeesIRO legacy populations (Shanghai, Trieste)Emphasis on long-term solutions should not be at expense of immediate assistance to needyUnderstandable reluctance of governments to spend reconstruction funding on alien refugees in camps rather than their own citizensConsequent need for UN to enable targeted lendingFirst steps toward this in Germany (Expellee Bank)Issue of refugee integration in Austria, lack of credit facilitiesAgreement with government of Italy on refugee documentationSupport of Holy SeeWork of voluntary agencies

Mr. President,

In presenting this Report to the Economic and Social Council I should like to remind Members that one half of the period of time has elapsed before which the General Assembly will review the Statute under which my Office was created. It may, therefore, be appropriate to try to evaluate the situation of the refugees who are its concern, to look back to see what has been achieved and try to look forward to see what still remains to be done.

In my opinion events have proved the wisdom of the United Nations in accepting responsibility for certain aspects of the refugee problem by creating the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. It may perhaps be open to question whether the degree of responsibility which the United Nations has accepted will lead to a permanent solution of the refugee problem. Nevertheless, I am sure that the existence of my Office does in fact serve the interests of refugees and is further justified by the continuing character of the refugee problem.

The achievements of my Office may seem somewhat intangible to those who have been accustomed to the more spectacular efforts of organizations which were lavishly endowed with funds. However, I think I can fairly say that my Report shows clearly that in the countries where large numbers of refugees are resident my Office has been able, with the governments concerned, to ensure that very real progress has been made in the status and prospects of the refugees. This is in a great part due to the fact that the General Assembly has given me the means to establish branch offices, which are financed out of the budget of the United Nations and can therefore maintain their full independence vis-à-vis governments to which they are accredited.

The fears of those who thought that on the basis of the Statute of my Office nothing could be achieved for refugees have, I think, proved to be ill-founded. Although I have often deplored that my hands are to a certain extent tied, and that I am incapable of really providing material help to many groups of refugees who are in dire need, yet, when faced with the vast amount of human misery which exists in the refugee camps all over Central Europe and amongst those groups of refugees who have been left behind by the International Refugee Organization, I cannot help but feel grateful for the opportunity which has been given to me and to my Office to bring at least some small measure of relief.

The role of my Office is essentially a promotional one. I have not the means at my disposal to act directly except within the limits of the funds which may be given to my Office in response to the appeals for funds which the General Assembly has authorized me to make.

Nevertheless, I feel that the Statute of my Office is a workable Statute, provided that I receive the full co-operation of all Governments of the United Nations who have in the past demonstrated their interest in a solution of the refugee problem, and provided that due respect is given to the co-ordinating role which has been given to my Office under the Statute.

The solutions of the refugee problem are not really complicated. Once a man has been driven by persecution, or fear of persecution, to leave his country of nationality and to take refuge in some other country he has a few essential demands to make. They are:

  • Firstly, material conditions of reception which make it possible for him to be fed, clothed and sheltered from the time of his arrival until the time when a permanent solution can be found for his difficulties;
  • secondly, the regularisation of his legal status so that he may enjoy the basic rights and freedoms in his country of asylum;
  • thirdly, the right and opportunity to work either in the country which has given him asylum or resettlement, and
  • fourthly, naturalization in the country which finally accepts him.

The three-point programme which I proposed to the General Assembly, and which was embodied in the General Assembly Resolution on Assistance to Refugees, is based on this simplified analysis of the basic needs of the refugees. In submitting these points to the General Assembly I pointed out that while in some countries the International Refugee Organization had made satisfactory arrangements for the continued care and maintenance of the refugees, there were in certain areas refugees who still relied on funds which had been left by the IRO and for whom after the exhaustion of these funds some provision would have to be made.

The urgency of the needs of these refugees in places such as Shanghai and Trieste cannot be disregarded. Very soon the funds which have been left to my Office and to the Intergovernmental Migration Committee for the refugees now in Shanghai will be exhausted and their only available means of support will be from the funds for which I am appealing.

