Award ceremony speech


Presentation Speech by Gunnar Jahn*, Chairman of the Nobel Committee

The Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament has this year awarded the Peace Prize for 1954 to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

War has existed in all times – war between tribes, war between races, war between nations, civil wars and religious wars. War has always laid waste human dwellings, forcing men to flee to escape its horrors and to find a refuge where they might live in peace.

But it is only during our own century that international work to help refugees has begun to take shape. The first High Commission for Refugees was established after World War I by the League of Nations as a result of the initiative of Fridtjof Nansen. No single man has contributed more to this cause than has Nansen, and the work he started has never paused since.

I do not propose to review in detail the activity of the High Commission nor that of the International Labor Office nor yet the help that has been offered on all sides by private organizations and individuals. The work begun at an international level in 1921 was continued throughout the Second World War, for the refugee problem created by the first war had still not been solved at the outbreak of the next.

During this last war, tens of millions of people lost their homes, either because they became refugees in their own country or because they were forcibly deported to other countries or else because they fled of their own accord. It has been estimated that there were between thirty and fifty million homeless at the end of the war. We can never be completely sure of such figures, but one thing at least is certain: when the firing ceased, there were millions of human beings without shelter, human beings who had to be helped to find a place where they could live in safety.

Already in 1943 the Allies had set up the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. The first task of this organization was to assist the countries which had been occupied to revive their economy. But another problem awaiting UNRRA at the end of hostilities was the care of those who had lost their homes as a result of the war and who were now in areas under Allied control. It was necessary to arrange for their repatriation.

UNRRA did splendid work; its magnitude can be judged from the fact that its expenditure amounted to $3,900,000,000. The greater part of this sum was contributed by various governments, ninety percent coming from the United States and the United Kingdom alone. With the assistance of the military authorities, UNRRA succeeded in repatriating six million people by the autumn of 1945. But many more remained.

Repatriation was not always easy to arrange. This was partly because of inadequate transport facilities, but also because of the frequently woeful conditions in the native country which made it impossible for the latter to take care of its own people. But there were also many people who did not want to return to their own countries, either because they no longer had ties there or because they feared reprisals from the governments then in power. These have become the real refugees, men for whom a chance of a new life must be found outside their native lands.

After the United Nations had begun its activities, the refugee work was taken over on July 1, 1947, by the International Refugee Organization. IRO assumed responsibility both for the refugees who had previously been looked after by UNRRA and for those who had been rendered homeless in the interwar period, taking under its care a total of 1,700,000 people. Substantial progress was made through direct aid to refugees both inside and outside the camps. Thousands of people were rescued from hardship or even from death. But perhaps the greatest service that IRO rendered was that of helping about one million refugees to emigrate. The cost, however, was immense; during the few years of its existence IRO spent $470,000,000.

In 1949 it was decided to wind up IRO, and its place has now been taken by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Office began its work on January 1, 1951. It is a nonpolitical body, with social and humanitarian aims, its main purpose being to provide legal and political protection for the refugees. Under the terms of its Statute the mandate of the High Commissioner’s Office extends to all refugees, with the exception of the Arab refugees from Palestine and of the Korean refugees. Special organizations have been set up to help these.1

The terms of reference of the High Commission are carefully defined in its Statute. will give the essential points.

The High Commissioner shall provide for the protection of refugees falling under the competence of his Office by:

(a) Promoting the conclusion and ratification of international conventions for the protection of refugees, supervising their application and proposing amendments thereto;

(b) Promoting through special agreements with Governments the execution of any measures calculated to improve the situation of refugees and to reduce the number requiring protection;

(c) Assisting governmental and private efforts to promote voluntary repatriation or assimilation within new national communities;

(d) Promoting the admission of refugees, not excluding those in the most destitute categories, to the territories of States;

(c) Endeavoring to obtain permission for refugees to transfer their assets and especially those necessary for their resettlement;

(f) Obtaining from Governments information concerning the number and conditions of refugees in their territories and the laws and regulations concerning them;

(g) Keeping in close touch with Governments and intergovernmental organizations concerned;

(h) Establishing contacts in such a manner as he may think best with private organizations dealing with refugee questions;

(i) Facilitating the coordination of the efforts of private organizations concerned with the welfare of refugees.2

The task undertaken by the High Commission was a truly difficult and formidable one. The role it assumed may perhaps be described as that of protector of the refugees, acting as a vigilant conscience to some governments, forging cooperation among all others working for the cause of the refugees. But, unlike IRO, it could not play the role of the rich uncle freely dispensing gifts.

The High Commissioner for Refugees cannot solicit voluntary contributions either from governments or from private charitable organizations without the authorization of the United Nations General Assembly. The consent of the General Assembly is also required before the High Commission can initiate repatriation or emigration of refugees.

