conversation to negotiate with the Office by the Central Mennonite Committee, the arrangements for the transfer of about 550 Mennonite refugees from Harbin to South America JANUARY 13th, 1932

von Hermann Schirmacher

Source: United Nations Archives at Geneva


JANUARY 13th, 1932. 

I had a long conversation today with MM. Unruh and Gorter, who were charged to negotiate with the Office by the Central Mennonite Committee, the arrangements for the transfer of about 550 Mennonite refugees from Harbin to South America. MM. Unruh and Gorter desired to place on record their very high appreciation of the assistance given to the Mennonites by the Office, and particularly, of the exceptionally favorable transport conditions the Office had succeeded in securing for them. For a variety of reasons, they expressed the desire that the Office should carry the transport arrangements through to a final conclusion. I pointed out that I was tunable to do this in view of the decision taken by the Governing Body at its last meeting, but I emphasized very clearly that the Office could only act as an intermediary and could assume no responsibility either to the Mennonites or the Shipping Company for the cost of the transport or, in fact, for the due fulfilment of the transport arrangements. Subject to that proviso, however, the Office would, of course, use every possible endeavor to insure that the transport -was effected as smoothly, and as satisfactorily, as possible.

I acquainted MM- Unruh and Gorter with the communication which had been addressed to the League by the Bolivian Government with regard to the settlement of refugees in the Chaco, and intimated that if the Bolivian Government maintained the point of view expressed in that letter, the Office might find it very difficult to associate itself in any way with the transfer of the refugees to Paraguay. I pointed out, moreover, that the advantageous transport terms were only available until January 15th and inquired whether the Mennonite Committee was in a position to make any proposals which would enable advantage to be taken of those offers even if it proved to be difficult or impossible to settle the refugees in the Chaco. After a very lengthy discussion, MM. Unruh and Gorter stated that they had full authority to accept the Shipping offers, provided they were not tied to Buenos Aires as the port of disembarkation, but could, at their discretion, disembark the refugees at another South American port. They informed me that if the Office, for the reasons mentioned above, found it impossible to associate itself with the transfer of the refugees to Paraguay, the Mennonite Central Committee would most certainly not accept the sole responsibility for such transfer. In that eventuality, the Central Mennonite Committee would contemplate the transfer of the refugees to existing Mennonite colonies in Santa Catarina in the south of Brazil. MM. Unruh and Gortler emphasized, however, that they would, for a variety of reasons, infinitely prefer to see their refugees settle in the Chaco rather than in Santa Catarina, especially in view of the fact that all the necessary arrangements for the admission of the refugees had been made by the Paraguayan Government, whereas all such arrangements would have to be made with the Brazilian Government in the event of the refugees having to be sent to Santa Catarina. They underlined, moreover, that the Brazilian immigration restrictions were more stringent than those of Paraguay, particularly in regard to medical inspection of refugees, many of whom, unfortunately, were suffering from Trachoma. They asked that the Office would intervene with the Brazilian Authorities with a view to securing all possible facilities for the admission of the Mennonite refugees to Santa Catarina.

I pointed out, however, that it would seem premature for the Office to embark on such negotiations before a definite decision had been taken in regard to the transfer of these refugees to Paraguay, - a decision which probably could not be taken before the meeting of the Council of the League at the end of January.

We then discussed a whole series of technical details connected with the transfer of the refugees from Harbin to South America. In the first place, MM. Unruh and Gorter expressed the desire that payment to the Shipping Company for the transport expenses should be made by the Office and not by the Mennonite Committee direct. This would probably, in any case, be necessary to enable the refugees to take advantage of the reduced transport facilities which are only available for protégés of the Office. MM. Unruh and Gorter also asked that the proposed deposit of $ 10,000 should also be effected in the name of the Office at the latter's bank in Geneva. I intimated that , there would probably be no difficulty in giving effect to those requests, always provided that the Office responsibility would not thereby; be in volved.

