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Franklin Delano Roosevelt Administration: Statement on Political Refugees

(October 17, 1939)

I am glad to welcome at the White House, Lord Winterton, the Chairman; Sir Herbert Emerson, the Director; Mr. Myron Taylor, the Vice-Chairman of the Intergovernmental Committee representing the United States of America, the heads of missions of the Argentine Republic, Brazil, France and the Netherlands; and Mr. James G. McDonald, the Chairman of my Advisory Committee on Political Refugees.

I extend through you to the thirty-two Governments participating in the Intergovernmental Committee and to the private refugee organizations my appreciation for the assistance which has been given to refugees in the period since the meeting at Evian. I hope the work will be carried on with redoubled vigor, and with more positive results.

In March, 1938, it became clear to the world that a point had been reached where private agencies alone could no longer deal with the masses of unfortunate people who had been driven from their homes. These men, women and children were beating at the gate of any nation which seemed to offer them a haven.

Most of these fellow human beings belonged to the Jewish Race, though many thousands of them belonged to other races and other creeds. The flight from their countries of origin meant chaos for them and great difficulties for other nations which for other reasons—chiefly economic—had erected barriers against immigration. Many portions of the world which in earlier years provided areas for immigration had found it necessary to close their doors.

Therefore, a year and a half ago I took the initiative by asking thirty-two governments to cooperate with the Government of the United States in seeking a long range solution of the refugee problem. Because the United States through more than three centuries has been built in great measure by people whose dreams in other lands had been thwarted, it seemed appropriate for us to make possible the meeting at Evian, which was attended by Mr. Myron C. Taylor as my personal representative.

That meeting made permanent the present Intergovernmental Committee, and since that time this Intergovernmental Committee has greatly helped in the settling of many refugees, in providing temporary refuge for thousands of others and in making important studies toward opening up new places of final settlement in many parts of the world.

I am glad to be able to announce today that active steps have been taken to begin actual settlement, made possible by the generous attitude of the Dominican Government and the Government of the Philippine Commonwealth. This is, I hope, the forerunner of many other similar projects in other nations.

Furthermore, I am glad to note the establishment of a distinguished Anglo-American group of the Coordinating Foundation, which with the help of your Committee will investigate the suitability of other places of settlement for immigrants.

Things were going well, although I must confess slowly, up to the outbreak of the war in Europe. Today we must recognize that the regular and planned course of refugee work has been of necessity seriously interrupted.

The war means two things.

First, the current work must not be abandoned. It must be redirected. We have with us the problem of helping those individuals and families who are at this moment in countries of refuge and who for the sake of the world and themselves can best be placed in permanent domiciles during the actual course of the war without confusing their lot with the lot of those who in increasing numbers will suffer as a result of the war itself.

That I may call the short-range program, and it presents a problem of comparatively small magnitude. In a moment you will see why I say, "comparatively small magnitude." At this moment there are probably not more than two or three hundred thousand refugees who are in dire need and who must as quickly as possible be given opportunity to settle in other countries where they can make permanent homes.

This is by no means an insoluble task, but it means hard work for all of us from now on—and not only hard work but a conscientious effort to clear the decks of an old problem—an existing problem, before the world as a whole is confronted with the new problem involving infinitely more human beings, which will confront us when the present war is over. This last is not a cheerful prospect, but it will be the almost inevitable result of present conflicts.

That is why I specifically urge that this Intergovernmental Committee redouble its efforts. I realize, of course, that Great Britain and France, engaged as they are in a major war, can be asked by those nations which are neutral to do little more than to give a continuance of their sympathy and interest in these days which are so difficult for them. That means that upon the neutral nations there lies an obligation to humanity to carry on the work.

I have suggested that the current task is small in comparison with the future task. The war will come to an end some day; and those of us who are realists know that in its wake the world will face a refugee problem of different character and of infinitely greater magnitude.

Nearly every great war leaves behind it vast numbers of human beings whose roots have been literally torn up. Inevitably there are great numbers of individuals who have lost all family ties—individuals who find no home to return to, no occupation to resume—individuals who for many different reasons must seek to rebuild their lives under new environments.

Every war leaves behind it tens of thousands of families who for very many different reasons are compelled to start life anew in other lands.

Economic considerations may affect thousands of families and individuals.

All we can do is to estimate on the reasonable doctrine of chances, that when this ghastly war ends there may be not one million but ten million or twenty million men, women and children belonging to many races and many religions, living in many countries and possibly on several continents, who will enter into the wide picture—the problem of the human refugee.

I ask, therefore, that as the second great task that lies before this Committee, it start at this time a serious and probably a fairly expansive effort to survey and study definitely and scientifically this geographical and economic problem of resettling several million people in new areas of the earth's surface.

We have been working, up to now, on too small a scale, and we have failed to apply modern engineering to our task. We know already that there are many comparatively vacant spaces on the earth's surface where from the point of view of climate and natural resources European settlers can live permanently.

Some of these lands have no means of access; some of them require irrigation; most of them require soil and health surveys; all of them present in the process of settlement, economic problems which must be tied in with the economy of existing settled areas.

The possible field of new settlements covers many portions of the African, American and Australasian portions of the globe. It covers millions of square miles situated in comparatively young republics and in colonial possessions or dominions of older nations.

Most of these territories which are inherently susceptible of colonization by those who perforce seek new homes, cannot be developed without at least two or three years of engineering and economic studies. It is neither wise nor fair to send any colonists to them until the engineering and economic surveys have resulted in practical and definite plans.

We hope and we trust that existing wars will terminate quickly; and if that is our hope there is all the more reason for all of us to make ready, beginning today, for the solution of the problem of the refugee. The quicker we begin the undertaking and the quicker we bring it to a reasonable decision, the quicker will we be able to say that we can contribute something to the establishment of world peace.

Gentlemen, that is a challenge to the Intergovernmental Committee. It is a duty because of the pressure of need. It is an opportunity because it gives a chance to take part in the building of new communities for those who need them. Out of the dregs of present disaster we can distill some real achievements in human progress.

This problem involves no one race group—no one religious faith. It is the problem of all groups and all faiths. It is not enough to indulge in horrified humanitarianism, empty resolutions, golden rhetoric and pious words. We must face it actively if the democratic principle based on respect and human dignity is to survive, and if world order, which rests on security of the individual, is to be restored.

Remembering the words written on the Statue of Liberty, let us lift a lamp beside new golden doors and built new refuges for the tired, for the poor, for the huddled masses yearning to be free.

Sources: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States