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Willy Brandt Prize 2017

Speeches and statements

Willy Brandt Prize 2017

23 January 2017
Acceptance Speech by Filippo Grandi at the Willy-Brandt-Haus in Berlin

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am truly honoured to accept this prize on behalf of UNHCR. Your confidence and support are a big encouragement for all of us, at a moment in which our task - helping protect and find solutions for refugees and others forced to flee their homes - has become one of today's defining global challenges.

Conflicts around the world are increasingly becoming more complicated and violent. We have all seen the images from Aleppo - and not only Aleppo, but also from Juba, Sana’a, Kabul and many other places: the impact of conflicts on civilians is every day more devastating. We seem to have lost the ability to stop wars; and to build peace whenever the guns fall silent. In this context, the causes to which Willy Brandt devoted his life - the search for peace, for cooperation and solidarity between nations, for social justice and inclusion - are at the heart of the challenges we face today.

Willy Brandt was himself a refugee. While in exile, he no doubt longed to return home and help rebuild his country - this is the dream of most refugees and as we know, this is precisely what he did. One can well imagine that his refugee experience - his endurance of persecution and exile - was a key factor in forming his extraordinary vision of a cooperative, peaceful, inclusive international system, based on which he worked on shaping a new Europe. His ideals of shared values and international cooperation in a free world - the ideals that founded his work as Germany and Europe emerged from the Second World War and went through the difficult Cold War years – those ideals underpinned Europe's modern identity and institutions. Germany, social democracy and the Social Democratic Party still stand for those ideals today. And we should make no mistake: those are also the ideals which are at the heart of the international refugee protection system. That system was equally born from the ashes of the two world wars; like those ideals, it remains useful and relevant to us.

However, as recent events unfolded - with more than a million refugees and migrants arriving on Europe's shores in 2015 and 2016, I was struck by the extent to which Europe seemed to distance itself from the fundamental values that Willy Brandt had championed: we observed a continent in which solidarity appeared to recede, and in which the response of Europe was fragmented - with a small number of countries, and in particular Germany, stepping up to shoulder a disproportionate share of responsibility; and other member states participating in a reluctant and hesitant way, or refusing to do so outright.

The arrival of refugees in Europe, alongside migrants on the move, is part of a complex dynamic of increased human mobility. The number of people forcibly displaced by conflict and persecution - within their own countries or across borders as refugees - now exceeds 65 million, the highest in decades. And this is not a “European” crisis: on the contrary, 90% percent of refugees are in countries neighbouring their own - in places like Lebanon, where one quarter of the population is now a refugee, and Uganda, where a daily average of 5,000 people fleeing terrible violence in South Sudan have been arriving since last July. Forced displacement affects mostly poor or middle income countries: it is not an exclusive problem of the rich world.

But this crisis has undoubtedly taken on important European dimensions - triggered in large part by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, along with people from other refugee-producing countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan and migrants on the move for other reasons.

The arrival of Syrians, in particular, was triggered largely by growing impoverishment amongst refugees in the Middle East, with reduced humanitarian support, and weakening prospects for a political resolution of the war in Syria - as well as the lack of regular, managed possibilities for people to move to Europe and elsewhere.

Germany provided strong leadership and took principled, yet very practical measures. The courage and coherence of these measures were admirable, especially given the difficult political environment in which decisions were made. But the rapid breakdown of a collective European response and the adoption of policies of deterrence and containment by some states were hugely damaging. They have already had - and continue to have - a visible impact on refugee policies globally, with people left stranded at Syria's borders, unable to reach safety; and longstanding host countries in different parts of the world applying unprecedented pressure on refugees to return home to countries like Afghanistan and Somalia that are still affected by conflict.

