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Address by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Annual Meeting of the United Service for New Americans, New York City, 19 January 1952

Speeches and statements

Address by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Annual Meeting of the United Service for New Americans, New York City, 19 January 1952

19 January 1952

"In talking to you this evening I know that I am talking to a group of people who are peculiarly responsive to the problems that are facing my office, for in a certain sense each one of you is engaged in tasks similar to those with which I have been entrusted by the United Nations.

The work of the United Service for New Americans is well known to me and my staff and the measures you have taken for many years in the past and are continuing to take on behalf of refugees who have come to the United States is warmly appreciated by each one of us. The very concept of your function - that of making a "new American" out of a refugee - is one which I am trying to promote in a number of different countries, and therefore I talk to you as one colleague to another.

There are certain advantages in my office having its headquarters in Geneva, which brings it closer to the refugees, but, on the other hand, it makes it more difficult for me and my staff to keep our friends in America informed of what we are doing. I therefore welcome this opportunity of being able to talk to you so soon after the General Assembly has taken important decisions concerning the future of my office.

As I feel that there is some uncertainty concerning the tasks of my office, I think it would be worth while spending a few moments to explain to you how I view the functions of my office and the work which lies ahead.

As you all know, the International Refugee Organization comes to an end on January 31st of this year. The International Refugee Organization was a specialized agency of the United Nations, of which 18 countries (including the U.S.) were members. These 18 countries, through the I.R.O., have performed a magnificent task on behalf of refugees. I do not need to go into all the details of the successes of the I.R.O., the greatest perhaps being the resettlement of over one million refugees within the period of its operations, the greatest percentage of which came to the United States through the work of the voluntary agencies. This close collaboration between the voluntary agencies and the international organization responsible for refugees will, I hope, be continued with my office. My office is not a specialized agency of the United Nations, but is part and parcel of the U.N. itself, and I am directly responsible to the General Assembly. In setting up my office the United Nations decided to accept the responsibility which had been handed over to it by the 18 Member Governments of the I.R.O. which, in one of their final reports, stated that as a temporary organization they were finding themselves faced more and more with a problem of a permanent character.

The United Nations is, as you are all aware, confronted with a number of refugee problems in different parts of the world. It has set up special agencies to deal with the Arab refugees and the rehabilitation of Korea. For this reason, the United Nations did not give my office any responsibility in connection with refugees who are the concern of these two Organizations. My office was charged with responsibilities for all the refugees who were within the mandate of the International Refugee Organization and, in addition to the 300,000 Volksdeutsche refugees in Austria, for all new groups of refugees who do not have the rights of citizens in the countries in which they reside.

It is difficult to give any accurate estimate of the number of refugees who are theoretically within the competence of my office, but a fair guess would be approximately one and a half million.

I should like to emphasize that in setting up my office the United Nations did not wish to create a successor organization to the I.R.O. The functions of my office are very different from those of the I.R.O. My office is not an operational organization, as the I.R.O. was; it does not run camps or charter ships; its responsibilities are more indirect. In the Statute of my office it is stated that it should be responsible "for providing international protection under the auspices of the United Nations to refugees who fall within the scope of the Statute and of seeking permanent solutions for the problem of refugees by assistance to governments ... and private organizations to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of refugees or their assimilation within new national communities."

When the General Assembly of the United Nations set up my office last year there was a hope that the problem of the refugees who came within the mandate of the I.R.O. would be virtually solved. You know as well as I do that this hope has not been realized and that there remains a series of urgent problems. The International Refugee Organization stated in its report to the General Assembly on the residual problems which will remain after the termination of its operations - "Although the problems inherent in the situation as here set out are clearly not of sufficient magnitude to justify the maintenance of the I.R.O., they are so grave in terms of human suffering that they call for urgent consideration by the United Nations".

Some refugees are in truly desperate straits. Let me read to you a telegram I received last week from a representative of a voluntary agency who was sent on a special mission to the Far East:

Hospital authorities request us IRO fulfil obligation remove all IRO patients soonest comma means dumping to die frozen in streets and gutters stop camp landlord taking similar action holding us responsible clear premises by January 31 stop destitute refugees on care maintenance facing eviction from living quarters urge appeal UN and voluntary agencies any possible sources of fund for immediate relief the situation stop COST approximately 2,300 persons US dollars 35,000 monthly.

Previous information had shown that of the approximately 5,000 refugees in Shanghai who are stranded, 100 were hospitalized chronic paralytic, insane, blind or tubercular patients, and that over 2,000 were destitute, and that there were also 500 visaed cases committed for movement, for whom no funds could be found.

