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Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 19 November 1962

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, 19 November 1962

19 November 1962

As you know, Mr. Chairman, the debate which is opening here today is of special significance to the Office of the High Commissioner. It is at this session that the Assembly has to decide on the Office's future and whether its mandate is to be renewed or not.

From their reading of the report which has been submitted to them, the Members of the Committee will also have been able to note that the Office of the High Commissioner is at present going through an important phase in its development, the most significant features of which are the following. Firstly, the completion of our work on behalf of the Algerian refugees with their repatriation last summer. Secondly, the new tasks which we were called upon to assume in Africa in 1961 and 1962, sometimes in rather dramatic circumstances, in connexion with the Angolan refugees in the Congo, the refugees in Togo and, more recently, the refugees from Rwanda who were received by the neighbouring countries. Lastly, the prospect of an early liquidation of the residual problem of the "old" European refugees, which was one of the painful legacies of the last war. The liquidation of this last-mentioned problem should enable the Office of the High Commissioner to concentrate its efforts henceforward on international protection, together with current assistance of a complementary nature designed to keep the machinery of international solidarity on behalf of refugees running smoothly.

The Committee has before it, Mr. Chairman, my report to the Assembly (A/5211/Rev.1), to which is attached, as an appendix, the report on the seventh session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme. An addendum to the report has just been circulated as document A/5211/Rev.1/Add.1; this contains the report of the Executive Committee on its eighth session, which was held at Geneva from 22 to 25 October of this year.

These documents provide, I believe, a fairly complete picture of the work done by the Office of the High Commissioner, the results achieved during this period and the problems which still remain to be solved. I shall confine myself, therefore, to drawing the Committee's attention to the most significant aspects of our activities and to bringing the picture up to date by supplementing my report with some recent information.

In so doing, I shall occasionally find it necessary to refer to the future tasks of the Office of the High Commissioner. Naturally, I do not mean in any way to prejudge the Assembly's decision regarding the possible prolongation of the Office's activities. However, it is only on the working hypothesis of such a prolongation that I can explain to the Committee not only the services which the Office has been able to render to refugees and host countries hitherto, but also those which might reasonably be expected of it if its mandate were to be extended.

There is likewise another point which I had occasion to mention last summer at the Economic and Social Council and which I shall recall here in passing. This is a possible enlargement of the membership of the Executive Committee of the Programme, which would as it were reflect widening of the geographical scope of our activities. As you know, the Economic and Social Council, in its resolution 862 (XXXII) adopted last year, decided to "continue the membership of the present Executive Committee until the General Assembly has, taken action on the future of the Office of the High Commissioner, but not later than 31 December 1963". When at its session next summer the Council, as is customary, turns its attention to my report to the Assembly, it will no doubt wish to consider this matter and to make such recommendations to the General Assembly as may seem desirable.

I should now like, if you will permit, Mr. Chairman, to give the Committee a very general picture of the activities of our Office.

The first and the basic task of the High Commissioner's Office is, as you know, to provide international protection. What this means is to obtain for the refugees a legal status as close as possible to that of the nationals of the country in which they are resident, until such time as they are able to recover a national status of their own, together with its rights and obligations, either in their country of origin or in their adopted country. The main purpose of international protection is not at all, therefore, to make the refugees a privileged class, but to eradicate every trace of legal, economic and social discrimination between the refugee and his environment and to prevent him from remaining for all time a social inferior and uprooted person. The way to achieve this essentially humanitarian objective is to give the refugee the means of building a new life, and the way to help him direct his thoughts and activities into constructive channels is to give him a chance to participate fully in the vital endeavours where he is needed.

I am happy to say that substantial progress is continuing to be made in this regard. Thus, the number of countries that have ratified the Convention of 18 July 1951 relating to the Status of Refugees is now thirty-six. In the course of the past twelve months, Cameroon, Dahomey, Ivory Coast, Togo and the Central African Republic have informed the Secretary-General of the United Nations that they consider themselves bound by this Convention, the application of which had been extended to their territories before they became independent States. It is my sincere hope that additional countries will accede to this Convention, for it is the most important instrument that has thus far been adopted on behalf of the refugees.

