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Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Thirty-seventh Session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), 1 May 1964

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Thirty-seventh Session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), 1 May 1964

1 May 1964
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This year, in presenting to you my report to the General Assembly, issued as document A/5811, I should like, as usual, if the President will allow me, to make A few remarks on the most striking aspects of the work of UNHCR during the period which has just expired.

A year ago, I informed the Economic and Social Council that a new leaf was being turned in the history of UNHCR. The major aid programmes for "old" refugees in Europe were entering their final phase and, at the same time, our assistance activities were being partially transferred from Europe to other continents affected, in their turn, by grave and urgent refugee problems.

The trend which was apparent last year has become still more marked during the past twelve months. For UNHCR, therefore, 1963 was a period of transition; it was also an experimental period, during which, within the framework of the current programme, new assistance techniques adapted to present circumstances an needs were being tried out.

With regard to the major aid programme for "old" European refugees, the page has not yet been, finally turned, since not until the end of 1965 is it planned, in principle to bring to an end the implementation of the various projects already approved within the limits of the programme. The additional assistance we can count on from a number, of governments makes it possible to regard the financing of these projects as already practically assured.

In general therefore, it can be said that this great work is nearing completion though it is still necessary to devote to it a considerable part of our efforts thus leaving UNHCR more and more time to concentrate on the new tasks which are now demanding its attention.

Insofar as they are included in the current programme of complementary assistance, these tasks are, as you know, of two types. It is necessary first of all, to prevent the reappearance of problems similar to those which it has been possible practically to solve, or which concern refugees who have been re-established through previous programmes. And secondly, we have to tackle completely new problems which, by reason of their acuteness, magnitude or the special circumstances surrounding them, call for rapid action in a form adapted to the particular situations which it is proposed to remedy.

I should like to for a moment, major aid programmes designed to liquidate the after effects of a past which, happily, has gradually faded from our memory during the 20 years that have elapsed since the Second World, War.

Substantial progress has again been made in the implementation of these programmes, as is shown by the following figures: 109,650 refugees were re-established in 1963 through assistance given under the UNHCR programmes, including 920 who were admitted to other countries for immigration, and a further 40 refugee camps were entirely cleared.

While these figures indicate that local integration is, in most cases, the only possible solution for this residual group of "old" refugees, emigration to other countries still plays) none the less, an important part, by reason of the nature rather than the number of cases for which it provides a solution. The refugees who emigrate are mostly handicapped persons for whom no solution could hitherto be found Dr Jensen's study of the most seriously handicapped the value of which has been generally recognized was continued last year. It covered about 1,100 persons of whom more than 500 have already been able to emigrate. Parallel to this study, a survey has recently been made of the conditions under which the most seriously handicapped re refugees have been integrated in the main resettlement countries in Europe. The information thus collected has made it possible to compare the results achieved and to draw valuable lessons for the future from the experiences of various groups of refugees.

While on the subject of the "old" European refugees, I should also like to mention an important new development namely, the arrival at Hong Kong, since last April, of more than 600 refugees of European origin from the province of Sinkiang in mainland China. If the tempo of these arrivals is maintained as is to be hoped the long standing problem created by the existence of these refugees will shortly cease to exist.

On 1 January 1964 therefore, the number of "old" refugees to be resettled under the last major aid programmes was 319,000 of whom 19,900 were in camps. Provided we do not relax our efforts and that governments which take a direct part in it continue to display the same understanding spirit, this humanitarian task will shortly be completed. In this connexion, it is encouraging to note that many governments, realizing what is at stake and spurred on by the prospect of the approaching completion of a task in which they have already taken so generous a share, are increasing their efforts with a view to gradually overcoming the difficulties of various kinds which have hitherto prevented the resettlement of a number of handicapped refugees still housed in camps. But the extent of the co-operative effort still required if this vast enterprise is to be brought to a successful conclusion should not be underestimated. I need hardly remind you that the countries of asylum, which have helped so considerably to finance and implement the programme, will still have to meet the multifarious needs of a much larger proportion of their refugee population needs which cannot be covered by a programme limited to the most unfortunate and most urgent cases.

The current programme which, as indicated by this term, concerns all the current activities of UNHCR in the field of material assistance, differs somewhat, as you know, in its conception as well as in its objectives, from the former major aid programmes which were essentially designed to eliminate, in so far as possibilities allowed, the accumulated miseries of many years. From now on, it is no longer a matter of healing old wounds, but rather of preventing their re-opening and the infliction of new ones. This means that when the need for UNHCR action arises, it must be as prompt as it has to be effective and enable governments to remedy situations of ever increasing diversity in the shortest possible time.

