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Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the thirty-fourth Session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), 27 July 1962

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mr. Felix Schnyder, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the thirty-fourth Session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), 27 July 1962

27 July 1962

The Council now has before it document E/3637, the "Annual Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees". This document sums up the work accomplished by the High Commissioner's Office in the various sectors of its activities from 1 April 1961 to 31 March 1962. With your permission, Mr. President, I should like to complete this picture with some information on more recent events and also to review very briefly the tasks with which this Office is at present confronted.

I should first like to mention a particularly topical event which I am sure will be a source of gratification to the Council - the satisfactory conclusion of the operations with a view to the repatriation of the Algerian refugees in Morocco and Tunisia. Between 10 May and 15 July of this year, 165,000 Algerians thus returned to their homes. In Algeria itself, the League of Red Cross Societies is at present drawing up plans to furnish the necessary aid to repatriates and to people in need living in the border regions where the refugees, for the most part, are being resettled. Just over a month ago, I made an appeal to governments urging them to provide for the financing of this whole humanitarian action. I hope that this appeal will elicit from them the response one might expect after the magnificent effort of solidarity sustained for years by the international community to ensure the subsistence and welfare of these refugees.

In addition to this important occurrence, the past year has been rich in events reflected significantly in the work of UNHCR and such as to influence the trend of that work.

Two events, two major facts, dominate the period covered by this report, viz, the consolidation of the tasks inherited from the mandate with regard to "old" European refugees and the spectacular and sometimes dramatic developments which have marked the new problems of refugees outside Europe.

As far as European refugees are concerned, we have, as you know, at last reached the stage of liquidating what can now be called a residual problem to round off the tremendous task begun several years ago, we must bring to an end the major aid projects for these refugees and restore to UNHCR its essential mission, the initial foundation of its work - international protection supported, where necessary, by supplementary aid, a subject to which I shall revert later.

However, while we were engaged in bringing to a close this great social and humanitarian enterprise on which the assistance activities of UNHCR have virtually been concentrated for a number of years, other problems arising from the numerous upheavals which typify our age have in turn claimed the attention of this Office. UNHCR has been successively called upon to intervene in the Congo (Leopoldville) on behalf of refugees from Angola, then in Togo and again in the Congo, for refugees from Ruanda who have posed problems alike in Tanganyika, Uganda and Burundi. Finally, public opinion has been quite recently aroused by the mass influx of Chinese refugees into Hong Kong.

First, as regards the Congo, the presence of some 150,000 refugees from Angola stimulated the intervention of the community and led to the adoption of General Assembly resolution No. 1671 (XVI). Nevertheless, these refugees virtually ceased to be a problem once their resettlement was assured. Land, tools and seed were distributed to them in agreement with the Government and through the joint action of ONUC, UNHCR and the Leage of Red Cross Societies together with the voluntary agencies which were co-operating with them.

In Togo likewise, UNHCR fulfilled the role assigned to it by the Assembly resolution on good offices by marshalling the concerted efforts of the Togolese Governments, the Technical Assistance Board, the specialized agencies, the league of Red Cross societies and the Governments concerned to facilitate the settlement of several thousand refugees to whom that small country of limited resources had given asylum. Apart from the emergency aid distributed by the League of Red Cross Societies in co-operation with the Togolese Red Cross, more than 700 refugees have already been re-settled in agriculture, and will shortly be followed by another 300; measures are also envisaged for the rapid integration of the remainder in various sectors of the economy.

The Government of Tanganyika was the first to ask for UNHCR assistance in resolving the problem of the 7,000 refugees from Ruanda, but it was in the Congo, in Kivu Province, to be more exact, that these refugees numbering about 60,000, were causing the gravest concern. The ravages of famine had already begun when a mission composed of representatives of ONUC, the League of Red Cross Societies and my own delegate, arrived on the scene. Foodstuffs and medicines were at once sent to Kivu and the League agreed to undertake on behalf of these refugees a joint programme of aid and resettlement similar to that which had stood the test of experience in the border regions of Angola. With the active co-operation of the Government, and local authorities, ONUC, UNICEF and the voluntary agencies which were already operating in this area, a solution is now in sight for all those, approximately 40,000 in number, who have been unable to re-settle themselves.

In Uganda, which also has 35,000 refugees from Ruanda, a governmental programme should, as in Tanganyika, permit of the local resettlement of these refugees, who can either continue to engage in stock farming or else be integrated into agriculture.

The situation is more critical in Burundi which cannot absorb the 35,000 to 40,000 refugees from Ruanda whom it is sheltering. As the result of a visit by an official from my Office, the government agreed to sanction the settlement of 15,000 of them and asked for the co-operation of the League of Red Cross Societies to that end. The negotiations with the Leopoldville Government and the Government of Tanganyika for the admission of 20,000 of 25,000 other refugees are going well.

