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Speech by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, 23 September 1963

Speeches and statements

Speech by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, 23 September 1963

23 September 1963

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Of all the various types of evil which man inflicts on man, the suffering of refugees beset by persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion has, throughout history, been among the most cruel and persistent. Christianity's identification with a refugee situation could hardly be closer, its founder has even been termed the Divine Refugee. Mohammed was so harassed by his persecutors that he moved to Medina, and this, the hegira or flight, marked the beginning of the new Muslim calendar in 622. Moses is linked with the exodus of an entire people. Down through mediaeval and subsequent times, the alternation of persecution and flight has remained one of the most painful and apparently irradicable hall-marks of human behaviour, reaching the most monumental and tragic scale in our own twentieth century. We who are engaged in refugee work are thus dealing with one of mankind's central legacies. We also follow in the footsteps of those who through the centuries have sought to mitigate the suffering which flows from it.

For, recognition of the right of the persecuted to asylum and protection, the concept which is at the heart of the tradition of humanitarian concern for refugees, goes back to earliest eras. The word asylum comes from the Greek, meaning "the place which cannot be plundered", this alludes to the practice of those far off days when a man could take refuge in a holy and inviolable place and be safe from his pursuers. In the nineteenth century, after ages in which the underlying principle was sometimes respected and often ignored, the right of asylum for political refugees gained general acceptance with governments. Belgium, in 1830, was the first country to embody in law the principle that persons who had fled a country for political offences should not be extradited to the country of origin. After the Revolution of 1848, political asylum was widely recognised as a useful institution which might benefit anyone at a given moment. The truth of this is shown by even a cursory glance at the roster of famous refugees. Could any more diverse group of personalities be imagined than that presented by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Hugo Grotius, Voltaire and Einstein, to name but a few men of eminence who have shared the experience of being compelled, because of their convictions, to leave their native surroundings and take refuge wherever they could find it?

A sympathetic attitude on the part of countries of asylum gradually developed as the realisation grew that refugees brought with them skills and talents which contributed to the welfare of the land. Switzerland and many other countries would not have reached their present level of economic development without the impetus received from the influx of groups of refugees such as the Huguenots.

In the twentieth century, the mass exodus following the Revolution of 1917 presented a problem of a dimension and character quite different from any previous migration caused by political events. For the first time, there was a move to make the resolution of a refugee situation a matter of common international responsibility. Whereas with the Red Cross exactly one hundred years ago it had been a question of a non-governmental body taking the lead in bringing governments to agree on standards for the care of victims of war, in 1921 the existence of the League of Nations offered a natural framework within which to situate an international approach to the problem of 800,000 refugees scattered throughout Europe. However, the initiative did not come from the League itself, but from a gathering of representatives of private relief organisations, including some forerunners of agencies represented here today in the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, who met in Geneva in February 1921. It was they who, following this meeting, addressed an appeal, through the President of the International Red Cross Committee, to the League of Nations, and suggested the possible appointment of a League of Nations commissioner for refugees. To quote this letter - "It is not so much a humanitarian duty which calls for the generous activities of the League of Nations as an obligation of international justice. All the organisations already at work would be glad to put forth fresh efforts under the general supervision of a commissioner appointed by the League of Nations, which is the only super-national political authority capable of solving a problem which is beyond the power of exclusively humanitarian organisations."

The League responded to this plea by naming Fridtjof Nansen the first High Commissioner for Refugees. Thus began a new chapter in efforts to translate into joint practical action international humanitarian concern for refugees. This was an innovation, and the seed planted back in 1921 has had to withstand many vicissitudes, and even droughts, before growing to its present stage of development. Some of these difficulties could be traced to the illusion that the sequence of refugee problems would soon come to an end. Thus we see between Nansen's appointment and the Second World War, a succession of agencies being set up, dismantled and then reconstituted under another name. There was also a lack of consistent policy as to the division of responsibility: protection and material assistance were sometimes proffered by the same organisation, sometimes handled separately.

