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Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), 1 May 1961

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), 1 May 1961

1 May 1961

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen,

As stated in the introduction to the annual report on the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, the most outstanding features of the period May 1960 - May 1961, to which this report is devoted, are first the World Refugee Year, and secondly the growing interest shown by the international community in refugee problems taken in the widest sense of the term and envisaged, no longer solely from the standpoint of a strict legal definition, but as humanitarian, economic and social problems. This view of refugee problems is obviously bound up with that important event the World Refugee Year. But this parallel development of ideas and events - to which my predecessor Mr. Lindt already drew your attention last year - has its origins, I think, in causes that lie deeper and go further into the past. It must be linked with the observations you yourself made, Mr. President, in your opening speech, when you referred to the new States which have joined the United Nations family in the past year and stressed the ever-growing importance of the Council's work on economic and social problems. As the international community thus becomes more clearly aware of its responsibilities in this sphere, the spirit of international solidarity, the clue to the solution of so many problems, is also growing stronger. This has been particularly noticeable during the past year, in relation to the refugee problem with which the Office of the High Commissioner is dealing.

For what more concrete example of international solidarity can be imagined than that which gave birth to the World Refugee Year? All parts of the world have sent abundant testimony to the active sympathy of peoples whose attention was drawn to the essentially humanitarian aspect of this problem. So much enthusiasm was aroused among the peoples of many countries that the World Refugee Year became as much their concern as that of their governments - in fact, even more.

It was of course known beforehand that the World Refugee Year would not finally solve all the refugee problems in the world. But the results have equalled the hopes aroused by this enterprise undertaken under the high auspices of the United Nations General Assembly. In respect of the refugees under my mandate, the effects of the World Refugee Year have been felt in the three main sectors of the High Commissioner's work: international protection, the search for permanent solutions, and assistance both to the most needy refugees and to particular refugee groups.

In regard to international protection, the atmosphere of understanding created by the World Refugee Year has been particularly favourable to an improvement in the status accorded to refugees in the various countries of reception. As you know, most of those countries have acceded to the Convention of 28 July 1951. The aim of the High Commissioner's efforts is to ensure that the refugee is given a legal status approximating as closely as possible to that of nationals of the country, and that he enjoys that status until he has ceased to be a refugee - that is to say, until he has voluntarily returned to his country of origin or acquired the nationality of the country in which he is resident. Of the 870,000 refugees in Europe at the beginning of 1960, about 15,000 were thus naturalized during that year. I need not revert in detail to the measures adopted, which are indicated in the annex to the report submitted to the Council. The effect of them all has been, in varying degree, to strengthen the economic and social position of refugees in the countries where they are living, and to prepare or facilitate their complete assimilation in their community of adoption. I should merely like to mention, because they are so recent, some figures relating to the indemnification fund for refugees persecuted under the national socialist régime on account of their nationality. By 21 July the section in charge of this fund had received 5,500 applications, all of which are at present under consideration, except for fifty on which favourable decisions involving the payment of a total of $9,000 have already been taken.

The effects of the World Refugee Year have possibly been even more direct and spectacular in the sphere of assistance to the refugees. The exceptional financial target of $12,000,000 which the High Commissioner's Office had set for its regular programme for 1960 in view of the special contributions expected from the World Refugee Year has thus been virtually attained. This means that funds are now available to cover the camp clearance programme for the 10,000 or so refugees who come under no other programme than that of the High Commissioner's Office and who are now living in camps in Austria, Germany, Italy and Greece. At the beginning of 1961 the total number of refugees still in the camps was about 15,000. It is now therefore only a question of time, initiative and determination on our part and on the part of governments and the voluntary agencies before this programme can be wound up. In this connexion I would merely remind you that when in 1955 the High Commissioner's Office instituted its permanent solutions programmes, about 85,000 refugees were will in the camps.

Undoubtedly, it is in the sphere of emigration of refugees that the most tangible expression has been given to the wave of enthusiasm produced by the World Refugee Year. In response to repeated joint appeals of the High Commissioner's Office and ICEM, the principal countries of immigration have opened their doors wider and wider to categories of refugees who had hitherto been unable to gain access to them. This development - I am almost tempted to say this revolution - which has been one of the outstanding features of the last two years has been marked by the adoption of more liberal criteria in favour of refugees, by the relaxation of certain procedures, and by the institution, with or without the collaboration of the voluntary agencies, of special programmes for handicapped refugees through which 650 of those refugees were finally settled in 1960. Thus it has at last been possible to make a frontal attack on a problem which would no doubt have remained insoluble if the generosity and practical sense displayed by a number of countries had not enabled the handicapped to be treated as ordinary people. Moreover, experience has shown that most of them were perfectly capable of being rapidly and usefully integrated in the community willing to receive them. But the immigration countries, while facilitating the solution of this human problem and joining other countries which had already agreed to receive handicapped refugees, at the same time demonstrated their solidarity with the countries of asylum. And that is certainly not the least reassuring or promising aspect of a development which is one of the most practical demonstrations of this spirit of international solidarity on which the solution of the refugee problem actually depends.

