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Speech by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, before the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 2 January 1952

Speeches and statements

Speech by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, before the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 2 January 1952

2 January 1952
IRO achievementsNeed for branch officesValue of voluntary agency helpEarly convention signatoriesRefugee health (example TB in Trieste)Impossibility of helping all refugees worldwide, need to concentrate on neediest casesLong-term solutions: assimilation and resettlement ('migration')Resettlement problem: refugees often not ideal candidates

The Third Committee of the General Assembly is a Committee concerned with humanitarian, social and cultural problems. I am familiar with the atmosphere of this Committee. It is the same atmosphere which inspires my statute when it says that the problems with which we have to deal should be treated in a humanitarian and non-political spirit. I am further, Mr. President, familiar with many of the members of the Third Committee and have the privilege to consider many of them as my personal friends. I should like to join you in extending my best wishes for the year that is just beginning to all my friends round this table.

Mr. President, when I wish that 1952 may be a year of happiness and prosperity of the members of this Committee, I may say that yesterday and the day before I have thought a great deal of all the refugees who come under the mandate of my office and who are in greater need than we are of happiness and prosperity in 1952. If we only realize that in a country like Austria there are still some 70,000 refugees living in camps, not to speak of many more thousands in other countries, I think we already have reason to feel that these poor people deserve our attention and that there is every reason to extend our best wishes to them.

This brings me already to the basis of the statement which I should like to make. This basis is that the refugee problem which has been handled by international organizations since the end of World War II - and before - is not a solved problem. On the contrary the problem still has many features which make it a very serious one, and which made it mandatory upon the United Nations to take further action in order to try and bring about a solution.

The situation with which we are confronted now has been foreseen for a long time. It was well known that the International Refugee Organization was a temporary establishment and that a day would come when that organization would have to close its doors. That day has practically come. When finally the IRO closes its doors the question that will confront us is what is going to happen now. I should like in this connection to pay tribute to what the IRO has been able to achieve. I think that under the leadership of Mr. Kingsley the IRO has done a very great work. Everyone in the world concerned with refugees owes a debt of gratitude to the IRO for the way in which it has been able to resettle more than a million refugees in new countries. When I pay tribute to the IRO and to its Director-General Mr. Kingsley, I wish to do so also with regard to the frankness of one of the last statements which the Director-General of the IRO has made. I refer, Mr. President, to a paper which the Director-General submitted to the last session of the General Council of the IRO in which he pointed out that notwithstanding all the efforts made by the IRO there would be some 400,000 IRO residual refugees left for whom a definite solution had not been found. The document, Mr. President, was the subject of the discussion in the General Council of the IRO and the final communication of that Council to the General Assembly is well known to the delegates here. Although it is couched in somewhat more cautious terms, it still refers to the problem of the refugees within the mandate of the IRO as to a problem of which it is said that although it does not justify the continuation of the IRO, it is so grave in terms of human suffering that it calls for urgent consideration by the United Nations. Mr. President, I associate myself fully with the statement but I want to add that the problem of the residual group of the IRO is only part of the problems with which my office is confronted. I have to add to these 400,000 refugees coming within the mandate of the IRO, the other groups of refugees coming within the mandate of my office, making the number of refugees with which we are concerned very much greater than the 400,000 IRO residuals. I refer in this connection, Mr. President, first of all to the fact that the mandate under which I am operating includes also more than 300,000 Volksdeutscher refugees in Austria. I also refer to the problems of refugees in difficult circumstances although they have been resettled in various countries; and also to the problems of the new refugees. We should be aware, Mr. President, that one of the main reasons why the refugee problem is still unsolved is that new refugees are coming in every day. There are various estimates as to their numbers but I would certainly say that there are, on the safe side, between 15 and 20,000 new refugees per year. That is another reason to do away with the attitude that the refugee problem is a solved problem. The problem still exists and it requires, as is said in the IRO paper, the urgent attention of the United Nations.

I am unable to give any exact number of the refugees coming with in my mandate. As many of the delegates certainly know and as referred to in the report which has been made possible through the generosity of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, it is very difficult to estimate the exact number of refugees within the mandate of my office. The part of this report which has appeared today is only a preliminary report and gives only part of the findings of the survey group. It certainly will be elaborated very substantially in the final report which I hope to receive about the middle of this year. As I said, Mr. President, it is impossible to state with exactitude how many refugees do come within my mandate. I already know of about one and a half million. The number is certainly very much higher. The following problem presents itself: no IRO any longer to take care of these people; what can the United Nations do and what have I, under the statute that has been given me, to do for these refugees. I am not going to take up the time of this Committee in repeating what I have already stated in the report which I have submitted. I would, however, like, as that first part of the report covers only five months of activities, to add a few words about what has been done since and about the situation as it is up to date.