Needless to say the action taken in these various countries will in no way preclude the possible voluntary repatriation of the refugees. My representatives have lost no opportunity of pointing out to them that the sole purpose of their immediate integration into their host country was to enable them to support themselves and thus to preserve their human dignity; it would in no way prejudice their decision as regards repatriation now or in the future. So far, however, no appreciable movement in this direction has been noted.

The recent influx of Chinese refugees into Hong Kong has inevitably given rise to delicate problems in view of the small size of this territory. When I raised this question at the recent session of the Executive Committee, I recalled the services that UNHCR could render in such a circumstance under the good offices resolutions, especially resolution No. 1167 (XII) which concerns this particular group of refugees. Since then, UNHCR has kept touch with the competent British authorities.

At the beginning of this report, I briefly mentioned the part that UNHCR had been called upon to play in pursuance of the Evian Agreements to facilitate the repatriation of Algerian refugees who were then in Tunisia and Morocco. If I revert to this matter in concluding this brief recapitulation of the most recent activities of UNHCR, it is because of the very novelty of such an operation, unique, alas, in the annals of UNHCR, as the mass return of the refugees to their country of origin. It is also because the result obtained since the mission of aid to these refugees in Tunisia and Morocco was begun are the best proof of the usefulness and efficacy of persistent action, directed solely towards humanitarian ends. This, without a doubt, is the secret of the assistance received from the international community as a whole, its constant and generous co-operation which alone have enabled UNHCR to bring to a satisfactory conclusion a task of this exceptional magnitude.

What conclusions, what guidance does this brief outline now offer us for the present and future orientation of the work of UNHCR?

I should like, in the first place, to emphasise how erroneous it would be to imagine that the recent development amounts solely or even primarily to a mere geographical transfer of the activities of this Office from one sector to another. Of course, as the picture I have drawn of African problems shows, Europe is no longer almost the sole theatre of the Office's operations. Yet though the most serious and acute refugee problems inherited from the last war are on the way to being resolved, the European countries continue to be the chosen field for international protection which is the primary function of UNHCR.

The extension of assistance activities to other parts of the world has gone had in hand with a more far-reaching change in the very concepts which guide its work and which formerly depended on strictly legal criteria.

One of the most important innovations during the past year has been the use in a renewed and expanded form of the good offices procedure. Slowly elaborated by means of successive Assembly resolutions, the good offices concept has now become, under resolution 1673 of the sixteenth Assembly the normal basis of the UNHCR's work. The initial mandate and the concepts on which it is based have not been in any way affected on that account and international protection still remains the keystone of this work which is designed to make up for the absence of national protection and on which about 1,300,000 refugees scattered throughout the world continue to depend for assistance.

On the other hand, UNHCR has no longer to decide in the first place when an appeal is made to it, whether the refugees are eligible under the mandate, unless actual problems of legal protection arise. When the object is merely to give urgent material help, as is in fact the case with the new refugee problems, my Office now has the possibility of intervening in the field without first enquiring into the reasons which induced each refugee, considered individually, to leave his country.

Now that it is dissociated from the definition given by the original mandate, the term "refugee" has taken on a meaning more specifically social and no longer purely legal. The exact comprehension of the fundamentally humanitarian and non-political nature of the work of UNHCR has thereby been undeniably facilitated so that in some cases it has been able to rely on almost universal support, including, directly or indirectly, the support of the refugees' countries of origin. Insofar as one of the tasks the High Commissioner has set himself is to improve, as far as possible and within the limits of his prerogatives, understanding between peoples, I think I can say, Mr. President, that significant progress has been accomplished.

With the completion of the major aid programmes to refugees under the mandate and the emergence of new refugee problems - which, as I have stated, are the essential facts - we must now endeavour to refresh our minds and view the activities of UNHCR as a whole, in a new light.

The number of refugees under the mandate who have not been resettled had been reduced, as you know, by the beginning of 1962 to about 65,000, of whom 20,000 were in process of resettlement 25,000 were considered to be in a position to support themselves and 20,000 still required care under the 1962 and 1963 programmes. Already in Germany and Austria the completion of the work for refugees can, at the present time, be regarded as assured. That is virtually true in Italy also, to speak only of countries where refugee camps existed. In Greece, on the other hand, a substantial effort is still required, as you will have noted in reading the annual report. But the overall task is now reduced to such dimensions that it can be completed without undue difficulty provided that the financing of the terminal programme approved by the Executive Committee is assured. It is scarcely in fact, conceivable that at the very last moment the international community should relax its effort and deliberately refrain from harvesting all the moral and material benefit from the considerable sacrifices it has made over the past years. The work undertaken in its name by UNHCR will be judged by the final result, which alone will make it possible to bring out the magnitude of the efforts made on behalf of the refugees since the last war. A final spurt in a spirit of solidarity is therefore required to bring these residual problems to an end before they get any worse, thus rendering their solution still more difficult and more costly. I shall do everything I can to stimulate this joint effort, first of all in the European countries, including those which have never ceased to contributed generously to this work. I like to think, Mr. President, that these attempts will not be in vain and that an important landmark in the history of UNHCR will thus be finally reached in the near future.

