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Speech by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Second Session of the High Commissioner's Advisory Committee on Refugees, 15 September 1952

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Speech by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Second Session of the High Commissioner's Advisory Committee on Refugees, 15 September 1952

15 September 1952

Mr. President,

I have much pleasure in welcoming both on my own and my colleagues' behalf the members of the Advisory Committee to the second session. According to the Statute of my Office, I am called upon to request the opinion of the Committee "more particularly when difficulties arise". From the outset it has been my firm conviction that an advisory committee consisting of representatives of governments, experienced in the problems with which we are concerned, would be of the greatest value to our work, and experience so far has already shown clearly that our work does not lack difficulties. We meet them constantly in practically every field and for this reason we look forward to the advice of a special body whose sole concern is the interests of the refugees in the mandate of the United Nations. Although it would be tempting to give this Committee at the outset of its second session some outlines of the overall policy which has shaped up in this Office since its inception, I realize that that would impose too much on the limited time which is available for dealing with the concrete problems which face the Committee. I therefore prefer in this introductory statement to confine myself mainly to the problems involved in the operation of the assistance fund which was established under Resolution No. 538 B (VI) of last year's General Assembly and to the implications of the assimilation of refugees for whom no other solution than integration can be found.

When the General Assembly decided to authorized me to establish a fund for emergency aid to the most needy groups among refugees, I was optimistic as to the results of such appeals. Although some governments have generously contributed to the United Nations Refugee Emergency Fund as it is now called, the response to my appeals has been, on the whole, disappointing. So very disappointing even that I have been unable to carry out even 20% of the programme which we had in mind in presenting our estimates to the General Assembly. I would waste the time of this Committee if I were to repeat at this stage what the members have been able to read from the documents on the assistance fund which were circulated some time ago. I would however like to underline the urgency of finding a solution for a problem, the seriousness of which can easily be underestimated.

Every national community has a thin layer of people for whose material existence the rest of that community has to accept and does in fact accept responsibility: the old, the sick, the disabled, etc. It is natural and unavoidable that the refugee population in every country comprises also a group of people belonging to these categories. The problem of these refugees cannot be solved by a declaration that the governments of their countries of residence must accept responsibility for their care and maintenance. Not only have some governments never accepted such a responsibility, but there are also governments which, although ready to do what they can, are unable to add any substantial burden to all the charges with which they are already faced. It is therefore impossible for the international community not to accept a limited responsibility for the needy refugees on the basis that its efforts will be supplementary to those of the governments of the countries of residence of the refugees.

It was on this basis that I presented the idea of an emergency fund to the General Assembly last year and that I was able to limit my estimates to what I think is a modest amount of money. At that time I pointed out that the situation of needy refugees in Shanghai and in Trieste gave grounds for very serious concern to my Office. There has not been any considerable improvement in these situations since I submitted my last year's annual report. In Shanghai the number of refugees registering with our Office is increasing and the problem which I now have to face in that area is one of roughly 7,000 refugees, with a possibility of an increase to perhaps even 10,000. Not all of these refugees are in circumstances which make them qualify for assistance from our fund, but the pressure is increasing and the pace at which the Shanghai refugees problem can be solved through migration and re-establishment is unfortunately slow. Therefore unless measures can be taken to solve finally the problem of the refugees in China, that problem will face us for quite some time to come. Moreover, even if all the money out of my assistance fund were reserved for these refugees alone, there would not be enough.

But to reserve the assistance fund for care and maintenance of refugees in China means to do injustice to other needy groups, not less within our mandate and therefore not less entitled to receive assistance. I have already pointed to the situation in Trieste, about which I published ten months ago an alarming report, written by the British tuberculosis expert, Dr. Mark Daniels, who under the aegis of W.H.O. investigated that situation on the spot and whose conclusion was that of roughly 4,000 refugees, 20% is suffering from active or inactive tuberculosis. Moreover there is a series of scattered small groups of refugees, for example in Turkey, the Lebanon, Syria, who are in dire need, not to speak of Greece, Italy, Austria and Germany where action is also necessary to supplement the efforts of the governments for the benefit of the needy cases. You will therefore understand that the slow pace at which the UNREF is developing is a reason for grave concern to my Office.

It may be useful for all of us to keep in mind that any refugee problem can only be solved along three different lines: repatriation, emigration, integration. Under present conditions repatriation is almost a theoretical solution to refugee problems. The U.N. rightly adopted the principle that repatriation requires the freely expressed will of the refugee concerned. In order to make up his mind, the refugee needs as much information about his country of origin as that country makes available to him. My Office has taken the view that no obstacle should be put in the way of informing the refugee, and that his right to go back to his country of origin can never be questioned. On the other hand my Office has no mandate to operate repatriation as had the UNRRA and the IRO. In fact the number of refugees desiring repatriation is extremely limited and therefore repatriation as a solution of refugee problems amounts to very little indeed. Migration and assimilation are the two solutions which really count, and of those two assimilation is at the present time by far the more important one. In saying that I do not wish to imply that from the point of view of the refugee himself migration is no long the most arduously desired solution. It certainly is. No refugee has to the full extent the feeling of "starting a new life" if he has not boarded a ship or plane and crossed an ocean. It is his arrival on a new continent with completely different circumstances of life which really gives him the certainty that now he has cut his ties with the past and therefore can look to a new future.

