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Speech made by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the meeting of Swiss Aid to Europe held in Berne, on 19 February 1953

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Speech made by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the meeting of Swiss Aid to Europe held in Berne, on 19 February 1953

19 February 1953

I feel it as a great privilege to be able to stand here and to pay publicly a heartfelt tribute to the Swiss Aid to Europe on behalf of the United Nations. If I make use of this opportunity to say a few words about the refugee problem it is to show you how valuable is the work of the Swiss Aid to Europe and how it helps to bring relief to thousands who find themselves in strange countries after having left their own homes, friends and family for fear of persecution. To the refugee every gift has a double meaning. First of all that he is not being forgotten, and secondly that there are people in the world who will help him in his difficulties.

To the refugee every gift has a double meaning. First of all that he is not being forgotten, and secondly that there are people in the world who will help him in his difficulties.

Permit me to say as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that I see in the Swiss Aid to Europe a very powerful and very valuable ally in our fight against despair. I am glad that such excellent mutual relations exist between those who are responsible for the administration of the Swiss Aid to Europe and my own office. We place the greatest value on these relations, as we know by experience the importance of rational co-ordination of efforts on behalf of the refugees; and the fact that we can at all times approach Swiss Aid with complete confidence that we shall be given a sympathetic hearing illustrates the open-minded attitude of your organization towards this matter.

The existence of Swiss Aid to Europe has more behind it than the mere feeling of solidarity between the Swiss and their fellow Europeans. I discern in it also an expression of the feeling of profound gratitude for the fact that Switzerland has been spared from the disaster of two world wars. I see in it, too, clear evidence of the fact that Switzerland's honourable and respected neutrality has nothing whatsoever to do with indifference to the fate of other nations or lack of fellow-feeling towards other human beings. On the contrary, Switzerland has at all times made a point, as far as her neutrality allowed, of taking part whole-heartedly and constructively in all international activities in what for convenience I shall call the "human field". This does your country credit; and there are hundreds of thousands of human beings for whom it has meant something concrete and positive. Swiss Aid to Europe is a standing proof of the fact.

One of the problems - and there are unfortunately many - bequeathed to us by the Second World War is the problem of the displaced person. But when I put it in this way I am almost guilty of helping to perpetuate a misunderstanding which dies hard. We cannot, without distorting history, maintain that the refugee problem dates from 1945. One of the factors which at once helps to constitute the problem and complicate it is precisely that the refugee problem brought about by the First World War was by no means solved before the Second World War was upon us. Hence we have two separate series of refugees to cope with, and at times the two overlap. As if that were not complicated enough, we have to take into account a second factor if our approach is to be realistic. We must realize, more fully than was the case in the early years after the Second World War, that the problem facing us is not a static but a dynamic one, in other words that the refugee problem has taken on a permanent character, that it is a perennial and not a transitory problem; and it will remain so as long as there is little likelihood of bringing about the "one world" in the political and ideological sense, as we envisaged it during the great struggle between 1940 and 1945. So long as the world remains split in half and over the face of the earth there are frontiers dividing systems based on freedom from systems based on compulsion, men and women living under the latter will cross over to the lands where freedom reigns, and so become "refugees". Hence a realistic approach to the refugee problem calls for the recognition of two facts. In the first place, there are two refugee problems superimposed and overlapping, and secondly, there is no foreseeable end to the refugee problem as it exists today, it will be with us until such time as we succeed in bringing about real peace throughout the world.

So long as ... over the face of the earth there are frontiers dividing systems based on freedom from systems based on compulsion, men and women living under the latter will cross over to the lands where freedom reigns, and so become 'refugees'

I have felt it necessary, Mr. President, to make this preliminary statement because there are a great many people who are lulling themselves into a state of false security on the strength of arguments which are fundamentally unsound. They would like to persuade themselves that thanks to the activities of IRO and UNRRA the refugee problem has been largely disposed of; and they are also prepared to believe that the problem is a transitory one. If we call to mind that during the last few months alone, more than a thousand persons a day have been crossing the frontier from the Eastern Zone of Germany into Western Germany, the perennial nature of the problem is evident enough.

