311. Despatch From the Mission in Geneva to the Department of State 1

No. 213


  • Department’s Airgram G–190 rptd USUN New York G–742


  • Possible Shift in Emphasis in Program of UNHCR


Neither the U.S. Mission nor U.S. delegations have encouraged enlarging the scope of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) program or indicated any possibility of an increase in U.S. assistance to refugees outside of Europe.

Although the sentence, contained in Geneva Despatch 1753 and referred to in the referenced airgram concerning statements by U.S. spokesmen in support of a shift in emphasis in the program of the[Page 677] UNHCR away from problems involving European refugees, may exaggerate or over-simplify the situation, the record of U.S. public statements including that of Mr. McCollum before the House Appropriations Committee, Mr. Hanes before ICEM Council (December 1960) and even the text of the Presidential letter to Dr. Lindt, the outgoing High Commissioner, appears at least consistent with such a shift in emphasis if not actually calling for it. Moreover, the lack of U.S. opposition to the trend apparent in recent years toward broadening the UNHCR responsibility through special UNGA resolutions, would appear to encourage such a shift in emphasis as the problem of European refugees is reduced to manageable proportions.

It is clear from several indications, including the UNHCR press release 638, dated February 1, 1961,4 that Mr. Schnyder envisages a liberal interpretation of the operative paragraph of UNGA Resolution 1499 (XV)5 and contemplates a shift of emphasis to refugee groups on other continents.

The Mission questions the wisdom of opposing this development in the face of historic trend. However, if the Department believes the opposition desirable, it is recommended that the U.S. position be made clear to Dr. Schnyder when he visits Washington and that it be incorporated in the position papers for the U.S. Delegation to the 5th Session of the UNHCR Executive Committee.

This despatch has been prepared in four parts. The first part contains a general discussion of the issue raised by the Department’s Airgram, namely, whether the U.S. has encouraged a shift in the emphasis of the High Commissioner’s program from Europe to other areas. The second part comprises quotations from statements made by U.S. spokesmen and from other public documents on or relating to this subject. Part three presents the High Commissioner’s attitude, together with developments within the High Commissioner’s Executive Committee and elsewhere which support his position. Part four is the Mission’s recommendation for clarification of U.S. policy on this subject.

I. General Discussion

At no time has the U.S. Mission or its representatives or, to the Mission’s knowledge, the U.S. Delegations concerned, referred to any [Page 678] possibility of an increase in U.S. assistance to refugees in non-European countries. Moreover, consistent with Department policy, the Mission has opposed the expansion of UNHCR operational activities in connection with Algerian refugees and has refrained from offering any encouragement to the UNHCR to enlarge the geographic or functional scope of his activities.

Although the statement contained in Geneva Despatch No. 175, and referred to in the 1st paragraph of Department Airgram G–190 regarding the effect of U.S. statements may, in fact, amount to an exaggeration or at least an over-simplification, the statement is not basically inconsistent with what has actually transpired. In brief, although there has been no resounding endorsement by U.S. spokesmen of a formal shift of emphasis in the UNHCR responsibilities, the question has not been entirely skirted and there has been no U.S. rebuttal to statements of encouragement in this direction by representatives of some other governments and of influential voluntary agencies. It is difficult for the U.S., in its position of leadership, to avoid the appearance of supporting a premise of this nature short of actually opposing it.

Moreover, the carefully worded statements of U.S. representatives on this subject have seldom sounded altogether neutral or undecided on this point. Indeed, within the context of current trends and world developments, U.S. statements can hardly be considered as inconsistent with a shift in emphasis to meet these trends and developments.

To say the least, it has been only natural that the election and installation of the new U.S. Administration has encouraged UNHCR representatives, among others, to look to their own “new frontiers” where their services can be put to good or better use. The nomination of a new UNHCR who takes over as the program for Europe is well in progress toward liquidation has furthered this trend. The absence of forceful U.S. opposition has perhaps not formally encouraged this tendency but also has not resulted in its discouragement.