The legal status of refugees has also improved in many countries with particular regard to the right to work and the possibility to go from one country to another. There is, after all, a growing awareness that restrictions barring aliens from certain occupations represent an insurmountable obstacle to the economic and social integration of the refugees. We have met with considerable understanding in this regard from the important European organizations with which we keep in close touch in order that the refugees may become fully integrated as far as social welfare and freedom of movement and work are concerned.

Additional countries, namely, Greece, New Zealand, Tunisia and Yugoslavia, have also agreed to issue to refugees the travel document foreseen in the 1951 Convention.

The Agreement relating to Refugee Seamen, which was drawn up in 1953, has thus far been acceded to by ten States. This Agreement has gone far towards solving the problem of refugee seamen, who encountered special difficulties because of the fact that, being seamen, they were not allowed to reside in any country as refugees and were thus unable to obtain any kind of travel document. The entry into force of the 1953 Agreement has consequently made it possible for many of them to regularize their status.

There is nevertheless still much to be done in the field of protection before we can achieve the objective, which I just alluded to, of obtaining for the refugees a status as close as possible to that of the nationals of the country in which they are resident.

I should like, before concluding with the chapter on protection, to say a few words about the Agreement of 5 October 1960 that was concluded between my Office and the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany for the indemnification of persons who had been persecuted by reason of their nationality. Under article 2 of the Agreement - the implementation of this article being the responsibility of the Office of the High Commissioner - the date-limit by which applications could be submitted was fixed at 31 March 1962. By that date a total of 40,000 applications had been registered. In order to provide the needed aid without excessive delay, an initial payment has been made to those persons whose applications were found to qualify. These persons will be granted additional payments at a later time. As regards the implementation of article 1 for which the German Federal authorities are responsible, the date-limit for the submission of applications has been fixed at 31 December 1962. A number of favourable decisions have been rendered.

Protection, however, would very often remain meaningless if it would not be supplemented by a type of assistance that served both as a support and stimulus. That was why, in 1955, the large-scale programmes of aid to the European refugees were instituted.

The fact that there should still be need today to speak of the residual problem of this last living testimony of the upheavals caused by the war - the "old" European refugees who have not yet been settled - is in my view sufficient justification, if any were needed, for the resolute effort which we are making to put an end to this problem. Funds had already been accumulated, thanks in part to World Refugee Year, for the resettlement of the refugees still in camps. Thirty-nine of these camps were thus cleared in the first nine months of this year, and nearly 2,800 refugees in them were resettled through the aid of the High Commissioner's Office. The camp clearance programme in Germany, Austria, Italy and Greece has accordingly now entered its final phase and will be completed in the near future in Germany and Austria, the two countries with the greatest number of camps.

Resettlement has also been carried out at a more rapid pace in the case of refugees living outside camps. This problem might even now be considered potentially solved in Germany, Austria and Italy. Consequently, our activities are now concentrated on Greece and some countries around the Mediterranean where these problems were not approached until later and, owing to local conditions, were particularly serious. As advances are made, we must, on the other hand, deal with the more seriously handicapped cases for which until now no solution has been forthcoming. The same situation arises, of course, with regard to the European refugees still in the Far East, who continue to be resettled as they arrive, thanks to the unfailing generosity of many countries.

We may therefore hope, Mr. Chairman, that the near future will bring the completion of a great work of international solidarity which for many years has called for a considerable expenditure of resources and energies. I am sure that none of the countries which have so generously participated in it would consent to leave this work unfinished.

Only when, in fact, we bring this task to its completion, will it take on its full significance, and only then will the international community be able to derive the full moral benefit which it is entitled to expect.

In the face of this work, which thus in large measure already belongs to the past, it was also important to assess the current tasks of the High Commissioner's Office to begin with, concerning assistance to refugees within the mandate. The $700,000 programme for that purpose approved by the Executive Committee envisages aid in various forms: legal assistance; integration of refugees in the countries of asylum or resettlement in other countries of those wishing to emigrate; and supplementary aid to meet pressing but temporary needs.