Viewed in this light, and despite the fact that during the past year it was still at the experimental stage, the current assistance programme has, I think, proved capable of usefully fulfilling its functions. In Europe it has made possible the emigration or integration of more or less handicapped refugees who, failing an appropriate solution, would doubtless have become, in their turn, the source of difficult problems for the future. It is in Africa, however, that the tide of events has confronted the programme with its most urgent and, at the same time, its most spectacular tasks. I do not propose to recount in detail the various programmes which UNHCR has had to continue or initiate in various African countries; they are described in the document before you. I will only say that the problem on which our attention has been and is still focused the most serious and far-reaching of all our problems that of the refugees from Rwanda, is now gradually reaching a solution. In particular, a decisive step forward was taken when it recently became possible to cease the distribution of food to those refugees who had been settled under projects initiated for their benefit in previous years. Moreover, active preparations are going forward for the transfer to Tanganyika of about 109,000 new arrivals within the group of 13,000 who arrived in Burundi after the events of last December, and all of whom cannot be accommodated in that country. Unforeseen contingencies apart, it may therefore be hoped that the problems of the refugees from Rwanda will be solved in the non-distant future by their progressive and orderly settlement or resettlement - as has occurred in the case of other groups of refugees whom the High Commissioner has already been called upon to assist in Africa. There as elsewhere, what we have to do is to enable these refugees to become self supporting as soon as possible, and to make a useful contribution to the economic and social life of their country of asylum.

One of the outstanding features of the current programme in both Europe and Africa has been the volume of the contributions provided both inside and outside the recipient countries. Some of the figures quoted in the report are significant in that respect. In Europe, for instance, the contribution of the countries of asylum amounted, on an average, to 627 per cent of the total cost of the projects and in some cases to as much as 90 per cent. With regard to assistance to the refugees from Rwanda, the allocation of some $700,000 under the UNHCR programme has been supplemented by assistance in cash and kind to the value of 425 million, particularly in the form of foodstuffs from the United States, all of this additional assistance having been supplied by governments or voluntary agencies outside the programme. Even then, these figures include only sums which passed directly through the accounts and do not include a number of occasional contribution which have not been recorded. These facts are, I believe, indicative of the drawing power of a programme which does not confine itself to providing governments with the means to find a specific and constructive solution to their problems, but which also establishes a nucleus around which the most valuable and varied forms of assistance can then be brought together and organized.

Within this expanding system of international co-operation, in which the High Commissioner's Office acts as the nerve centre, the work of aiding refugees can thus be seen as a coherent whole in which each has his proper place in accordance with his particular responsibilities. Normally, of course, it is the countries of asylum which have to carry the heaviest burden, with the help of those governments which traditionally support the work of international assistance to refugees and by the many voluntary agencies. The importance cannot be over-estimated of the part played by these agencies in the execution of programmes, the distribution of assistance and advice and, more valuable stilly in giving hope, day after day, to the uprooted refugees. Throughout the world, they are there wherever the work of assisting refugees is in progress and it is through them that the human significance of that work, its application to the individual, is fully realized.

Other bodies, such as the Inter-governmental Committee for European Migration, also assist and collaborate closely with the High Commissioner's Office. Thanks to ICEM, the flow of emigration from Europe remains at a level sufficient to offset the arrival of some thousands of new refugees each year. Now that it is extending its activities to the developing countries, the High Commissioner's Office has to call more frequently on the various specialized agencies of the United Nations. The most recent and typical example of this new trend in international co-operation in refugee matters is the regional development project drawn up by the ILO at the request of the governments concerned and with our agreement. It was found that the settlement of refugees on lands put at their disposal in Burundi and in the Kivu Province of the Congo (Leopoldville) would remain precarious so long as they felt unsure of their future and had no protection against the disastrous effects of a bad harvest and so long as they lacked certain facilities, in the field of education, for example, to which they were accustomed in their own country. There could be no question of completing the settlement of these refugees and improving their circumstance without extending the same benefits to the local population. The only way of solving this dilemma and of enabling the refugees to participate, together with the local population, in the economic development of the country was to establish a programme covering the whole of the region and all its inhabitants, refugees or otherwise. Two projects have therefore been drawn up by the International Labour Organisation, which will administer them itself with the assistance of experts from the United Nations Technical Assistance Board, RAO, WHO, UNESCO and UNICEF. As mentioned in the report, the financial contribution of the High Commissioner's Office to these projects, which form part of the 1964 programme and affect some 409,000 refugees, amounts to 1,989,000 for the Kivu province of the Congo and 1,601,000 for Burundi.

So far, Mr. President, I have spoken only of the High Commissioner's activities in the field of material assistance. It is in this field that the greatest changes and the most significant developments took place during the period under review. I need hardly say, this does not mean that the task of protection entrusted to the High Commissioner's Office has in any way been relegated to the background.

As I have already emphasized, material assistance in the form which it takes under the current programme is, in the final analysis, simply a method of stimulating international co-operation with a view to the solution of refugee problems wherever they may arise. Its essential aim is to establish and maintain a necessary balance between the duties and obligations of the countries of asylum and the desire of the international community to uphold certain humanitarian principles which it has championed. The adoption of a generous policy of asylum, which is the first objective which the High Commissioner's Office would wish to achieve, should thus be accompanied by a firm desire on the part of other countries to help the countries of asylum, if necessary, either by providing them with assistance in meeting their obligations towards the refugees whom they agree to accept or, as has been the case in Europe, by adopting an equally liberal and generous immigration policy. It is in this way that the link between assistance and protection, which in practice are usually associated and closely interdependent, is established.

