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Statement by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the High Commissioner's Advisory Committee on Refugees, Third Session, 25 April 1953

Speeches and statements

Statement by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the High Commissioner's Advisory Committee on Refugees, Third Session, 25 April 1953

25 April 1953
Delegates from 15 Member-States welcomedGeneral Assembly decision-time on UNHCR's future approachingMost disturbing: 100,000+ refugees still in camps in Europe after 7 yearsCamps in Germany particularly worrying, with outflow in West BerlinMeasures taken to cope with Berlin influxImportance of visiting refugees where they are and have personal contact with them

Mr. President,

When travelling through the many countries which are faced with refugee problems and speaking both to government officials and to refugees, I often have occasion to refer to this Advisory Committee which today starts its third session. As you know, from the outset of my work I have had the feeling that an advisory committee of experts and, what is still more, of friends of my Office, is a most useful organ. Experience has shown that my feeling is fully justified. Looking back upon the two sessions which we have had, I feel that the importance of your committee is increasing and that it has become more and more easy to discuss the very difficult refugee problems in a spirit of mutual confidence and cooperation. It is in that spirit that I welcome the delegations of the fifteen Member States of the Advisory Committee who are at this table today.

My office finds itself at the crossroads. According to the Statute under which we do our work, the General Assembly shall not later than at its eighth regular session, which opens at the end of this year, decide about the future of our Office. When that provision of the Statute was written, some of its practical implications may have been overlooked. Every United Nations establishment whose administrative expenses are financed on the United Nations budget has to present its financial estimates nine months ahead. My Office has consequently prepared for the consideration of the advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions two different budgets, one for a further year of work and one for the liquidation of the Office.

When I drew the attention of the General Assembly in November of last year to the fact that the time was approaching when the decision on the future of my Office would have to be taken, the Danish delegation, supported by others, suggested that this matter should appear on the agenda of your present session. I was glad to accept that suggestion. No Committee is qualified more than yours to give expert advice to the Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly on this extremely important matter.

In the document which I had the honour to present to you, I have tried to give a complete and realistic picture of the present situation. Happy as I would have been to be able to report that the present state of the refugee problem no longer justifies the existence of a United Nations office concerned with refugees, I cannot honestly do so.

The world in which we live is, unfortunately, still very much of a divided world which produces new refugees every day. To find solutions for the problems of old and new refugees is becoming increasingly difficult and this is only too comprehensible. Since the inception of the IRO, solutions for far more than a million refugees have been found. It was more difficult to find them for the last than for the first hundred thousand of that million. Resettlement possibilities did not exist for many thousands of refugees who were left in the camps. For many of them assimilation became the only possible solution. But the solution of assimilation requires long term planning and that is one of the main reasons for which it is hardly possible in a short time to show spectacular results and present impressive statistics.

The refugee problem is still very much with us and will unfortunately remain with us for a good many years to come. The refugee who qualifies for the mandate of the United Nations remains a man who really deserves international protection and assistance. Never should we forget to see him behind our document, papers and discussions. We should always be aware of his being a man who in his little bundle with which he crosses the border carries a tremendously important decision. It is the decision to leave everything which was dear to him and walk into an unknown future with a deep confidence in freedom and in the reception which he will have in a free world.

I have always been proud of being called upon to try to alleviate the situation of people in this category, and it is my conviction that the United Nations, in view of all the principles they stand for, have rightly accepted a limited responsibility for the well-being of refugees, old and new. That responsibility is defined in the first article of my Statute as "providing international protection" plus "seeking permanent solutions for the problem of refugees by assisting governments and private organizations to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of refugees or their assimilation within new national communities" and in Article 8 this protection of refugees is spelled out in a number of paragraphs. In the documents which you have in your hands I have tried to give a full account of what my Office has tried to achieve under the various headings of Article 8. I express the hope that these documents will constitute useful working papers and provide a realistic basis for your deliberations.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the present refugee problem is the fact that still more than a hundred thousand refugees - and I confine myself for the moment to Europe - are living in camps. I am fully aware of the efforts made by the governments on whose territories these camps are situated to provide the refugees with more adequate lodging or accommodation. The abolition of the refugee camps in which many people have now been living for over seven years remains one of my major concerns. As long as that aim cannot be achieved, everything has to be done to make living conditions in the camps as bearable as possible. My Office is at present engaged in developing plans to improve the situation in some of those camps, the abolition of which cannot be hoped for in the near future.

It was my concern for the problem of the camps, especially in Germany, which made me take the initiative to draw up a comprehensive plan to mobilize international support to meet the extremely serious emergency which arose when in the early days of this year an unforeseen influx of refugees started in West Berlin. It was quite clear that unless such a plan was drawn up immediately, this influx was bound to have an extremely adverse effect on the situation of the refugees in camps in Western Germany. The newcomers could not stay in Berlin and were actually being flown at an increasing rate into Western Germany, where they had to be accommodated in one way or the other. Only a plan to accelerate the provision of accommodation for these new refugees in Western Germany could forestall their being added to the population of the existing camps.

