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Speech delivered by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Conference on Migration at Brussels, 29 November 1951

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Speech delivered by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Conference on Migration at Brussels, 29 November 1951

29 November 1951
migrationbeginnings of IOMeuopean refugeessurplus population

This Conference has been convened to deal with the migration of surplus population and of refugees.

Let me say at the outset that, as the head of the office established by the General Assembly of the United Nations to take over responsibility for the protection not only of the residual IRO refugees and the Volksdeutsche in Austria, but also the new refugees who are constantly arriving, I welcome any effort which will provide further opportunities for the resettlement of the refugees within the mandate of my office.

I also welcome the creation of any machinery which will alleviate the problem of the Volksdeusche in Germany which, as I have already pointed out to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, not only has a direct bearing on the assimilation of the refugees within my mandate but is also of itself of such gravity and urgency that it demands international attention.

It is not my function to enter into the various aspects of the question of surplus population. That, I am sure, can be adequately done by the Governments which are directly interested in and suffer from the consequences of this problem. I would, however, submit that the question is a complicated one as it involves a number of social and economic variables. I do not for a moment doubt that in several countries of Europe, such as Italy, Netherlands and Greece, surplus population is a pressing problem which can to a certain extent be relieved by migration. But migration is not an automatic solution to surplus population. In the past it has not been proved that migration removes that part of the population which in fact is surplus. This difficulty also arises in the case of refugees who by many countries are considered to be surplus population. Opportunities for resettlement have tended to move the young and able-bodied while leaving behind the dependants. This, for many countries, has been the experience during the operations of the International Refugee Organization, and I sincerely hope that careful attention will be paid by this Conference to this aspect of the question.

I am sure that most of the Governments who are represented at this Conference are inspired by the desire to establish some machinery which will make a further contribution towards the solution of the refugee problem. In fact, the invitation extended to my office to attend this Conference will, I am sure, be interpreted, by a great number of people who are concerned with the fate of refugees, as an expression of the earnest desire of Governments to safeguard refugee interests. The Governments which are members of the International Refugee Organization expressed clearly their concern in the residual problem when at the last session of their General Council they decided upon a communication to the General Assembly of the United Nations in which it was said:

"They are agreed that, although the problems inherent in the situation as here set out are clearly not of sufficient magnitude to justify the maintenance of the International Refugee Organization, they are so grave in terms of human suffering that they call for urgent consideration by the United Nations."

The very circumstances and conditions under which this Conference has been convened must of themselves raise a series of problems of coordination for any new agency, not only with my office but also with the organs of the United Nations. These problems must, as you will readily agree, be solved if there is not to be a further duplication of effort and if the interests of refugees are not to suffer.

I often try to picture to myself the feelings of the refugees themselves when they see how much effort is being made in the international field on their behalf. I am afraid that we might be in danger of engendering a certain cynicism amongst them if they were to see a duplication of international machinery being created in New York, in Strasbourg and in Brussels to solve their problems. It seems to me that the time has come for men of goodwill who are genuinely interested in the welfare of refugees to unite their efforts and to concentrate on the attainment of the objectives which they claim.

I do not consider it appropriate or necessary to dwell at any length on the provisions of the Statute of my office which justify the interest of my office in migration as one of the permanent solutions for refugees. These provisions are well-known to you all, and to the Governments which you represent, most of which are the same Governments as were represented in the General Assembly of the United Nations which created my office. I am sure, therefore, that all your Governments will understand my concern that any new migration agency should provide the guarantees necessary to ensure that refugees within the mandate of my office will in fact benefit from such opportunities of resettlement as it may offer.

I have noticed with keen interest that the basic scheme which has been presented to this Conference envisages the migration of 115,000 people. In view of the fact that several of the countries represented at this Conference have problems of surplus population which far exceed this number, I wonder how the refugees will have their fair share in any opportunities for migration which are offered unless their interests are clearly represented, not only in the fundamental agreement which will provide the constitution of the new organisation, but also at the various stages in which plans for the movement of migrants are made.

Unless special provision is made my fear would be that no refugees, except those who represent the backlog in the movements of the International Refugee Organization, will ever set foot on board the ships which this new agency will run. I fully understand the desire of the United States Government and some of the other countries of immigration to see maintained the ships and the skill which have served the International Refugee organization so well. My chief concern is to see that these ships and that this skill should continue to be used also on behalf of refugees.