Notwithstanding these stops and starts, significant progress has been made, gradually to be sure, in serving the purpose for which these institutions were created. With much trial and error, a mechanism has been set up which is proving effective. While the League took an interest only in specific groups of refugees, we have now a generally accepted definition of a refugee, a definition not limited to any specific group, but of universal application. There is increasing recognition of the special character of the refugee's status, and a growing acceptance of a minimum standard of rights that should be accorded to him. This quality of being a refugee has in fact emerged as a new legal concept. And in the essential field of asylum, the Declaration of Human Rights solemnly proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948, endorsed the principle of the right to seek and enjoy asylum, and a new Charter, the Declaration on the Right of Asylum, is now being worked out in the General Assembly in order to give more substance to this right and to stimulate its generous application on the part of governments.

This progress, however, has not been due only, or even always primarily, to governments and official international institutions. A sustaining force, coping with refugee problems even when governments may have appeared somewhat indifferent, has been the voluntary agencies, you who are gathered together in the International Council of Voluntary Agencies. Your entry into refugee work, as I have mentioned, precedes by a significant period the manifestation of a common international responsibility in this domain on the part of governments. When they were moved to help, it was your example that served as a stimulant, and as a model, to their efforts. The fact that today, after a relatively short historic period of joint efforts, an international mechanism faulty though it still may be, exists in its present form is something of a miracle, an achievement which is in large measure due to the voluntary agencies.

What is the nature of this mechanism and what is its future? How can we, an intergovernmental instrument, together with the agencies, assure that it is kept turning over? How can we make certain that in our daily work we all of us continue to give substance to the underlying principles of our action?

The motor of this mechanism is, I believe, the spirit of international solidarity, and that is why over the thirteen years that the High Commissioner's Office has been in existence so much stress has been placed on trying to foster and develop it. This has been a difficult task because, as you recall, we had to start from scratch. The International Refugee Organisation was liquidated in 1951, even though there were still hundreds of thousands of refugees in need in Europe. The High Commissioner's Office was essentially limited to according international protection; the only funds put at its disposal were for administrative expenses, and he was specifically enjoined from appealing for material support without seeking permission from the General Assembly. It was only gradually, at first with a grant of three million dollars from the Ford Foundation, and then with rather reluctant governmental support for the first UNREF programmes, that our Office was able to make a material contribution to reducing the refugee problem. From the beginning our projects were joint undertakings in which international funds, channelled through us, and the operational capacity and strength of the voluntary agencies were brought together in a common effort. In 1956, the Hungarian emergency gave rise to a new surge of international solidarity in favour of refugees. This vast reawakening of the conscience of the international community at all levels culminated in World Refugee Year, which had such a massive impact. It has been estimated that as a result of this unprecedented movement, five years were gained in our effort to resolve the problem of refugees in Europe left over from the post-war period. At about the same time the General Assembly began to extend the concept of "good offices" which had originally been introduced for one specific group of refugees. The Assembly made it more general, thus enlarging the scope Of UNHCR's action, adapting it to the needs of new refugee situations and strengthening the understanding for the purely humanitarian character of its work.

For a long time, UNHCR's programmes were largely determined by the fact that we inherited a large backlog of misery from the past. Dealing with this residual problem has entailed a tremendous effort which we only now can hope to bring to a successful end. In such a situation it was a question of everyone putting his shoulder to the wheel and bringing whatever contributions he could to the solution of this onerous problem. Thus, for example, of the $57.8 million in international funds which my Office has committed since its inception, $38 million has gone for programmes that have been concerned primarily with the plight of post-war refugees whom we found on our doorstep back in 1951.