These are not the only cases in urgent need of help. You may have read recently an article in the "Saturday Evening Post" giving the story of the refugees in Samar. You will all remember how the Government of the Philippines gave asylum to over 4,000 refugees from Shanghai a few years ago. A great number of these have been found new homes. But there are still approximately 200 refugees who remain behind, of whom 70 are TB cases. Then there is Trieste, with a refugee population now numbering 7,000 and continually increasing, I have just received a report from the World Health Organization which sent a specialist at my request to investigate the situation of the TB cases. His report is most alarming. Among the refugees in Trieste there are approximately 380 active cases of tuberculosis. This report shows that there is little opportunity for the segregation and hospitalization of all these cases in Trieste, and that for the relief and dispersal of these cases, immediate measures are necessary.

In addition to Shanghai, Samar and Trieste, there are many other cases in need in the Near East, and also in certain parts of Europe. The I.R.O., as you know, handed over the responsibility for the care and maintenance of refugees to governments on July 1st, 1950, but during the last year of its operations it found that it was still necessary to provide approximately 600,000 in direct care to refugees outside Germany, Austria and Italy, who did not receive adequate support from the governments concerned.

In addition to these problems, my office is also concerned with the fate of the new refugees who are arriving from countries behind the Iron Curtain. These are estimated at between 1,500 and 2,000 a month. They are, for the most part, people who have found life intolerable in their own countries. Imbued with a longing for freedom, they fled with emotions which were a mixture of fear and hope. What follows? Perhaps a few days in jail, and then certainly the best that can be given them is a miserable hand-to-mouth existence in refugee camps.

In the face of these situations, what can my office do?

I should like to point out, what is perhaps not always generally known, that my office is financed directly on the budget of the United Nations, and the budget of the United Nations covers only the administrative expenses of my office. Moreover, by the Statute of my office I am specifically debarred without the prior approval of the General Assembly from making appeals to Governments, or any general appeal for funds with which to assist refugees. In setting up my office the Members of the United Nations were of the opinion that the care and maintenance of refugees should be the direct responsibility of the Governments concerned. With this position I have no fundamental disagreement, but it assumes that Governments all over the world are in a position to carry this responsibility. A further assumption has been that where Governments are not able to carry this responsibility, voluntary effort should provide the substitute.

The gravity of the situations which I have just mentioned show that neither of these assumptions is justified. You and I know that voluntary effort, great as it is, cannot cope with situations such as these. Voluntary effort, to cope with problems of this magnitude, must be supplemented by official international action.

For these reasons I considered it my duty to request of the General Assembly the necessary authorization to allow me to appeal for funds to assist the most needy groups of refugees. The Third Committee of the General Assembly has just given me this authorization, and I am confident that this action of the Third Committee will be confirmed in the Plenary Session of the General Assembly.

In presenting my case to the General Assembly on this question I submitted that a fund of $3,000,000 would be essential to meet the requirements of the most needy groups of refugees in 1952. In speaking of this fund I should like to state that I do not intend to compete with the Voluntary Agencies in the raising of funds, nor to impede them in their own financial programmes. I want to help them.

If my office succeeds in raising funds, I shall have to rely on the Voluntary Agencies to disburse them to refugees.

I have spoken first of this emergency aid to refugees because it is my duty to assist refugees who are in the most desperate circumstances; but the feeding of refugees can never be a final solution. My Statute entrusts me with the task of seeking permanent solutions. How can these permanent solutions be found? As I stated to the General Assembly of the United Nations in talking of repatriation, resettlement and assimilation as the possible solutions to the refugees problem, during the period of UNRRA the emphasis was on repatriation, during the period of the IRO it was on resettlement and during the period of my office it must be on assimilation both in countries of resettlement and in countries of asylum. But in saying this I do not wish to give the impression that I have no interest in repatriation or resettlement. It will always be the first task of my office to assist voluntary repatriation wherever this is possible, and I fully realize that refugees must continue to have their fair share in resettlement opportunities, to which I will refer again in a moment.

If a permanent solution to the refugee problem is to be found, far greater attention has to be paid to the economic and social problems of assimilation - problems with which you are all familiar. The refugees have to be helped to find housing, to find the work for which they are suited, to build up businesses - in short to become self-supporting, and not to be a charge on the communities in which they live.