It is believed that the trend of world events in recent months has moved this matter well along to the point where a further formal expansion of the UNHCR’s role in global refugee affairs may be difficult to avoid.

In one view it may be seen that the trend toward wider responsibility for the UNHCR has been developing for several years. With the termination of the UNREF program in 1958 the U.N. General Assembly approved Resolution 1166 (XII) which, among other things, contained provision for the UNHCR to undertake new refugee situations as they arise. Resolution 1167 (XII) appealed for assistance to Chinese refugees in Hong Kong and authorized the UNHCR to use his “good offices” in this connection. General Assembly action in behalf of refugees from Algeria and more recently in the form of GA 1499 (XV) are further steps [Page 679] in this direction. The sending by the UNHCR of a representative to Cambodia is another instance of events pointing toward wider UNHCR responsibilities. In extension of this trend it would seem logical to assume that the U.N. will call upon the UNHCR increasingly as new, unforeseen refugee problems arise as a result of political events in Africa and elsewhere.

The Mission assumes that the Department’s concern, expressed in G–190, stems from a desire to avoid financial commitment rather than from opposition to this trend. However, should the Department wish to oppose this trend, a clear U.S. position should be developed as quickly as possible, and the U.S. delegation to the forthcoming Fifth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Program beginning May 25, should be prepared to make this position known to all.

II. U.S. Statements on the Future of the UNHCR’s Functions

As to various U.S. statements made to the Executive Committee of the UNHCR and elsewhere in the past, there are quoted below several statements which doubtless have been interpreted as indicating a willingness to see the work of the UNHCR (and also of ICEM) not only continued but perhaps shifted, at least geographically, outside Europe:


The formal justification material presented to the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations in March, 1960 (and published in the volume of Committee Hearings in 1960) contained the following passage respecting the UNHCR program proposed for Fiscal Year 1961:

“In the past several years through the UNHCR program and through the efforts of the cooperating voluntary agencies and of ICEM and USEP much progress has been made in reducing the refugee problem, particularly in Europe. Nevertheless, events of the same period make it clear that refugees, as the product of international and nationalistic tensions, will continue to be an international problem. Therefore, U.S. assistance to refugees through the UNHCR must be anticipated as an annual program. Although the prospective cost of such programs in the years ahead will depend entirely upon the dimensions of the future refugee problem, every effort will be made to reduce the area of international assistance by stimulating greater acceptance of responsibility by asylum countries, thereby reducing the scope of the UNHCR program and the U.S. contributions thereto.”6

[Page 680]

In explaining the Department’s view that the UNHCR must be anticipated as an “annual program,” Mr. Robert S. McCollum, Deputy Administrator of SCA, said before the House Subcommittee, “I think the High Commissioner’s program in the concept of the legal protection work must continue. This goes back many years, even back to League of Nations days; that as situations such as Algerian or Tibetan refugees arise, there will be need for international cooperation. We are not referring here to what ordinarily we refer to as the old caseload, which, as I mentioned, we hope to close out this year; at the end of this year. What we are anticipating, which has been true for the last 15 years, that something new occurs almost every year or every other year, such as the ones I mentioned, the Hungarian crisis, Algerians, Tibetans, which we think the U.N. as an organization would have a part in.”7


The text of President Eisenhower’s letter to Dr. Lindt, signed October 4, 1960, stated, inter alia, “You can, I believe, take proper pride in two major achievements. Your efforts to gain acceptance by more governments of the principles governing asylum and the protection of the legal status of refugees now stand as beacons of hope and security to countless thousands who are still striving to adjust to a new life in a new country. Of hardly less importance, your efforts to secure a greater world consciousness of the tragic material plight still suffered by many refugees has resulted in a remarkable increase in aid for these victims of oppression and political strife, and in substantial progress toward permanent solutions which we have all witnessed.”8

Comment. This letter was read to the High Commissioner during the Fourth Session of the Executive Committee of the UNHCR Program. It is noticeably lacking in references to the mandate limitations and in any phrases indicating an official U.S. concern to restrict the High Commissioner’s functions or future role. On the contrary, the praise for the UNHCR’s “efforts to secure a greater world consciousness” almost endorses the notion of a global role for the UNHCR. Moreover, connecting this function with “the tragic material plight still suffered by many refugees” indicates a relaxation of the attitude frequently expressed by U.S. spokesmen, namely, that the UNHCR’s future function should be primarily in the field of legal protection.