I should like to elaborate somewhat on the question of so-called branch offices. You remember that in the statute it was said that one of the duties which are incumbent upon me is to keep in close touch with the governments and the countries in which the refugees reside. That in itself is already an indication of the necessity of having representatives in those countries. Moreover, Mr. President, the statute very clearly states that I have to consult the governments as to the need of representation in their territory. In paragraph 16 of the Statute it is said that in any country recognizing such need there should be appointed representatives approved by the government of that country. I myself am convinced of the necessity of branch offices. I will come back to that point at a later stage.

I have so far established branch offices in Germany, at Bonn, Austria, at Vienna, and in Washington. I hope to open an office in Belgium on the 15th of this month. I am negotiating with the Government of Greece which has already recognized the desirability of having a branch office in Greece. I am also concerned in negotiations with the Italian Government, and I hope that will be able to set up more branch offices which I feel are essential; but that can only be done if my office is provided with on adequate budget for the current year.

Moreover, Mr. President, we have in the course of the second part of 1951 sent missions to some countries where urgent refugee problems had arisen. I saw with great gratitude that the governments of these countries collaborated closely with my office in trying to contribute to the solution of the refugee problems. I feel that that in these missions we had good examples of what should be the proper relation between our office and the governments concerned - a relation of mutual assistance - operation, and understanding.

During the second half of 1951, Mr. President, as well as earlier I have experienced how invaluable and indispensable is the co-operation between the voluntary agencies working for refugees and my office. I should like in this Committee to pay high tribute to them. We could not fulfil our mission if we could not rely on the full co-operation of these agencies. That in itself, Mr. President, constitutes a very serious problem. As delegates around this table may know, voluntary agencies can't any longer count on the same measure of support which they had in the past. Not only are their resources drying up to some extent but also the support which was given to them by the IRO has come to an end, with the result that, whereas the co-operation of the voluntary agencies is more needed than ever, they have often to say that they cannot do what we would very much wish them to do. I will come back to this problem, Mr. President, when I talk about the problem of assistance to refugees.

In the second part of my report I refer to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees which was elaborated by a diplomatic conference during the summer of 1951. I was happy that already at that time 14 countries had signed the Convention and since then that number has been increased. The Federal Republic of Germany has already signed the Convention, Italy has indicated its intention to sign very shortly, and there is every reason to believe that Greece will do the same. This will bring the number of signatures to 17. I am fully aware of the shortcomings of the Convention; nonetheless I want to state that it certainly makes a step forward in the regularization of the status of refugees in those countries which adhere to it. I am happy to state that there is a good hope of the six ratifications required to bring the Convention into force being obtained in the early part of this year.

When a couple of months ago the advisory Committee for Refugees, which was established in accordance with my statute by decision of the Economic and Social Council, held its first session, there was some discussion, Mr. President, on the problem of the ratification of that Convention and I quote from paragraph 22 of the draft report of the Advisory Committee which I have here before me but which is not yet and official document. I reported to the Advisory Committee that measures for ratification of the Convention would be initiated soon by the Scandinavian States, Belgium and the Netherlands and that the delegates of Switzerland, Germany and Israel stated that the necessary procedure to enable their Governments to ratify the Convention was underway and they hoped the Convention would be ratified soon.

The delegate for Turkey reported that the formalities of ratification had been initiated in Turkey and he hoped that Turkey would be among the first to ratify. I therefore have good hopes that within a couple of months from now the Convention will come into force and will certainly give the refugees an instrument for the amelioration and the securing of their status in the various countries which adhere to Convention.

Mr. President, what I have said so far relates to the international protection of refugees. I think I may draw at least one conclusion: without branch offices my task cannot be carried out properly. The functions of these branch offices are absolutely vital and essential for the refugees within our mandate. I think at this stage I will not elaborate very much on all the functions such a branch office has to perform. I would, however, like to have the guidance of the Third Committee of the General Assembly, which is in a way the father of my office, as to the necessity of such branch offices. I hope this Committee will be in full agreement with me as to the absolute necessity of these offices and that it will pronounce itself therefor on this matter.

