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Introductory statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of High Commissioner's Programme, sixth session, Geneva, 6 November 1961

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Introductory statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of High Commissioner's Programme, sixth session, Geneva, 6 November 1961

22 November 1961

At the Executive Committee's last session, I tried to define the attitude which I thought should be adopted by this Office in the present circumstances. At the session to be held next spring, I shall submit to the Committee an over-all plan for the winding-up of the major programmes of assistance to "old refugees". As you are aware, the Committee itself decided to hold its main session in the spring and to devote the autumn session mainly to the consideration of detailed assistance programmes for the following year. I should nevertheless like, with your permission, Mr. Chairman, to make a brief survey of the progress achieved since June in the various branches of UNHCR work, dealing first with the "old" refugees and then with the new problems to which my office's attention has been drawn during the same period.

Let us first see what the position is so far as concerns the execution of the major programmes of assistance to those whom I shall call the "old refugees", as distinct from the new refugees whose situation results from more recent events.

In accordance with the decisions adopted by the Executive Committee at its fifth session, no general progress report on current material and legal assistance programmes is submitted at the present session. An annual report describing the situation at 31 December next will be submitted to the Committee at its spring session. I should nevertheless like to tell the Committee that the number of refugees who can be regarded as firmly settled as a result of the assistance they have received from the High Commissioner's Office increased, during the first half of 1961, by about 5,500, bringing the total number settled to date to more than 51,700. These figures are appreciably better than those for previous half-years, the improvement being largely due to the exceptional contribution of World Refugee Year and the increased efforts of Governments, public bodies and voluntary agencies participating in the execution of the High Commissioner's programme. The Camp Clearance Programme itself is still making satisfactory progress, more or less in accordance with forecasts. The number of refugees benefiting under this Programme who have finally left the camps rose, during the first half of 1961, to 2,330, thus reducing the number of refugees still living in camps on 30 June 1961, and eligible under the Programme, to 8,360. This figure includes 6,860 refugees in Germany, 1,100 in Austria and 380 in Italy. During the same period, seven camps were closed, five in Austria, one in Germany and one in Greece.

Under the current programme for 1961, one hundred new projects, the UNHCR contribution to which amounts to $1,800,000, had been put in hand by the end of October. The problem now confronting us is that of the budget deficit for this year's programme. Government and private contributions already paid or promised to UNHCR for financing the regular programme for 1961 amount to date to a total of $3,534,814, which is $2,465,186 short of the $6 million target. I nevertheless hope that with the help of the contributions expected during the next two months, and also of income from various sources (surpluses, interest, part of the proceeds of the sale of stamps during World Refugee Year) the total funds available for financing the 1961 programme will amount to approximately $5,400,000, thus reducing the deficit to about $600,000. Since it is also expected that some parts of the programme will not be put in hand immediately, it is a reasonable supposition that finance will be available by the end of this year for the whole of that part of the 1961 programme which must be carried out.

The priority given to the Camp Clearance Programme has somewhat delayed implementation of the programme for material assistance to non-settled refugees living outside camps. Nevertheless, when the execution of the Material Assistance Programme for 1962 and the preceding years has been completed, a great step will have been taken towards solving the problem. The programme 1962 may indeed be expected to be the last important programme for Germany. In Greece, Italy and Turkey, this programme constitutes the second instalment of the over-all plan for the settlement of all non-settled refugees .In France, on the other hand, mover work remains to be done, since the problem was tackled at a later stage and with more resources. While attending to the work thus performed in countries in which the objectives we set ourselves are practically on the point of being achieved, my Office has been able to turn its attention to other countries in which problems, and sometimes acute problems, arise, also in connexion with old refugees. I have in mind particularly some North African and Middle Eastern countries for which an over-all plan is being studied in close co-operation with the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration, the United States Escapee Program, and the voluntary agencies. In Latin America too, there is a fairly large number of refugees who left their countries as a result of the First World War and so are now between sixty and seventy years of age, some of whom are living in extreme poverty. Spain also has a problem which is now being studied.

At its fifth session, it will be remembered, the Executive Committee adopted some fairly strict rules concerning supporting contributions from sources outside the United Nations. In accordance with that decision, negotiations have been conducted with the Governments of the countries concerned. I am pleased to say that these negotiations have on the whole been successful, particularly so far as France, Greece and Italy are concerned. In the case of Austria and Germany, negotiations are continuing and I am rather optimistic as to their outcome.