As this backlog will be cleared away, the accent will now shift to matters of current concern. We will deal with situations as they arise, with the aim of avoiding new accumulations of misery such as the one in Europe which has been so tragic and which has proved so difficult to resolve. Our capacity to act rapidly has not only proved extremely helpful but sometimes, particularly in dealing with new situations outside Europe, it has meant the difference between life and death. In more than one sudden plight with which we have been confronted within the last few years in Africa, the basic needs of the refugees could not be met locally, and delay in furnishing aid would have led to famine and starvation, As I have tried to show, I think we can identify on one hand a profound and enduring humanitarian conviction which inspires the action of all of us and, on the other hand, a relatively now concept of international co-operation that is the medium for converting this conviction into a practical force. Moreover, I am sure we appreciate, even on the basis of the short history of our effort, as it is now structured, that to keep our machinery effective, constant awareness of changing needs and constant adaptation to meet them adequately are required. Your realisation of this is clearly reflected in the theme of your present Conference: "Voluntary Agencies - New Approaches to Human Needs in New Circumstances".

This problem of what might be termed the continuing revision of our roles in our work for refugees is made all the more complex, and the necessity for it all the more essential, by the fact that there are so many wheels in the mechanism, each turning on its own rhythm. All governments have their own specific problems and particular ways and means of dealing with them. Their attitudes within, and in relation to, official organisations engaged in refugee work never cease to undergo changes, sometimes drastic ones. This refers not only to my Office but also to such important partners as the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration. Within your own organisation the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, there are seventy-four independent moving parts, for whom, by the way, refugees are only one of many concerns. Thus, we see how important is the role of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, first in co-ordinating the activities of such a numerous membership and then in relating the entirety of this effort to that of international bodies such as UNHCR. The task of making certain that all the participants in this very extended field are subordinating their functions to overall purposes is indeed such a formidable one that I think we must marvel that this apparatus which has been set up has worked and is working. The realisation of what has been achieved can give us the necessary confidence and strength for our future heavy tasks.

As a practical example of what may sound like a rather abstract notion, may I cite the effort now being made to find opportunities for severely handicapped refugees wishing to emigrate, many of whom were considered hopeless cases. As you are aware, the Australian Government generously made available the services of Dr. F.A.S. Jensen to make detailed assessments of the physical and mental health of the persons in this residual group. From the studies in depth which have been prepared on each household, governments know on a completely professional basis, without any "sugar-coating", the difficulties which, as they well realise, had already led to repeated rejection. Yet of the one thousand persons covered by Dr. Jensen's surveys, five hundred have already been accepted for migration, and the trend towards participation in this undertaking is continuing. Here is a concrete instance of the various parts of the mechanism functioning in concert. The High Commissioner's Office is exercising its catalytic and co-ordinating role. The voluntary agencies all over the world are co-operating actively in helping to identify and counsel refugees that could benefit from this action and in countries of reception they are furthering the successful resettlement of they those accepted despite their severe handicaps. The Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration and the United States Escapee Programme are contributing funds and furnishing effective practical aid. Most important of all, governments have understood the needs and are showing a deep humanitarian concern in opening their doors to these refugees. What each partner does is valuable, not only through the practical contribution he is making but also through the stimulating effect of his example. This technique should certainly be kept effective for future cases of this type.

Speaking again in more general terms, it is evidently the duty of my Office to do everything it can to keep the feeling of international solidarity and responsibility alive and meaningful. In this vast field of a very diverse co-operation, it will be most important to encourage and support the work of each participating partner, the voluntary agencies.

In this context I wish to stress that we in UNHCR are, of course, fully aware of your extensive work outside the scope of our own programmes. For instance, we realise that while effort of the international community, made through my Office, to overcome the backlog of misery of post-war refugees in Europe is now in its concluding phase, the governments directly concerned, as well as interested agencies, will continue to bear a heavy burden of responsibility for this group as, for example, in the administration of homes for the aged and various aspects of follow-up work. In the future as well the voluntary agencies, with their broad scope and myriad activities, will take an energetic interest in problems going far beyond the limited framework of the High Commissioner's programmes. My Office, if it is to fulfil its role effectively and to assure that the whole machinery of international solidarity is kept running, must encourage support not only for the High Commissioner's projects but must seek to promote public response to refugee needs in all their aspects. Therefore when trying to arouse generous understanding of the problem and to elicit practical backing for the activities of its partners, especially the voluntary agencies, my Office, in the interests of being as helpful as possible, will be eager to hear your views and suggestions.