Mr. President, it is always good to be guided by experience. Already back in the 1920s there was in the League of Nations some discussion as to the necessity of representation of the High Commissioner for Refugees who at that time was Dr. Nansen, the Norwegian, who certainly has become one of the very great examples in this field. There was a discussion concerning branch offices in Nansen's day and Nansen, who was a man who usually spoke very frankly in the various organs of the League of Nations, had to face the situation that his budget had been cut so severely that he had to withdraw some of his representatives in various areas. Before the General Assembly of the League on 28th September 1923 he said:-

"The Fourth Committee has, for good reasons, I am quite sure, found it necessary to cut down the budget. It is its business to say that there is no money if there is no money but it is my duty to explain to you that if there is no money or if the money necessary cannot be given, the work cannot go on. In order to make people understand the necessity of having delegations of the High Commission instead of National Commission in the various countries, I will read you a telegram I have just received this moment. It is from the Jewish Organisation and it says that alarming news has just been received to the effect that on the Russian frontier 4,000 refugees were arrested in synagogues last Thursday, hundreds being expelled every day across the frontier under cruel conditions. That is from the Jewish Organisation, it is willing to give the money but must have somebody to do the work. This state of affairs has resulted from the effort to save money because the representative was withdrawn. When we have tried to save money by withdrawing our delegations, the same thing has happened over and over again and the poor refugees have endured great sufferings and some have even died."

That was in 1923. I suggest it would be a proper procedure to learn from previous experience and agree that one cannot do a job of protecting and assisting refugees and the governments concerned on behalf of refugees when you have a headquarters offices only somewhere in the world from which you can write letters to governments and letters to refugees. I submit that you have to be a "port of call" for refugees in difficulties and there are thousands of things which cannot be done by correspondence from headquarters.

Mr. President, it is not only international protection which this office is called upon to give to refugees. In the statute it is stated very clearly that besides international protection this office has to seek permanent solutions to the problems of refugees and assist governments to that end. I refer here to the unsolved problem about which I spoke a few moments ago. There certainly are many governments in difficulties with their refugee problems and there certainly are refugees still in very bad need.

For example, Mr. President, about 8 or 9 weeks ago I received a report indicating that a very grave situation existed in an area in Europe; the report came from Trieste and indicated that very many TB cases had been found in that area among the refugees. I thought it wise to take some initial action and being aware of the excellent organisation specialising in that field, the World Health Organisation, I approached the WHO and asked whether they would be prepared to send a specialist in TB to Trieste and make an investigation of the situation there. I pay tribute to the readiness of the WHO in co-operating with me. It is often said that international organs work slowly and heavily. It may therefore be good to explain to this Committee that it took exactly 55 minutes to do the following: contact Dr. MacDougall, specialist in TB at Headquarters who took me to see Dr. Hood, Secretary of the European Area and Dr. Begg, Head of that Branch. They got through by telephone to Dr. Mark Daniels, a specialist of repute in London, who undertook to make an investigation without hesitation. He could not take off the following day but did so about ten days later. He stayed in Trieste for about a fortnight and took very much trouble to ascertain the facts and a few days ago I received an official report from Dr. Daniels. This report, which will be published soon, is most alarming. Among the refugees in Trieste at present there are 350 or perhaps even 450 active TB cases and of these more than 260 are living in camps. It is not difficult to imagine what that means. It means that TB is spreading rapidly in that area; it means that our best wishes to these refugees for the new year have a very slim chance of being realised unless something is done for their benefit. I hope to make that report public very soon and thereafter to appeal to all those who can do something for these poor people, to take action.

Trieste is only an example. I could easily add other examples to that. I might refer to the situation in which more than 2,000 refugees in Shanghai find themselves. Out of about 5,000 refugees under the mandate of the IRO, more than 2,000 are now receiving care and maintenance form the IRO. That will soon be brought to an end and the question arises: who is going to take care of these refugees? Mr. President, you know that on the island of Samar in the Philippines there are with the co-operation of the Philippine Government still more than 200 refugees left of whom 70 are TB patients. The IRO is making desperate efforts to do something to find a solution for their problem and we all hope they will be successful. However, not all the cases will be solved and here again we meet an example of the "needy cases" (an expression I prefer to "hard core", which in my view should be abolished when we are speaking of human beings; the French expression "cas difficiles" is a more suitable one).

In order to make some assessment of the situation with regard to refugees at the time of the termination of the IRO, I invited the Rockefeller Foundation to make possible the investigation about which I have spoken. Moreover, Mr. President, I have put to myself the question, "what can be done in the way of assistance to refugees?".