It is well known that in some countries there is a serious housing problem which affects refugees in particular, whether handicapped or not. My Office is still studying this question, in accordance with the desire expressed by the Committee last June, after it had noted with interest the preliminary study prepared by Mr. Seip. I hope the Committee will in due course have a further opportunity of discussing this question on a more solid basis.

Emigration, as repeatedly stated in this Committee, represents one of the solutions most universally desired by refugees in search of new foundations on which to rebuild their lives. In this field UNHCR, as you know, works in close collaboration with the Intergovernmental Committee for European migration, which is more specifically responsible for the transport of refugees to their destination. I have not the exact figures of the number of refugees who have been able to emigrate since the Committee's last session, but I can assure you that we have not slackened, and do not intend to slacken, our efforts in this vital section, on which largely depends the success of our efforts to prevent the re-emergence of the problem caused by the accumulation of refugees in camps.

In this connexion the Committee will certainly appreciate the information supplied by the Canadian delegation about the admission of tubercular refugees to Canada, as given in document A/AC.96/INF.4. The figures for the number of tubercular refugees thus resettled in Canada: 325 patients, plus 501 members of their families, or a total of 826 persons, are certainly extremely encouraging, the more so as we have been told by the Canadian authorities themselves that the resettlement of these refugees and their integration into the country's economy have not given rise to any particular difficulty but have been effected much more rapidly and satisfactorily than had been expected. In combination with a similar effort undertaken by the Swedish Government, this programme, if only it is continued, should make it possible to solve the problem of non-settled tubercular refugees completely in the near future.

With regard to the problem of handicapped refugees, which, as you know, is one of the most complex and delicate we have to face, I should like to mention that the systematic investigation undertaken in Italy with the assistance of Dr. Jensen, whose services have very kindly been loaned to us by the Australian Government, is now proceeding and will shortly be completed. In conjunction with the parallel study in Austria, this investigation will, I am sure, make it easier to settle appropriately refugees suffering from very serious handicaps which have so far prevented their resettlement in any form.

I have just referred, Mr. Chairman, to the co-operative spirit shown by the Australian Government in this matter, and I think the Committee will allow me to pay a special tribute to one of the men who, in that Government, have taken a particularly active part in framing an immigration policy adapted to the needs of the refugees. I am speaking of Sir Tasman Heyes, who until recently occupied the important post of Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Immigration at Canberra and has now retired. I have been able personally to appreciate his very human understanding of refugee problems, and I know of his unceasing efforts to overcome the difficulties resulting from the conflict between the usual immigration criteria and the special needs of refugees. And I take this opportunity to remind you that only through the maintenance and development of the co-operation established between this Office and the chief countries of immigration will it be possible to solve some of the still outstanding problems, notably the handicapped refugees problems and to prevent their recurrence in an equally acute form at some future date.

Before concluding my remarks on emigration, I should like to mention that since the entry into force of Public Law 86,648 by 30 June last, a favourable decision on their applications for admission to the United States had been given in the case of 7,264 refugees living in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Greece of whom 2,600 had already reached the country. I think there is no need for me to stress the beneficial effects of this legislation and the important contribution it is making to our campaign to reduce the number of non-settled refugees in Europe.

As regards the Far Eastern Operation, the situation, as you will see from the document before you, has undergone relatively little change since last June. The problem, however, has now been reduced to such proportions that an early final solution might be possible, if difficulties of which you are aware were not preventing these refugees from leaving the Chinese mainland.

I should not like to leave the subject of resettlement without saying a word on an operation now in progress which will, I am sure, be warmly welcomed by all delegations present at this meeting. Thanks to the generosity of the Belgian Government, which has agreed to receive 400 refugees now at the Gerovo Camp in Yugoslavia, it has been possible to conclude with the Yugoslav Government an agreement under which the camp will in future cease to be used for the accommodation of refugees. The Yugoslav authorities have agreed to evacuate the remaining refugees, about ninety persons, as soon as these 400 have left for Belgium. They have, however, reserved the right in principle to re-open the camp should they be faced with a substantial influx of new refugees before they can complete a new reception centre near Belgrade, a project for which they would like to receive some financial assistance through UNHCR. Needless to say, in the meantime no effort will be spared to promote the re-settlement of these ninety refugees, who also wish to emigrate. There is reason to hope that some of them will be able to join a number of compatriots to whom France has already extended its traditional hospitality.