No refugee has to the full extent the feeling of 'starting a new life' if he has not boarded a ship or plane and crossed an ocean. It is his arrival on a new continent with completely different circumstances of life which really gives him the certainty that now he has cut his ties with the past and therefore can look to a new future.

It is because I have had to come to the conclusion that migration is only possible on a very limited scale that I have submitted to the Advisory Committee a document on integration of refugees hoping to get the Committee's guidance as to how that problem could be tackled. In that connection I have to stress that one of the conditions for an effective migration programme applies to assimilation efforts as well. It is the provision of the necessary capital with which the refugees can be equipped with all the tools to do their own job of re-integration. My Office has studied that problem fairly thoroughly especially with a view to assimilation programmes in Germany, Austria and Greece. So far I have not been able to interest official or private sources to any adequate extent in financing assimilation programmes, and it may well be that a separate fund will have to be created for this purpose. For the moment, I confine myself to these few remarks on this subject and I shall listen very carefully to any advice that this Committee, I hope, will have to offer.

Even if all the capital necessary to carry out an overall assimilation programme for refugees in Western Europe were available, we would by no means have met all the conditions for an effective integration. There is first of all the necessity to equalize as far as possible the legal conditions between refugees and nationals of a country, especially in the field of economic and social rights. Moreover the refugee has to be sure that he can easily obtain the necessary documentation, essential to his family life and his freedom of movement. Some headway in these fields has been made during the last year. In Italy as well as in Austria and Germany, some steps have been taken by the governments to improve the status of refugees in their territories, and I mention these steps with gratitude to the governments concerned. The Convention on the Status of Refugees, as adopted by the Diplomatic Conference of 1951, has however not yet come into force as not even one of the six necessary ratifications so far has been forthcoming. Although disappointed about the delay in the entry in to force of the Convention, I am confident that various parliaments, which have the ratification of the Convention on the agenda of their present session, will take action shortly. Meanwhile, since the first session of this Committee, the Convention has been signed by the following countries: Brazil, Italy and the Holy See.

Even if the capital necessary for the carrying out of an assimilation programme were available and if the legal, economic and social conditions for integration were met, then still the problem would be far from solved. What is needed also are concrete projects for assimilation of refugees in their countries of residence. Those projects range from loans to refugees, to vocational training of young refugees, resettlement on the land, creating of home industries, etc., etc. Resourcefulness and imagination are required to devise varieties of integration projects which, of course, have to adapted to the particular conditions in a given area. I wish to make it a point here, Mr. President, to pay the highest tribute to all those voluntary agencies which time and again have given proof of these indispensable qualities. If, notwithstanding lack of capital and of conditions for assimilation, thousands of refugees have been able to make a serious attempt at rooting themselves firmly in the economy of their countries, they owe a debt of deep gratitude to the various voluntary agencies which gave them leadership, guidance, advice and assistance. I want to lay all the stress on the demonstration value of even small projects which have been carried out or are being carried out at the present time. I should like also to express my gratitude to the Ford Foundation in the United States for its generous grant to my Office for the carrying out of that kind of project in the Western European area. If it is certain that only a small part of the needs of refugees can be met through that grant, it is also certain that the programmes realized through that grant will provide a tremendous stimulus to governmental and private efforts to tackle the problem on a much larger scale. Nothing is so stimulating as seeing before your eyes that a solution is really possible. I can only hope that the response to the far-sighted initiative of the Ford Foundation on the part of the responsible governments and of private organizations will be not less encouraging than the fact that the Ford Foundation has wished to place itself in the forefront of those who by their own efforts wish to discharge their responsibility for the fate of hundreds of thousands of people in distressing circumstances.

It is clear to me that the needs of the world in many different fields are so great that it is nearly impossible to cope with every problem in a really adequate way. However in bringing the emergency needs of the most destitute groups of refugees again and again to the urgent attention of every organ of the United Nations, I know and claim that I am not asking for the impossible. When last year I proposed the establishment of an emergency fund, I put my target at $3,000,000. I have no doubt that that amount can be made available and will be made available if the governments and peoples are aware of the unmet emergency needs of refugees, who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in the worst of all circumstances. In the documentation submitted to this Committee on this matter, I have laid particular stress on the situation in China, where the refugees find themselves still under communist control and therefore in a particularly dangerous situation. The least that can be done for them, if the world cannot provide them with resettlement opportunities, is to see to it that they will not starve. Here again I hope that this Committee will help me in finding a way out of difficulties which from time to time really seem to be insurmountable.

I feel, Mr. President, that I have left many problems untouched and many fields uncovered. That is why at the end of this statement, I would like to put my colleagues and myself at your disposal, for any amplification or clarification which you or any member of your Committee might desire.