Honorable Members of the European Parliament,
Thank you for the opportunity of addressing the European Parliament at such a critical moment. It is a great, though somewhat daunting, privilege.
I am not Syrian, I am not Ukrainian, I am not Yemeni, I am not Afghani. I am not from South Sudan. I am not from Israel or Palestine. I am not a politician. I am not even a pundit. But I am a witness. And having witnessed the human cost of war, violence and persecution visiting refugees from across the globe, I cannot look away. What sits at the core of my dual roles as actor and Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR is the human condition, the human story.
Over the past few weeks, we have all, in horror, been watching the continuing violence in Israel and Gaza. The conflict has claimed – and is still claiming – thousands of innocent lives. Earlier this week, UNHCR’s High Commissioner called – together with several other humanitarian organizations – for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” and the immediate release of all civilians held hostage. Alas, while these events are understandably dominating the news, this is far from the only violence afflicting our world, and these are not the only innocent lives being lost.
War rages on in Ukraine. It rages in Sudan, where it has already forced millions of people to flee their homes since erupting earlier this year. Indeed, in recent times, the headlines have brought us news of violence in Ethiopia, or Afghanistan, in the Sahel, and many others. And in every single case, innocent people suffer, and innocent people are forced to run for their lives.
Globally, forced displacement has now passed the grim milestone of 114 million people. Many of those caught up in these maelstroms have made unbelievably dangerous journeys in search of a place of safety. On arrival, too many of them have found themselves unwanted, rejected, despised, even scapegoated.
114 million people. It’s a number so huge that it is difficult to grasp – but grasp it we must, as we acknowledge the figures and the facts. Because the fact is, of those 114 million, 62.5 million are displaced internally within their own countries. The others, 36.4 million who are forced to leave their countries, 69% of them remain in neighbouring countries. Places that I have had the great privilege of visiting, such as Bangladesh, South Sudan, Jordan, Niger and Lebanon.
Why do people stay so close to these places? Because just as I, just as we, would if we were in their shoes, they want to return home – to their people, to their land, to their families. I urge each and every one of you here today to stand firm in challenging the dangerous myth, peddled far too widely and stoking far too much fear and hostility, that each and every refugee is headed here to Europe.
It has been tempting for some in Europe to depict the challenge of refugees as a new one. The 1951 Refugee Convention, they say, is from another time. It was not designed to meet the challenge of so many people on the move – especially in a time of mass forced displacement or when new forms of large-scale displacement linked to climate change or natural disasters appear. The claim is that it places too many demands on our resources – on our schools, our hospitals, our job markets – or that new arrivals, with their different languages and cultures, will somehow undermine the values of those who host them.
Apart from the monumental compassion deficit in this argument, it also demonstrates a dangerous disregard for history.
For centuries, Europe, like so much of the world, has been crisscrossed by people who have fled home in search of protection from war, pogroms and persecution.
Over the centuries many were refused asylum, or if they were admitted then they were admitted under sufferance and regarded with suspicion.
But many were welcomed – not just sheltered, but actively encouraged to contribute to the social, cultural and economic life of the lands they now call home. Free to practice their religion. Provided with livestock, tools and seeds. Granted citizenship, and gradually, beneficially, absorbed into the societies who embraced them.
This mixed picture is recognizable in Europe today. In some cases, we immediately see that fleeing home, leaving everything behind and having to run for one’s life, is unavoidable, and we instinctively feel the need and obligation to help. In others, perhaps because we know little of the violence or human rights abuses that take place far from here, we are suspicious. And so, vulnerable people are caught between a place from which they were forced to flee through no fault of their own, and a place that refuses to let them in. Thus marooned, they drown, or freeze, or are trapped under rubble, or starved, or are enslaved, trafficked, enlisted, exploited. Devastating outcomes that we would not tolerate for ourselves.
At the end of the Second World War, as humankind confronted this devastation wreaked by one of the worst conflicts of all time, the international community made its most determined effort to enshrine some fundamental principles and ideals as a response to forced displacement and the generational suffering that it causes. Principles and ideals to help hold the world, with all of its difference, together.
The right to seek asylum and the provision of asylum without discrimination were central to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which marks its 75th anniversary this year.
