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Statement by Dr. Auguste R. Lindt, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Special Meeting on World Refugee Year, Tenth Session, Council of the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM), 9 April 1959

Speeches and statements

Statement by Dr. Auguste R. Lindt, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Special Meeting on World Refugee Year, Tenth Session, Council of the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM), 9 April 1959

9 April 1959

I am very pleased that the Council has elected Congressman Walter to preside over this meeting, particularly as he is the greatest authority on immigration in his country, and it was under his leadership that important legislation on refugees has been passed in the United States Congress.

In my personal experience as High Commissioner I have had two special occasions to be grateful to Congressman Walter for his work. First, for his introducing legislation concerning the admittance of TB cases as part of family reunion schemes and second, for his help in completely solving the problem of the Hungarian refugees in Yugoslavia.

The Hungarian problem has created an awareness of the refugee problem in public opinion. It is that awareness which has led to the idea of the establishment of a humanitarian year, the World Refugee Year, to follow that of a scientific one, the International Geophysical Year. It is probably typical that this saw the light of day in the United Kingdom, which has a talent for producing practical solutions. The World Refugee Year is a purely humanitarian concept. The object of the campaign is the solution of a problem that arose long ago, and to solve now problems as soon as possible after they arise.

I propose to limit my remarks to those refugees who are the special concern of my Office, though I am aware that they are only a modest percentage of the total refugee situation in the world. I consider it one of the advantages of the concept of the World Refugee Year that all groups of refugees, independent of any legal criteria, can qualify for help.

I am very glad too see here the Special Representative of the Council of Europe, as he is concerned with groups of refugees not under my mandate.

In dealing with the refugees under my mandate, I think it very important to know the extent of the problem, and therefore I find it necessary to give figures of non-settled refugees as of January 1st, 1959.

In Europe there are 132,000. These include 33,000 in France, 15,000 new non-Hungarian refugees and 9,000 new Hungarian refugees in Austria. To these should be added 700 in the Near and Middle East, 2,000 from the Middle East who arrived as a result of the events of 1956, and 8,000 refugees of European origin in the Far East, making a total of 142,700. Other refugees of concern to my Office are those in Tunisia and Morocco, estimated to number about 180,000.

It is my conviction that, given the co-operation of governments and voluntary agencies, and the support of public opinion, refugee problems are not insoluble.

It is my conviction that, given the co-operation of governments and voluntary agencies, and the support of public opinion, refugee problems are not insoluble.

The objective of the High Commissioner's Office is, firstly, to find solutions for the residual problems, and, secondly, to solve as quickly as possible new refugee problems as they arise without leaving a residue.

There are, however, exceptional problems which depend upon political solutions, and until such time as they are found, the care and maintenance of the victims must be assured. Here, funds can make their lot easier, as well as aid to the country of first asylum in what can easily be, for certain countries, a staggering burden of cost in providing food and shelter, even of the most elementary kind, to the refugees.

The refugee should have, as his right, the free choice of a solution. Therefore, his free will has to be the determining factor. As possible solutions, the mandate of the High Commissioner for Refugees mentions voluntary repatriation, or settlement in new communities. The establishment in new communities falls into integration into countries of first asylum or emigration to countries of definite resettlement.

It must be realized, however, that these figures were only true at the moment when the answers were given. It is one of the beauties of the human mind that it can change; the refugee as well as anyone else enjoys this right, and should be given an opportunity of using it.

There is another word of caution I have to add. When you ask a refugee in the abstract: "Do you want to emigrate?", many do not take this question seriously because they have tried for many years to emigrate and have found no possibility of doing so. But when you come forward with a very precise question and say: "Country X is ready to take so and so many people according to such and such criteria", the response might be a very different one.

Let me give you an example. Thanks to the generosity of the American Government 3,000 new opportunities for entrance into the United States were offered last year to Hungarians still in Austria. At the beginning, this scheme seemed to arouse very little interest, and there was fear that the quota would not be filled. But as soon as the first plane-load was in the air, the position changed dramatically. Today, there are about 4,300 applicants for the 3,000 visas.

The number of refugees wanting to emigrate is difficult to estimate, but what is sure is that it is a manageable figure and not an astronomical one.

Care should, however, be taken not to disturb those refugees who have already established themselves in the countries of first asylum. Emphasis should be placed on the non-settled refugees. If settled refugees are moved, that helps neither the solution of the problem nor the country of asylum, and it is only disturbing those who should not be uprooted.

Refugees are in dire need of growing roots. If they have done so, they should not be disturbed; if they have not done so, they should have the opportunity in a new country.

Refugees are in dire need of growing roots. If they have done so, they should not be disturbed; if they have not done so, they should have the opportunity in a new country.

There is the question as to which should be tackled first: integration or emigration. That is like asking the classical question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? It would be wasting money on these who would later emigrate, if only integration were envisaged as a solution. On the other hand, there would be much human misery among those who want to be integrated, if only emigration were encouraged: those who desire to be integrated would be left without help, and would deteriorate morally and physically in the camps. Only a simultaneous effort will avoid human suffering, and loss of time, effort and money.

The High Commissioner's Office has worked out detailed plans for the integration of refugees. These projects are matched by more than 50% by contributions of the governments of countries of first asylum.

Additional international funds are still needed for finishing by 1960 the programme which intends to integrate those refugees who have been living in barracks for more than 10 years. I speak of the camp clearance programme, which has the full support of governments in whose territories these camps are located.