It has frequently been asked how the UN could relinquish its financial responsibility for the refugees and place the burden on countries which, because of their geographical location, had given shelter to the greatest number of refugees, and on the private and governmental organizations working for the refugees. The answer probably lies in the huge expenditures made by IRO, for it was said that the United Nations had no mandate to dispense charity. Moreover, the world was growing tired of the refugee problem. But then we have only to read the reports of debates held in the Assembly concerning the refugees, to be sharply reminded of the fact that the United Nations is a political organization where political considerations outweigh considerations concerning unfortunate human beings. One remembers the response Fridtjof Nansen met when he begged the League of Nations for help in the fight against famine in Russia3.

The Office of the High Commissioner receives the funds for its administrative expenses from the United Nations. Its personnel is strictly limited, and even today, after nearly five years of existence, the administrative staff numbers scarcely more than a hundred. The Office headquarters are in Geneva and it has branch offices in fourteen countries4 so that its representatives, by being on the spot, can keep in close touch with the refugees, giving them any necessary protection and acting as intermediaries between them and the governments concerned.

It soon became apparent that little effective work could be done for the refugees unless the Office itself had funds at its disposal. In 1952, therefore, the High Commissioner, Dr. van Heuven Goedhart, applied to the General Assembly for permission to raise three million dollars to provide the necessary funds. The General Assembly granted its consent, but it did so without enthusiasm even though no burden on the budget of the United Nations was involved.

Dr. van Heuven Goedhart’s appeals to governments and private organizations raised the sum of $1,300,000 which has made it possible to relieve the most crying needs of the refugees. The expenditure connected with European refugees in Shanghai alone amounts to approximately $34,000 a month.

The original intention was that the High Commissioner’s Office should operate for only three years. However, it has now been decided that its activities should continue until January 1, 19595, and the organization be authorized to raise $16,000,000 by voluntary contributions from governmental sources. Of this sum, only $4,200,000 is assured as of now.

As I have mentioned, the basic task of the High Commissioner is to provide help and protection to the refugees.

And so the Office has sought, by dint of untiring and sometimes thankless effort, to bring assistance to the refugees and to help the authorities understand their problems. This kind of work cannot be described in terms of figures. But think of what it means to the individual refugee to feel and to know that he has not been forgotten, that in spite of everything there is someone willing to help him, even if the help cannot be brought immediately. In addition, the provision of legal protection gives him some sense of security and so helps to maintain his morale and to encourage him to begin a new life.

Nonetheless, such measures alone are not enough to solve the problem of the refugee. What then is the solution?

The answer appears to be easy. It is simply to give each refugee a social, economic, and legal foundation on which he can rebuild his life. Yet it is in reality as difficult as it appears to be easy.

The High Commissioner has himself indicated three principal ways to solve the problem. The first is to enable those refugees who so wish to return to their own country. But very few of today’s refugees wish to go back. Another way is to enable them to emigrate overseas. As already mentioned, IRO succeeded in helping a large number of refugees to resettle in other countries. But it was easier then than it is now, and IRO also had the funds to finance such emigration.

There are yet other factors which now make it more difficult to solve the refugee problem with the aid of emigration: With the years that have passed, many refugees are approaching or have reached old age, and most countries who accept immigrants give precedence to those who are able to work and who can thus become useful citizens. For example, it frequently happens that a male refugee is granted an immigrant’s visa but that his family is rejected. It may be that certain members of the family are unwanted in the new country because of their poor health or old age. In such cases the man usually chooses to remain with them, for his family generally means more to him than his own future.

But despite all the obstacles, the High Commission has done much to stimulate emigration. By appealing to other refugee organizations it has succeeded in promoting emigration to a considerable extent. I might mention by way of example the emigration of 33,000 refugees in 1953, arranged through the Intergovernmental Committee in Geneva6.

A third possible way to solve the problem is to allow the refugees to remain permanently in the country of asylum and to give them citizenship status. But once again this has proved to be difficult to achieve. It might appear that such a plan could be more easily implemented than before in view of the improvement in the economic situation and the resulting high level of employment enjoyed by some countries harboring large numbers of refugees. Nevertheless, however willing a government may be in principle to grant foreigners work and residence permits, it must first look after the economic interests of its own citizens. We must look reality in the eye. The inhabitants of a country are seldom very anxious to admit foreigners, and government policy is all too often decided by lack of willingness on the part of the budgetary authorities. The economic resources have not always been plentiful either, and there are always many demands today which have higher priority. Nor should we forget that many refugees are living in countries which themselves have considerable unemployment.