I am also happy to be able to inform the Committee of the substantial progress made with regard to the protection of refugees. In the first place, the Convention of 28 July 1951 recently came into force in Colombia; it will also come into force shortly in Argentina and Turkey, since these countries have already ratified the Convention and it only remains for them to carry out the formal act of depositing their instruments of ratification. In addition, Niger has stated that it considers itself bound by the Convention. Thus twenty-nine States, not including Argentina and Turkey, are parties to the Convention while a number of others are contemplating acceding to it.

The Agreement relating to refugee seamen has recently been ratified by the Federal Republic of Germany, thus bringing up to eight the number of countries parties to this agreement, which will enter into force on 27 December this year.

The Federal Republic of Germany has also acceded to the European Agreement on the Abolition of Visas for Refugees, thus also bringing up to eight the number of countries parties to this Agreement, namely, Belgium, Denmark, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

Still within the European context, the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe, on 27 September this year, adopted a resolution inviting its members to urge their respective Governments and parliaments to extend the benefit of the agreements and conventions concluded under the European integration programme to refugees normally resident in the territory of the contracting parties. This appeal will, I am sure, find a ready response in all those countries.

After prolonged discussions, in which my Office took an active part, the United Nations finally adopted, on 29 August 1961, a convention on the reduction of statelessness. This Convention has already been signed by Israel, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Its essential purpose is to enable children who would normally have been stateless to acquire nationality. The provisions of this Convention relate to de jure stateless persons, but the Conference adopted a resolution recommending that persons who are de facto stateless should, wherever possible, be treated as de jure stateless to enable them to acquire a new nationality. More detailed information on this subject is given in document A/AC.96/INF.5. As regards the Agreement concluded with the Federal Republic of Germany for the indemnification of refugees who, on account of their nationality, were victims of Nazism, over 11,000 applications have been received to date by the appropriate department of UNHCR. The majority of these are from refugees of Polish origin at present residing in France, Germany or the United States. Positive decisions have been taken on over 300 of these and so far a total of $57,000 has been paid out.

These, in short, are the main development that have occurred since last June in this Office's normal fields of activity.

Other interesting and important events have also taken place during this period in another sphere, namely, new refugee situations. Before dealing with the situations most recently brought to our attention, I should like to say a few words about our operation in North Africa, a subject on which I shall have more to say when we come to discuss item 5. The outstanding event here has been the decision by the League of Red Cross Societies to continue their co-operation with UNHCR in carrying out the programme of material assistance to Algerian refugees in Morocco and Tunisia. The Committee will certainly join me in expressing gratification at this de cision and in warmly thanking the League for its assistance, which is obviously of inestimable value.

A few moments ago I made a distinction between "new refugee" and "old refugee" problems. The reasons for this distinction are not merely chronological: they go to the very heart of the problem and so to the type of action required of UNHCR. Now that the big assistance programmes for European refugees are nearing completion, legal protection, as defined and elaborated in the Statute of the High Commissioner's Office, is on the way to becoming once more our main concern so far as these refugees are concerned. On the other hand, the problem raised by the new groups of refugees to which my attention was drawn some time ago, is essentially, at the moment, a problem of material assistance and not of legal protection. It is perhaps tempting to draw a parallel between the historical fact represented by the appearance of new groups of refugees in part of the world in which UNHCR has not previously been asked to intervene, and the recent trend reflected, so far as UNHCR activities are concerned, by the adoption of General Assembly resolution 1338 (XIV) and 1449 (XV), under which material assistance can be given, through this Office, to refugees not normally coming within its mandate. I must emphasize, however, that there cannot be any true relationship between the terms of this two fold development, both on the factual and the legal plane, or any necessary and exclusive link between the mandate and the "old refugees" on the one hand, and good offices and the "new refugees" on the other. What is important is that the work of this Office should be constantly adapted to the needs it has to meet. UNHCR now possesses this necessary flexibility by virtue of the above-mentioned resolutions, which enable it to take action in situations and in ways where, without an express decision of the Assembly, it would have had no authority to act. The duality of situation, and of historical and legal considerations, to which I referred just now, can and must thus be resolved into a single line of policy and action based solely on the interests of the refugees themselves.

