Christian Friis Bach: ‘The world needs to respond to the assumptions of why people are displaced’

08.17.18
Antonio Masiello
World News /17 Aug 2018
08.17.18

Christian Friis Bach: ‘The world needs to respond to the assumptions of why people are displaced’

The world is facing an unprecedented refugee crisis. About 68.5 million people worldwide have been forced from their homes including nearly 25.4 million refugees, half of whom are under the age of 18. Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Somalia are the major source countries of refugees and figures by the World Economic Forum show that 84% of refugees live in the developing countries. Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Uganda are the world’s top refugee-hosting countries and Germany is the only European country which is on the list of the top 10 host nations.

A lot has been said about the wars and conflicts that produce the refugees, the ability of the international community to deal with the looming crisis and the need for the international organizations to mobilize their resources and help the displaced people seeking assistance, sponsorship, safety, dignity and respect.

Aside from the refugee crisis triggered by the wars and conflicts in the Middle East, countries like Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Ukraine are also grappling with the problem of internally displaced people.

Some world powers consider it their moral responsibility to help the refugees and give them shelter and protection and some others treat refugees as a burden that have to be driven away.

I interviewed Christian Friis Bach (@christianfbach), Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council and the former Minister for Development Cooperation of Denmark, about the global refugee crisis, Europe’s response to the dilemma and the wars, violence and persecutions which have driven record numbers of people from their homes in recent years.

Mr. Friis Bach was the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe from July 2014 to June 2017 and has been serving at the Danish Refugee Council since November 2017.

Europe and the United States are facing an unprecedented migrant crisis due to the wars, conflicts and tensions in the Middle East and North Africa. Do you think the conflicts and difficulties that produce these refugees will come to an end soon?

The vast majority of the refugees in the world are hosted in some of the least developed areas of the world and medium income countries [are] overwhelmed by the task. We need to assist and treat both the refugees and host communities with dignity and respect. And we should remember that the displaced themselves have only one wish: To return home or to live a dignified life with prospects of a future for themselves and their families. The international community can and must do more to ensure that their desire can be met.

Focus even more on preventing new conflicts from starting. And countries must do more to ensure safe and regular pathways for people who are forcibly displaced to save lives.

The monthly figures of people arriving via the Mediterranean to Europe have dropped almost 95 percent since its peak in 2015. This is very manageable and certainly not comparable to the numbers hosted by less resourceful regions. Yet, we must remember that the drop is not a result of reduced crises and need globally. On the contrary. The EU has paid a high human price for its means to stop arrivals to Europe.

Currently, we are experiencing record high mortality rates on the Mediterranean. 1 in 10 perishes – and this number does not account for all those who die in the desert. Migrants and refugees are brutally pushed into death marches in the Algerian desert. Sudanese militias who are indirectly sponsored by EU funds are raping and kidnapping people at border points. Criminal gangs are operating detention centers in Libya with horrific conditions and they may also indirectly or directly have received EU funds.

It is the number of people that have lost their lives on the move which is the true tragedy, not the numbers of people arriving to Europe or the US that constitutes a crisis. When it comes to refugees – people in need of international protection, we do have the highest number of displaced persons since World War II and the number has increased in the last six years. This should be of grave concern for leaders all over the world. In my opinion, we have a political crisis in which global leaders fail to find sustainable solutions and this causes great problems for people on the move.

The problem is that the international community is not good enough at solving the crises that “produce” refugees. A couple of years ago, then UNHCR high commissioner, now UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, said that throughout the past five years, at least 15 new conflicts leading to displacement have erupted or reignited, while we haven’t been able to solve any of these crises. Two thirds of the world’s refugees originate from just five countries – if we could stop those conflicts, 70 percent of the world’s refugees would be able to return home. But with the current efforts it is difficult to imagine that the conflicts and difficulties that produce these refugees will come to an end soon.

Unfortunately, we see that some countries spend more energy fighting to keep refugees out of their own countries than they do to fight the root causes that lead to displacement. These priorities must change. The important goal must be to see fewer refugees.

