UN High Commissioner for Refugees addresses European Parliament marking 70 years of the Refugee Convention
Members of the European Parliament,
Distinguished guests and dear friends,
I am very honoured to be with you today.
Madam Vice-President, would you please convey my best wishes of a prompt recovery to President Sassoli.
Seventy years ago, in the aftermath of the Second World War, delegates from many of your countries gathered in Geneva at a special United Nations conference to adopt the 1951 Convention on Refugees. It was one of the highlights of renewed commitment to international cooperation — which the war had destroyed — and of solidarity with the millions of people whom the war had uprooted.
Over seven decades the Refugee Convention has proven its relevance time and again — a legal framework which — implementing the ancient and universal principles of asylum — has saved countless people from violence, conflict, and persecution because of their race, religion, politics, and more.
And it is on behalf of the refugees and other people forcibly displaced around the world, that I come today to seek your renewed commitment to solidarity and support.
For if we are to solve the challenges before humanity – of COVID-19, of climate, of conflict – we need political leaders like you to reject the ‘me first; my country first’ approach that may win elections, yet brings little in terms of practical solutions; and — instead — embrace again a sense of purpose through international cooperation.
Nobody chooses to be a refugee. To be subjected to violence or persecution because of who one is. Or caught in conflict from which one must flee, forced to live with the anguish of exile.
UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Organization, which I lead, is mandated to protect, assist, and solve the plight of those displaced around the world. In more than 130 countries, my colleagues work on the ground with more than 82 million refugees and internally displaced people and counting, around 90 per cent of whom are not here in Europe or elsewhere in prosperous countries, but in low and middle income ones bordering areas of conflict or crisis.
Think of Lebanon, for example, where one in five people is a refugee. Or Colombia, which hosts more than 1.7 million Venezuelans. Or Kenya, with hundreds of thousands of Somali, South Sudanese, Ethiopian, and other refugees. It is host countries like those that bear the brunt of the international responsibility to protect refugees. And it is those countries and host communities that must be supported through increased humanitarian and development aid, as well as other burden and responsibility sharing mechanisms, like refugee resettlement.
And much more must be done inside countries of origin — through concerted, strategic efforts — to prevent displacement in the first place and to resolve the causes of people’s flight so they can return home, which remains the preferred solution of nearly every single displaced person.
Such action is needed in Ethiopia, which – after a year of senseless, brutal violence in Tigray – is tragically entering a much larger and even more complex conflict. The fragmentation of the entire country is now a real risk, and so is the likelihood of further internal and external displacement, with destabilizing consequences throughout the Horn of Africa. The European Union (EU) must give stronger support to peacemaking efforts if we are to prevent a crisis with ramifications that will be felt for generations across the region; the continent; and beyond.
Or in the Sahel, where social cohesion in fragile and poor nations is crumbling over resources made scarce by climate change. This causes conflict, creates space for terrorism and uproots people — around 2.5 million are now displaced or refugees in Central Sahel, at the doorstep of Europe and very near Libya, and the crisis keeps widening. More broadly, climate related displacement is a growing reality which I hope governments and stakeholders will pay more attention to, beyond COP26.
Or in Afghanistan, where the UN and NGO colleagues – who never left – are delivering aid across the country and ramping up assistance to displaced and returning Afghans ahead of winter, which is days away. But unless the international community finds ways to prevent a total collapse of basic services and of financial liquidity, I fear not only massive humanitarian suffering of the 39 million Afghans still in the country, but also potentially large-scale displacement in a manner that will have global consequences, including for Europe.
In some places, on the other hand, we must step up work in and with countries of origin to remove the obstacles that refugees tell us prevent them from returning. For example, while we must not waver in our support to countries hosting Syrian refugees, like Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and especially Lebanon, we must also do more to help Syrians inside their country. Many among the millions of refugees and internally displaced people tell us that they want to return home but cannot just yet because of security concerns and a lack of services. We must work on both.