At the Fourth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Program, October 1960, Mr. Richard R. Brown, Chief of the U.S. Delegation, is quoted as being “sure that everyone concerned with refugees must be extremely pleased with the results of World Refugee Year. The seed had been sown abundantly during the first part [Page 681] of the year, and the harvest was now being reaped. What was, perhaps, even more important, the world had awoken to its responsibilities towards refugees, and had at last come to regard them as human beings above everything. It was heartening to learn that World Refugee Year had done the refugees themselves much good psychologically. In addition, it had made it possible to help groups of refugees, in the Far East and in Africa, for whom the High Commissioner’s Office had hitherto not been able to do much. That great effort must be continued.”
Report from the Thirteenth Session of the ICEM Council Meeting December 6, 1960, at 10:30 a.m. at the Palais des Nations, Geneva.

“Mr. Hanes, United States of America, expressed his gratitude to the Director-in-Charge of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for his statement made at the 120th meeting. A superficial review might give the impression that the refugee problem had been practically solved; whereas just after the war there were eight million displaced persons in Europe, there were currently only about one hundred thousand in need of assistance.

Nevertheless, in other areas, such as Africa, the Middle and Far East, there are several million refugees for whom the solution which had proved effective in Europe, namely immigration, was not always suitable. (Italics inserted.) Besides, the one hundred thousand refugees in Europe required urgent help from ICEM not only for humanitarian and moral reasons, but also because, with the regular arrival in Western Europe of refugees from the Eastern countries, the problem would probably become a permanent one. The Committee’s operations in the migration field as well as the steps taken on behalf of refugees by the United States and the Office of the High Commissioner were inseparable; governments had well defined responsibilities regarding the problem as a whole.

“It might be feared that in the United States the enthusiasm raised by World Refugee Year would be followed by a period of relative apathy during which it would prove increasingly difficult for instance to find sponsors for refugees. The efforts which for the past ten years had led to such remarkable success must nevertheless be continued.”

III. The New U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Already Looks Beyond Europe for Principal UNHCR Tasks of the Future

The new High Commissioner, Felix Schnyder, assumed his duties on February 1. Although he has not made controversial statements or given positive indications concerning his future functions, it is already apparent that he and his staff are inclined to interpret liberally his responsibilities both under his mandate and under certain U.N. General Assembly resolutions passed since 1957 which have broadened his original [Page 682] functions. Moreover, with most of the specific program and material assistance tasks assigned the UNHCR in Europe nearing a successful completion, the new High Commissioner and his chief aides are almost inevitably turning their eyes and their interest beyond Europe to the numerous refugee problems of Asia and Africa, seeking a basis for offering the assistance of the UNHCR and his office in helping alleviate these problems.

The very human desire to project the functions of the agency beyond its hitherto prescribed tasks has been whetted by the experience of World Refugee Year and by a growing awareness not only that large-scale refugee problems exist already in areas outside Europe but also that forces of change active now in the less developed continents bid fair to aggravate and even multiply these problems. The attitude of the new UNHCR was foreshadowed in the statement on World Refugee Year made by Dr. Lindt at the Fourth Meeting of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Program last October, that there are “many indications—particularly the manner in which the national committees have decided to distribute the sums they have collected—that the refugee problem is tending to move from Europe to other continents.” Dr. Lindt agreed then with the Swedish representative that the Executive Committee would be wise to examine the possible effects of that tendency on the High Commissioner’s program at its next session, when the full results of World Refugee Year would be known.