In any operation of migration the interests of the migrants themselves can be protected by their country of nationality. Refugees have no government to represent them and for this reason have been given the protection of an international authority by the United Nations. It would seem, therefore, logical that this international authority should also represent the interests of refugees to any migration agency. Such a representation is, in my opinion, absolutely vital, as the refugee is always the difficult case in migration. He does not easily satisfy the normal administrative criteria: he lacks a passport or some other document - he is often not of the right age or of the right origin. For all these reasons he requires special representation in order to ensure that he will have an equal opportunity of migration with persons who can enjoy the protection of their own Governments.

The sincerity of the intentions of this Conference to help refugees, and its determinations to ensure that they will not always be at the bottom of the queue of migrants will, in my opinion, be judged by the special provisions it will now make for their benefit.

Within the competence of my office, as you all know, are not only the residual group of IRO refugees and the Volksdeutsche in Austria, but also all the genuine political refugees who are now arriving in the countries of first asylum. The problem of the new refugees has been stressed by the International Refugee Organization and every visit of mine and of the members of my staff to the countries of first asylum show that the figures quoted of between one thousand and fifteen hundred a month are very modest indeed. This Conference has a splendid opportunity to ensure that some priority is given to the numerous brave fugitives from political terror who at present, after risking their lives in the hopes of finding freedom, usually find themselves dumped in some miserable camp where they are provided with nothing more than the bare necessities for their subsistence.

A solution must be found for these continuing aspects of the refugee problem. An international operation of migration will provide for the countries of immigration the occasion to show their willingness to take their fair share of the burden which should be a common responsibility of all freedom-loving countries, but is now borne for the greater part by the countries of asylum. To make this a concrete reality some machinery is necessary and the countries of immigration should, in my opinion, show their willingness to accept some definite proportion of these newly arrived refugees.

I would also ask this Conference to take special measures to ensure that through the establishment of international machinery for migration the residual group of refugees is not once more left out in the cold, and that the refugees most in need of help are not abandoned while the young and able-bodied are alone given a chance of establishing their lives in new countries willing to receive them. In this connection you may consider it appropriate if I mention that I have already received from a voluntary agency in France a request to draw the attention of this Conference to the necessity of ensuring that opportunities for resettlement are not denied to refugees who will not have been resettled by the International Refugee Organization from France.

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. We all know that there are many migrants who can be moved more easily than refugees; but in my opinion refugees, through their very helplessness, should have the first call on the financial assistance of the international community in any scheme where international funds are available to finance the movement of migrants whose movement cannot be paid for by the countries of immigration or emigration.

In much of the publicity which has been given to this Conference the concern of the representatives of certain Governments on behalf of the refugees has been clearly expressed. I would urge you to ensure that this concern is reflected in the decisions which you will take.

To conclude I would ask the members of this Conference to think a little beyond the somewhat abstract concepts of surplus population and manpower and to try to keep before their minds the essentially human problem in framing the statute of the new organisation. When I say this I do not for a moment ignore the fact that surplus population is a reality for a number of countries; nor the fact that manpower is urgently required by others. But you all know as well as I do that these abstract concepts cover a multitude of difficulties which cannot easily be resolved unless due consideration is given to the human aspects of the problem. The laws of the countries of immigration are a clear testimony to what I am saying. They show that, even where there is a shortage of manpower, not everybody is welcome. If the concept of surplus population is to be used in its proper sense, it means population which either cannot support itself or be supported within its own family groups. This category, as I have said before, is the last which countries of immigration usually desire to receive. Before it will be possible to make some headway in tackling the general problem of surplus population the laws of the countries of immigration will have to be modified and measures will have to be taken to make certain that migration does really make some contribution towards the solution of the problems of the countries of emigration, and not merely remove the most valuable elements of their population.

It is only if the human reality is kept constantly in mind that some balance will be struck between the need for relieving surplus population and the requirements of manpower. My plea is that in striking this balance Governments should pay particular attention to the refugee problem. The priorities which must be fixed if this balance is to be achieved should include refugees, and if this Conference is able to do this, it will show that it is determined to work in accordance with the principles recognized in the Charter of the United Nations by most of your Governments.

Mr. President, my prayer is that this Conference will find a solution which does justice to the cause of refugees, a cause which it is my privilege to serve, a cause which the United Nations have taken to heart, a cause which can only be served well by the united efforts of people of goodwill.