Far from obscuring the credit due to the countries of reception, this effort on the part of the immigration countries on the contrary underlines it. Nothing would have been achieved without the initial assistance of the countries of reception and without the part which they have subsequently played in the implementation of the High Commissioner's programme. Whether in respect of the 15,000 refugees who are still in camps, or of the 20,000 non-settled refugees living outside camps, most of whom are suffering from various handicaps, much still hangs upon the initiative and co-operative spirit of the countries in which they reside. May I be permitted, Mr. President, to pay them the tribute due?

Impressive though the results have been, the World Refugee Year could not be expected to solve all the problems or to meet all the financial requirements, present and future, of the refugees. Much therefore remains to be done, both in the traditional work of the HCR and also on the specific problems which he is called upon to help solve. As I reported to the Executive Committee barely two months ago, there can be no question of abandoning the task in hand or of interrupting programmes nearing completion and on the way to removing one of the most painful consequences of the war and the post-war period.

Of the 65,000 non-settled refugees living outside camps in Europe, about 20,000 need international help to facilitate their settlement and compensate them for the handicaps which have hitherto prevented their assimilation in the host countries. The largest part of the 1961 programme, for which $6,000,000 has been allocated, is in fact devoted to them. Although contributions received or pledged amount as yet to only $3,000,000, I venture to hope that the funds needed for the implementation of this programme will in the end be forthcoming. But the final settlement of the problem of the old European refugees and the completion of the extensive programmes designed to assist them are essential. This is the purpose of the plan I propose to submit for the Executive Committee's approval at its next meeting in the spring, which specifies the precise means and time needed for achieving this end. I hope therefore, to be in a position to report next year to the Council on the implementation of this plan, the aim of which is to define and propose by a well-tried method a specific goal attainable in a given time for action by the international community.

Owing to the circumstances, the problem of European refugees in the Far East appears in a somewhat different light. The real need there is to resettle those refugees as and when they arrive in Hong Kong. We nevertheless hope to get this problem behind us as soon as possible. In this connexion I am happy to be able to mention the recent decision of the Government of Hong Kong henceforth to admit to its territory all refugees wishing to emigrate even if they still lack visas for their chosen country. According to the information in our possession, at the present moment there are just under 6,000 of those refugees, of whom nearly 5,000 have been promised visas. The funds allocated for them in the 1961 and 1962 budgets are in principle sufficient to cover the total cost of their stay in Hong Kong and their subsequent resettlement. In addition, however, to the funds already at its disposal, ICEM would require a further $ 1,300,000 to transport them all. The financial effort required of the international community for the permanent solution of this problem, though not negligible, is therefore by no means formidable.

Another task entrusted to the HCR is, as you know, to support public and private action to assist the voluntary repatriation of refugees. In order to facilitate this free return home of refugees, a number of projects have been set on foot which have covered their travelling expenses when they could not afford to do so themselves and no other source of funds was available. I would remind you that the number of known repatriates in 1960 was 2,500. The funds allocated to repatriation in this year's budget have enabled the HCR to continue this work, which he is of course bound to do so long as his Office is still in action.

In accordance with the wish of the General Assembly, the HCR, in close co-operation with the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, has also undertaken a major relief operation for assisting Algerian refugees in Tunisia and Morocco. The task is to meet the subsistence and other vital needs, such as medical care and accommodation of about 300,000 refugees, However generous the contribution of the interested governments, they could not of course defray the whole cost themselves. Thanks partly to World Refugee Year, the needs of those refugees for last year were fully covered. This year, on the other hand, we still have to meet a large deficit on the $7,000,000 allocated for that purpose. I venture to hope the appeal I had to send out recently to Governments of States Members of the United Nations or the specialized agencies will be heard. Human lives are at stake here, as well as the success of this immediate-assistance programme.

The international community, as I have already pointed out, cannot suddenly cease to concern itself with the fate of the refugees for whom it has been spending money for so many years. It is especially important that the rights acquired through patient effort should not be jeopardized, and that the existence of those refugees should not be once again threatened by economic difficulties or other circumstances. Likewise, efforts must be made to improve still further, and at every opportunity, the status of refugees. May I express the hope that governments which have concluded among themselves certain regional economic and social agreements will consent to give these refugees the benefit of those agreements, thus helping them to become firmly settled, improve their living conditions, and narrow a little more the gap still separating them from their fellow-countrymen?

New refugees are still arriving in the countries where UNHCR has up to now had to operate. Measures should be taken to prevent the creation of a new refugee problem for the solution of which it would once more be necessary to mobilize substantial resources and ask for a large-scale and prolonged effort by the international community. The only way this can be done is to see that each refugee finds as quickly as possible a solution meeting his needs, either locally or in another country. It will involve a continuous effort of solidarity on the part of the international community including, in particular, the maintenance of a liberal policy by immigration countries and also, I should think, the provision of international financial support, however limited, for the efforts which the HCR will have to make itself to promote the integration or resettlement of physically or socially handicapped refugees. This financial aid should, in my view, be given only where it is justified by the particular situation of the refugee and of the receiving country. I believe, however, that it would be wrong to think that the international community can, without detriment to itself, remain indifferent to the plight of these refugees simply because their number is small, since no suitable solution can be found for some of them unless it gives the necessary help.