A few governments have already responded to my appeals. I fully realize that internal procedures make it impossible for many governments to answer quickly to appeals of this kind, especially as they are already faced with so many other demands. However, I am confident that my appeals will not fail and that refugees within the mandate of my Office who look to the United Nations for support will not be disappointed.

Emergency aid to the most needy groups of refugees is only one part of the problem. Several governments have in response to my appeals indicated their preference to help in promoting permanent solutions for the refugee problem rather than in temporary measures of relief. I am in full agreement with their attitude, but the longer permanent solutions are delayed the greater will be the need for emergency aid.

I cannot stress too strongly the need for international action to bring to an end the misery which exists amongst the people who have been condemned to live in camps in Central Europe for the last six or seven years. It is idle to believe that there can be any permanent solutions to the refugee problem as long as the international community is unwilling to assist whose countries which not only have to bear the burden of the residual groups of the IRO refugees, but also to give asylum to new refugees.

The countries of Central and South-Eastern Europe, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece and Turkey, are all making very real efforts to absorb some of the refugees who have not been resettled by the International Refugee Organisation, but most of these countries are additionally faced with internal refugee problems for which the United Nations has accepted no responsibility. If the absorption of the refugees into the economies of the country in which they now reside is to be left to the normal economic processes then the refugee problem will remain with us for the rest of our lives.

If the United Nations is sincere in its desire for permanent solutions to the refugee problem, then not only must opportunities be given for resettlement but also a real financial effort for the integration of the refugees must be made in certain countries of residence. What is required is not some new lavish organisation which will spend millions of dollars on the unproductive care and maintenance of refugees, but some sensible approach to the financial integration of refugees. Much money has been poured into the economies of the countries with refugee problems, but little care has been taken to ensure that a fair proportion of such monies should be used to develop the potential productivity of the labour force now rotting in the camps. Existing international institutions do not seem to be able to cope with this problem. They are able to provide money to finance projects proposed by governments, but how can the governments of countries faced with internal unemployment and refugee problems give priority to alien refugees who have found asylum within their territories? Here, in my opinion, is the crux of the problem. Can the United Nations really prove their sincerity in respect of the refugee problem by creating some mechanism which will enable loans to be provided at reasonable rates of interest specifically for the purpose of the integration of refugees?

"If the United Nations is sincere in its desire for permanent solutions to the refugee problem, then not only must opportunities be given for resettlement but also a real financial effort for the integration of the refugees must be made in certain countries of residence."

In the past this was done by the League of Nations in the settlement of Greek refugees who came from Turkey. The members of the League of Nations were also able by a combined effort to save the finances of Austria and of Hungary. Is it impossible that something similar could be done through United Nations machinery on behalf of the refugees now living in the camps of Europe?

It is my firm belief that this is the most profitable line of international action if a permanent solution is to be found for the refugee camps of Europe. In Germany a modest beginning with the economic integration of refugees has been made through the Displaced Persons Branch of the Expellee Bank. The International Refugee Organization originally made a contribution of 1½ million DM to this Branch, and there is every prospect that the Liquidators of the IRO will be in a position to contribute at least a further million DM. In addition, I am happy to be able to report to the Council that conversations which I have had with the highest German Authorities have resulted in the further extension of these credit facilities through the decision of the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany to add 2 further million DM to the capital of the DP Branch of the Expellee Bank. Moreover, I should like also to inform the Council that the Government of the Federal Republic has already made a contribution of 50,000 DM to my Assistance Fund. This is all the more satisfactory considering the very great internal refugee problem with which the German Government is faced. In this connection I should like to mention that the German Refugee Ministry under Minister Lukaschek has shown a very real desire to co-operate with my Office in handling the refugee problem in accordance with the principles laid down by the United Nations.

In Austria the integration of the refugees remains a very serious problem. In that country refugees within the mandate of my Office number over five percent of the total population, but no credit facilities on any sizeable scale are available to them. Several international and Austrian Voluntary Agencies have demonstrated through pilot projects that the integration of refugees through the provision of credit facilities is economically sound and possible, but it is only through a combined effort of the Austrian Government and the appropriate international agencies that provision can be made to provide credit for refugees on the scale which is necessary.

