Neither ‘fortress’ nor ‘open-door’ approach for the European Union

On February 13 you will visit Greece to meet the prime minister. What is the purpose of your visit? There are a number of reasons. One of the chief ones is that Greece currently holds the presidency of the European Union. Enlargement is under way, and a new EU constitution is under discussion. This is a crucial time in the development of the EU, and this Greek presidency is therefore extremely important. The EU is discussing the harmonization of asylum procedures while the feeling of insecurity is rising. What could the result be? Harmonization is the best hope for the EU countries to solve many of their existing problems. So what I hope for is good harmonization. Harmonization that will mean the imbalances in asylum procedures, in benefits, in living conditions, in recognition rates are ironed out. That will stop people feeling that they should go to Country A rather than Country B because living conditions are better, or because they have a better chance of getting refugee status. This feeling – which is the present feeling – is harming everyone. But it is hard to blame the refugees for doing that: You or I would do the same in their position. Harmonization that consists of every country trying to protect its own national interests, or trying to replicate its own national asylum laws, will, at the end of the day, not serve anybody’s purpose. One of the five priorities of the Greek presidency is «Immigration and Asylum.» Are we heading toward a «Fortress Europe?» What are your proposals? Some people think we already have a fortress Europe – the term has certainly been around a long time. But, of course, people are still getting in – both refugees and economic migrants. Unfortunately, as it is extremely hard to get in legally – especially for refugees from the most dangerous and destroyed countries – they have been increasingly pushed into the hands of people-smugglers. And the smugglers are a menace. A menace to states and to their clients, far too many of whom are dying in the attempt – as you know only too well in Greece. That is an unfortunate by-product of the «Fortress Europe» tendency. That said, Europe cannot, of course, throw open its doors to everybody who wants to come. So you need a controlled and harmonized system: a managed migration system and a managed asylum system. That is what the harmonization process aims to achieve. You also need much more attention paid to the regions of origin. Obviously, if refugees cannot get decent care for themselves and their families in neighboring countries, they feel obliged to move on. The Afghans were a very good example of this. Assistance programs in Iran and Pakistan – each of which had 3 million Afghan refugees at one point – were consistently cut, and even after being cut were under-funded year after year until the day the Taleban fell. So what did the Afghans do? They moved away from the region in ever-increasing numbers. Now that they have some hope in the future again, the numbers of Afghans coming to Europe has dropped dramatically. We should learn a lesson from this and be far more generous toward regions of origin. In the great scheme of things, the amount of money to provide quality aid and protection in the neighboring countries is not so great. I keep saying this, but no one seems to be listening. Western Europe had a tradition of granting asylum to people in need. Do you believe that the increasing flows of immigrants are lessening the chances of genuine asylum-seekers? The short answer is yes, unfortunately. Increasing flows of economic migrants – coupled with a historic failure to even attempt to manage those migration flows – have led to enormous strains being placed on the asylum system. Now everyone mixes up asylum-seekers, refugees and economic migrants – and that has been very much to the detriment of the refugees. People are now treating all foreigners with mistrust, and refugees are unquestionably suffering because of that. At the same time, EU countries are now readier to discuss resettlement, in other words, the orderly movement of refugees from overburdened countries of first asylum to Europe. This is a good development. Given the geopolitical position of Greece, do you think migration pressure will increase? How should Greece handle it? I’m not sure it need increase. A lot depends on how well harmonization works out. And that process is currently in Greek hands. The EU will expand shortly and that will also result in some shifts in the dynamics. And then, once again, the region of origin comes into play. If there is peace in Afghanistan and peace in Iraq, that would lead to a reduction in two of the largest groups that have been entering Greece, or transiting Greece. That said, Greece receives a small number of refugees and asylum-seekers compared to most other EU countries. Turkey still maintains a geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention by which it only recognizes as refugees asylum-seekers from Europe. Is the UNHCR exercising pressure to lift this limitation? Is Turkey really capable of providing protection to refugees when the country itself produces refugees? We have an ongoing dialogue with Turkey about lifting this reservation. We do indeed hope it will be lifted soon. Malta was the only other country to have this reservation, but they lifted it recently. I think it’s just a matter of time in Turkey’s case. Many countries produce refugees and host other people’s refugees simultaneously. The two are not incompatible. What role can smaller countries, such as Greece, play in the world order? Well, the UN General Assembly operates on an all-countries-are-equal basis. Greece is also a member of the EU. It can therefore play an important role. How can one say that a country that is currently holding the presidency of the EU is an unimportant country? Greece also, of course, has a special interest and expertise in the Balkans, which is a critical region for Europe. How does the UNHCR work to keep the refugees high on the agenda when there are so many issues related to illegal migrants? Refugees are very high on the agenda at the moment in several European countries, and the EU as a whole, but not necessarily for the right reasons. One thing we try to do constantly is remind people that refugees are different from other migrants. They are compelled to move, they do not choose to move. Unfortunately the debate in Europe has become very confusing for the general public, who do not necessarily find it easy to distinguish between refugees and economic migrants. So we have a big challenge on our hands with public opinion. But, I think it is primarily the responsibility of governments to make sure their public understands what is going on, that they are getting the right information – and journalists of course. Many NGOs working in the Third World, are criticized for imposing a form of «charity imperialism» in the sense of intruding into the country’s political affairs. This is a very difficult and complex issue. You have to find a balance between cultural sensitivity and international acceptability. Much of what the Taleban did, for example, especially with regard to women, was culturally acceptable to large segments of a very conservative society, but internationally quite unacceptable. The UN and the NGOs have a very difficult time navigating their way in such a situation. Nevertheless, there are such things as universal values, which the UN was created to promote and defend. ‘Temporary’ body There are almost 20 million refugees around the world, wars and famine. Where is the world heading? God knows! The UNHCR was set up as a temporary organization in 1950, with a five-year mandate, and we’re still here. So I’m not sure High Commissioners for Refugees are the most qualified people to make predictions about the world’s future! The civil wars that broke out all over the place after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the bipolar superpower system, are showing some signs of abating. Let’s pray that that trend continues. However, September 11 ushered in a whole new age of tremendous uncertainty which is affecting us all, especially refugees.