While I am on the subject of smoothing out misunderstandings, there is another I should like to deal with. The period since 1945 can be roughly divided into three phases - the UNRRA phase, the IRO phase, and the phase of direct responsibility on the part of the United Nations, in other words the period which began with the appointment of a High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNRRA period placed the main stress on repatriation of persons driven from their homes. With the help of UNRRA, millions of persons were sent back to their original homes, and have good reason to remember UNRRA with gratitude. The main feature of the IRO phase was its activities on behalf of those who were either unwilling or unable to return to their countries of origin, either because the countries as such no longer existed (e.g. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) or because political systems had gained ascendancy which they could not accept. It was for this category of refugees that the IRO embarked on its vast resettlement programme, as a result of which over a million persons were transferred to new countries in less than four years. I have on various occasions been able to express my sincere appreciation of the work of the IRO; hence I feel free for once to put in a word of criticism as well. It is a pity, I feel, that the IRO too readily gave the impression that it was going to solve the problem once and for all; it is a pity also that it allowed the idea to grow up that there was really only one solution to the refugee problem, namely, emigration of the refugees to other countries overseas. Both these notions are historically fallacious. In the first place they disregard the perennial nature of the problem, though it had become unmistakably clear by 1948; and secondly, they ignore the fact that the heavy burden on the countries of immigration, combined with the steady continuation of the stream of refugees must in the long run make it necessary to look for some other solution as well as resettlement. The frank admission by IRO that it was incapable of disposing of the problem entirely would have done the organization no harm whatever, since after all the reasons for its inability to do so lay completely outside its control. Likewise, frank recognition of the necessity for trying out other solutions would have done no harm to the well-earned reputation of IRO, since it was clear to any thinking person that the necessity for other solutions would sooner or later have come to the fore. In saying this I realize that I am laying myself open to the criticism already levelled at me, namely, that I am opposed to refugee emigration. This is simply not true. I am all in favour of it! But I should like to add that my faith in emigration as a solution to the refugee problem is subject to a proviso, namely that the countries of emigration do not regard the problem exclusively from the "manpower" angle but are prepared to allow the human factor its place; in other words that the family unity is not disregarded, any more than the rights of the elderly, the sick and the incapacitated.

In the long run you cannot with impunity deprive a country of its able-bodied men alone and saddle it with sick children, and elderly or tubercular persons. At the same time I realize only too well that the countries of immigration have a solemn duty to serve the interests of their own people, and that as things stand it is possible only to a limited extent to handle problems on a purely humanitarian basis. In the past, however, there have been signs that the human element was being pushed altogether too far into the background, and hence it is necessary to insist again and again on the maintenance of a certain element of humanitarianism in immigration policy, if only so as to preserve a proper balance in the composition of those refuge groups which are given an opportunity of beginning a new life in overseas countries. But even if my "proviso" - if I may so describe it - were generally accepted, I should still have to query the notion that emigration is to be regarded as "the" solution for refugee problems. When I described this notion as "historically false", what I meant was that any solution, even of social problems, has its saturation point. Once this point is reached, two courses are open - either we must look for other possibilities, or we must take steps to prevent the saturation point from being reached. Actually the two things can be done at the same time, as in fact is actually the case at present. The saturation point of a country of immigration is the point at which the country can no longer of its own accord achieve the conditions essential for the admission of large numbers of men and women. We must remember that immigrants cannot simply be dumped in inhospitable and uncultivated territory and left to make their own way. This is hardly a modern way of dealing with the problem. Roads and railways need to be constructed, schools, post offices, houses and hospitals must be built, in short the general conditions essential for the settlement of large groups of people must be created. This means that the countries of immigration can maintain a given rate of admission only so long as they have enough capital to enable them to fulfil the general conditions. Today we are clearly at the beginning of a period in which more than one country of immigration is no longer able to achieve this of its own accord. The result is that increasing calls are being made on the international money market so as to fulfil the conditions with the help of loans, and until such time as the capital is forthcoming, the countries of immigration - or at any rate a great number of them - are forced to slow down and restrict the influx of people from outside (i.e. migrants, among whom the refugees constitute a special category). The fact speaks for itself that Australia has reduced its 1953 immigration programme from 160,000 a year to 80,000, that Canada is making admission subject to all kinds of restrictive conditions, and that Brazil is mainly pursuing a policy of what must be described as "colonization schemes", in which the immigrant himself has to furnish a great deal more than his working capacity, namely the capital required to start him in his new livelihood. And the logical consequence of all this is that an international body concerned with refugee problems, while holding on to emigration as a good and desirable but by no means always feasible solution, must seek other methods of dealing with this knotty problem. I described the UNRRA period just now as the phase of repatriation, and the IRO phase as that of resettlement. I think I might describe the current phase, that of my own activities, as the period of integration or assimilation of refugees in the countries where they are at present living. In doing so I have no wish to underestimate the importance of emigration or to belittle its value even for a moment. But having placed these general considerations before you mainly for the purpose of showing you how I personally envisage the problem, I shall now try to be more specific and to consider with you how many refugees are now under the mandate of the United Nations, and what in fact are the problems we have to try to solve. In doing so I shall have occasion to consider how to link up with the splendid work of Swiss Aid to Europe.