And of course, the refugee issue is still at the forefront of the political agenda in Europe. The closure of borders and arrangements reached between the European Union and Turkey resulted in much lower new arrivals in Europe through the Eastern Mediterranean route. However, refugees and migrants are still arriving by sea in large numbers via North Africa and Italy. More than 5,000 people died in the process last year - a truly appalling human tragedy. Legal pathways to facilitate the orderly movement of refugees remain limited. And much still remains to be done to address the situation of the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and refugees who have already arrived - all in a divided political context in which xenophobia and nationalism are now increasingly prominent and where refugees and migrants are often perceived as a threat to identity, security and jobs.

This is very complicated, but we believe it can be managed. Key to any response should be effective organization, and this in turn can only work if all European states cooperate. To do so, it is fundamental that responses are therefore based on the principle of European solidarity - so close, by the way, to the heart of Willy Brandt.  This is indispensable if Europe is to embrace a proper, collective strategy to address refugee flows and rebuild the trust of its citizens. Solidarity is not just an abstract principle - it is based on genuine commitments and the adoption of common, practical measures to manage flows effectively.

At the global level, Germany has played a key role in recent groundbreaking work aimed at placing the principles of solidarity and responsibility sharing at the heart of the international response to refugee crises. These are elements of a new approach embedded in the New York Declaration, adopted at the United Nations Summit on Refugees and Migrants in New York last September. The Declaration reaffirms key protection standards and underscores the principle that refugees are a matter of international concern. It provides for a quicker engagement in refugee crises by a broader range of actors, especially through development. It sets out a framework for translating these commitments into action. UNHCR has been asked to lead this process, building towards a Global Compact for Refugees to be adopted next year. Making this happen will need both political support and resources, and we count on Germany, already a global leader in terms of humanitarian and development aid, and UNHCR's second largest bilateral donor last year, to help us fulfil that important responsibility.

It is also now essential that these elements be incorporated into the European response. The way in which Europe responds to refugee crises has a direct impact on how the world responds, and it is critical that we avert a 'race to the bottom' in which some countries renounce a common approach, believing that only national solutions can work.

We would be remiss if we didn’t recognize that we live in a very uncertain, fragile world; a world in which the trends of globalization have left many behind - citizens whose understandable frustrations and fears we have insufficiently listened to; people to whom we have not been effective in explaining that refugees flee from the hardship of war, and are not coming to us as a threat to our world and values. This explanation, ladies and gentlemen, is an urgent priority for all of us who believe in the duty to protect refugees.

In doing this, we will have allies. Because solidarity continues to be strong in Europe - a solidarity based on the values of compassion, diversity and human rights that are part of the modern European identity. Germany has played a major role in this respect - welcoming refugees, working to foster tolerance and moderation in the media and in political discourse- nationally and internationally - and through early investments in integration. Hundreds of thousands of people have mobilised as volunteers - and are a powerful force to be nurtured, with the potential to shape public opinion, and to form a bridge between refugees and communities.

Last December, UNHCR shared a series of practical proposals with the European Union, which together chart a new way forward aimed at restoring European leadership in refugee responses. We believe that Europe must avoid the diversion of refugee protection responsibilities beyond its borders, to neighbouring and often fragile countries. The key elements of its response, rather, are those of organized measures and effective solidarity; externally, by better targeting aid and investments towards countries and communities affected by displacement and refugee outflows in order to stabilize population movements before they become dangerous and problematic; and internally, through a European asylum system based on practical and innovative measures that work for refugees, communities and governments, including concrete steps such as a common registration system and effective joint contingency planning.

I firmly believe that together, these measures form a solid basis for a new direction for Europe, providing sensible responses to challenges within and outside Europe's borders. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Willy Brandt believed that Europe was stronger when it addressed its challenges as a real union - and vigorously pursued efforts to find a better balance of North-South interests, to prevent the escalation of conflicts and to address their root causes.

Now is the moment to draw on the vision of tolerance, openness, and international cooperation that he embodied - and to translate this into a principled, yet pragmatic approach to addressing and resolving forced displacement, wherever it might occur.

On behalf of all my colleagues - thank you.