This right underpins the 1951 Refugee Convention, which makes it an obligation for states to protect persons unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.
The 1951 Convention is a landmark human rights instrument that is not only still relevant but foundational to our common humanity. Part of the modern legal framework for human rights that evolved after the war, it sought to formalize a minimum set of rights for persons fleeing persecution – including, crucially, the right not to be returned to the country of original persecution if unsafe to do so. Although it was initially developed in a mostly European context, the standards and the principles outlined and defined in the Convention are universal, and it is one of the most widely ratified treaties globally. It is what helps keep the instruments and practice of government humane.
Adherence to the Convention has saved millions of lives. It also provides a set of shared principles for states to better manage asylum and to cooperate among themselves.
The framework also of course provides a legal, fair and dignified means to assess who does not qualify for asylum. No one is arguing that everyone who comes can have a right to remain.
I do wonder though if those who now question the Convention or who see walls and barbed-wire fences as a solution to the world’s 36.4 million refugees, have ever met or talked with a refugee. Or really forced themselves to confront the human cost of harmful policies such as externalization. As an Australian, I can tell you that we learnt the hard way; the devastating physical and mental torment that refugees experienced whilst being corralled offshore. The psychological damage to those guarding them. The billions of dollars of tax-payers money wasted on a now discredited and largely abandoned approach. And, may I say, the resultant shame and regret that many of my fellow Australians feel now surrounding these ineffective and inhumane policies.
In my capacity as Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, I have had the privilege of travelling to meet refugees in countries across the world.
And there are so many humbling things that I have witnessed and learnt from the people who have generously shared their stories with me. But here are just three.
First, the refugees I have met are in a state of shock. Shock at what they have seen and experienced, shock at finding themselves uprooted, shock at losing everything and at having to start again from scratch. But this is not just about the most vulnerable – the women threatened not only by bombs and bullets but by unimaginable, intolerable sexual abuse, and the children who have lost their futures as well as their homes. It is also about the young men who are so often demonized in the media but who are visibly traumatized by the physical abuse and humiliation that they have endured.
I recently met a young man – let’s call him Ibrahim – in Niger. He was a refugee from Darfur, forced to flee the impossible choice of conscription by the militia or certain death. He found his way to Libya. There he was enslaved, he was kept in a cage, he was beaten and repeatedly raped. This gentle young man – the same age as my eldest son – alone and deeply traumatized – he had tried to take a boat to Europe, not once, but seven times. He told me he took his chances because drowning at sea was a better option than his catastrophic experiences in Africa. In the words of the poet Warshan Shire: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark … you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land…”
I think also of a Syrian refugee woman I met in Lebanon. Let’s call her Miriam. A highly educated woman. She was an architect. When she told me she was planning to take her three children on a boat to Europe, I was taken aback. Had she not heard about the tragic drownings that had happened only weeks before? Yes, she replied calmly, but she said: I have no choice. Here my children cannot get the education they need, here I cannot make a living. Now if I was that mother, what would I do? What would you do?
If you can imagine just for a moment your own sons and daughters, your own children and grandchildren, in the same situation, then perhaps you can understand that walls, barbed wire, pushbacks are no answer. Desperate and vulnerable people like Ibrahim and Miriam will keep trying to escape that mouth of the shark.
Ten years ago, we were all appalled by the loss of the hundreds of lives when an overcrowded boat sank near the island of Lampedusa. And in the decade since, many more have perished in the same way. And in ten years’ time, people will still be drowning on our shores – unless something changes.
Complex situations require complex solutions, they require dialogue, they require collaboration – not soundbites or slogans. Finding sustainable solutions in countries of origin, transit and destination is the only way. Now in this room, there are people of vastly different backgrounds, different cultures, different politics, different views – but we all share a common humanity and we need to come together to put people, to put our humanity, back at the center and the heart of asylum.
The second thing I have learned is that refugees have not fled home to take anyone’s job or undermine anyone’s culture. Even though they have fled terrible violence, they would much prefer to stay as close to home as possible – think back to that fact, 69% of refugees stay in a country neighbouring their own.
