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Address of Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 26th Session of the League of Red Cross Societies Board of Governors, Prague, 3 October 1961

Speeches and statements

Address of Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the 26th Session of the League of Red Cross Societies Board of Governors, Prague, 3 October 1961

3 October 1961

Mr. President,

Before the Secretary General left for his last Mission to the Congo which was to end in his tragic death, I had occasion to inform him of the invitation that had been extended to me to address you assembly today. Mr. Dag Hammarskjöld, in reply, sent a message which he asked me to convey to you - and which, with your permission, Mr. President, I would like to read to you now.

The Secretary General said:

"I want to convey my greetings to the Board and to express my profound personal appreciation of the prompt and efficient action taken by the Red Cross Societies to replace the depleted health services and to bring aid to hundreds of thousands of refugees and needy people in the Congo. These efforts have represented a major contribution to the total work undertaken by the world community in bringing assistance to that troubled country. At the same time, I should like to express my keen appreciation of the humanitarian activities which the League has undertaken in so many other parts of the world during the past year."

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I should like to say what a great honour it is for me to have this privilege of addressing you Assembly to-day, and to express my gratitude for the help and co-operation my Office has received from so many Red Cross, Red Crescent, Red Lion and Sun Societies as well as from the League.

I think our co-operation has been and is so positive and fruitful because we have essentially the same approach to those problems that are of common concern to us. We both act in a purely humanitarian spirit with the sole purpose of alleviating human suffering. That is why, what certain refugee situations call for action, we often find ourselves each other's company and, as by instinct, seek to concert our plan programmes.

This unity in action is not new.

I believe you all know that next week the centenary of the birth of Fridtjof Nansen is being celebrated. His name too unites our two organisations. His work in the service of refugees and in the service of famine-stricken populations received the direct and powerful support of the League. On several occasions he acted at the request of the League.

And to-day his purely humanitarian and non-political concern which animated all his philanthropic endeavours is also the spirit which animates our work.

A medal to honour the memory of this great man was instituted some years ago and is awarded to the cause of refugees. It was in appreciation of its constant humanitarian efforts for victims of wars and disasters and particularly of refugees that the League of Red Cross Societies received the Nansen Medal in 1957.

We are indeed united by the spirit of Nansen.

As you know, my Office was originally established by the international community to solve the problems of refugees who had been victims of events - mainly in Europe - preceding or following the Second World War. It is the successor to a number of international organisations that dealt with specific categories of refugees. The more general task which has been initially assigned to my Office is to provide international protection to refugees and, connected therewith, to help them find permanent solutions for the problems through voluntary repatriation, emigration and integration. My Office has had to undertake programmes of material assistance to help refugees overcome their difficulties. In this connection I should like to express my sincere gratitude to the many Red Cross, Red Crescent Societies that have and are helping us with these programmes. During World Refugee Year particularly, we received much support from them as will as from many other non-governmental and private organisations, so that to-day, the necessary funds have become available to help the refugees to leave their camps in Europe and to make an impact on the problems of the non-settled physically or socially handicapped refugees living outside camps.

In the course of the years following the establishment of the High Commissioner's Office, a certain evolution has taken place in the thinking of the international community. A trend for greater universality has grown, particularly under the impact of World Refugee Year which, in its concept and execution, made no legal distinction between uprooted people in need. In 1959, the General Assembly passed a resolution authorising the High commissioner to use his good offices in transmitting contributions for assistance to refugees who are not within his mandate or who have no claim on direct United Nations protection. Last year the General Assembly went further and invited Governments to consult with the High Commissioner concerning measures of assistance to those groups of refugees. In fact, in response to this invitation, a number of governments have already approached my Office in relation to their new refugee problems.

In this connection, I may mention the problem of the refugees from Angola in the Congo which has been brought to my attention by the Congolese authorities. As you know, the League is already engaged in a relief operation for these refugees. However, according to my duties, I am also taking an interest in this emergency situation. Whatever the future obligations of my Office in this respect may be, I have already shown my willingness to strengthen the League's action by putting at its disposal an amount of money which will be used to meet urgent needs in connection with the transportation of relief supplies.