I want to make it clear, Mr. President, that I have always had the inclination and the desire to be realistic. I am therefore not going to try even to suggest that assistance should be given to all the millions of refugees in the world, however necessary from the general humanitarian point of view that would be. It just cannot be done: it is impossible. The world in which we live is still a world of so much unrest and difficulty and tension that there is no possibility of taking care of all the millions who for one reason or another had to leave their country, cross a border and live in some foreign country where they may be in grave difficulty. What I am suggesting is only that for the most needy groups something should be done, that there should be a very limited assistance fund which could be used to help those people who without that help would be bound to starve. It is not a matter of tens of millions of dollars but a matter of about 3 million dollars. This is the amount which for 1952 I consider essential to meet the most urgent requirement of refugees in need who have been helped so far by IRO and who continue to require a form of assistance.

Mr. President, I have always been fully aware that to give money to a refugee in order to prevent him from starving is in itself never a solution to the problem. It is only gaining time to find such a solution, therefore I feel very strongly that what has to be done is a combination of different things: one is the establishment of a fund to meet the immediate needs of certain groups of refugees; another is to promote the coming into being of long-term programmes for the assimilation of refugees, and the third, the promotion of the migration of those refugees who meet the requirements for admission of the various countries of resettlement.

I feel that I should elaborate these two points somewhat to this Committee. I want first of all to make it clear I feel, Mr. President, that my office has no terms of reference within which we ourselves would be called upon to carry out any long-term programme of economic reconstruction of countries to make it possible for more people to live on the economy of those countries. It is clearly outside the scope of the Mandate of this office to do so. What we have to do is what I should like to call a promotional job; to try and get the proper organs to do what is in the interest of and for the benefit of refugees within our Mandate. I feel that there are quite a number of that sort of activities which could be promoted by this office and on which it could take useful initiatives.

In this connection, Mr. President, may I point out that it is dangerous and untrue to say that migration is the solution to the refugee problem. It certainly has contributed to such a solution, but it would only be a complete solution of it were true that the governments of the countries of admission would be ready to admit any refugee, not only the able bodied refugee who can do a good job, but also that tubercular patient, the old refugee who has done his share of work, the old grandmother. That, Mr. President, is not the situation. For reasons which I can very well understand, any programme of admission of refugees and immigrants as a whole is a programme with a very clear aim - the establishment and contributions to the strength of the economy of a country. For this reason, Mr. President, the situation in which the greater part of the residual refugees of the IRO find themselves is that they have already been presented to three, four or five selection missions of various countries and that they have been rejected. These countries say they do not meet their conditions of admission; that is the reason why they are residual refugees and the reason why, for them, assimilation in the country where they are is in many cases the only possible solution; there are only two alternatives for refugees: assimilation and resettlement.

We therefore feel that seeking permanent solutions for the problems of refugees means to a very great extent trying to have measures taken in various countries, which will permit more refugees to live in the economies of those countries.

We do not however under-rate the importance of migration. I feel that it is a good thing that at the Conference in Brussels held recently it was decided to set up a migration agency. The only thing I am worrying about is, will refugees really have a chance of getting a fair share in the schemes which will be operated by that organisation? It is for this reason that I asked the Brussels Conference for my office to be represented on the board of the new Migration Agency in order to speak for the refugees who have no government which is ready to speak for them. I still hope, Mr. President, that a reasonable solution to the problem of the representation of my office in the Migration Agency will be found during the next week or so.

I think that this is more or less all that I wish to say at the moment. I feel however that what I have said certainly does not give the full picture of all that is to be said in this Committee, and I hope that you will eventually give me another opportunity. Moreover, I would very much like to reply to remarks which may be made by delegates around this table.

In conclusion, I would certainly not like to omit to pay tribute in this Committee to my colleagues in my office. Those who have had an opportunity of watching the development of this office in 1951 must have felt that we have had a difficult year and during that year I have been greatly helped by my colleagues of all ranks who have done a magnificent job. I want to express my gratitude to all the people with whom I have the privilege of working.

And lastly, I would express the hope that this Committee, being a humanitarian Committee, will take into account only and exclusively the interests of the refugees with whom my office is concerned. I feel sure that if that is the guiding principle of the delegates taking part in the discussion, we will achieve a happy result, useful recommendations and clarifications which will make it possible for me to do a reasonable job in the year that has just begun.