Although the ultimate goal of protection is to help a refugee to cease being a refugee, either through voluntary repatriation or the acquisition of a new nationality, its immediate minimum objective is to ensure that the refugee is placed wherever possible on an equal footing with the nationals of his country of residence. A source of satisfaction in this respect is the recent accession of a forty-third State to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 28 July 1951, and the even more recent accession of Ireland to the Agreement relating to refugee seamen. As regards resettlement through emigration, as I have already noted, increasing efforts are being made particularly for the benefit of handicapped refugees, thus crowning years of effort by The High Commissioner's Office.

Another aspect of the activities of the Office, which I have just mentioned and one to which we attach great importance is voluntary repatriation. Although it does not generally produce spectacular results an exception is the case of the Algerian refugees which is still fresh in our minds that does not mean it has been overlooked. Refugees wishing to return to their own countries very often encounter administrative and financial difficulties which the High Commissioner's Office tries to overcome. He thus facilitates the contact between the refugees concerned and the authorities of their country of origin, helping the refugees to obtain the travel documents and the entry or transit visas they need. Although this work concerns only a limited number of refugees, namely, those who, for the reasons I have just mentioned, request the High Commissioner's assistance, the value of this aspect of the High Commissioner's activities cannot be underestimated.

Before concluding these remarks on international protection which, it need hardly be repeated, remains the basic task of the High Commissioner's Office, I would like to stress the understanding attitude being shown by certain countries which, as a result of their recent accession to independence, are newcomers to our humanitarian activities. The African countries and it is of them I am speaking have had occasion during the past few years to become acquainted with refugee problems. The liberal policy which they immediately adopted in the matter of the right of asylum a policy which is fully in. accordance with their tradition of hospitality is a tangible and encouraging indication of increasing support for the principles and ideals which the General Assembly of the United Nations is at present attempting to incorporate in the text of a declaration on the right of asylum. The discussions of the last session of the Executive Committee, in which the new African members of that Committee took party also revealed their very profound understanding of refugee problems which could arise anywhere in the world as well as of the objectives of our own activities. For example, the strictly non-political nature of the work of the High Commissioner's Office was fully grasped and even given striking emphasis by the Observer for Rwanda in his statement. He expressed his Government's satisfaction and thanks both for the general welcome extended by neighbouring States to refugees from his country and for the way in which the High Commissioner's Office had discharged its task of protection and assistance in that connexion.

The picture of international co-operation on behalf of refugees which I have just presented in broad outline would be incomplete? Mr. President, if I failed to mention the valuable assistance which the High Commissioner's Office has received on a more general plane from certain regional inter-governmental organizations such as the Council of Europe. A large number of recommendations and resolutions which the Council has addressed to member governments have been of considerable help to the High Commissioner's Office in its task of the international protection of refugees. A little more than a year ago, when our Office was facing the difficult problem of financing the last major aid programmes for the residual group of "old" European refugees, the Council of Europe immediately took an active part in initiating a final co-operative effort on the European level, which, as we have seen, has proved successful. It is not surprising therefore, that at a meeting on co-operation between the High Commissioner's Office and the other inter-governmental organizations, held in the course of the eleventh session of the Executive Committee and which was attended by a number of eminent representatives of the Council of Europe, the Executive Committee should have paid tribute to that body for its participation in the humanitarian task of international assistance to refugees and for its continuing support of the High Commissioner's Office.

Another regional organization, namely, the Organization of African Unity, recently also indicated its interest in the refugee problems which were being encountered by some of its members, and in the efforts of the High Commissioner's Office to help in their solution. Shortly after the documents requested by the Organization of African Unity had been transmitted, the High Commissioner's Office, heartened by the encouraging remarks addressed to it at the Executive Committee's last session, sent an official to Addis Ababa to attend the meeting of the committee set up under the Organization of African Unity to study refugee problems in Africa. We are attempting to maintain and extend the contacts established in this way, since we are convinced that they will provide a useful basis for future co-operation with the African countries.

The increasing interest which is thus being displayed throughout the world in the humanitarian work of the High Commissioner's Office was reflected last year in the General Assembly's decision to raise the number of members of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme from twenty-five to thirty. The range of countries represented on this Committee is now commensurate with its activities, and reflects the principle of universality set forth in its Statute.

If, in conclusion, Mr. President, I may be allowed to express an opinion on the meaning and implications of the trend I have just outlined, I would say that it is not only the natural and inevitable result of events which are taking place in Africa or elsewhere. It is also, in my opinion, the result of an increasing understanding by the international community of the strictly humanitarian and non-political nature of the High Commissioner's activities. Thus our unceasing efforts to maintain and emphasize this basic aspect of the task entrusted to the Office, has not been in vain, and to me, Mr. President, this is a source of satisfaction. In doing so, the High Commissioner's Office is not merely adopting a position which will best enable it to serve the cause of refugees, but may also sometimes reduce, and even eliminate, possible causes of friction between countries, and thus bring about that relaxation of tension which is undoubtedly the major and ultimate goal of the United Nations.