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Conference on the Refugee Problem Today and Tomorrow | Speech of Dr. Auguste R. Lindt, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Speeches and statements

Conference on the Refugee Problem Today and Tomorrow | Speech of Dr. Auguste R. Lindt, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

27 May 1957
Organized by the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations Interested in Migration, and the Standing Conference of Voluntary Agencies Working for Refugees, Geneva.

"Mr. President, Herr Bundesminister, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is only a short time ago that I met a Hungarian refugee couple in a country of second asylum. They told me that they were thankful to this country because they had work, they had a roof over their heads, and they were able to earn their own living. I asked them then if they were happy. They hesitated, and then said NO. In the ensuing discussion, it became clear that what they resented was that they were condemned to live an isolated life, that they had no contact with their neighbours, that they did not feel that they had been accepted in a community.

It seems to me that this very personal, very warm touch which a refugee needs, to be not only integrated economically, but to be really integrated in a community, can come only from the voluntary agencies. The voluntary agencies have more experience in refugee work than any of the existing international governmental organizations. They have taken to heart the refugee problem, before the necessity was felt for international co-ordinated effort and I think that this Conference, which is unique in the history of the world, if I am right, shows that there is now a bigger awareness for the problem than ever before.

The refugee is not only an economic problem, when he arrives, after having given up his home and all his possessions, but also a psychological problem. A psychologist told me recently that the refugee is not at all psychiatric case; he is a very normal being, and only when we let him decay in camps does he show signs of psychosis. You, the representatives of voluntary agencies, have discovered what so many people do not know, that refugees are not an anonymous category but that they are individuals with their own lives, individuals with their mixture, sometimes balanced, sometimes less balanced, between disillusion and hope.

When I was called to my present office, I had perhaps a tendency also to think that this office had to deal with a category of human beings. Only when I learned to know faces of refugees, to know destinies of refugees, did I discover that there are no easy solutions, that there are no mass solutions and that the real approach is your approach; to deal with refugees case by case, to find out what they need, to find out what they want and to do a very slow and painstaking job.

I also discovered that this job, that this problem is a very difficult one and a very urgent one. A very urgent one concerning the Hungarian refugees, because I think we must not repeat what has happened in earlier refugee movements, that people were left to lose hope, to live in camps, and to lose their own initiatives. With the Hungarians, the international community still has a chance to show that the fate of the old refugees of which I shall speak later must not necessarily be the fate of the new refugees. I should like to recall the almost heroic early days when the world first had to tackle the Hungarian refugee problem, when it became possible, even for officials, to trample bureaucracy under-foot; when suddenly there was a relaxation of narrow regulations; when there was spontaneous co-operation of voluntary agencies, of intergovernmental organizations, of the governments of first asylum and of public opinion all over the world.

At this moment, I should like to say a few words about you, Herr Bundesminister [Helmer], because you, Herr Minister, you showed an extraordinary capacity to cut through any bureaucracy and to take quick decisions, not only with a very warm but also with a big heart. You are also perhaps too modest to recall an historic word you pronounced when you said, and here I have to break into German, "dass für Oesterreich das Asylrecht eine Herzensangelegenheit ist" [that for Austria the right of asylum is a thing of the heart].

But while you, Herr Bundesminister, continue unabated to make your quick decisions and to come at any moment quickly to the conclusions which are necessary, there is a certain fatigue perhaps in public opinion in dealing with the Hungarian refugee problem. Emigration is slowing down, the selection of the selection teams is again becoming more selective, more people are rejected because one is not sure that they will make the good workers the emigration countries are open to receive. And there are also, and we saw that in Yugoslavia, countries of first asylum who received a considerably less important number of Hungarian refugees than Austria, where an enormous effort was needed to organize emigration. But even there things are now moving, but the urgent question in Austria and in Yugoslavia is: how many Hungarian refugees will these countries have to keep? When one thinks of the numbers of Hungarian refugees big countries and rich countries have accepted, then I think it is impossible to leave a small country like Austria with 30,000 Hungarian refugees, and it would not be international solidarity to leave the 15,000 Hungarian refugees still in Yugoslavia. It is necessary that this effort be continued and that we should not now fall victim to the very human tendency: to pat ourselves on the back for what has already been done - and well done. But the job is not finished.