It was in this spirit, Mr. Chairman, that I considered the fresh refugee problems brought to my attention since the Committee's last session and of which I would like to speak briefly now. It was also with these considerations in mind that I decided to draw on the Emergency Fund to meet urgent and at the same time very limited needs for which a special appeal to the international community would not have been either justified or appropriate. I shall revert to this point when I come to deal with the document relating to the Emergency Fund.

I reported to the Committee at its fifth session that I had been approached by the Royal Government of Cambodia with regard to refugees on its territory. After an investigation on the spot, by one of my colleagues, I had offered my good offices to the Government to assist with the problem. I had at the same time offered a sum equivalent to $10,000,as a contribution to the exceptional expenses resulting from this influx of refugees. Since the fifth session, the Government of Cambodia has on several occasions reported a fresh influx of refugees and has recently again asked for more substantial help than that already provided. I am keeping in touch with the representatives of the Cambodian Government on this subject.

The Office of the High Commissioner has continued to devote attention to the problem of refugees from Tibet. We have received relatively large sums of money to be used for Tibetan refugees in Nepal and have handed this money over to the International Committee of the Red Cross which is co-operating with the Government of Nepal in carrying out an aid and resettlement programme for Tibetan refugees .Through the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Government of Laos informed me of its anxiety with regard to 50,000 Laotian refugees who had been forced by events to leave their homes and of whom some 30,000 needed assistance From conversations with the International Committee of the Red Cross and its local representative, however, it transpired that the majority of these refugees were concentrated in areas which were not easily accessible as a result of recent events. In these circumstances, it seemed that the International Committee of the Red Cross was, at least for the time being, the organization best able to provide effective assistance to these refugees, whom the Government of Laos is itself trying to help as much as it can.

After its first appeal to the United Nations in May last in connexion with the problem created by the large influx of refugees from Angola, the Government of the Republic of the Congo asked me to help with these refugees. This is a fairly large-scale problem since, according to figures supplied by the League of Red Cross Societies, which is co-ordinating assistance operations, at the beginning of October there were nearly 140,000 refugees, including a high proportion of women and children. The United Nations services in the Congo were able to provide food straight away to meet the refugees' immediate needs. As the League informed me, however, that it was in urgent need of funds with which to buy vehicles to transport the food, I immediately decided to assist by providing $25,000 from the Special Fund. I then considered it advisable to earmark a further $75,000 from the same fund to meet any further urgent needs in the near future.

Side by side with this immediate assistance, carried out jointly with the Congolese Red Cross and two voluntary agencies already working in the country, the League, in full agreement with the Congolese authorities and in close collaboration with the local authorities, worked out a plan for the integration of these refugees, at least on a temporary basis. Plots of vacant land are being found for them, together with the necessary tools and seeds. This constructive measure, which should soon render the distribution of food unnecessary, is now being carried out. The League, as well as the United Nations mission in the Congo, believes that by January next the great majority of these refugees will be in a position to provide for themselves. Their integration is facilitated by the fact that they belong to the same tribe as the local population. Thus there has been no serious accommodation problem, the local population having taken them into their own homes as they arrived. Two of my colleagues recently went to Leopoldville to make contact with the Congolese Government and ONUC authorities and examine how the HCR could assist, should that prove necessary. I decided, after this visit, to post an officer to the Congo to follow developments and see that the refugees' essential needs are met. This officer will also be able to play a useful part in co-ordinating the efforts of the various public and private bodies now providing aid, as well as in giving expert advice to the Congolese authorities on certain problems, both technical and otherwise, on which they may wish to consult him. To sum up, my Office, apart from the small financial contribution which I have already mentioned, has not so far had to participate directly in assistance operations under ONUC auspices, which should in the ordinary course of events be brought to a successful conclusion towards the end of this year. None the less, the fact that it was, and still is, in a position, if requested by the Congolese Government, to lend its good offices to help in finding a solution to the problems raised by the presence of this mass of refugees, is also noteworthy. It shows the interest which, through UNHCR, the international community takes in these problems and furnishes a good example of what this Office can do when faced with new situations in many respects different from those it has been accustomed to deal with. The question of the Angolan refugees in the Congo has, as you know, been placed on the agenda of the General Assembly, and I myself shall very soon be attending the discussions on this question in the Third Committee.