The purpose of this marginal assistance is to meet problems as they arise and, through limited but appropriate action, to prevent any further accumulations of needs which, if left unattended, would sooner or later entail a more extensive and costly effort of the international community.

This assistance, is of course, aimed at seeking permanent solutions of the traditional kind: voluntary repatriation, integration or resettlement in another country.

The complementary assistance programme for the year 1963 likewise includes an identical sun of $700,000 intended to meet the new refugee problems. The fact that the new refugees now have a place in the regular programme of the High Commissioner's Office is, I believe, worth stressing. This is evidence of the evolution which we have witnessed and which has been marked by the adoption of resolutions by the General Assembly on the "good offices" procedure that now forms an integral part of the activities of the High Commissioner's Office.

I think, Mr. Chairman, that the Committee would like me to recall here briefly the various kinds of tasks which my Office has performed in this new sphere of its activities.

First of all, as regards the 150,000 refugees from Angola who arrived last year in the Congo (Leopoldville), you are aware that it has been possible to resettle them in areas adjoining the frontier. Although, by reason of the circumstances, it was not always possible immediately to ensure a perfect distribution of this mass of refugees in the various resettlement areas which were available, further arrangements are still possible and, in fact, often come about spontaneously without any outside action being necessary. My Chargé de mission at Leopoldville is continuing to observe the situation carefully, in close co-operation with ONUC, the voluntary agencies and the Congolese authorities. The movements observed in the frontier area adjacent to Angola, which involve both temporarily resettled refugees and new arrivals, the number of the latter being at present estimated at 10,000 can, I think, be easily checked as a result of the co-operation which I have just mentioned.

As far as my Office is concerned, the action to help the Angolan refugees can thus, on the whole, be considered practically accomplished. I do not rule out, however, the possibility of complementary action on a much more modest scale which might be needed, as a short-term project, in order to put the finishing touches to what has already been done.

The situation is identical in Togo, where for six months food has been distributed by the League of Red Cross Societies in co-operation with the Togolese Red Cross, to some 3,500 refugees who needed aid. A simple and effective plan for the rapid resettlement of refugees in various sectors of the Togolese economy has been drawn up in collaboration with the central and local authorities and various interested agencies: TAB, FAO and the ILO. It has thus been possible to resettle the majority of these refugees, mainly in agriculture, and the Government is working at this very moment, with the co-operation of the National Committee for Aid to Refugees which has been set up at Lomé, to resettle the 900 or so refugees who remain. My Office is keeping in touch with the Togolese Government, and is ready to provide it with the limited aid which appears still to be necessary to bring a task which is now on the way to completion to a successful conclusion.

A problem which is larger in scope and also more recent is that of the refugees from Rwanda, which affects, in fact, four different countries: Tanganyika, Uganda, Burundi and the Congo (Leopoldville). In Tanganyika and Uganda, the Governments have been able to cope with the situation in its essentials and have put into operation resettlement plans covering the 15,000 and 35,000 refugees, respectively, to whom they are hosts. Frequent contacts have been established and kept up with these Governments, which my Office has provided with technical support and occasional modest financial help.

A more important role has been and is continuing to be played by the High Commissioner's Office in carrying out its good offices mission with the Governments of Burundi and the Congo (Leopoldville). Because of the circumstances, this action has proved more difficult to organize and has been slower in starting in both these countries, which have received 40,000 and 60,000 refugees, respectively, from Rwanda. It has been necessary, particularly in Kivu Province, to establish reception centres from which the resettlement of the refugees on land generously put at their disposal by the authorities of the country is organized. Generally speaking, and thanks to the spirit of co-operation which has been shown on all sides and which has made it possible to assemble rapidly the means for co-ordinated and effective action, I am able to say that the solution of this problem, too, is in sight. According to the most recent information received from my Chargé de mission, the majority of these refugees will be in a position to earn their living by the end of this year or the following spring.