As the major programmes of aid to refugees under the mandate approach their end, international protection naturally comes to the forefront among our daily preoccupations. Experience has shown, however, that without any financial support it would lose a large part of its effectiveness. However understanding and generous governments or voluntary agencies may be, it cannot be hope, for example, to solve all the cases of handicapped refugees unless there is a priori a readiness to co-operate, even to a very slight extent, in the initial expenditure of resettlement on the spot or in another country. This need is met particularly by the current programme for supplementary aid approved by the Executive Committee. As its name shows, this programme is simply intended to supplement action by governments or private agencies, to fill some gaps here and there, to help solve the most difficult cases and, in short, by swift and appropriate action to forestall any further accumulation of individual woes which sooner or later give rise to major problems.

To meet problems as they arise and as constructively as possible is the rule which experience has taught UNHCR in regard to new refugee problems. There again, swift action is essential, the problem must not be left to get encrusted, swollen or crystallized at its nerve centre. I leave you to imagine what might have happened in a country like the Congo, already confronted with so many difficulties, if action had been delayed. The major contribution which UNHCR within the good offices procedure can bring to the solution of these problems lies essentially in the element of understanding, of practical sympathy and of co-ordination of the efforts it has endeavoured to stimulate when called upon to intervene. For it is actually by alerting all the competent authorities and all those who might be able to help and by appealing to men of goodwill everywhere that it has succeeded, at the cost of a very small financial contribution on its part, in assisting the governments concerned successfully to cope with situations which might, as in the country I have just mentioned, for example, have become catastrophic. The objective, whenever possible, is to put the refugees in a position to work and become self-supporting without delay. That is what we are trying to do at the present time for the refugees from Ruanda who have found asylum in the various neighbouring countries.

But once again if my Office is to fulfil the role assigned to it, it must have available the necessary funds to enable it to initiate, when necessary, the action it wishes to stimulate or to give it timely backing. Such is the purpose of the current programme of supplementary aid to the new groups of refugees.

The assistance thus given under the good offices procedure is marginal in character and is intended to enable any government confronted with a social problem to cope with it satisfactorily. I would remind you in passing that the intervention of UNHCR is not automatic, in the sense that the mere mention of the word "refugee" does not suffice to initiate it. If requested by the government concerned proof must be furnished that such action is feasible, useful and effective and that it is justified by the need for a special concerted effort by the international community.

The Executive Committee has fixed a figure of $1,400,000 equally divided between the mandate refugees and the new refugees, as the allocation to the current programme of supplementary aid for 1963. Thus the Executive Committee has not merely determined the effort required to carry through the major aid projects covering refugees under the mandate, for which a sum of $5,400,000 has been allotted in the 1963 budget. It has also defined the scope of the current task which the High Commissioner would be called upon to assume under the heading of supplementary aid once the major aid programmes were completed. At the same time the sum of $1,400,000 allocated under this head for 1963 gives an idea of the magnitude of the effort which might be required of the international community in future years. Modest though it is, such an effort seems adequate on the face of it to prevent the recurrence of situations similar to those which have necessitated the implementation of major programmes. It will likewise help to keep alive the spirit of international solidarity in this particular sector of aid to refugees. But it could not of course cover expenditure on new larger-scale problems, which, as in the case of the Algerian refugees, would call for special appeals to the international community.

These, then, in brief outline, are the facts and considerations which have influenced the progress and development of UNHCR activities during the year covered by the report at present before you.

As you know, this report is of special importance because of the decision which the General Assembly will be called upon to reach at its forthcoming autumn session concerning the possible prolongation of UNHCR, whose mandate expires at the end of 1963.

While there can be no question of anticipating the General Assembly's decision, it will fall to me to furnish the Assembly, in preparation for the discussion on this subject, with certain essential information on which it will base its decision. If the Assembly is to take its decision with a full knowledge of the facts, it must know not only what services UNHCR has rendered in the past, but also what services it might render in the present historical context if the General Assembly thought fit to prolong its existence. It is quite obvious that the future work of this office could not be planned otherwise than by adopting the prospect of such prolongation as a working hypothesis.

It UNHCR's mandate is continued, there is every reason to believe that the question of the membership of the Executive Committee will be re-examined, with a view to broadening its basis in a manner befitting the wider scope of UNHCR's work.

Perhaps you will allow me, Mr. President, in concluding this statement, to tell the representatives of governments assembled here once again how fervently I hope for a final vigorous effort on the part of the international community to enable my Office to put into effect its plans - already prepared and approved - to bring to an end a task on which it has already been engaged for some years. The work of dressing this wound inherited from the last War must be completed; and if it is desired that UNHCR should be in a position to turn its attention usefully to other problems or other categories of refugees and devote itself fully to the tasks now facing it, it should be relieved of this major concern.