In Germany and Austria this problem is particularly complicated. Although the governments have accepted responsibility for the refugees and have even given them a fair legal status, the refugees are not yet in an economic position to enjoy their rights. In Germany there are still about 50,000 refugees within the mandate of my office who are living in camps, and in Austria there are more than 60,000. In both these countries it is idle to believe that the refugees will automatically benefit from any improvement in the economic situation. For this reason my office is concerning itself with the promotion of credit facilities to refugees, either through arrangements such as those provided for the Volksdeutsche through the Expellee Bank in Germany, or some alternative machinery.

I am very happy that the Third Committee of the General Assembly has clearly recognized the importance of this long-term planning for the economic reconstruction and rehabilitation of refugees, in their resolution which reads in this connection:

The General Assembly ... Recommends all States directly affected by the refugee problem, as well as the appropriate specialized agencies and other intergovernmental agencies concerned, to pay special attention to this problem when drawing up and executing programmes of economic reconstruction and development; and requests the High Commissioner to contribute to the promotion of activities in this field...

A moment ago I referred to the question of the further resettlement of refugees. It is well known to you all that there are in Europe and many of the outlying areas in which the IRO has operated, thousands of refugees who have been brought before the selection missions of countries of immigration and who have been refused for a variety of reasons. If a permanent solution for these refugees is to be found, a new approach to the problem by the countries of immigration is required.

At the recent conference which took place in Brussels to discuss the establishment of an agency which will deal with migration of surplus population and refugees from Europe, I emphasized that unless special measures were taken, there was little hope that the refugees would benefit from the new plans for migration. Under the present arrangements the new agency will attempt to move 115,000 persons during its first trial year. I share the concern of the voluntary agencies that unless special provision is made for refugees, they will have little chance to benefit from the plans of the new agency. To realize this it is only necessary to think for a moment of the surplus population of Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, and the 8 million expellees in Germany, all of whom will be competing for opportunities in migration. To ensure the participation of refugees in any migration schemes, I have requested that my office be given some recognized status in the Provisional Inter-governmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe, and I am also happy to be able to state that the General Assembly in its Third Committee has recognized the importance of refugees receiving their fair share in any new opportunities for migration.

Before closing, I should like to say a few words about the task of international protection. I believe this term is often not fully understood in the United States because it has a legal system which makes it not so necessary as in some other countries. In the United States every permanent immigrant legally admitted has from the start all civil rights, including the right to work. He can apply for his first papers and he has the right to become a citizen if he fulfils the conditions stipulated by the law. This is not the case in all countries, and the problem of international protection is particularly urgent in countries of asylum. The task of international protection is complementary to that of the protection afforded by governments. It is to ensure the rights of refugees, to safeguard their legitimate interests and to promote either through international or national legislation the improvement of their legal status. To accomplish these ends my office has been concerned with the adoption by the United Nations of the Convention Relation to the Status of Refugees. Fifteen countries including Germany and Austria have already signed this convention which, though not a perfect document, does ensure some very real rights for refugees. This convention will come into force when six governments have ratified it, and measures for its ratification have already been initiated in several countries. My office is closely concerned with the entry into force of this convention and is taking all possible steps to promote it.

The task of international protection is not exhausted by the promotion of international conventions or national laws. It is a task which requires day-to-day contact with the authorities of the countries in which refugees reside. It is the task of seeing that refugees get resident permits, work permits and travel documents, of seeing that there is no discrimination against refugees, of assisting them in all the many legal problems which beset the refugees in countries often suffering from serious economic difficulties. It is for this reason that I have insisted on having an adequate number of branch offices in various areas where the refugee problem is important.

The task of international protection is not exhausted by the promotion of international conventions or national laws. It is a task which requires day-to-day contact with the authorities of the countries in which refugees reside. It is the task of seeing that refugees get resident permits, work permits and travel documents, of seeing that there is no discrimination against refugees, of assisting them in all the many legal problems which beset the refugees in countries often suffering from serious economic difficulties.

As you know, the first branch office to be established by me was in the United States, in the City of Washington. This was done on July first of last year. I then recognized, and still do, that most of the situations which might be expected to call for the protection of my office under its mandate would not arise in your great country. As I have mentioned, the rights and liberties of all residents of the United States, old and new, citizens and aliens alike, are as well known to the world as they are zealously protected by your governmental authorities under the guarantees of your Constitution.

Yet I have been convinced from the beginning that my office could not hope adequately to fulfil its mission unless it maintained a close relationship with all agencies and groups - governmental and private - who had participated in the many and great efforts to alleviate the plight of refugees, and had thus combined to place to United States of America in the forefront of the forces seeking and providing solutions to the manifold refugee problems. Before establishing that office I talked to the competent officials in the State Department. They saw merit in my proposal, and their approval of it was accompanied by valuable advice and assistance.