Any refugee organization must base its activities on a definition of the concept of "refugee". Actually, every organization has always had its own definition, and even today there are differences between the definitions applied simultaneously by my Office, the United States President's Escapee Programme, the Inter-Governmental Migration Committee, and the IRO Liquidator. There would be no point in discussing the relative merits of these various definitions, so that I shall confine myself to one general and one critical comment on the definition as given in the Statutes of my own Office. The general comment is that it is impossible to organize refugee work without definitions, since an all-embracing description would cover all Chinese refugees of all periods, all Russian, Indian, Pakistani, German and Korean refugees, and would face us with a problem of something like 40 million refugees. Such a problem would be in every respect quite impossible to deal with. The United Nations has therefore adopted a definition which brings about 2 million refugees within the scope of my mandate. This definition excludes those on whose behalf a separate organization has been set up by the United Nations, namely, the Arab refugees in the countries adjacent to Israel, and the Korean refugees, for whom the United Nations Korean Rehabilitation Administration is responsible. It also excludes those refugees living in countries which in actual practice attribute the same rights and duties to them as to their own nationals.

I am not going to deal here with this restriction of the Definition of my Statute, although there is room for argument. I would however like to mention in this connection that since September last I have had at my disposal a generous donation of nearly 3 million dollars from the Ford Foundation, to be used, according to the terms of the gift, for refugees irrespective of their category. In other words, refugees from the Eastern Zone of Germany also qualify. This I feel is a realistic approach to the problem, and I am thankful that, when the situation in West Berlin recently reached a critical phase, I was able to initiate international action on behalf of this rapidly growing refugee group.

The refugees under my mandate are by no means all in Europe. A refugee is still a refugee after he has emigrated, until the time when he qualifies for naturalization in his country of immigration. This means that I am concerned with hundreds of thousands of refugees in Canada, North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, though I may hasten to add, with pleasure, that most of them do not constitute any acute problem. In the same way, the hundreds of thousands of refugees under the mandate of my Office in the United Kingdom and France, as well as in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland, on the whole do not present any very serious problem. The great problem is in Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece and the Near and Far East. It is only too easily forgotten that at the present moment there are in Europe more than a hundred thousand refugees within my mandate living in camps; that there are certainly a further half-million refugees left in Europe who have not succeeded in finding a solution for the problem of their livelihood; that in the Near East there are small groups of refugees living in circumstances which are often extremely distressing; and that in Shanghai we have a group of between 8,000 and 10,000 refugees, 1,500 of whom are entirely dependent for their day-to-day existence on material relief from the United Nations.

A refugee is still a refugee after he has emigrated, until the time when he qualifies for naturalization in his country of immigration.

If you now ask me what is the programme with which we propose to attack the refugee problem, I would classify it under the following headings: protection, the promotion of emigration and of assimilation, and finally, material relief to the most needy group of refugees.

