Problem of Refugees: Speech Delivered by the Representative of the United States of America at the Fourth Meeting of the Third Committee

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Problem of Refugees: Speech Delivered by the Representative of the United States of America at the Fourth Meeting of the Third Committee5

28 January 1946 [London]

mrs. roosevelt (United States of America): I want to congratulate Mr. Noel-Baker on the very excellent statement he has made for the United Kingdom delegation on the refugee problem and its background.6 Our delegation of the United States is happy to support the proposal of the United Kingdom that the question of refugees shall be referred to the Economic and Social Council for thorough examination in all its details under item 10 of the agenda for the first session of the Council and for report to the second part of the first session of the General Assembly.7

We in the United States delegation know well that the problem of refugees is an urgent problem and we know that ways must be found, in the interest of humanity and social stability, to return these thousands of people who have been uprooted from their homes and their countries to a settled way of life. Everyone at this table is familiar with the problem and must realize that it is important to find a way of dealing with it so as to remove it as a source of disturbance in the relationships of the nations now affected by it.

The people of the United States and their Government are deeply concerned for the refugees who, because of the war or of danger to their lives or liberty on account of their race, religion or political beliefs, have become victims of oppression and misery. In the summary contained in the United Kingdom proposal (annex 1, page 37) it is shown that the establishment of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees in March 1938 was largely due to the initiative taken by the United States. Half of the operational expenses of the Inter-governmental Committee have been borne by the United States since 1943 and the other half by the United Kingdom. Our Government took a leading part in the creation and organization of UNRRA. This organization in recent months has done much for the relief of persons made refugees by the war. I feel certain that our Government stands ready to continue to bear its fair share of the burden for such activities.8

We in the United States delegation, however, feel that the United Nations could not move on this problem without careful consideration and review of all the elements entering into it—political, economic, social and humanitarian. That is why we feel the need to recommend it to the Economic and Social Council for study and report. This seems to us a sound procedure since the Council is able to make a thorough and impartial examination and, on its findings, the interested Governments can determine the best future course for dealing with these complex and controversial problems.

Our support for the reference of the matter to the Economic and Social Council for a complete survey does not mean, however, that we are not conscious that speed in handling this matter is an important factor. According to present plans UNRRA will terminate its work in Europe at the end of 1946. The Inter-governmental Committee has done good work within its terms of reference and with the resources at its disposal, but it is quite evident, as the United Kingdom delegation has pointed out, that this Committee has not sufficient resources nor a sufficiently large and authoritative organization to handle the entire problem. When the League of Nations arrangements with the United Nations have been completed some disposition will have to be made of the work now performed by the High Commissioner for Refugees. This knowledge makes it plain that, upon the completion of the study by the Economic and Social Council, there must be prompt action to determine the manner in which the interested Governments shall deal with the refugee problem. The Government of the United States will be prepared, in cooperation with these Governments, to take prompt initiative in carrying out the necessary action.9

Pending the outcome of the proposed study and report, the United States delegation urges that existing inter-governmental agencies maintain their activities for the benefit of the refugees.


1. ER's London Diary, 9 January 1946, AERP.

2. Sydney Gruson, "UNO Urged to Push Refugees' Return," NYT, 27 January 1946, 14; "UNO Group Debates Issue of Refugees," NYT, 29 January 1946, 3; "Limited UNO Board on Refugees Seen," NYT, 15 January 1946, 8; Holborn, 31.

3. MD, 30 January 1946.

4. She dictated the final version of the statement; however, working with her State Department advisors, she had prepared at least two earlier versions of the speech (Draft Statement by Mrs. Roosevelt in Committee 3 Concerning the United Kingdom Proposal on Refugees, 25 January 1946 and untitled, undated draft, AERP).

5. Third Committee, First Session, Fourth Meeting, 28 January 1946 (USGA/Ia/SHCom/32/USES/19), 56-57, UNORGA, MWelC).

6. In making the British proposal, Noel-Baker reviewed the history of the international response to refugees from just after World War I to 1946 and argued that the mechanisms in place, including the Inter-governmental Committee on Refugees established in 1938 and UNRRA, were inadequate to meet the current crisis. He pointed out that nearly all of the operational and financial responsibility for refugees had fallen on the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States. Given the situation, the United Kingdom proposed that the Third Committee refer the matter to ECOSOC for study and the preparation of recommendations to be acted upon at the next meeting of the committee (Committee Three Delegation of the United Kingdom Proposal Concerning Refugees (A/C.3/5) 23 January 1946, 37-43, UNORGA, MWelC).

7. Item 10 of the agenda for the Economic and Social Council read: "Discussion of the problem of refugees and other urgent matters in economic, social, cultural, educational, health, and related fields, as may be referred to the Council by the General Assembly or which the Council may find desirable to put on its agenda." When the US delegation to the Third Committee met on January 10, members remained unsure as to the stance Britain would adopt in the committee. See also Document 78 (ECOSOC, First Year, First-Third Session 1946, Agenda, X, UNOR ECOSOC, MWelC).