And I have witnessed remarkable generosity on the part of some of the neighbouring countries who have kept their borders open to refugees. When in Jordan this year, I revisited Alaa, a Syrian refugee I had first met in 2016. She was benefiting from a DAFI scholarship which enabled her to access tertiary education. Eight months pregnant then, she had journeyed an hour and half each way, each day. Such was her determination to complete her studies and qualify. Seven years since we last met, here she was, a mother of three children and teaching in a primary school in Zaatari refugee camp, helping to keep hope alive for the next generation of refugee children who may, one day, return home to Syria.
In Niger, I met women from host and refugee communities working together to grow crops and re-green the environment, to breed goats, to make soap. Together they were feeding their families, together they were building livelihoods and building community and a peaceful co-existence. Their children were going to school together.
Not one of these people was contemplating stealing someone’s livelihood, subverting anyone’s values, imposing on anyone’s hospitality or demanding charity. Ibrahim, Miriam, Alaa and the women I met in Niger wanted only opportunity, kindness, compassion, and peace.
The third lesson I’d like to share has been a tough one to take. I have seen the impact of humanitarian funding cuts on the ground. The terrible choice humanitarians have to make about who gets a blanket, or access to water, or whose food ration is cut when supplies run out.
I’d like to echo UNHCR’s High Commissioner’s words, he is a lifelong humanitarian who recently implored the international community not to forget the millions of desperate, vulnerable people who may not be in the headlines right now, but who must not be abandoned. He said: ”Humanitarians are being asked to pick up the pieces and help more people in more places.” He said they are “being asked to do more with less … humanitarian work needs resources. UNHCR alone urgently needs US $600 million before the end of the year” … Being short of resources, the High Commissioner wondered for how much longer humanitarians can continue…” Humanitarians are tough, he said, but humanitarians….are near breaking point. And what will you be left with, when they are forced to go?
In South Sudan this July, I saw that devastating impact of insufficient funding as refugees and returnees poured out of Sudan. A lack of shelter, a lack of food or protection support for vulnerable women. Standing in mud. Barely enough water. I ask you; how can people stay?
I am not denying this is complex. But this is the European Union, and addressing the challenges of forced displacement and mixed movements requires unity, international cooperation, resources and patient, compassionate work to address the multiple and overlapping reasons people move.
So, my plea to the Parliament is also threefold:
First, please remember the forces that cause people like Ibrahim and Miriam to move, and ensure EU policy focuses on their protection, and not on fortifying borders. While numbers of people forced to flee are increasing, globally funding is decreasing – the EU can provide the model for enlightened leadership, investing, for example in opportunities and solutions closest to the countries of departure before people embark on dangerous journeys. A clear message out of the most recent UN General Assembly is: if we do not include refugees in the Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs themselves will fail.
Second, as the representatives of the people of Europe, please, remind your constituents that low and middle-income countries host the vast majority – nearly 90% – of all forcibly displaced people. Take this message to them. Challenge false claims that will ultimately only seed divisions in our own communities. Scapegoating so often leads to violence and unrest. And where coordinated responses to mixed movements to Europe are required, explain the importance of safe, legal pathways and invest in more efficient systems to quickly, humanely and fairly determine who legitimately has a right to stay, and who does not. Be robust in defence of the truth.
Third, continue to build on the EU’s proud tradition of humanitarian support whilst also ensuring development funding goes to host communities and countries and refugees.
Agencies like UNHCR are often the last resort for desperate people. With the number of forcibly displaced people at an all-time high, flexible humanitarian funding has never been more urgent.
Invest in education and livelihoods to ensure families have opportunities where they are so they don’t need to move. No one will benefit from a generation of alienated and excluded young people. No one.
Madam President, on behalf of UNHCR may I thank the European Parliament for its progressive role in the European debate on asylum and protection. May I thank the Parliament, the EU and those governments and organizations and individual citizens who have shown such compassionate leadership in the response to those forced to flee the war in Ukraine. This solidarity should not be limited to one group, but afforded to all. May I thank the EU for its long-standing financial support for refugees and their hosts globally, and urge continued and increased support.
The world is watching. May the spirit of hospitality and compassion and the championing of human rights that Europe modelled after 1945, and at the birth of the Refugee Convention, continue to provide an exemplar in the years to come.