According to Amnesty International, the European Union spent almost €2 billion on fences, surveillance systems and patrols on land or at sea between 2007 and 2013 their borders don’t have any major safety issues. Given all the measures that make the influx of illegal immigrants difficult, do you think Europe needs to do more to deter unwanted asylum-seekers?

No. I generally think that deterrence policies such as those imposed by the EU and its member states these days are short-sighted and fail to address the real issues at stake, namely the moral and legal responsibility to protect those in need of international protection.

One of the basic principles in human rights and refugee law is the right to apply for asylum. This does not entail an individual right to be granted asylum, but rather a right to have a proper assessment of one’s claim for international protection and respect for one’s fundamental human rights both during and after the procedure. We need to remember that these conventions were written on the backdrop of World War II, when we in the most tragic way learned what happens if we close the doors on people in need of protection. At that time, it was Jewish refugees and it had dramatic consequences. We need to respect the right to apply for asylum, the prohibition of collective expulsion and the principle of non-refoulement. Seeking asylum is not a criminal offense – and hence the politicians should focus more on ensuring safe and legal pathways in order for people to obtain the right to apply for asylum.

Christian Friis Bach. (Agnete Schlichtkrull/Dansk Flygtningehjælp)

A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that the EU intends to spend more money on controlling its borders than on development in Africa in the budget from 2021 to 2027. This is definitely a wrong way to go, as it will not tackle the root causes for people leaving their home in the first place.

Focus on border control and management in transit countries negatively impacts regional mobility and coping strategies in regard to threats such as conflict, famine and other hazards.

At the same time, there is a tendency to use development and humanitarian aid to stop migration instead of focusing on the humanitarian needs. I can give you one example. I recently visited Democratic Republic of Congo. They host 10 percent of the people in the world who need humanitarian assistance but receive only 3 percent of the world’s humanitarian funding. As one official I met stated: “Is it because DRC does not produce terrorists or very many migrants moving to Europe?” We need to ensure that humanitarian and development assistance is targeted at making a positive difference for people in need rather than protecting the borders of Europe. Humanitarian assistance should be based on needs and aimed at saving lives and alleviating suffering for conflict and disaster affected populations. Development assistance must be allocated with the objectives of poverty eradication, sustainable development and the realization of rights, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.

In theory, refugees have a right to cross borders in search of asylum under international law. Do you think the European countries consider it their moral and legal responsibility to admit asylum-seekers and help them find a new home or do they consider refugees and migrants a burden that should be driven away?

The very foundation upon which we have built the European societies and the European Union is that everybody should be treated with dignity and with respect for their human rights. So yes, we have a responsibility to act according to these fundamental values. There are obviously different approaches to this among the European countries. However, we need to remember that all European countries are signatories to the refugee convention and therefore are legally obliged to let people seek asylum in their country and to process their applications for asylum with adequate procedural safeguards in order to identify those who are in need of international protection. Further to its legal obligation to protect people who have fled their homes, the EU and its member states also have a moral responsibility to treat everyone in accordance with fundamental rights and the principle of human dignity irrespective of their legal status, which also entails treating and returning rejected asylum seekers to their country of origin in a humane and dignified manner.

The Commission, the guardian of the treaties, underlines that all people have the right to apply for asylum. In their latest paper on the disembarkation concept, 24 July 2018, this was again underlined. Something I was very happy to see. But the problem is that even though this right is recognized, in reality, the policies – both at national and EU level are increasingly designed with the view to keep refugees out.

Refugee crises are nothing new to Europe. (R LeMoyne)

One example is the EU hotspot approach. In principle there is nothing wrong with asylum procedures at EU’s borders, if the procedures adhere to the standards in the EU asylum system, and if a mechanism for fair responsibility sharing among member states were established and upheld. However, as concluded by a study conducted by Danish Refugee Council last year, the hotspots have fundamental human rights issues, where refugees and asylum seekers experience a broad range of human rights violations when they arrive to Italy and Greece. The Greek hotspots have become a form of deterrence policy. Many of the right violations are due to overcrowded reception facilities – and this points to a greater need for solidarity and responsibility sharing. This is just one example of how things can look okay on paper but having dramatic consequences for people seeking protection.