The underlying activity of the Washington Branch Office is essentially one of liaison. Whether it acts in the field of protection, or in the proposal or encouragement of governmental interest or action, or in any other aspect of its proper function, it must in very large measure do so through and in collaboration with the voluntary agencies and other representatives of refugee groups. For an international office to inject itself directly into the internal policies, decisions, and actions of a hostess nation, is of doubtful propriety and efficacy. If there is need, in our judgement, for governmental recognition of a problem within our sphere, and for action thereon, it is our duty to present the issue, together with the facts and counsels which arise from our own experience, to those who can in all propriety act upon them directly or by the solicitation of governmental action. In short, that means, in most instances, the voluntary agencies.

Our Washington Office maintains a pleasant relationship with the Committees of Congress, the Departments of State and Justice and Labour, the Displaced Persons Commission, the Public Health Service, and other agencies of government engaged in whole or in part with the subject of refugees. Much of our activity and the exchange of mutually helpful information result from it. However, as I have indicated, there is an understandable limitation upon the extent of our intervention with the Congress and the executive departments and agencies, and it is precisely at that point that we must look to the voluntary agencies for leadership in translating into governmental action the aims of all who labour for the alleviation - and with God's help - the elimination of the refugee problem and its causes. Such word as we have for the people of your country can, from time to time, be better said through you.

Already refugees recently arrived in the United States are communicating with our Washington office. Some have difficulties or doubts with respect to their own status. Others are in search of information or advice or guidance in matters of governmental regulations, plans to travel, citizenship applications, and the like. Still others have questions concerning friends or relatives, less fortunate than they. Heretofore these calls have in large measure gone to the International Refugee Organization. As that Organization approaches its dissolution, the shift of request to us increases. Indeed, arrangements have been made for the Washington Office of IRO to turn its case files over to our Washington Office so that we may be in a position to continue whatever can be done in those cases.

Our office in Washington, like all our branch offices, is small. We can easily understand that we alone cannot handle all the cases which may conceivably arise. Moreover, many of the cases will have been sponsored by or received some attention from a voluntary agency. They may be cases of a group in which a non-sponsoring agency may nevertheless be interested. It is our purpose, in all these circumstance, to work closely with the applicable voluntary agency, either by letting the latter handle the case exclusively (as it may often prefer) or in joint responsibility with us, depending upon the circumstances and the desires of all concerned. By the same token, we hope that the agencies will turn to us for advice or assistance in those cases which fall within our mandate and in which they feel we may be helpful.

It would take much time and serve a disproportionately small purpose to seek here to enumerate the particulars in which you, the representatives of the voluntary agencies, and we, through our Washington Office, can build up a process of working co-operation. It is better that I confine to an invitation to you to feel free to consult that Office whenever and for whatever purpose you deem appropriate. On our part, I have instructed my representative in Washington to keep in close touch with you and to extend to you every assistance within his power. We all know well how much of the strength and understanding of the American refugees effort found birth in the American Voluntary Agencies. We know equally well the difficulty, or better stated, the impossibility of continuing in that work without their sustained support and inspiration.

I have now outlined to you the problems with which I am faced and my ideas about their solution. I am convinced that I cannot perform my task without the active help of voluntary agencies working for refugees. The United Service for New Americans, which assists refugees in such a magnificent way with their resettlement in the United States, and helps them to become new Americans, performs its task through local community groups working in many cities throughout your great land. If you compare your task with the task of my office, which in theory encompasses the world, you will, I am sure, readily understand how much we will have to rely on the help of private organizations. My office will have to depend on this help in distributing emergency aid to refugees. It will need the help of voluntary agencies to ensure that refugees benefit from migration not only from Europe but also from the Near and Far East. We will lastly have to rely on their help in the task of protection. In the last analysis protection requires close contact with the refugees which my office cannot have in every country. My office and my representatives will do their best to give protection by intervening with governmental authorities. But we are as conscious as you are that this work must be supported by work which is in closer relation to the refugees, and here I am sure that I can count on the support of the voluntary agencies who have done so much in this field in the past.

I must apologise for having taken up so much of your time, but I felt that I could not neglect this opportunity of talking to you about the very serious problems which face my office. This evening is not only the occasion of your annual meeting but it also marks the occasion of my first public address in the United States since I was elected High Commissioner for Refugees. I consider myself particularly fortunate to have made my address to such a group as this who have demonstrated over these many years their keen interest in the problems of refugees and have contributed so much towards their solution."