Statement to the Madrid Conference on Refugee Reception and Integration

Ms. Secretary General,

Mr. Secretary General of the Cervantes Institute,

Dear friends,

It is a pleasure for me to be in Spain and to open this important conference, at this emblematic place. El Instituto Cervantes plays a central role in the transmission of Spanish language, knowledge and culture - all key elements, amongst others, for the integration of refugees.

As you know, I am also from a country bordering the Mediterranean - a sea that brings an impressive wealth to both Spain and Italy, and joins and unites us, but at the same time has become the deadliest maritime border in the world for thousands of refugees and migrants. More than 5,000 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean in 2016, and this deadly trend continues in 2017.

The protection of people uprooted and forced to flee their homes is a universal value, firmly embedded across in many cultural and religious traditions, and a fundamental part of European identity. This value is central to the work of UNHCR, is part of international law, and also motivates the engagement of many in this room today. But sustaining it and translating it into practice is rarely straightforward, in a world in which conflicts are deepening and becoming more complex, the number of those uprooted is on the rise, and the refugee issue has taken on a political resonance, amidst growing xenophobia and nationalism in many contexts.

The challenges of protecting and integrating refugees in Europe should be considered within a broader global picture. Today, there are more than 65 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, around two thirds of whom are inside their own countries. Of those that have fled their countries as refugees, the vast majority - almost 9 out of 10 - remain in developing or middle-income countries in their own regions. Turkey alone hosts three million refugees; in Lebanon, one in four people is now a refugee; and Uganda, struggling to meet the development needs of its own people, has received more than 700,000 refugees fleeing conflict and famine in South Sudan since this time last year.

This is not to downplay the challenges of receiving and integrating refugees in Spain and other European countries. But it is important to recognize that the responsibility for receiving and hosting refugees currently falls overwhelming on the countries closest to crisis zones - and that in welcoming and hosting large numbers of refugees for years on end, they make an important contribution to regional and international stability. When these countries see European borders closing, and solidarity faltering, as they did when refugees and migrants began to arrive in Europe in large numbers in 2015, and when donor support for refugee operations is eclipsed by the needs, it inevitably raises difficult questions. How we ensure that protecting and supporting refugees is truly a shared global responsibility, and not just a function of proximity to war?

First and foremost, protecting refugees calls for a commitment to saving lives – including through rescue at sea. Borders must be kept open to those fleeing in search of safety, and regardless of status - refugee or migrant - saving lives is a compelling humanitarian imperative. At the same time, we need a shared European approach that does not leave just one or two countries to serve as disembarkation points.

We also need much more decisive international action to address the root causes of displacement – by galvanizing political action at the highest level to prevent and resolve the conflicts and instability that propel people to move, as well as greater investments to stabilise the situation in the countries that refugees flee to, to mitigate the impact on their economies, services and infrastructure.

We also need safe, regular pathways that allow more refugees to move beyond the countries where they first find asylum, and to avoid their being forced into perilous irregular routes. Refugee resettlement is an important mechanism for achieving this – but there is also scope for creative approaches to family reunion schemes, scholarship programmes, and labour migration for refugees.

Solidarity within the European Union must also be restored. In 2015, good agreements were reached on relocation of asylum seekers within Europe, but implementation has been much too slow, and cooperation on this and other aspects of the European asylum system must urgently be enhanced. We need to strengthen reception capacity and asylum systems – continuing to build a Common European Asylum system that respects human rights and refugee law, and ensures that the most vulnerable, including unaccompanied and separated children, and survivors of violence, receive particular support.  And we need to invest in integration – the topic of this conference - tackling xenophobia and intolerance, and fostering welcoming communities in which refugees can rebuild their lives. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

Spain has traditionally played an important leadership role in the context of solidarity with refugees.

It has provided a powerful example in receiving and integrating thousands of third country nationals and in forging a political consensus on avoiding anti-refugee rhetoric. There is also a strong collective memory of conflict and exile, and a tradition of welcome and support to refugees, including through voluntary and grassroots organizations, and financial and social support to national and international campaigns and refugee programmes.

Here, I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the Spanish people, including many students, retired people, and families, who are supporting refugees and UNHCR. Over 450,000 men and woman contribute to UNHCR’s refugee programmes worldwide through the Spanish Committee for UNHCR, often from very limited resources, to protect and help those fleeing war and persecution.

But as well as supporting refugees abroad, Spanish people have demonstrated an admirable commitment to receiving and integrating refugees within their own communities - offering them a safe haven, and welcoming them in their schools, their workplaces and their society. Many regional and local authorities and communities in Spain have been resolute in expressing their willingness to accommodate and integrate refugees - the Mayor of Madrid confirmed this in our meeting yesterday.

Together with refugees themselves, they make the difference between inclusion or marginalisation, self-reliance or dependency, rebuilding a life or remaining in a situation of loss and despair. Given the right environment, and with the right support, refugees are able to build connections to social, economic, health and educational opportunities in their neighbourhoods and to contribute to the well-being and growth of host communities. These regional and local dimensions are central to enabling refugees to integrate and flourish.

Spain also has a strong tradition of volunteerism, as does my own country, Italy. The most powerful advocates for refugees are often people who have given up their time and energy to work directly with refugees, have been directly exposed to them and have shared, even momentarily, the reality of their experiences and values. This is a powerful force to be nurtured, with the potential to change perceptions, break stereotypes and shape public opinion while building the bridge between refugees and host communities.

I have been enormously impressed by the welcoming and creative initiatives that have been developed all over Spain by a range of people and groups, including grassroots organizations, business people, academics, journalists, bloggers, sportspeople, religious groups and students, to name just a few. 

I am delighted to see that today´s conference embraces a holistic focus on how to support refugee integration, from a social, educational and employment perspective, and importantly, incorporating the views and experiences of refugees and the communities in which they live. 

Spain is leading the way in this regard – and I urge you to do all you can to protect and nourish this positive environment, to embrace the idea of inclusion, and to counter narratives that would seek to exclude and marginalize refugees and other uprooted people.

Integration is a complex, dynamic and two-way process.  In order to fully and productively participate in social, economic and cultural life of their new communities, refugees need support to exercise their rights and access opportunities. Governments must be ready to lead this process, through an adequately-resourced national integration strategy.

A country as important as Spain can - and should - do more.  This implies, for example, taking on a more active and significant role as regards responsibility sharing; not only in countries of first asylum but also in Spain itself.  Taking advantage of the extraordinary solidarity demonstrated by its people, the Government should ensure more and new legal pathways of entry into the country and ensure an increase of its resettlement programs, putting in place all the measures necessary to guarantee a solid and sustainable integration.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This conference comes at an important moment. In September last year, the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants was adopted at the UN General Assembly, which underscored the fundamental principles of refugee protection and placed international solidarity and responsibility-sharing high on the international agenda.

Integrating those uprooted by war, violence and persecution will remain a shared challenge for many years to come, in Europe and elsewhere. Spain’s rich experience, and tradition of solidarity and goodwill mean that it is uniquely well-placed to lead by example – turning Spain into a country of asylum and integration in which refugee women and men, girls and boys who have lost everything are able rebuild their lives and contribute to the diversity and growth of their new communities.

UNHCR stands ready to work with you to make this happen. Thank you.