Similarly, plans have been made in Burundi, in collaboration with the authorities and with the assistance of the Belgian Government, to provide for the integration of the largest possible number of refugees. Nevertheless, since the resources of this country are limited, there have been some delays, and we have to consider the possibility of transferring to neighbouring countries some of the refugees who were received in Burundi and could not be settled there. When the Governments of Tanganyika and the Congo (Leopoldville) were approached on the matter, they agreed in principle to such a transfer. I should like to say here how much I appreciate this gesture on the part of countries where so many refugees have already been given asylum. In my opinion, their decision is also a sign of their interest in and esteem for the work of international co-operation which is being carried out by my Office.

In each of these countries, the action taken by my Office has been guided primarily by the desire to enable the refugees to provide for their own needs within the shortest possible time. Indeed, experience and common sense both call for a constructive operation which alone can preserve in man that most priceless possession - a feeling of his own dignity and of responsibility towards himself, his family and the community around him.

As I have had occasion to mention at other times, the action of the High Commissioner's Office in such circumstances must be justified by its feasibility, usefulness and necessity and, at the same time, must be in conformity with the wishes of the Governments concerned and particularly the Governments of the receiving countries. The purpose of such action is to help these countries to solve the humanitarian problem created by the admission of refugees to their territory, a problem which they may not be able to solve by their own means. In this way, the High Commissioner's Office introduces an element of international understanding which makes it possible to carry out constructive plans and at the same time stimulates and co-ordinates the action of all the agencies which are prepared to co-operate in this humanitarian work.

I have already referred briefly to the large-scale operation which my Office has had to carry out in recent years and which was recently completed by the mass return of the refugees in question to their country: I mean our assistance to the Algerian refugees in Morocco and Tunisia. Through an international effort which was as vast as it was persevering, and owing to the active co-operation of the League of the Red Cross Societies and the Red Crescent, Red Lion and Sun Societies, the subsistence of these refugees was ensured in reasonable conditions until the time when, at their wish, the hour struck for them to return to their country. The rapid and orderly repatriation of some 180,000 people naturally involved a number of problems which the parties concerned asked us to help them solve, in accordance with the Evian agreement. Thus, the High Commissioner's Office became involved for the first time in a repatriation operation of which it was the mainspring and which, thanks to the efforts of all who took part in it, was completed within the foreseen time limits.

I can hardly convey to you our satisfaction at witnessing this happiest of solutions - since it corresponded to the wishes of the refugees and of all the countries concerned - for a problem which had been a source of constant concern to us for years. To give the Committee an idea of the size of the operation thus carried out, I shall merely say that the total amount of the contributions received directly by the High Commissioner's Office and by the League, in cash and in kind, amounted to over $22 million from the beginning of the operation. That figure does not include the expenses borne by the receiving countries themselves, by other Governments or by voluntary agencies as far as they provided assistance to the refugees without passing through the channels of the High Commissioner's Office or the League of Red Cross Societies. However, both the magnitude of the expenditure and the number of countries which participated in this effort suffice to demonstrate both the scale and the universality of the support that was given to the Joint operation conducted by the High Commissioner's Office and the League. That universality and the substantial contributions made, in particular, by France, emphasized the purely humanitarian and non-political nature of the action of the High Commissioner's Office, which was considerably strengthened thereby.

The Algerian refugees have thus returned to their homes. The problem with which we. were faced at the time was clearly set forth in my interim report of 11 June 1962, which has been circulated to the General Assembly under the symbol A/5132. I think I could hardly do better than to quote here some passages from this report, in which I wrote the following:

"The repatriation of the refugees will, however, be fully effective only if it is accompanied by its normal and necessary corollary - the actual reintegration of these refugees to the economy of their country, so that they can once again become self-supporting. For various reasons it now seems necessary to extend the programme of assistance to these 200,000 or so refugees in order that this programme may be considered to have fully achieved its objective. The vast majority of these refugees come from frontier areas which have been directly affected by the recent conflict and from which the civilian population had for the most part been evacuated. They cannot be resettled in these areas which have not been inhabited for some years unless they are given a means of assistance. It is quite plain, moreover, that, for both material and psychological reasons, the fate of the returning refugees cannot in any given area be dissociated from that of other categories of the civilian population who were also forced to leave their normal place of residence and whose position is, in this respect, comparable to that of the repatriated refugees. As these various categories of the Algerian population cannot be dealt with otherwise than on a footing of absolute equality, the necessary action must, in these circumstances, be extended to the entire needy population in the areas in question, estimated to number some 600,000.

