By Maria Clara Martin, UNHCR Representative in Greece
After more than two decades working with the United Nations, in several countries and various difficult contexts, one of the proudest moments of my career was my appointment as Representative in Greece. Events several years ago showed Greece as a country that embodies the values of compassion and solidarity, and I consider myself very fortunate to have the opportunity to continue to support refugees and asylum-seekers here.
At a time when asylum and migration issues have been very much politicized, we must not lose sight of what a refugee is. Nobody chooses to be a refugee. Nobody chooses to be subjected to violence or persecution because of who one is. No one chooses to be caught in a conflict in which one has no part. As a refugee poet once wrote, “you only leave home when home won’t let you stay; no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land”.
Those fleeing for the safety they cannot find at home need and deserve our support and our concern for what they have gone through, and what they have left behind. They are entitled to protection and to respect for their fundamental rights, as outlined by international, European and national law.
I have met refugees all over the world who have suffered unimaginable atrocities and persecution. I have found despair and I have found hope – and every single one of them has inspired me to do more.
There are over 20 million refugees in the world. Over 90% are in low or middle income countries bordering areas of conflict. Many had to travel further in search of safety, undertaking perilous journeys, where they were again exposed to violence, abuse or worse. Unfortunately, very few have time or the possibility to request passports or visas when running for their lives. That does not make them less of a refugee. A refugee is a refugee because of the reasons for which they fled their own country, regardless of the papers they carry or the route they travel.
A key lesson I’ve learned through my experiences is that refugees are not a “burden”. They bring skills and an unbreakable will to rebuild their lives. If given the chance, they can contribute immeasurably to host communities and the economies of the countries that receive them –developing business, paying tax, and bringing new ideas.
Studies have shown that a diverse workforce results in increased productivity and that refugees allowed to work contribute more to a country’s economy than the country invested in them. Integration brings benefits to refugees but also the communities hosting them and I am grateful to the Greek community for the solidarity they have shown towards refugees.
And this solidarity, not just in Greece but across Europe, is needed now more than ever. I look forward to continuing the work of UNHCR with Greece, its people and all partners, in the same spirit of solidarity that has guided this country for many years.
*This is a translation of an op-ed hosted in Greek at the newspaper TA NEA on 15 November 2021.