It is not always easy, Mr. President, to bring it home to people that in our present-day society a person without papers is hardly a person at all. There is so much legal business for which we have to be in possession of certificates and documentary evidence; there are so many occasions on which we have to be able to prove where we hail from, of what our family consists, what degrees and diplomas we hold, that a person who cannot produce all these papers may be relegated to the category of those with no rights. Hence, international protection of refugees, that is, men and women who as a rule can produce little or nothing in the way of papers, is an essential part of the activities of a body concerned with refugee welfare. What we are doing in this direction consists of a great many small jobs and a few big ones. There is no lack of small jobs and a few big ones. There is no lack of small jobs - our offices in Bonn, Vienna, Paris, Athens, Rome, Brussels, London, Washington, Bogota and Hong Kong are in contact both with the refugees in their areas and the authorities on the spot; and the number of the cases which pass through their hands is legion. In addition, we are trying to improve the international status of refugees by pressing for the adoption and ratification of the 1951 Convention. I am gratified to see that Switzerland has signed it, and I sincerely hope the Swiss Parliament will give it force of law. So you see the role of my Office is not so much operational as promotive and indeed that was the intention of the United Nations General Assembly. This is evident in the field of emigration schemes. Here we have at present a special intergovernmental body which is concerned with the actual movement of migrants (including refugees). My Office represents the interests of the refugees vis-à-vis this body, and at the same time, through our representatives and through the activities of our Headquarters office, we do all we can to open up opportunities for refugee emigration. Of the money placed at my disposal by the Ford Foundation, I have used a considerable amount to help to finance the admirable work done by voluntary organizations interested in promoting emigration, especially on the South American Continent. In this connexion I should like to say how much I appreciate the achievements of Swiss Aid to Europe in the field of emigration.

in our present-day society a person without papers is hardly a person at all.

As I have said, through the force of circumstances emigration today is no longer the simple solution it was in past years. This is a matter which greatly troubles me, since I am anxious to be realistic, and not to awaken hopes which I cannot fulfil; and at the same time I realize that there are groups of refugees for whom emigration is actually the only solution if we look closely at the situation in the countries where they have found asylum. It is easy enough, say, to tell the Italian Government that Italy should simply assimilate the 30,000 refugees or so in the country. But it is absolutely impossible for a government faced with 2 million unemployed and a similar number in half-time employment to do so. It is easy enough to argue that the Government of Iran should just provide opportunities for the 2,000 or so refugees within its territory; but anyone who considers the tremendous economic and political difficulties facing the Government in Iran, will think twice before offering such advice. It is not easy, indeed it is quite impossible, to propose to the Communist Government of China that it should assimilate the 8,000 to 10,000 refugees in and around Shanghai. They must leave and hence emigration facilities must be found for them. The same applies to small groups in various countries in the Near East, whose goodwill no one has a right to doubt but which, being already burdened with what is for them the so bitter problem of hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees, quite understandably can well do without still another problem of the same sort. We ought, then, to be in no position to underestimate the value of and necessity for emigration, and hence it is a complete misrepresentation to say that we want "assimilation" while others want "emigration". I am willing to consider any reasonable solution to the refugee problem, Mr. President, and I am merely being realistic when I recognize that at the present juncture assimilation or integration offers far greater possibilities than emigration. Here again my task is not an operational one. What I do is to arrange for a study of the situation of refugees in a given area and an investigation into the possibilities of assimilation and the economic conditions underlying it; I then endeavour to persuade the governments of the territories in question and international bodies likely to be able to help, to institute a joint plan of action. In this field of assimilation too, Swiss Aid to Europe is doing excellent work. I have seen examples of it in Germany and Austria. When I was in Austria at Christmas, I visited the little camp of 100 refugees in Vöcklabruck. The refugees are now housed in solid huts, but until only a few weeks ago they were living in holes in the ground. This vast improvement has been made possible thanks to Swiss Aid to Europe - but it has not left the matter there. Behind the huts there is a piece of land where permanent houses are to be built shortly for these same refugees, under a scheme also to be financed by Swiss Aid. I know too that Swiss Aid is actively interested in resuscitating abandoned Austrian farms, where refugee families of peasant stock are being settled and furnished with the necessary initial capital. From every point of view the integration of these refugee is bound to be advantageous both to themselves and to the Austrian State. They no longer hang round the camps, living on a meagre dole. Their products are replacing imports which had to be paid for in dollars. This new way of life is removing them from the baneful influence which extremist political groups were able to exert on them while they were living in the camps.

