I took my post as UNHCR Representative in Greece six weeks ago. Working here is the highlight of my career with the United Nations – a career that took me to Africa, Europe and Latin America. I feel honoured to work for refugees here – the very spot where the concept, the word, and the institution of asylum were born. But even more, I feel honoured because I, like many throughout the world, think of the compassion and solidarity that the Greek people showed towards refugees during the crisis several years ago, and that is needed so much today.
Times have changed, and we are not seeing the mass movements that we saw back then. Yet, the challenges of war, conflicts, mass violations of human rights, often compounded by climate change, continue to create increasing numbers of forcibly displaced populations throughout the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has further harshened the situation globally, creating yet more poverty, more inequality and unrest. There are some 26.6 million refugees in the world. An additional 51 million are displaced in their own countries. And there are, in addition, some 281 million migrants globally.
It is true that mixed movements of refugees and migrants pose very real challenges to States, asylum systems, local communities. But let us not forget, when it comes to refugees, that being a refugee is a circumstance. No one chooses to be a refugee – they are a product of persecution for their opinions, their ethnicity, their nationality, their language, their religion – basically, for who they are. And let us also not forget that the large majority – more than 85 per cent – of refugees around the world are not in Europe. They are in Africa, in the Middle East, and in Asia. The modest number of refugees in Europe, combined with its advanced economies and governments means refugees, can be accepted in a positive way. Many refugees possess skills that our countries need and want, with an enormous desire to learn, to integrate and to contribute. We should harness this potential, which can bring great benefit of the countries that host them, through integration – being included and taking part in their host country’s successes and responsibilities.
Throughout my work of over two decades with the UN, I have seen evidence, over and over again, of this. An integration programme that contemplates the needs of the country and can use refugees’ skills is key. In the same way as no one chooses to be a refugee, no one wants to live a life of handouts and charity. Refugees, wherever they are, want to stop depending on aid, want to cover their own needs, and those of their children, in a dignified, safe and sustainable way. They are happier working and paying taxes – they prefer being active and giving back to the countries and societies that have given them protection.
Throughout my work in three continents, I have seen myriads of examples of this throughout the world, including in Greece. And I have seen the benefits that integration can bring. To host communities, as they can benefit from new economic initiatives; refugee businesses often create jobs in the community; and refugees can bring knowledge and technologies that are needed in the host locations. To companies, as the inclusion of diverse people improves productivity and stimulates innovation: Several studies at the international level show that a diverse workforce can help increase productivity and innovation, in cases up to 40%. Integration brings benefits to the economy: studies in European Union countries show, for example, that an investment of 1 euro in the integration of refugees can generate 2 euros in benefits within a period of no more than five years. And finally, integration can bring benefits to the society as a whole, as it promotes peace and social cohesion, reducing social conflicts and the cost associated with them.
Integration is a workable solution that can bring a wide range of benefits to all countries which pursue it integration through good policies and practices. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has more than 70 years of experience in the field of solutions, including integration, and we are happy – and honoured – to further cooperate with Greece to unlock the integration potential for the benefit of the refugees in Greece and for Greek citizens and society as whole.
*This is a translation of an op-ed hosted in Greek at Liberal.gr 18 December 2021.