In these and other places around the world, I look to Europe for leadership and support. We are of course grateful for Europe’s aid efforts and we will continue to encourage funding to be as flexible and predictable as possible. But for Europe’s political leadership to help prevent and solve conflicts is equally important — political leadership which is not always visible, and which is often undermined by divisions.
But global leadership, as you know, starts at home.
And the picture painted by Europe’s recent record on asylum is, regrettably, mixed. While many countries have and continue to adhere to European and international laws and principles, current practices by some States are of serious concern and the rest of the EU must not allow a race to the bottom but rather ensure that laws and obligations are upheld by all.
I appreciate the many very real challenges that mixed movements of refugees and migrants pose to asylum systems, in Europe and worldwide — made worse, very often, by the criminal action of traffickers.
And of course it is unacceptable that the dangerous onward movement of vulnerable people be encouraged by States. In this respect, yesterday, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have appealed for an urgent resolution of the situation at the border between Belarus and Poland, and for immediate, unhindered access to people on the move, to ensure provision of humanitarian assistance, identification of those in need of protection and access to procedures in Belarus for those there who wish to seek asylum.
But looking at the broader picture in Europe, these challenges simply do not justify the knee-jerk reaction we have seen in some places. The irresponsible xenophobic discourse. The walls and barbed wire. The violent pushbacks that include the beating of refugees and migrants, sometimes stripping them naked and dumping them in rivers or leaving them to drown in seas. The attempts to evade asylum obligations by paying other States to take on one’s own responsibilities. Madame Vice President, the EU, a Union based on the rule of law, should and can do better and in matters of rule of law continue to be an example to others.
There is, Madam Vice-President, a way to manage those challenges. Not through rhetoric and demonization of ‘the other’, but by working together.
The first and best solution is of course to ensure that people are protected in their home countries, and that is where European peacemaking plays an important role.
The second is to enable better protection in countries where most refugees seek asylum, close to home, and that is where robust European support can help strengthen asylum systems and provide humanitarian and development aid to facilitate refugees’ inclusion in host countries’ social services and economic activities until a durable solution is found.
But there will continue to be people in need of protection who arrive at European borders, and receiving them in ways that are both effective and principled is an obligation of the EU.
It is an obligation which can be met with the early identification of those in need of international protection through fair and fast asylum procedures.
It is an obligation which can also more easily be met when coupled with efficient and expeditious return of people found not to be in need of international protection – an important component of the protection system as a whole, contributing to its integrity and public confidence.
I know that such returns have not proven to be easy. But the answer cannot be at the expense of responsibilities to extend protection when it is needed. States must cooperate to address these challenges in different ways and UNHCR, IOM and other partners are ready to help.
Finding solutions also means cooperation among EU States to share the responsibility for those in need of protection within and amongst the Union.
And it means respecting the rule of law and the legal systems that exist and which I – and so many other proud Europeans – value as a foundational part of our social contract.
The New Pact on Migration and Asylum proposed by the European Commission, which we have endorsed as a practical way forward, provides EU Member States with the framework to help manage mixed flows and uphold European responsibilities. I encourage all Member States to support the Pact. And I wish here to express my appreciation for the work of the European Commission. Whether discussing the situation inside Europe, or working for solutions abroad, it has been a constant source of support to UNHCR and to displaced people around the world. They have been a true partner and supporter, for which I am grateful. And I want to extend my special thanks to Commissioner Ylva Johansson, who is here with us today.
The 1951 Refugee Convention and the EU were born from the same tragedy to save future generations from the devastation wrought by war. The European project has undoubtedly brought Europeans unprecedented peace and prosperity, of which we should all be proud.
And the 1951 Refugee Convention has saved many lives and – despite its age – continues to prove its relevance for people forced to flee unrelenting violence and persecution.
The strength of both is found not only in a resolute legal basis for preventing conflict and protecting people, but also – and as importantly – in a deeper sense of solidarity.
Solidarity between States.
Solidarity with people in need of protection.
We need both now, and more than ever.