23 October 2015
“I believe that we all need to seize the current moment of attention and inspire political leaders around the world to really do something about refugee issues, understand them and deal with them in a humane way, in a way that is in accordance with the fundamental values that we are all very happy to aspire to.”
On occasion of ECRE’s Annual General Conference and UNHCR NGO Consultations, ECRE talked to UNHCR’s Volker Türk about the most pressing issues for refugees in Europe, such as the lack of safe and legal channels, the proposal of a common EU safe countries of origin list, the Temporary Protection Directive and what is the role of UNHCR and organisation such as ECRE in advocating for improved guarantees for displaced people in Europe.
Volker Türk is UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection and previously was the Director of the Division of International Protection from September 2009 to February 2015. He held a number of assignments for UNHCR in the field in various parts of the world, including in Malaysia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kuwait.
“We see a lot happening now, but it’s too little and too late”
What safe and legal channels to Europe is UNHCR advocating for and is there already any work being done with the EU on this subject?
Over the last couple of years, ever since we started working on Syria, and when we realised that the neighbouring countries were shouldering a refugee influx of over 4 million people, we asked European countries to look into possibilities for legal pathways to Europe. This includes resettlement, humanitarian admission or scholarships. Indeed we see a lot of young people on the move who could not continue their studies, either in the neighbouring countries or even in Syria, and who want to just get on with their lives.
We also ask for better family reunification procedures, though unfortunately we have seen a number of countries in Europe restricting family reunification possibilities, which precisely leads to the despair that we see unfolding today.
There are a number of very specific pathways that we have been advocating for and I must say that we see a lot happening now, but it’s too little and too late.
On resettlement for example, we were asking for 130,000 resettlement and humanitarian admission places and only over this summer we finally managed to fulfil these pledges. In fact, we need 400,000 places, so this is a big challenge and we need organisations like ECRE and its members to help us advocate for it.
“Had governments listened to our calls earlier, we would probably be faced with a different situation today.”
What is the importance and the role of civil society and organisations like ECRE in protecting and advancing the rights of refugees?
ECRE has played an incredibly important and valuable role over the last 40 years, ever since it was founded. And what we see today, more than at any time before, is that civil society almost dictates politics. It was because civil society was so upset about the loss of life at sea that suddenly governments took action.
I believe it was because civil society and civil society actors – private citizens, companies, non-governmental organisations – showed an incredible outpouring of sympathy and also demonstrated people-to-people solidarity that we now see governments being pushed to do the right thing.
There’s always a bit of an opportunity in a crisis. Had governments listened to our voices earlier, when we were doing our advocacy, we would probably be faced with a different situation today. It is important to point this out and turn it into an advantage: we can pressure governments by saying ‘Look, we warned you, so now let’s do something about it, let’s take action’.
In this sense, ECRE being a knowledgeable actor on refugee rights, plays an extremely important role as opinion leader, as informer and as coordinator among the different civil society organisations.
“ECRE has played an incredibly important and valuable role over the last 40 years, ever since it was founded.”
What are UNHCR’s view on the relocation mechanism?
Relocation is a process agreed by EU Member States which includes the establishment of “hotspots”. We have consistently advocated for solidarity measures especially for the countries that are directly affected by large scale arrivals, so relocation was one of the answers which governments and the European Union chose actually to implement.
We think it is very important to support it as much as we can and to see whether this system can actually work. However, it cannot work unless it is combined with proper reception and registration arrangements and with the possibility for people to apply for asylum in the countries of first arrival. UNHCR is more than willing to assist EU Member States with its long-term expertise in resettlement and humanitarian admission.
“The relocation mechanism cannot work unless it is combined with proper reception and registration arrangements and with the possibility for people to apply for asylum in the countries of first arrival.”
In a statement about the Commission Package on 9 September, UNHCR referred to the EU Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) and mentioned that it has never been activated. In the statement, UNHCR highlights that the Directive “was designed to ensure a uniform status and rights across the EU and would allow for fast and simplified processing, resulting in efficiency gains and cost reductions for national asylum systems”. Does UNHCR think that the activation of the TPD would be justified under the current circumstances?
