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Speech by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Opening of the annual Holland Festival, Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam, 4 June 2004

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Speech by Mr. Ruud Lubbers, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Opening of the annual Holland Festival, Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam, 4 June 2004

4 June 2004

(This speech was given in Dutch.)

The play, "The Children of Herakles," is based on "The Heraclids" by Euripides, and dates from the time when theatre played an important role in shaping society. But it is also much more than that. It concerns a timeless theme, including one relevant to our own time - the theme of refugee children.

Theatre is important for shaping our opinion on themes of general interest. That is why I am happy and honoured to be here at the opening of the Holland Festival. By celebrating its 25th anniversary in conjunction with the Holland Festival, Eduard Nazarski's Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland has taken an excellent initiative. In so doing, the Holland Festival places itself at the heart of society. That is truly special and our thanks go to Peter Sellars, whom I know from Nexus, the renowned cultural institute in Tilburg. The ancient Greeks taught us that values, durable values, ethical dilemmas and human choices can be merged in a theatre play. That is when theatre becomes culture; culture, values for generations to come. In a play such as the one that we will be seeing tonight, various dilemmas come together; they come together in a nexus. Ethical and human dilemmas.

We can learn a lot from the ancient Greeks. I think of Creon and Antigone. Creon represents administration, rules. Rules that sometimes become harsh. Antigone represents humanity. It is a story in which everyone has the right to be buried with dignity. In other words: it is about the tension between administration and humanity. This is a timeless theme, one that also applies to the refugee issue and to related asylum and integration issues. In this way, Peter Sellars connects with important discussions currently taking place throughout our society.

Peter Sellars not only signed for the play that we are about to see tonight. He also arranged for a number of speakers who deal with refugees on a daily basis. Allow me, by way of introduction, to say this: our identity is important to us, as it is to anyone. And our culture, but also the extent to which our environment accepts us as citizens in our own right, determines that identity.

On the one hand, there is our humanity, that is our culture and our being; on the other, there is our administration, that is the formal side of our society that gives us our 'status' as citizens. A status that in the case of refugees and asylum seekers often means the difference between acceptance and rejection. The duality between administration and humanity sometimes becomes very sharp. When asylum seekers have a 'face' because they have been living in our societies for some time, many citizens tend to go out on the streets to demand more humanity. That is something that we have also witnessed in the Netherlands in recent months. Where these two dimensions - administrative and human - meet, there is a tension. It is a tension that in my view can be diminished by allowing humanity a bit more space. Because everyone deserves an identity, a sense of belonging - a country, a town, a neighbourhood - asylum seekers should not have to wait for more than two years before their application is processed. Beyond that time they should be given permanent residence permits. Do not misunderstand me: court decisions must be respected. If the courts decide that an asylum seeker really is not a refugee, then that should count. If however, an asylum seeker has had to await a decision for more than two years, then I believe he should be given a permanent residence permit. One should not withhold from people the perspective of an identity for longer than that. That applies especially to children. Their rights as children should have precedence over anything else.

Some time ago I was reading about a 17-year-old girl who had been waiting for nine years in the Netherlands to receive refugee status. She said: "I am very Dutch. We eat Dutch food. The other day, we ate nasi. Well, one can hardly think of anything that's more Dutch." That is, of course, a funny remark, but worrying at the same time.

If we want to preserve the humane side of our society, we should also have an eye for its administrative side - proper procedures for receiving asylum seekers; sufficient guarantees for real refugees; good integration mechanisms. In all of this, we should not lose sight of the European dimension. In Europe, there is increasingly talk of joint management of asylum and migration flows by the member states. On the eve of the European elections, that should not be forgotten. Let us not become so restrictive that we completely shield the Netherlands from newcomers. In the Netherlands, we proudly speak of our Huguenot tradition and rightly so. So it is good that we realise that we owe that tradition to the Huguenots, who at the time had fled to our country. Is the Netherlands really 'full' or are we talking about justified integration demands that can allow refugees to become valuable co-citizens?

Just now I was mentioning Europe. But we should certainly also look at those regions from which many refugees originate, and aim our policies at those regions as well. That means also investing development aid funds to find solutions in those regions. Protecting refugees also depends on finding solutions there; not only in regions of origin, but there also.

We should not look at the refugee issue only through Dutch glasses, but from an international perspective as well. Problems concerning refugees and asylum seekers, like those concerning migration, are "problems without a passport" - that by definition require international solutions. When we put on such international glasses, we see things for what they are:

  • the problem of mixed flows (refugees and economic migrants using the same asylum procedures) is an objective problem. That truly is a problem: not more than one out of every seven asylum seekers turns out to be a real refugee;
  • the attitude towards newcomers that prevailed for a long time (including when I was Prime Minister) - that is, to allow everyone to remain what and who he is entirely in the interest of a multicultural society - has turned out not to be a good one. We now know better. On the one hand, we formulate integration demands, while on the other we allow enough room for everyone to preserve his or her own identity. When refugees in this way can become strong citizens, then all is well.

Placing demands for integration on newcomers is justified. We should, however, realise that refugees are people who did not come here out of their own free will. They were forced to flee! That is why, when refugees are involved, I say we must have an eye for the administrative side of things, for sure, but we should also allow space for the humane side. Therefore, asylum seekers who have had to wait for more than two years before getting a court decision should be offered permanent residence status. Moreover, expulsion after more than two years cannot really be considered humane. That is why children's rights should have precedence; and that is also why development aid money should be generously invested in protection in the region of origin.

Refugees, their reception and their integration, are timeless issues - those of the ancient Greeks, the ancient Dutch, and our own Holland Festival, as a theatre that is placed at the heart of society, could hardly have selected a better theme.