As I said at the beginning of this survey one of the characteristic features of the period under review in the report before you is the increasingly keen interest displayed by this same international community in the many refugee problems which come outside the traditional scope of the High Commissioner's work. The World Refugee Year undoubtedly helped to focus on them the attention of governments and the public in many countries. In point of fact, however, this interest was already apparent, for example in resolution 1388, adopted by the General Assembly at its 14th session, authorizing the High Commissioner, in respect of refugees who do not come within the competence of the United Nations, to use his good offices in the transmission of contributions designed to provide them with assistance. The desires expressed by this decision of the General Assembly were formulated still more precisely in its resolution 1499 (XV), which invites governments to consult with the HCR in respect of measures of assistance to groups of refugees in that category. In response to this invitation, some governments have already consulted the HCR about their refugee problems and asked for his help. Provisional replies, adapted to the circumstances and the immediate resources of my Office, have been sent. The present need is to define the conditions and procedure for intervention by the HCR in this new field of work which has been found for him, so that he may in future render the services which the international community expects of him. But what exactly is expected of him. In other words, what are the motives behind the two resolutions I have just mentioned? To begin with, they undoubtedly express a trend, or a recall, to universality, a reminder that the work of the High Commissioner's Office should not remain localized in one specific region of the world, the part where the events occurred which brought it into being. Moreover, the wish of the international community is certainly to maintain and affirm still more clearly, by severing it from all political association, the exclusively humanitarian and social nature of the task entrusted to this Office. The High Commissioner's work can only be given its full meaning and scope, and become fully effective, if the entire international community is able to take part in it. The HCR must of course avoid stressing any disharmony or creating - with the best intentions - fresh causes of irritation or misunderstanding; his role is on the contrary to contribute to conciliation and concord by his disinterested work for human beings in distress. The concept of "good offices" introduced in resolution 1388 (XIV) seems to me particularly conducive to this aim, precisely because it avoids linking the intervention of the HCR to the application of legal definitions which might arouse controversy.

The High Commissioner's work can only be given its full meaning and scope, and become fully effective, if the entire international community is able to take part in it.

It remains for me to exercise my "good offices" in accordance with the General Assembly's authorization. The Council may rest assured that in this matter I shall not fail in due care or sense of reality. For a start, nothing of value can be undertaken unless it matches the desires of the international community and the effort which that community is itself prepared to make in the given circumstances. In meeting the requests of governments, I shall also have to weigh the merits of each case and the capacity of UNHCR to play an effective and useful part in the solution of the problem. In each case therefore the question will arise as to whether and to what extent it is appropriate for UNHCR to intervene. I shall attempt to answer in the light both of the basic factors I have just mentioned and of the practical opportunities afforded to my Office by the good will of the governments which are prepared to take part in its work.

In conclusion, I should like to say something about the practical discussions which the HCR is having with governments of countries of residence and other organizations concerned with refugees, and the assistance they are giving him in performing his duty. In the work of assistance to refugees, the part played by those governments is clearly decisive, and in my opinion is bound to grow stronger as the major programmes initiated by UNHCR draw to a close, since no residual or secondary problems will any longer justify large-scale action by the international community. It should also be borne in mind that the essential responsibility for refugees necessarily falls on governments, and that support of the HCR as an instrument of the international community can only be subsidiary.

Since assistance to refugees, moreover, should be adapted to their needs and way of life, and also to the economic and social situation of the country in which they reside, the HCR naturally appeals to the specialized agencies for their views, their advice and indeed their collaboration in their particular spheres. I can recall specific examples of the substantial support of this kind given by some of them during the past year to the groups of refugees with which UNHCR is concerned; and I should like to take this opportunity of thanking them.

assistance to refugees should be adapted to their needs and way of life, and also to the economic and social situation of the country in which they reside

Our co-operation with voluntary agencies working for refugees is so necessary and is based on such firmly-established traditions that there can be no question of changing its term. It has become commonplace to stress the importance of their contribution to the solution of the refugee problem. Their part in this humanitarian work, which they must continue to fulfil, is indeed fundamental: it is they who are in daily contact with the refugees and who therefore have an intimate knowledge of their needs and can above all by presence and advice, consolidate the results of the HCR programmes. The High Commissioner's duty is to co-ordinate as far as possible their very diversified activities, and also, when necessary, to initiate and stimulate as he has constantly done in the past.

To keep alive and active the spirit of international solidarity without which an undertaking of this kind is inconceivable; to adapt the High Commissioner's Office to the new tasks imposed by circumstances without depriving it of its own particular character - that, Mr. President, should in my opinion be our present aim, which I shall endeavour to attain if the international community so desires. Needless to say, I should be happy to receive opinions and suggestions from the Economic and Social Council to that end. In the meantime, Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you for your kind attention.