8. The British proposal on refugees included a history of the two organizations currently attempting to handle the refugee problem, the Inter-governmental Committee on Refugees (IGCR) and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). In March 1938, President Roosevelt called an international conference that he hoped would aid in relocating Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. With Roosevelt's assurance that "no country would be expected or asked to receive a greater number of emigrants than is permitted by existing legislation," more than thirty nations met at Evian-les-Bains, France, in July 1938 and established the IGCR. Conceding that "all members of the I.G.C. contributed in fixed proportion to the administrative costs of the Committee," the British proposal asserted that "the United Kingdom accepted equal responsibility with the United States government, on a fifty-fifty basis, for underwriting, and in effect meeting the operational costs of the Inter-governmental Committee in the tasks of actually caring for refugees." In November 1945, when the committee approved a budget of $12,000,000 for 1946, the United States and Britain bore the brunt of the operational costs while receiving minimal contributions from only two nations, France and Norway. The United States also played a leading role in UNRRA: the State Department drafted the international agreement that established UNRRA, and former New York governor Herbert Lehman served as the organization's director general. Although UNRRA worked with the IGCR to provide temporary aid to refugees (those individuals who did not wish to return to their home countries), UNRRA's stated purpose was to make "preparations and arrangement … for the return of prisoners and exiles to their homes." The British proposal pointed out that caring for "persons displaced as a result of the war" until repatriation could be arranged marked the extent of UNRRA's authority. UNRRA was "not authorized under its present constitution to deal, except for a short period, with persons who, for any reason, definitely cannot return to their homes." The British delegation asked the Third Committee delegates to recommend to the General Assembly that ECOSOC investigate the refugee question with the possibility of establishing an organization to handle the situation (Committee 3 Delegation of the United Kingdom Proposal Concerning Refugees (A/C.3/5) 23 January 1946, UNORGA, MWelC; Dallek, 167; "12,000,000 Voted By Refugee Board," NYT, 22 November 1945, 22; Bertram D. Hulen, "U.S. Offers Plan for World Relief," NYT, 11 June 1943, 1; Holborn, 17; Vernant, 30-33). For more on UNRRA, See n7 Document 55.

9. Just as the British proposal underscored how the IGCR's lack of resources impeded its ability to handle the refugee crisis, ER lent her voice to publicizing UNRAA's funding crisis. (See Document 66). As an international organization established by an agreement between more than forty nations, UNRRA relied on appropriations from the governments of each of its member nations on an annual basis. The prolonged debates in Congress at the end of 1945 over the American contribution to UNRRA revealed the precarious existence of such an organization. Furthermore, since UNRRA's first meeting in November 1943, its General Council had been embroiled in the debate over whether or not individuals who did not wish to repatriate fell within its jurisdiction. It then decided that the organization would care for these individuals for a "reasonable period" until they could be placed in the care of the IGCR. At its third session in late 1945, UNRRA defined "reasonable period" as no longer than six months, and the organization's General Council announced its intentions to complete operations in Europe by the end of the year.

In addition to UNRRA and the IGCR, the only other machinery in place for dealing with refugees was the League of Nations high commissioner on refugees who provided legal protection to refugees through the issuance of passports and other civil documents that a refugee could not obtain otherwise. As League representatives were to begin negotiating the transfer of the League's assets to the UN in February 1946 with its scheduled dissolution in April, no one believed the high commissioner would continue his work for very long. In December 1946 the Office of the League of Nations High Commissioner closed. Sir Herbert Emerson (1881–1969), who served concurrently as the League's high commissioner and the IGCR director, transferred all of the League's functions in the area of aiding refugees to the IGCR.

The individuals who attempted to handle the refugee crisis within these organizations supported the British proposal to consolidate the responsibilities of the three agencies. The IGCR, at its November 1945 meeting in Paris, passed a resolution that allowed its executive committee to enter into negotiations with the General Assembly in the hopes that a new organization might be created within ECOSOC to relieve the IGCR of its responsibilities. Following the General Assembly's passing of a resolution which called upon ECOSOC to create a committee to investigate the refugee situation, UNRRA's General Council adopted a resolution declaring that "its members shall seek to do all in their power to expedite the early creation of a United Nations body capable of dealing in an effective manner with the problem" (Holborn, 22, 25, 30; Vernant, 26, 32; "Refugee Committee Asks UNO to Do Job," NYT, 23 November 1945, 11; Resolutions Adopted by the General Assembly During Its First Session, Resolutions 6(I) and 8(I),, accessed 1 November 2005).

For the continuation of the refugee debate in the General Assembly see Document 90 and Document 91.

On Argentina and Other Matters

Joe Lash wrote ER in late January to ask her to "speak 'off the record'" at a dinner he and Trude were organizing in support of the Union for Democratic Action.1 After recounting tales of his son, and ER's godson, Jonathan, he closed by telling ER that he had just finished "reading a long statement multigraphed by the Nation on why Argentina's membership in the UNO should be suspended. A convincing case is made out, but I expect that so long as England and all of Europe desperately needs Argentine beef nothing will happen."2

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Problem of Refugees: Speech Delivered by the Representative of the United States of America at the Fourth Meeting of the Third Committee

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Problem of Refugees: Speech Delivered by the Representative of the United States of America at the Fourth Meeting of the Third Committee