The most important refugee situation that concerns the League and my Office is, however, the joint operation for refugees from Algeria in by the General Assembly of the United Nations. It knows the whole history of the origins of the operation. We have been in this humanitarian relief action together and we know what it is about. Men, women and children left their homesteads and arrived in Tunisia and Morocco where the local populations alone could not help all the refugees. Despite the goodwill and the efforts of both governments, who have to face many difficulties of their own, the burden caused by the influx of these refugees was too heavy. So they appealed for international assistance. Our joint operation has sought to alleviate the existing distress by bringing food, clothing, tents and blankets to the refugees.

I was in Tunisia and Morocco in June. There can be no doubt that the operation has not only brought material relief but also much encouragement to the refugees. I think the operation not only kept alive the refugees but also their faith in themselves. I was struck in particular by the fact that these refuge are prepared for the task of rebuilding their lives as soon as conditions permit them to return to their homesteads. Repatriation after the cessation of hostilities in that part of the world is certainly the burning wish of the refugees, shared by everybody else, and if to-day nobody can say exactly at what time that wish will be fulfilled, the evolution of events nevertheless indicates that this wish is not unrealistic at all. Speaking in practical terms, I may mention that our operation provides food rations of some 1,540 calories per day per persons. In addition, both new and used clothing, blankets and tents are distributed. Under the supplementary programme 164 mild stations have been set up - 100 in Tunisia and 64 in Morocco - which are attended by some multi-purpose centres and in the less accessible mountainous areas of Tunisia from soup stations. Dispensaries have been established to provide for medical care and to supplement medical facilities generously made available by the Governments of Morocco and Tunisia. The supplementary programme also includes pilot projects for education, which is to be considered as a supplement to existing educational facilities placed at the disposal of the refugees by the governments of both countries.

May I, at this point, Mr. President, pay tribute to all the national Red Cross, Red Crescent and Red Lion and Sun Societies which so generously gave their uninterrupted support to the relief action - and also acknowledge the extremely efficient and economic way in which the operation has been carried out by our partner, the League of Red Cross Societies. Let me in this context simply mention that he administrative costs have been kept down to about 21/2%of the total cost of the operation. What impresses me most, however, when I consider the co-operation between us, is this: seldom has a refugee situation benefitted from a larger range of support than this one. The list of contributors shows a near universality in contribution and support. Nothing could better highlight the purely humanitarian and non-political character of our joint action. I think, Mr. President, that this is an achievement, a development in refugee work that we have to note and to remember for the future.

And speaking of the future, Mr. President, the operation in North Africa is not yet over. The refugees are still there and are still in need. We still have to provide relief, and to forestall any interruption in the flow of relief - we must continue to plan. Even if we do hope that the end of the operation may not be too far away, we have to prepare our plans in such a way that the continuity of our operation can be assured. So we have actually, consulting with the League, established an operational budget for 1962. This budget foresees over $8 million, of which over $6 million were estimated to be received in kind and $2,200,000 estimated to be required in cash. These figures seem very impressive but when you bear in mind that they cover the vital needs of almost 300,000 people, you will see that the per capita amount required is almost incredibly small, just over $2 per head per month. As our co-operation is now conceived, it is the main task of my Office to find the $2 million cash contributions. As in other operations of this kind, we have sometimes had inevitable difficulties but the operation has never been in jeopardy because of lack of funds. I am confident - and I base myself upon the reactions from governments and from private organisations to my appeals for help - I am confident that we shall not fail - or rather we shall not be let down - in the future either.

I am aware, of course, that your Assembly will want to review the question of the League's continued participation in the operation I realise that the League was and is considering the possibility of withdrawing from the operation. In fact last year's General Assembly resolution requested me to made appropriate alternative arrangements in the event that this should happen.

Mr. President - my colleagues and I have given the most careful study to this question, and I have to tell you that we have not found any alternative that would guarantee the same universality of support and the same efficiency of action.

However, it is not for me. Mr. President, to tell this gathering what decisions it ought to take, but since you have given me the privilege of addressing you from this rostrum I felt it my duty to present to you as clearly as possible how I see this problem from the perspective of my Office.