As regards our projects for material aid, I will in a few days be presenting our 1964 plans to the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme. These represent what, in accordance with the Committees practice, we may expect governments acting jointly to contribute to keeping the mechanism of international solidarity alive in the face of current and new needs. This concept of the current programme is itself new for the High Commissioner's Office; it was introduced for the first time in 1963, and I consider the continuance of this concept highly important, whatever the financial scope of the programme might be at any given moment. With this programme I hope that governments will give the High Commissioner's Office the necessary means to play his stimulating role effectively. The essence of this role will continue to be legal protection activity and the promotion of general humanitarian understanding. However, we must realise that in historic reality these principles will only gain full and lasting acceptance through the process of practical experience, determined by the way in which actual refugee problems, wherever they may arise, find interest and help nationally and internationally. Every time that we are confronted with a refugee situation, we must try to achieve a solution as quickly as possible so that we are ready to focus our attention on new needs and new problems.

Our current programme, in line with the practice of the Executive Committee, will remain limited to particularly burning issues and its complementary character will be emphasised. Through this action we will keep effective contact with the whole mechanism and use it to make sure that important requirements will not be ignored. But this approach can effectively cover only a minute fraction of all the needs and will be of no avail without the continuing efforts of all our partners, first of all governments, but also of you, the voluntary agencies. Our programme is not an aim in itself but an instrument of work which should strengthen the whole mechanism of international solidarity.

We earnestly hope that seen in this light, also an undertaking such as "All-Star Festival" can and will be considered beneficial to our partners, first of all by serving to keep public interest alive and also by bringing to our field of common concern urgently needed additional means of action. In operations of this kind, as in other aspects of our work, I am anxious that a close and fruitful teamwork between UNHCR and the agencies should prevail. I am pleased to announce that as a concrete token of this attitude my Office is making an allocation of $5,000 from the proceeds of "All-Star Festival" to your Refugee Service Memorial Fund, formerly called the Franz Kooijman Memorial Fund in honour of a man who, in his own person, symbolised our common effort. I hardly need to add that quite a few agencies co-operated actively in the sale of "All-Star Festival" and thus gained direct financial benefit from this scheme for their work. Furthermore, within the share of the proceeds that have accrued to my Office, allocations have already been made to projects outside UNHCR's programmes in which agencies are deeply involved. Such a pattern is, of course, not new, for it will be recalled that out of another U.N. sponsored initiative, World Refugee Year, the benefit in terms of financial results was by no means limited to U.N. bodies. In fact the share of the agencies in the $100 million raised through World Refugee Year was substantially larger than that of UNHCR and UNRWA taken together.

I make this point because the essential purpose of my remarks today has been to make us conscious of the integrality of our work and the interdependence of our action. Trying for a moment thus to get above our great or small daily preoccupations, we will fully appreciate the significance of our joint efforts and will grasp how the particular role that each one of us is called upon to play within our overall work contributes in a tangible way to the sum total of man's striving to give reality to humanitarian ideals.

Having said this I would like to make an important announcement: the Nansen Medal Award Committee has decided to award the Nansen Medal, which is presented each year for outstanding service in the cause of refugees, this year to you, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies. I pray your President, your Board, and all your seventy-four members who share this honour so richly deserved to accept my fervent congratulations.

I hope you will consider this award not only as recognition for your devoted work for a purpose to which Nansen dedicated so much of his life, but also as an encouragement to pursue your important calling in the face of needs which continuously call for your help.

The Medal will be bestowed on the anniversary of Nansen's birth, on October 10th. I am pleased that now, after an interrupt of two years when it was held in Oslo and in Canberra respectively, the presentation ceremony will again take place here in Geneva, the city from which Nansen set out forty-two years ago to blaze a trail which we are still following today, the city which, thanks in no small part to presence of you, the voluntary agencies, has grown into such an active centre of international humanitarian endeavour. May the occasion of your Conference here this week help to assure that the world's uprooted can always look to Geneva, and to all who work here on their behalf, for an ever more effective expression of the ideals which have brought us together.