For the refugees living outside camps only limited resources are at present available, and that is a source of great concern to me. I hope that the World Refugee Year will provide the necessary funds to clear the camps, and make a strong impact on the problem of the "out-of-camp" refugees.

There is the further problem of the 8,000 refugees of European origin in the Far East, which is a joint operation of ICEM and the UNHCR. In order to solve this problem, more money and visas are needed.

There can be no question of the countries of first asylum shouldering the necessary financial contributions alone. Many countries will have to co-operate. The same is true of concentrated emigration programmes.

Without the existence of ICEM, an organization, if I may say so of action, the UNHCR would be unable to fulfil a great part of its activity. The two organizations are, indeed, complementary.

I would like to come back to the question of resettlement of refugees with which the ICEM Council is naturally preoccupied, and to examine the question from the standpoint of receiving countries.

I approach the question of the immigration of refugees with a certain diffidence, as I am fully conscious that immigration matters lie within the sovereign rights of each state. I would, however, like to make some suggestions for interested states to study, it being of course left open for the governments to accept or reject them.

During the World Refugee Year, and even afterwards, countries could make a considerable contribution by increasing the proportion reserved for refugees in their immigration schemes. It is high time that the attitude were abandoned that refugees are always a social burden. Like all migrants, they include a varying percentage of those who are capable of becoming economic and technical assets to the country which received them.

It is high time that the attitude were abandoned that refugees are always a social burden.

I mentioned the residue of a refugee problem. A new residue is developing, because of a continuous skimming process. The most skilled and most employable are being taken first, while the less skilled and less able-bodied are being rejected by the selection missions of the immigration countries.

The rejection of a refugee is very different from that of a "national" migrant. A few weeks ago, I was in Camp Latina, an emigration camp created by the joint efforts of the Italian Government, ICEM, the US Government, and my office. A selection mission had just finished its task. In one room I found a family, the wife and children in tears, the husband staring in abject misery at the floor.

If a refugee is rejected, all he can do is to return to the unproductivity of his camp. If a "national" immigrant is rejected, he may be disappointed, but it is not a tragedy, because he can go back to his home, his family and his friends, For him, rejection is a disappointment; for the refugee, a tragedy.

The "skimming" process creates a stagnant refugee population. A complete stalemate has not yet been reached, but we are very close to it. I would, therefore, like to appeal for a reconsideration of present limitations where they exist. In many countries, of course, they do not. Some of the limitations are as follows.

(1) There exist refugee groups who find themselves excluded from all emigration programmes. I am referring to 300 refugees in Greece who, because of their nationality, have been waiting in vain for their chance for several years. Could not a few countries combine to accept this group, dividing the number among themselves so that each one would not have to accept more than a relatively small number?

(2) Some overseas countries have established a certain age limit for the workers they recruit. It would be a real contribution to World Refugee Year if these governments would raise their age limits by five, or even ten years.

(3) Some countries, fearing in the past that they may be unable to house them, have excluded families with many children. Yet, these children will grow up into productive workers. Could these large families not find countries ready to accept them during World Refugee Year?

(4) Other countries have limited their selection of refugees to those possessing certain skills. Could these countries not, within their economic possibilities, accept less highly skilled workers, and reconsider some of the refugees rejected on professional grounds?

(5) There still remains a considerable backlog of difficult cases - the aged and infirm - and despite a developing tendency for countries to be more ready to accept them the total number of acceptances has been too small. These are waiting, helpless, hopeless people. Could not more countries accept a greater number.

(6) Many of the "difficult to resettle" cases consist of families where the breadwinner is handicapped. Until the children grow up he and his whole family will depend upon public assistance. Such cases often depend for settlement upon private funds collected by Voluntary Agencies. During World Refugee Year it is to be hoped that these resources will be swelled so that resettlement will become a possibility for many more of these refugees.

(7) In other "difficult to resettle" families, the breadwinner is able to work, but because the wife or children are handicapped, the family is unacceptable to migration missions. Yet this family group is economically self-supporting. Cannot a good case be made for such families being accepted during the World Refugee Year? New Zealand has recently taken fifteen such handicapped cases, most of whom had been rejected by several countries.

I have up to now confined my suggestions to certain modifications of existing selection methods. The next proposal may sound revolutionary, as it involves a new method, but it has already been applied by a few countries.

How would it be if a Government appointed a group of integration specialists who knew all the possibilities of absorption within their own country and the financial resources that could be made available? Such a group would go to one specific centre or camp, see and carefully evaluate all inhabitants of the camp, and then do their utmost to fit them into their country's economy. They would report back to the Government who, in their opinion, should receive a visa. A Government would afterwards not say merely that they accepted so many refugees, but could say: "Our Country 'liquidated' Camp so-and-so. "The more we get down to the crux of the problem, the more I think we have to rely on this "selection in reverse" technique.

In the main countries of first asylum, ICEM has very complete records available. Governments can get a picture of the refugee problem remaining in all its unresolved cases. Information can be provided on the handicap in each individual case, and selection missions can become acquainted with the refugee family before deciding to interview its members and start the processing procedures.

I have faith that the World Refugee Year, though it cannot solve the refugee problem as such, can definitely solve certain well-defined refugee problems, further the solution of others, and improve the living conditions of these groups for whom a solution has not yet been found.

During the World Refugee Year, as far as financial contributions and immigration are concerned, special one-time measures should be taken.

Let us be under no illusions, however. Efforts cannot cease with the World Refugee Year; if they do, no matter how satisfactory the results in this one year, it will have failed in its purpose. In order not to lose on ground gained, all those working for refugees must continue their efforts through and beyond the actual date limits of World Refugee Year.