In mid-January even before Mr. Schnyder took up his post, he expressed a distinct willingness to view his future functions as global, making particular reference to Asia and Africa. Speaking in New York to members of a special U.S. mission assigned to review the U.S. assistance to refugee programs in the Far East and South Asia, he said that, “although the (U.N.) mandate was useful in Europe, it had much less relevance to Asian conditions. He thought that in Asia the important thing was for the UNHCR to give practical help in the form of funds and immigration opportunities. And that … two (UN General Assembly) resolutions … gave him ample scope within which to operate. He considered it his function to focus world attention on specific refugee problems and to encourage governments to contribute. There had been little response to the resolution of 1957 on Chinese in Hong Kong, but quite a large response during World Refugee Year. Given the increased Afro-Asian representation in the U.N., he thought that the refugee problem of these areas would receive increasing attention.” (Italics inserted.)

Members of his staff have been hardly less subtle on the same subject.

Further evidence that the new High Commissioner considers a shift in emphasis as ordained may be found in his press release No. Ref. 638, dated February 1, 1961, in which he noted “a shift in emphasis to [Page 683] groups in other continents.” In reply to the Department’s query regarding the degree of liberality in which he will interpret the GA Res. 1499 (XV), this same press release states in its final paragraph as follows:

“The High Commissioner said that in his opinion the ‘good offices’ concept was elastic enough to permit him, when asked, to bring effective aid to nearly any group of refugees provided there was sufficient interest and support on the part of the international community.”

There is no doubt that the UNHCR and members of his staff have received encouragement to adopt a more liberal and expanded view of the High Commissioner’s functions, directly and indirectly from some governments and directly from representatives of certain international voluntary agencies, including American agencies, which have begun themselves to shift more and more of their staff and programming efforts to areas outside Europe.

At the Fourth Session of the Executive Committee of the UNHCR Program, October 1960, “the representative of Belgium stated that as the problems of refugees of European origin seemed to be in the course of being solved, equal attention should from now on be given to the considerable number of refugees in other parts of the world and particularly in Asia and Africa, where their plight remained a source of concern. The Belgian delegation hoped that in the course of the present session of the General Assembly the United Nations would clearly indicate their formal wish that the efforts of UNHCR should in the first place be directed towards assistance to these refugees. Some representatives supported the suggestion made by the representative of Belgium. Other representatives, while recognizing the needs of refugees in other parts of the world, felt that due consideration should still be given to outstanding refugee problems and in particular to that of the camp population.”

Representatives of the Holy See and Norway heartily endorsed the view of the Belgian delegate. The representative of Sweden “agreed that in the near future the refugee programme would have to be reconsidered and given a new direction, but he did not believe that the matter was ripe for consideration at the present session. The camp clearance programme was running late, and if efforts were diverted from it those who had made generous contributions to enable the camps to be quickly cleared would be disappointed. The Executive Committee would be in a better position to make up its mind after the end of the year-for example, at its Spring session in 1961. All members of the Committee were agreed that there should be no discrimination on grounds of race or nationality; but the problem with which the Committee was faced at that moment was, in his opinion, mainly psychological, and not one of principle.”

Also, at the Fourth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Program, on October 14, 1960, Mr. Jean Chenard, a [Page 684] United States citizen speaking on behalf of the Standing Conference of Voluntary Agencies Working for Refugees, stated, inter alia, that “It is hoped that opportunity will be found for a full-scale debate on the Chinese refugee problem during the next Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Program. However, the warning is not out of place here that the High Commissioner will not be able to initiate programs for the Chinese refugees, unless Resolution No. 1167 of the UN General Assembly passed in November 1957, is radically altered. That was the Resolution which recommended that the High Commissioner should ‘lend his good office for the arrangement of contributions.’ Not at all the same things as starting up programs.

“We are grateful for the intervention during this Session of the distinguished representatives of the Holy See, Belgium and Norway, concerning assistance to refugees in Asia and Africa. In these fields too the voluntary agencies are already carrying on programs of feeding, housing, integration and emigration assistance.”