Assimilation is more or less virgin soil. The problems are many, and they are extremely absorbing. By no means all of them come within the sphere of activity of an international body. Obviously, economic assimilation can be promoted by such a body, and equally obviously, economic assimilation is not the end of the matter. It is important that the refugee should come to feel that he is again an ordinary citizen and a full member of a social group; and this demands an environment, a circle of friends, which must be provided by the goodwill of his neighbours. The work done in this direction through churches, associations and individuals is beyond praise. Meanwhile assimilation operations raise one problem which is closely connected with what I said earlier on when I spoke about the difficulties experienced by the countries of immigration. Assimilation too calls for investment, and even for investment it is not always easy to find capital. We live in a strange world in which it is easier to find 100 million for some gigantic scheme than 10 thousand for an individual with good prospects of success. For some time to come, the possibility of making small loans available on easy terms will remain one of the crucial problems of refugee integration. Unless the international community in conjunction with the interested governments can arrange credit facilities of this sort, hundreds of thousands of refugees will be left in an economic vacuum and fall an easy prey to irresponsible political elements.

However, Mr. President, whatever is done by way of protection and promoting of emigration and integration, we must constantly bear in mind that a refugee society, too, has its stratum of persons who for one reason or another can no longer be of economic value, namely, the elderly, the sick and the feeble, the crippled and the tubercular. Fortunately these do not constitute a very large percentage of the refugees, but unfortunately the number does run into thousands. For these there is no other solution but treatment and care.

There are 200 of them in Shanghai; there are more of them in Trieste, where, again thanks to the splendid work achieved by Switzerland and other countries, the serious threat of tuberculosis is being overcome; they are to be found in Greece, Germany and Italy. It would be completely unrealistic to leave a United Nations refugee body destitute of the means of relieving the difficulties of the most needy, who are unable to work. For this reason I am grateful to the United Nations General Assembly for allowing me to start a campaign for an emergency fund on behalf of these groups; but at the same time I greatly deplore the fact that of the 3 million dollars I need to cover my minimum requirements, I have not yet succeeded in collecting even one million. If you consider that 400 thousand dollars a year are needed for the operation in Shanghai alone, you will realize that I can certainly not complain of a lack of things to worry about.

Should freedom have no room and no sympathy for refugees, we can only conclude that freedom no longer has a future.

I fully realize, Mr. President, that I have not been able to give you more than an imperfect and sketchy picture of the refugee problem today and the possible solutions to it. I hope I have made it clear that in the field of assimilation much is still in the experimental stage, and that there is an urgent need for demonstrating what can be done in this direction; and I recall with gratitude the opportunity given to me by the Ford Foundation to establish pilot projects of this kind through the medium of voluntary organizations, not least of them the Swiss Aid to Europe, which is most open-minded towards new ideas and so efficient in putting them into practice. Hence, I feel I must offer my congratulations publicly on this occasion to Swiss Aid to Europe for all it has done, at the same time expressing my hope that it will be able to do even more. This will depend on the Swiss, to whom an appeal is shortly to be made. I feel sure that the response will be unequivocal, and indeed this is most vital, for the problem of the needs of the refugees is knocking at our door day in, day out. Who could be more deserving of help than those who for their conscience's sake have taken the drastic decision to leave everything behind and with just a bundle on their shoulder to take the road to freedom? Some 20 years ago your compatriot Otto Steinhausen wrote an excellent book entitled "The future of freedom". Should freedom have no room and no sympathy for refugees, we can only conclude that freedom no longer has a future.