The High Commissioner has encountered all these difficulties and many others besides. But he has worked tirelessly to overcome them. When Dr. van Heuven Goedhart has submitted plans only to have them rejected, he has promptly submitted fresh ones. He has often been forced to reduce his demands, but he has never willingly given up until he has secured at least something. And many are the measures which the High Commissioner has succeeded in pushing through. One example of these is the project he submitted to the Austrian government with the object of finding employment in agriculture for refugees. In its final form this plan was not as comprehensive as Dr.van Heuven Goedhart would have wished, but it was carried through and proved highly successful. We must not forget that many of the refugees are capable people. Experience shows that they are hard-working and better at economizing than other men; after all, starting with only their bare hands, they strive to create a future for themselves and their families. What they need is to be helped to help themselves; and it has been observed that, if given loans, they are more conscientious about repaying them than many of those who receive assistance in all countries but accept it as a gift without ever thinking of paying it back.

But we still have a long way to go before all refugees have been given such an opportunity. Some 300,000 refugees remain in Europe, 70,000 of them in camps. There are about 13,000 refugees of European origin in China, particularly in Shanghai, who have no hope of making a life for themselves there. The refugees both inside and outside Europe who come under the protection of the High Commissioner’s Office number some 2,200,000 in all.

Ten years have passed since the war ended and the refugee camps still remain. Here we find the old and infirm and those whose occupations are such that they find it difficult to obtain work in a foreign country. The majority are professional men, among them many intellectuals. They are people who feel that they have nothing to look forward to, and many have given up all hope of a better future. But the camps also house children and young people who have never known any other home, and none of them, neither the old nor the young, have a native country which could give them help or protection. Until the camps are cleared, until the sick and old have been cared for, until the young people and the children have been educated and trained for a profession or trade, the refugee problem is not solved.

Earlier organizations have done much for the refugees living in the camps, and the High Commissioner’s Office has carried on the good work. It has also managed to persuade some countries to accept and to look after the old and the ailing. Those who have been taken in by other countries include the blind and the old and even those struck down by tuberculosis. The aim is to bring all these unfortunate people back to a normal life.

But it seems we will be a long time in reaching the goal. I recently heard a description of life in a refugee camp. To be sure, the refugees get enough food to keep them alive. But what else? Dreary hopelessness day after day, bad accommodations, worse than bad clothing and sanitation. Nothing to do but to sit there and wait and wait. For what? For something they no longer have any hope of realizing. Of what use is it to take a few children on a summer holiday in some country, only to send them back again to their camps?

This is the Europe of today, where one nation after another prides itself on having achieved the welfare state.

The Office of the High Commissioner does not have funds to change the situation, and the funds of private organizations do not stretch far enough. The High Commissioner has had the courage to state that deliverance can come only through common action and through financial support supplied by all in a united effort.

There may perhaps be some who do not believe that work for the refugees is work in the cause of peace – although I have never actually heard this view expressed. But it is work for peace, if to heal the wounds of war is to work for peace, if to promote brotherhood among men is to work for peace. For this work shows us that the unfortunate foreigner is one of us; it teaches us to understand that sympathy with other human beings, even if they are separated from us by national frontiers, is the foundation upon which a lasting peace must be built.

Today there are many who are active in the refugee cause. And it is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees which is the focus for the work. It is an institution, an organization that has statutes as do all other institutions. But statutes are lifeless; it is people who infuse life. And it is Dr. van Heuven Goedhart and his colleagues who have shaped the High Commission and given it life, for in their constant, intense search for new solutions they have felt and shown sympathy and understanding for the refugees as human beings.

The High Commissioner, Dr. van Heuven Goedhart, has never tired of proclaiming what he believes is right. It is good to know that there are people who dare to make a stand against soulless and bureaucratic authority. He and his colleagues represent the watchful conscience of our world.

For these reasons, then, the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament, in testimony of its profound gratitude and admiration for you, Dr. van Heuven Goedhart, and for your colleagues, has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

* Mr. Jahn, also at this time director of the Bank of Norway, delivered this speech on December 10, 1955, in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo. At its conclusion he presented the prize for 1954 (reserved in that year) to Dr. van Heuven Goedhart who, in a brief speech, accepted for the High Commissioner’s Office. The translation of Mr. Jahn’s speech is based on the Norwegian text in Les Prix Nobel en 1955, which also carries a French translation.

1. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East began operations in May, 1950. The UN Korean Reconstruction Agency (UNKRA) was established early in 1951.

2. The translation of this passage is taken from UN General Assembly Resolution 428 (V) and Annex, December 14, 1950, Statute of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

3. Nansen’s pleas were refused.

4. In his Nobel lecture, the laureate makes a reference to thirteen branch offices.

5. The Office is still in existence.

6. Presumably the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (the name adopted in November, 1952) which started operations in February, 1952, under the name of Provisional Intergovernmental Committee for the Movement of Migrants from Europe.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1951-1970, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1954

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