In order to protect the interests of the refugees within my mandate and to prevent as far as possible a further delay in their integration, I felt compelled to take this initiative which I am glad to say has received much appreciation in many quarters. The Federal Germany Government, which cooperated most efficiently in the drawing up of the plan, the Acting United States High Commissioner in Germany, the Commission on Surplus Population and Refugees of the Council of Europe as well as the Special Liaison Committee of that Council, have all expressed their satisfaction with the initiative which I took. Several governments have made contributions towards the plan, in the execution of which my Office plays no operational role whatsoever. The accommodation which under the plan will be made available for refugees in western Germany will, in accordance also with the wishes of the Federal Government, benefit not only the newly arrived refugees from Berlin but also the other categories of refugees, including the homeless foreigners still in camps in Western Germany. A considerable percentage of the houses to be built will be reserved for this category. Through that plan not only has a deterioration of the situation of these refugees been prevented, but also a positive contribution has been made to the solution of their urgent housing problem. It has been of the greatest value that the generous grant made through my Office to the voluntary agencies by the Ford Foundation enabled me to make available a sizeable amount of money as an initial contribution to the plan. As you know the terms of reference of this grant do not discriminate between the various groups and categories of refugees.

When early in April I had the honour to be invited to the meeting of the Committee on Population and Refugees and the Special Liaison Committee of the Council of Europe, a resolution was adopted "welcoming the action taken by the High Commissioner on behalf of refugees from the Soviet Zone of Germany and from other countries behind the Iron Curtain" ... "proposing that the Member States of the Council be invited by the Committee of Ministers (a) to facilitate the rehabilitation of refugees in Western Germany especially by the construction of accommodation which would allow of their living near their place of work, (b) to afford material aid to refugees and (c) to afford refugees the greatest possible facilities for immigration". Moreover these Committees drew particular attention to the necessity of measures being taken to facilitate the liquidation of refugee camps. I am deeply satisfied to report that a most cordial working relationship has been established between the Council of Europe and my Office.

In speaking of the relations of my Office with other agencies I want to make particularly mention of the good relationship which exists between the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration and ourselves. It is my privilege to present to the ICEM and to the countries of immigration the interests and claims of refugees as a special category of potential migration. I have always been aware of the preference which most refugees have for emigration as the solution to their problems and no one could be happier than I myself whenever emigration possibilities are made available to refugees. In this connection I should like to express my feelings of deep appreciation for the courageous and far-sighted initiative which was taken a few days ago by the President of the United States which will give new hope to many refugees who desire to be resettled overseas.

There will however still remain in Europe the refugees who do not qualify under any immigration schemes. The pressure of surplus population in certain countries of Europe makes it inevitable that opportunities to emigrate will not be found for all the refugees, especially those who have been in the camps for many years. The efforts to further the assimilation of these must be redoubled insofar as economic conditions permit their integration in their present countries of residence.

I would like to add a word of sincere appreciation for what is being accomplished for the refugees both in the field of assimilation and resettlement by the voluntary agencies with which my Office has the most excellent relations. Certainly the members of this Committee are aware of the admirable work those agencies perform, but it should be stated that their work is in the true sense of the term indispensable and invaluable for the refugees who look for understanding and help. Whenever the story of the refugee problem is told or written, these agencies deserve that high tribute should be paid to what they and their thousands of collaborators are doing.

In working for refugees it is most important to be able to visit from time to time the countries where they are and to be in personal contact with them. Some of my colleagues and I myself have had the opportunity of doing so and the reports of these visits have proved to be extremely valuable to our planning. My last visit was to Yugoslavia where I had full opportunity to be in contact with a number of the over 4,000 Hungarian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Albanian refugees living in that country. I am glad to be able to state that their conditions on the whole are satisfactory, that the Government of Yugoslavia is making considerable efforts to provide the refugees with accommodation and means of existence, and that I was given a firm assurance by the Government that no obstacles will be put in the way of the members of the families of Yugoslav refugees who wish to be reunited.

The Government of Yugoslavia is very much concerned with the problems of financing the repatriation of those Yugoslav refugees who have expressed their desire to return to their home country, and of tracing and bringing home those Yugoslav children who are still abroad and whose parents are longing to see them return to Yugoslavia. My Office at the present time is studying these matters.

Before concluding I want to touch on the problem of Chinese refugees in Hong-Kong which constitutes a separate item on the agenda of your session. Since the inception of my Office representatives of China have in the various organs of the United Nations drawn attention to these refugees. Since it seems to me that this matter falls within the terms of reference of the Advisory Committee, I have submitted a statement of facts which I hope will serve as the basis for your discussions of this problem.

I hope, Mr. President, that your session will be fruitful. You can be assured that very many refugees whose problems so far have remained unsolved are deeply interested in your deliberations, and hope that they will result in constructive conclusions. I can assure you that my colleagues and I myself are entirely at the disposal of the Committee and you for whatever we may be able to do to assist you in your work.