If one looks at the numbers of people arriving, one could be led to think that if Europe faces a large scale influx, it would perhaps be the right moment to look very actively into whether or not to activate this directive. I think a number of the conditions are present. Some of the solidarity measures included in the TPD could be advantageous, although they are not binding enough.
If the EU were to go down the line of activating the TPD, this measure would have to be accompanied by a more permanent solidarity and distribution mechanism within the EU. So I think the directive is a beginning of perhaps a more permanent emergency mechanism dealing with large scale influxes, but it is not going to be sufficient.
“If countries decide to declare some other countries as safe countries of origin it is extremely important that this is done in an individual procedure.”
ECRE has recently published comments on its concerns on an EU list of safe countries of origin, raising questions about its compatibility with international refugee law. What is UNHCR position on this?
We have consistently held the position that if countries decide to declare some other countries as safe countries of origin it is extremely important that this is done in an individual procedure – you need to listen to the story of the individual and see what the background of the individual is. And if this leads to a presumption of non-eligibility, people have to be able to refute this presumption, in a proper procedure.
Moreover, in some instances we know that there are groups at risk even within so-called safe countries of origin. And of course, to designate a country as a safe country of origin, you need to look very carefully at the human rights record, at vulnerable groups, at groups at risk, even at international protection recognition rates within asylum countries. Only then I think one could see whether it is an appropriate mechanism.
ECRE Annual General Conference is taking place in the Netherlands this year. The Dutch Presidency of the Council of the EU is coming up shortly. In light of these occasions, what do you think the country could do to lead by example?
UNHCR clear and strong hope is that there will be an increase in resettlement quotas, not just in the Netherlands, but in countries around the world. We are already seeing that, and even countries outside Europe – for instance Australia or the US – have just announced higher resettlement quotas, for Syrians in particular. We need those commitments also within Europe.
Some countries are more effective than others; at present it is clearly Germany and Sweden that are most effective, with Austria joining the ranks, while other countries are less effective. Therefore, there needs to be some sort of solidarity mechanism among countries, and that could find an expression in higher resettlement places.
“It is very important, especially in Europe, that we remember why the 1951 Convention was crafted, in the wake of the World War II.”
The issue of asylum is currently increasingly politicised by politicians from one end and the other of the spectrum, so what can UNHCR and other organisations do to make sure that the institution of asylum as such remains non-political as it should be?
I think that is also one of our big worries to be very honest: asylum is too politicised, there are too many people who have no clue about it who talk about it, it is not seen in the historical context that it arose. It is very important, especially in Europe, that we remember why the 1951 Convention was crafted, in the wake of the World War II. Moreover, we should not forget that in our recent history there were different waves of refugee movements inside Europe, and that some countries that are now the most outspoken against relocation were countries that produced refugees not too long ago.
I think it is important to work through some of the historical reasons why asylum was so necessary then and why it is so necessary now. History is one part that has a role to play, to describe and show to the population at large what it means to be a refugee and to make sure that they understand the stories behind it. It is going to be a joint effort to work with the public at large, and this is one of our biggest challenges.
“I think the biggest challenge today is the magnitude of displacement, not just in terms of numbers but also in terms of scope.”
What kind of challenges do you see for UNHCR going forward?
I think the biggest challenge today is the magnitude of displacement, not just in terms of numbers but also in terms of scope – 15 conflicts either erupted or re-ignited over the last five years alone, with displacement as a massive characteristic of them. Another great challenge is the complexity of the current situation, with the international community not able to resolve these conflicts on one hand, and people in protracted refugee situations for very long times without any solutions in sight on the other hand.
I believe that we all need to seize the current moment of attention and inspire political leaders around the world to really do something about refugee issues, understand them and deal with them in a humane way, in a way that is in accordance with the fundamental values that we are all very happy to aspire to.
This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 23 October 2015. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.