840.48 Refugees/4462: Telegram

The Ambassador in the United Kingdom (Winant) to the Secretary of State

5982. Having made an unsuccessful effort to convene a meeting of the Executive Committee (which apparently cannot meet before September [Page 351] 30) the Director of the Inter-Governmental Committee on Refugees called an informal meeting in his office this afternoon at which the Embassy and Foreign Office were represented and the Director and Vice Director attended. With the entire agreement of the Vice Director, the Director presented the following personal joint suggestions for the consideration of the Department and Foreign Office:

“The messages from the Department of State conveyed through the American Embassy raise two questions which are closely related, namely (1) the safety of foreign refugees in Italy itself and (2) the safety of foreign refugees in the portions of southern France hitherto occupied by the Italians. The unconditional surrender of Italy has changed the position in some respects. It would seem to have changed it for the better insofar as (1) direct and open negotiations can now take place between the Allied authorities and the Italian authorities, (2) it is definitely in the interests of the Italian authorities to do all they can to meet the wishes of the Allies, (3) one may expect, although one cannot assume, that the territory occupied by the Allies in Italy will expand in the near future, (4) the prospects of Switzerland having access to countries other than those occupied by the enemy are definitely improved although the date at which there will be a common frontier between Switzerland and Italian territory occupied by the Allies, depending as it does, on the progress of military operations, is still uncertain. Nonetheless, the direction which the war is now taking does open up prospects of Switzerland ceasing to be a country completely surrounded by Axis countries and, therefore, unable to get people out except by the consent of the Axis authorities. This may well have an important influence on the attitude of the Swiss authorities towards giving asylum to refugees.

On the other hand, the unconditional surrender may well complicate the situation because (1) it may be anticipated that the Germans [Germany] will take over control of as much of Italy as she can, (2) she will certainly take control of the departments of France hitherto occupied by the Italians. The Italian authorities will no longer operate in those departments. On the above analysis the means of helping refugees in Italy would seem to be the following: (a) Encouragement by the Allies of the Italian authorities, amounting to pressure if necessary, to give such protection to the refugees as is possible to help their concealment by the population by their passage to areas where they would be safe, (b) Encouragement Swiss Government to give asylum to all refugees from Italy who are able to cross the frontier. The encouragement to the Swiss Government to be really effective must include (1) an assurance regarding food supplies, (2) an assurance that she will be relieved as soon as possible of the refugees she may receive. The second is far more important than the first. The assurance might take the form that so soon as possible the Allies will take back into Italy any refugees therefrom whom Switzerland now takes. It is suggested that this assurance should be confined to returning the refugees to Italy and not their transfer elsewhere because (1) the very few places elsewhere to which they could be transported will be required for other refugees, (2) the return to Italy would be comparatively simple so far as transport is [Page 352] concerned, (3) the final settlement of the refugees in question is likely to be more easy if they return to Italy and are not dispersed elsewhere. (c) There was the possibility of escape by sea of refugees from Italy to other places e.g. Spain, North Africa and Cyprus. Having regard to the military operations now in progress and the flight of the Italian ships from Italian ports in order to escape the Germans, this does not now seem to be a possible means of escape, [on] organised lines, although a few may have got away on Italian ships or may be able to get away within the next day or two. The safety of the ships and not of the refugees must obviously be the dominant consideration, and unless there are ports not under control by the Germans, which is improbable, nothing can be done.

With regard to the refugees in southern France, it must be assumed that if this has not already happened, there will be full German control within a few days. The Italians will not be able to organise the removal of refugees from there into Italy and it seems unlikely that many will wish to cross the frontier into the portions of Italy strongly occupied by the Germans. For those who do cross the Italian frontier what has been said in the previous paragraph will apply.

The remaining means of escape is into Switzerland. Here again, approaches to the Swiss Government should be accompanied by assurances regarding food relief and the removal of the refugees. As regards the latter, a distinction may be made between children and others. In the summer and autumn of 1942 when there was still a prospect of the Vichy Government allowing children to leave Vichy France, various governments offered to give asylum. The Government of the United States, for instance, generously agreed to take 5,000, the age limits being 16 for children of Allied nationality and 14 for children of enemy origin. The offer by the United States was later extended to children who were able to escape into Spain. If the United States were willing to extend it to children who may now be able to escape from the southern departments of France to Switzerland, an assurance could be given to Switzerland that such children would be removed when communications allowed. Approaches on the same lines could be made if necessary to other governments concerned but the number, unfortunately, is likely to be so small that the offer, if made, by the United States would probably not involve liability of more than a few hundred. For adults, the assurance would have to be, in present circumstances, on more general lines. Here again, the number is likely to be so small that I think an assurance could be safely given, remembering that when Italy is occupied it should be possible within reasonable time to open a camp there, if facilities in North Africa and elsewhere did not suffice. The above suggestions are, of course, contingent on and subject to military considerations.”

The Director made it clear that reference to refugees in Italy is intended to be limited to foreign refugees in Italy. He expressed appreciation of the Department’s having referred suggested projects to the Intergovernmental Committee, explained that on account of the urgency of the situation and the impossibility of a prompt meeting [Page 353] of the Executive Committee he was following the procedure of submitting his suggestions as above for consideration by the American and British Governments. In conversation he attached particular importance to the desirability of the guarantees proposed by him to be given by the British and American Governments to the Swiss Government.