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UNHCR's Volker Türk calls for 'more empathic and humane dialogue' in key address


UNHCR's Volker Türk calls for 'more empathic and humane dialogue' in key address

Assistant High Commissioner for Protection tells annual Executive Committee meeting that the debate on refugees must refocus on human dignity.
4 October 2018
Greece. Comforting newly arrived refugees
A UNHCR staff member holds a young refugee boy in a blanket, after his boat landed on the Greek island of Lesvos in January 2016.

GENEVA – UNHCR’s international protection chief called today for a return to a “more empathic and humane dialogue” focusing on human dignity, to counter fraught debates about refugees.

In a key address to the UN Refugee Agency’s annual Executive Committee meeting in Geneva, Volker Türk, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, described the polarization of public discourse around refugees.

On the one hand, he said, there was a constructive multilateral approach that led 193 UN member states to develop the global compact on refugees this year, showing what “can be achieved when we choose to rise above short-term interests to find a common way forward.”

On the other hand, he spoke of the consequences of states succumbing to populist pressures and shirking their responsibilities. He cited the examples of children banging their heads against the wall, in despair, as they were separated from parents or languished in detention, and the suicides of young asylum-seekers held and mistreated in processing centres.

“We are facing a watershed moment where two sets of values have emerged in two distinct modes of discourse,” Türk, the UN’s leading expert on international protection, told the forum.

“We are facing a watershed moment where two sets of values  have emerged."

”It is difficult to reconcile how the positive developments of the past year have occurred alongside the seemingly endless volley of assaults on refugees.  In different ways, they speak to what is at the heart of our protection work: respecting human dignity.”

Renewed attention to the debate comes at a time when war and persecution have uprooted a record 68.5 million children, women and men worldwide, among them 25.4 million refugees.

Amid the “noise, chatter, shrillness, lack of civility, and harsh language” surrounding the discussion, Türk called for the creation of a space where “we can make such a conversation possible – for human dignity to re-enter the picture in our thinking and engagement.”

He set out five areas where we need to focus:

First, respect for dignity must be central to the development and implementation of law and standards for refugee protection. This means especially preventing attempts to narrow the concept of who is a refugee. It means remembering that the refugee protection regime was intended to be full and inclusive.

It also means respecting the law. “We need to recognize that when we allow the denigration of just one person through the breach of these laws, we set the precedent for the denigration of us all.”

Second, the protection chief stressed that respect for dignity must be the antidote to dehumanization. He underlined how hatred and violence had their origins in reducing individuals and groups to one or two characteristics, which “denigrates, and dehumanizes, challenging the inherent dignity of all.”

He continued: “We need to confront the xenophobia, racism, nativism, and bigotry, often driven by fear, anger, and anxieties within communities.  These are often used to deflect responsibility” and “as a pretext for demolishing institutions of liberal democracy.” “This ultimately has a corrosive effect on everyone.”

Third, respect for dignity must be at the centre of the right to a nationality, which recognized that individuals are not objects to be governed by the powerful, but are subjects of law, endowed with dignity and entitled to a legal identity. 

“Stateless people have told me how they feel invisible, as if they have fallen through the cracks."

“Stateless people have told me how they feel invisible, as if they have fallen through the cracks and do not matter,” said Türk.  

Fourth, respect for the dignity of all illustrates the necessity of multilateralism in an interdependent world. Türk said it was our collective responsibility to address the root causes of displacement and help countries shoulder their responsibilities for hosting refugees.

He added: “It is surprising that some of the countries that have benefited the most from international cooperation and trade are amongst those least willing to be part of international or regional frameworks on population movements, including refugees.”

He observed how it has become fashionable in some academic circles to play with the idea of containment, externalization, “and literally shipping people out of sight, out of mind, and effectively out of rights.”

Finally, the dignity and safety of future generations must be safeguarded by tackling the issues that led to forced displacement, with armed conflict top of the list.

Factors fuelling conflict and violence must be addressed as a priority, including the arms trade, extraction industries, the acquisition of land for mining and other purposes, inequality, authoritarianism and environmental change and degradation.

He concluded: “Protection is often seen in the negative, as violations and abuses of rights dominate the narrative, but it must also be seen as a vision for the future.  Preserving human dignity calls upon us to draw upon our diversity and richness to imagine larger freedoms that can be secured through vigilance and common action.”

You can read the full speech here.