Since the Executive Committee's last session, my Office has also been in touch with the Spanish Government, which has asked for help in coping with the difficulties of caring for a group of more than 5,000 refugees from Cuba. One of my staff paid a visit to Spain and as a consequence a co-ordinated programme has now been drawn up which should enable these refugees either to be settled in Spain or - which would be more generally the case - to emigrate as they wish and as opportunity offers. This plan, which would involve the co-operation of the Spanish authorities, is now being studied in Madrid. The two voluntary organizations which, jointly with the Spanish Government, have been providing temporary relief for these refugees have not enough funds left to meet all the needs; accordingly, I placed at the disposal of one of them the sum of $5,000, generously contributed by the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. This sum will enable the organization concerned to satisfy some of the most urgent requirements of the neediest of these refugees for about two months.

I have similarly been informed by the Government of the Togolese Republic of the critical situation resulting from the presence of a large group of refugees in its territory. A report on this subject was also sent to me by the resident representative of the United Nations Technical Assistance Board in Togo. I therefore decided, at the express request of the President of the Togolese Republic, to send one of my staff to that country to determine the magnitude and nature of the problem. As a result of this inquiry, in which this staff member received the valuable and constant assistance of the experts of the specialized agencies of the United Nations at present working in Togo, it was established that the number of refugees now on Togolese territory is at least 10,000, which is a large figure for a country whose total population is not more than a million-and-a-half. Only a few thousand refugees have been integrated in the Togolese economy. Hence there remain nearly 8,000 who have not yet been able to find work in the country, which is one of the poorest in resources in the whole of Africa. It is only through the hospitality of the local population, whose food and housing they share without being able to make any contribution to the country's productive effort, that these refugees manage to survive.

The first problem is that of additional aid with which to satisfy the immediate needs for food, medial care and clothing. For this purpose I expect to receive assistance in kind from various Governments who are in a position to contribute either on a bilateral basis or through UNHCR.

More permanent solutions would involve a more searching study, in which my Office would be ready to share if the Government of Togo was itself prepared to consider such plans. The contacts made by my representative in Togo, both with the Togolese authorities and with the representatives of the United Nations bodies and specialized agencies, suggest that it may not be impossible to institute a comprehensive programme in which provision would be made for the refugees.

As you will see, Mr. Chairman, there is already a long list of new refugee problems which have been brought to the notice of my Office and for which its help has in general been requested. Other requests, on which consultations are now proceeding, have reached the Office. In no case, of course, can my Office commit itself to any large-scale operation unless the international community has first been consulted, through its competent organs.

The function of the High Commissioner's Office, as I understand it, is accordingly rather that of a catalyst capable, by reason of its experience, of mobilizing or of making optimum use of the available resources by enlisting the co-operation of all the public or private organizations which can play a useful part in helping to solve the problems involved. There is evidence to show that joint and co-ordinated action by the High Commissioner's Office and the technical assistance services and other United Nations bodies or specialized agencies can in many cases be most useful and effective. By inviting this form of co-operation, by promoting or co-ordinating efforts, while not actually itself undertaking any operational scheme, the UNHCR will best be able, I think, to fulfil its obligations with respect to the new problems which arise almost daily. I think that the Office will also have to remind the Governments concerned, at every opportunity, of their fundamental responsibility as regards the welfare of the refugees on their territory and as regards the quest for solutions adequate for the problems posed by the conditions under which they live.

Before closing, I should like to say a word about the recent commemoration of the centenary of the birth of Fridtjof Nansen.

In accordance with the wish expressed by the Committee at its fifth session, UNHCR approached the Governments of the States Members of the United Nations and of the specialized agencies and drew their attention to this event. Pamphlets and publications as well as films were supplied to them so as to help to make the occasion memorable and impressive. As you will gather from the relevant document, a great many countries honoured the memory of this eminent man whose good work still benefits the world.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.