Both economically and politically a real effort to promote the integration of refugees in Austria would be justified. Last year I emphasized to the Economic and Social Council the dangers of leaving the German refugee problem unsolved. The same applies to the Volksdeutsche in Austria. There is no doubt that the greater majority of the Volksdeutsche in Austria would prefer to settle in Austria, and there is equally little doubt that the Austrian Government would prefer to be able to keep this most hardworking population within its own territory. The present situation is, however, an unstable one, and I can scarcely imagine any greater danger to the stability of Central Europe than a revival of an aggressive ethnic movement which will thrive on discouragement and despair.

In countries such as Greece and Italy it is doubtful whether there is any room for the integration of large numbers of refugees. For these countries the development of migration opportunities for refugees is absolutely essential. The problem is not, in my opinion, an insoluble one but it would require the willingness of countries of immigration to make some exceptions to their normally established rules of immigration.

The same applies to countries in the Near and Middle East, where refugees have found asylum but are not, for a variety of reasons, able to be integrated economically. I have already requested the Intergovernmental Migration Committee to examine the possibility of financing from its funds the movement of refugees from outside Europe, and I sincerely hope that all the Governments Members of this Committee will devote some attention to this problem.

In my report I have emphasized some organisational problems of the Intergovernmental Committee, but in doing this I do not wish in any way to give the impression that the most cordial relationships do not exist between its Secretariat and my Office. Both at Headquarters in Geneva and in the various countries where both Organisations are represented there is a most friendly collaboration between the Staffs in a common effort to promote migration opportunities for refugees. My contention, however, is that this should be supplemented by some organisational arrangements which would give my Office the opportunity of adequately representing the interests of refugees in the deliberations of the Committee.

As regards Italy I should like to inform the Council that my Office was able during the month of June to conclude a most satisfactory Agreement with the Italian Government concerning the documentation of refugees. This problem, which during the IRO operations was always a most difficult one, has now been satisfactorily solved. The Italian Government has agreed to issue a travel document to all refugees who will have been determined by a joint commission to be within the mandate of my Office. This arrangement will ensure the regularisation of the residence of refugees in Italy, and at the same time provide them with the necessary documentation for their resettlement overseas. Furthermore, I am most happy to inform the Council that the Italian Government has agreed to make new and satisfactory arrangements for the reception of new refugees.

Another aspect of my work which has given me the greatest gratification has been the most cordial relations which have been established between the Holy See and my Office. The willingness of the Holy See to participate in the Diplomatic Conference which negotiated the Convention on the Status of Refugees was a most encouraging event. The Holy See has now acceded to this Convention and by its action has demonstrated to the world the great importance which His Holiness the Pope attaches towards a solution of the refugee problem. In May I had the honour to be received in an audience by His Holiness who expressed to me personally his great concern in the success of my appeals for funds on behalf of refugees, and at the same time gave his Blessing to the work of my Office.

The constant support of all the Churches is one of the greatest encouragements to my Office. The prayer for the refugees composed by the Bishop of Chichester which has been read in the churches of many lands through the good offices of the World Council of Churches is a striking testimony of the concern of the Protestant churches. The aid of the churches has been material as well as spiritual.

Without the help of all the Voluntary Agencies both national and international it would not be possible to continue the work for refugees, but as the President of their Standing Conference warned the last General Assembly, they cannot be considered to be the residuary legatees of the International Refugee Organisation. These agencies have their own difficulties, and with the withdrawal of logistical support in Germany and the cessation of the IRO contributions many of these agencies have been forced to curtail their activities of material assistance to refugees. It is my hope that my Assistance Fund will in some small measure be able to give fresh support to the agencies in their magnificent work.

I hope, Mr. President, that my Report will enable Members of the Council to make for themselves an appreciation of the extent of the refugee problem and how much still remains to be done. The responsibility which has been accepted by the United Nations for the refugee problem is a great one, and I am sure that with the full support of all governments my Office will be able to demonstrate that it is capable of discharging the tasks which have been given to it by the General Assembly, and that, in addition to providing for the international protection of refugees, it will be able to make some real contribution towards the permanent solution of their problems.