Not so long ago, in an Italian camp, an old camp existing already for years, in Southern Italy, there was a cripple, with one leg and one arm amputated, who by hand steered his wheelchair to me and asked: "When can I emigrate overseas?" He told his story: "We have been in this camp for ten years, we have had many offers to go to a home for the disabled in countries north of the Alps. I have refused. There are only two alternatives for me, either I shall still emigrate, and I believe I can, or I shall die here." I think this cripple is typical of many of the old displaced persons and refugees still left in Europe who had stayed behind after other displaced persons were repatriated. A great number emigrated and some, having relatives or friends in their new country of domicile, could get absorbed into the economy of that country. But those people who were left were further increased by new refugees who came after the war. Of these again, many emigrated, and now there are left in the camps in Germany, in Austria, (because Austria is not only the country of the new refugees, it is also the country shouldering one of the heaviest problems of old refugees), in Italy and in Greece, many of the old refugees still in the camps. There still remain today 50,000 "old" refugees in those camps, many, like the cripple, still waiting for a possibility of emigration.

There are a few who, thanks to the efforts of the governments, have been integrated, and the United Nations Refugee Fund (UNREF) programme of my Office has helped to supplement the efforts of governments by giving them grants, by participating in building houses, by giving loans, by helping with professional training to put the refugees on their own feet again. It is extraordinary that once you can take somebody out of his camp, his whole mentality changes. He suddenly feels different, he suddenly has belief in the future and he sees some reason for living. But this work goes very slowly; the UNREF programme is scheduled to come to an end in 1958, at the end of next year, and unless the resources given to our office are very considerably increased, the work cannot be done.

Once you can take somebody out of his camp, his whole mentality changes.

I am perhaps repetitive because I said it many times, but it seems to me that we should have two targets: the first one to solve the Hungarian refugee problem this very year. The figures left are not astronomic figures, they are manageable figures. The second target is that while we work even this year for the earlier refugees and do what can be done and show that there are lots of forgotten people, to concentrate next year in a very imaginative way on a big attack on this problem of the older refugees.

I think this attack should be carried out on two fronts: the first one being to extend emigration possibilities to those old refugees who still want to emigrate. One might object to that as being unrealistic because a natural selection process has continued throughout the years, because the "old" refugees are still in camps, and because those who are not in camps but still unsettled are, in a way, difficult cases, and become every year more difficult to settle. But when one thinks of that inspiring example of what governments, European governments, overseas governments, have done concerning the Hungarian refugees when the emigration regulations were relaxed, when one asked the refugee, do you want to come to this country or not, and when he said, yes, he was taken, without medical examination, without cross-examination, without question, then could not the same be done for at least some of the old refugees?

The Hungarian problem, and specially the way in which it was tackled, showed an awareness of international public opinion that the burden should be shared, not only by national governments, but also that the other countries who came to the help of the refugees and of the country of first asylum should share the "good" refugees and the "bad" refugees. It is almost considered a normal, though tragic happening, that the country of first asylum is left with the most difficult cases among the refugees. But this need not continue if not only the European countries, but also the overseas countries, could understand that the burden of refugees has to be shared equally, without discrimination. It would be possible then to find emigration possibilities for many of the older refugees.

The burden of refugees has to be shared equally, without discrimination.

The second line of attack would have to be integration to give the refugees a new start in life, to help them to become normal beings again, and to become an asset to the country in which, for a long time, the have only been a charge on public assistance. We should think, and I think it was already mentioned during the religious services preceding this Conference, and by the Director of the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM) with whom we closely collaborate, that we should not always think that, to accept refugees, is a charity. I think the world should think that to accept refugees means influencing the future of a nation, because no country, no community, no village, no town, can accept people from outside without being influenced. As many European countries changed through having accepted the Huguenots, so I think also many countries will have changed, which only the future will show, by having accepted the Hungarians, and that what first appears a burden can, afterwards, be a very great asset.

If these who targets should be fulfilled, something could be achieved. They can only be fulfilled when you, Ladies and Gentlemen, representing voluntary agencies from so many parts of the world, having chapters in so many nations, having your representatives and friends in so many towns and villages, when you who hold a key position by having direct access to public opinion, help to realize this programme."