Trans-shipment at Marseilles:

Messrs. Unruh and Gorter asked that, in order to insure the satisfactory trans-shipment of the refugees at Marseilles, a representative of the Office could be present at that port on the arrival of the refugees from Shanghai. I intimated that I foresaw no great difficulty in giving effect to that request.

Interpreter on Board: I was asked to endeavor to insure that as the ships which were to transport these refugees from Shanghai to South America would probably be those of a French Line, at least one interpreter should be on board speaking either Russian or German and French. I said that I would communicate this request to the Shipping Company for their benevolent consideration.


In reply to an enquiry as to whether any additional charges would be made for the baggage of the refugees, I stated that we had never in the past been called upon to pay extra charges for refugee baggage, and I did not anticipate that any claim would be made in this case, providing, of course, that the amount of baggage per head was reasonable. I would also take up that point with the Shipping Company.

Free Admission of Clothing from Holland to Marseilles:

Dr. Gorter informed me that the Dutch Mennonite Society had collected considerable quantities of clothing for, the refugees in Harbin and would like to place such at "their disposal at Marseilles without (if possible, paying any duty thereon. I said that I would ask M. Paon to endeavor to obtain the necessary facilities from the Shipping Authorities.

Dates of Embarkation at Shanghai and Arrival at Marseille and South American Port:

It was arranged that I should ascertain from the Shipping Company alternate dates for embarkation of refugees at Shanghai and for their arrival and reembarkation at Marseilles and for their disembarkation at the South American port. In the case of Paraguay, the port would be either Buenos Aires or Montevideo and in the case of Santa Caterina, either Itajahy or Sao Francisco.

Passports and Visas:

As the Argentine transit visa is very costly, I promised to examine the possibility of disembarking the refugees at Montevideo and of effecting their transfer to Paraguay by water from Montevideo, the Uruguayan transit visa being much cheaper.

Feeding and Medical Attendance:

I promised to ascertain whether the International Red Cross Society would be prepared to cooperate in the feeding and medical attendance of refugees at Shanghai, Marseilles and South American port in much the same way as the League of Red Cross Societies had cooperated in connection with the transfer of Armenian refugees from Greece and Batoum.

Medical Inspection:

As already stated, some of the refugees suffered from Trachoma, against which there are very severe measures in Brazil. Professor Unruh asked whether arrangements could be made for the Trachoma patients to be treated at Shanghai and only transferred to Brazil if the choice finally falls on Brazil after they have been passed as cured by a doctor nominated by the Brazilian Council in Shanghai. I replied that such measures might prove difficult, as well as costly, but that I would consult the International Red Cross thereon with a view to ascertaining whether effect could be given to that request. 

Excessive expenses from Harbin. Professor Unruh informed me that the refugees from Harbin had been required to pay excessive fees by the Chinese Police to allow them to stay in Harbin. He feared very much that demands for even heavier fees would be made as a preliminary before the refugees would be allowed to leave Harbin. I informed Professor Unruh that, as soon as it had been definitely decided to move the refugees from Harbin, the Office would consider the possibility of instructing its Representative, M. Cuénod in Shanghai, to proceed to Harbin, for the purposes of facilitating in any way he could, the departure and transport of those refugees from Harbin to Shanghai. 

Transport Expenses from Harbin to Shanghai. 

I have received from our correspondent in Shanghai a reduced quotation for the transport of 1,000 refugees from Harbin to Shanghai amounting to about 25,000 Sw. frs. MM Unruh and Gorter informed me that it would be quite impossible for their committee to find this sum, seeing that they had been obliged to tax their resources to the utmost to find more than 70,000 dollars for the transport of the refugees from Harbin to South America, in addition to the very substantial sums necessary for their preliminary settlement expenses. I am quite convinced of the accuracy of those statements as I happen to know that these refugee organizations have pledged their credit in order to take advantage of the advantageous transport facilities obtained by the Office. They urge that, in these circumstances, the Office should endeavor to pay, or at least, advance, the cost of the transport of the refugees from Harbin to Shanghai without, of course, committing the Office in any nay. I informed them that I would submit the request to the President for his benevolent consideration.