"In the assistance operation which it has carried out up to now, in accordance with the wish of the General Assembly, the Office of the High Commissioner, has, as is known, had the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies as its operational partner. The League's normal function, however, is to assist stricken populations without any distinction between refugees and other categories of persons. In full agreement with the competent authorities in Algeria, the League accordingly proposes to extend its assistance to the entire needy population in the frontier areas to which the majority of the refugees are being repatriated.

"This action, which is being grafted onto that hitherto carried out in conjunction with the Office of the High Commissioner for the exclusive benefit of the refugees, will enable the latter to obtain the emergency relief they will need after their return".

In the same document, I also announced that, in order to ensure the success of this action by the League, on which the well-being and resettlement of the refugees would depend, I proposed to bring it to the attention of the international community and ask the latter for its help.

As a matter of fact, I made an appeal to Governments on 18 June, at the same time as the League itself was appealing to the national Red Cross Societies.

My main concern during this period was to achieve a smooth transition, in particular as regards financing, between the joint operation of the High Commissioner's Office and the League, on the one hand, and the action, on the other hand, which the league had decided to undertake in the frontier areas of Algeria. This concern was motivated by an obvious practical need. It was also inspired by the terms of General Assembly resolution 1672 (XVI) which requested me to use the means at my disposal "to assist in the orderly return of those refugees to their homes and consider the possibility, when necessary, of facilitating their resettlement in their homeland as soon as circumstances permit".

A few days ago we were able to clarify the financial situation. It appears that we have sufficient funds not only to cover the expenses connected with the joint operation of the League and the Office of the High Commissioner and with the repatriation operation, but also to assist in financing the League's subsequent action in Algeria. The sum I now have at my disposal for this purpose amounts to some $635,000, and I have good reason to expect additional payments enabling me to increase it to approximately $1 million. This financial aid, together with a substantial amount of foodstuffs and equipment which was originally destined for the refugees in Morocco and Tunisia but which the League was subsequently able to use in Algeria, will thus have made it possible to ensure the continuity of the international assistance to the repatriated refugees.

Allow me, Mr. Chairman, in concluding this part of my statement, to draw the attention of Governments to the requirements of the action of international solidarity which is now being undertaken in Algeria under the auspices of the League and other voluntary agencies and which is of evident importance for the former refugees whom we have had to help in the past. In view of resolution 1672 (XVI) and the arrangements made with the League of Red Cross Societies, I should obviously be glad to accept and transmit to the League any further gifts received for the financing of the relief operation which it has now undertaken in Algeria.

This, then, has been a brief summary of the action of different kinds in which my office is engaged. I must emphasize that, in the accomplishment of these tasks, the Office of the High Commissioner has continually received valuable support from the technical assistance bodies, UNICEF, FAO, the ILO, WHO and UNESCO. We shall, of course, continue to seek this co-operation whenever it may prove useful, since this is a logical procedure and meets our desire for efficiency and economy. If everyone, in his own sphere, could thus provide help in the form of his technical knowledge or his material and financial resources, would not this truly be an action in accord with the purposes of the United Nations?

In addition, Mr. Chairman, I must not forget the tribute that my Office owes to the various voluntary agencies which, in all sectors of its activities, are its daily and indispensable partners. They are, in fact, one of the mainstays of the entire action of the High Commissioner's Office and it would be impossible for me to over-emphasize their merits and the importance of their role in the work which we are pursuing in common.

Finally, I think there is one conclusion to be drawn from this rapid account of our activities, and more particularly our activities on behalf of the new groups of refugees, and that is the need to keep the humanitarian work of the Office of the High Commissioner outside the political context, leading to the problems which that Office is then called upon to help resolve. In the accomplishment of the specific mission entrusted to it by the General Assembly, there can be and must be no place for any but humanitarian and social considerations.

This, Mr. Chairman, is the spirit in which we are working every day and in which, I think, the Office of the High Commissioner should continue to work if the Assembly considers that the mission of human solidarity in which that Office is engaged deserves, in the present circumstances, to be continued.