Another specific example of encouragement for the UNHCR came at the meeting last December of the Standing Council of Voluntary Agencies in Geneva, when a spokesman for the voluntary agency Jami’at al Islam, an international group with headquarters in the U.S., urged that both the UNHCR and ICEM be authorized and equipped to provide more services to refugees in Asia and Africa, most of whom he described as being practically excluded, at present, from receiving direct benefits from these international organizations. Similar views have been expressed, perhaps less vehemently but nonetheless earnestly, by representatives of the larger voluntary agencies, including NCWC and WCC. The International Conference for World Refugee Year (ICWRY), which convened in Geneva in January 1961, called for several forms of enlarged activity by the UNHCR in behalf of refugees in and from Asia and Africa: (1) to investigate the condition of Algerians in Europe; (2) to include within the UNHCR mandate Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal and Chinese refugees in Hong Kong; and (3) to send a competent fact-finding mission under UNHCR or other appropriate auspices to ascertain the present condition of Chinese refugees in India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Macao.

IV. Conclusion and Recommendations

Regardless of whether or not U.S. statements have had the effect of encouraging a shift in the emphasis of the UNHCR program away from the European refugees and in the direction of refugee problems outside of Europe, it seems clear that such a shift is imminent if not already in motion. To this Mission the alternative to supporting such a shift appears questionable and, indeed, rather belated. After supporting a [Page 685] series of General Assembly Resolutions assigning additional and diverse responsibilities to the UNHCR; after a series of public statements, if not actually in support of, at least not inconsistent with such development; and in an era in which the concept of collective action through the U.N. has acquired increased importance, it might appear detrimental to U.S. leadership to oppose what could be regarded as a historic trend.

Unless the Department is determined to oppose what might be termed the “new frontier” for the UNHCR program, it may not be necessary to adopt any special attitude or position with respect to it at this time. The U.S. can “go along” with developments and reserve its right to lend support to the extent desired to any aspect of the new program that appears to be in the U.S. interest. (The Mission assumes this is the thinking reflected in the referenced airgram.) Although somewhat at odds with the principle of U.S. leadership, this may be the more attractive policy in view of budget and related problems. Moreover, it would be generally consistent with the spirit of UNGA Resolution 1166 (XII).

On the other hand, should the Department be determined to oppose the shift in emphasis, it would appear highly desirable to make this position clear to the UNHCR during his forthcoming visit to the U.S. and of even greater importance to reflect this attitude clearly in the position papers prepared for the U.S. delegation to the Fifth Session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Program.

For the Ambassador:

Charles H. Owsley
Deputy United States Representative to International Organizations
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1960–63, 324.8411/4–661. Official Use Only; Air Priority.
  2. Airgram G–190 reads in part: “Department concerned over apparent misunderstanding its position on future UNHCR programs. Ref despatch refers to US statements made to the Executive Committee of the UNHCR and elsewhere to effect US favors shift in emphasis of UNHCR program away from refugee problem involving European refugees and in direction refugee problem outside Europe. It commented this would appear support greater participation by Afro-Asian governments in the activities of the UNHCR program.” (Ibid., 324.8411/2–2161)
  3. Not printed. (Ibid., 324.8411/2–1561)
  4. Not found.
  5. Resolution 1499 (XV) approved the annual report of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It was adopted by the General Assembly on December 5, 1960, by a vote of 66–0, with 10 abstentions. Section (d) invited member states to continue to devote attention to unsolved refugee problems “by continuing to consult with the High Commissioner in respect of measures of assistance to groups of refugees who do not come within the competence of the United Nations.” (Yearbook of the United Nations, 1960, p. 368)
  6. Mutual Security Appropriations for 1961 (and Related Agencies): Hearing Before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, Eighty-Sixth Congress, Second Session, Subcommittee on Foreign Operations Appropriations, Part I (Washington, 1960), p. 658.
  7. Ibid., p. 666.
  8. For full text, see Department of State Bulletin, November 7, 1960, p. 732.