Finally, if we expect countries in the regions experiencing crises to continue bearing the brunt of hosting refugees and allow access to asylum, we in Europe need to show that we comply with obligations under the refugee convention to allow people to seek asylum at our borders and ensure that they are treated with dignity upon arrival. Only by doing so can we convince more countries to do the same.

Refugees account for 0.3% of the world population and most come from developing countries. Do you think the world has enough resources to deal with this relatively large number of vulnerable people? Do you believe that the international community is determined to alleviate the suffering of the refugees coming from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and elsewhere?

First of all, I don’t agree with the 0.3 percent being a large proportion of people. If you take it as an example it is equivalent to a village with 300 inhabitants that will have to accept one newcomer and integrate him or her. It is definitely manageable. For every person who has been forced to leave their home, it is a personal tragedy and for the world it is a loss of resources. It can be difficult to cope with the large numbers, but behind these are ordinary people like you and me. People who have skills and resources with which they can contribute to the host country if given the opportunity. And as mentioned before, the number of displaced persons have indeed increased, and this is saddening. We need to fight the reasons why people are displaced, not fight the people for being displaced.

However, what we see is that the humanitarian appeals, including refugee and displacement assistance in regions of origin, are constantly underfunded. On a global scale, these are normally around 50 percent funded. So, the countries in the world haven’t prioritized enough resources. And the distribution of development and humanitarian aid is not always done based on where the needs are greatest, but due to a lot of other political interests, and that is why we have some grossly underfunded, yet gigantic humanitarian crises in places like Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Central African Republic, Nigeria and South Sudan – places that in addition often fall under the radar when it comes to media attention, despite the high number of people in need. All crises mentioned here includes a large number of internally displaced persons (IDP) – an area that often do not get the attention they deserve, one of the reasons probably being that they do not come close to European and American border. But IDPs sums up almost two thirds of the 68.5 million forcibly displaced persons in the world.

Internationally, the Global Compact for Refugees, which is expected to be adopted this year, is a positive development towards a commitment by all states to better handle the world’s refugees. Notable elements of the compact are a new response model, i.e. a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework which sets out a progressive vision for refugee self-reliance as opposed to containment in camps, combined with host community development and establishes safe and dignified return as a global standard. In other words, it’s a much better approach which the Danish Refugee Council has advocated for years. Second, the Global Compact for Refugees gives birth to a set of new institutions to foster larger and more predictable responsibility-sharing for refugee protection globally, both when it comes to financial contributions and other transactions as well as resettlement and other legal pathways. We call for even greater accountability in the Compact with clear indicators for refugee protection and responsibility-sharing. But it shows that there is indeed a willingness to address the actual protection of refugees rather than restricting movements.

Do you agree with the assumption that the global refugee crisis is partly an outcome of the anti-Muslim policies adopted by some of the European countries led by conservative politicians and parties and the rise of far-right across the continent?

Once again, we need to establish the context. The refugee crisis is first and foremost a crisis for those more than 68 million people who have been forced to flee their home. And the vast majority of displaced persons are being hosted in neighboring countries.

Danish Refugee Council focuses on the fact that all people have the right to seek protection. And we are obviously concerned to see that some European and US politicians are not standing up for these rights and not least that it leads to serious rights violations for asylum seekers and refugees. Protecting minorities against popular pressure is core in societies governed by the principle of rule of law.

At the same time, we should stop using crisis language, adding to the public perceptions of things being out of control. The current situation is manageable and this crisis narrative fuels the rising trend of European xenophobic and anti-immigrant populism and increases tension between refugee and migrant populations and host communities; and it warrants the use of short-term temporary measures that will most likely prove unsustainable while also legitimizing the undermining of human rights. Instead we should stop the crisis language and look for long-term durable solutions. Right now we are undermining the values and principles and human rights that are the very foundation of our societies and this may very likely become a larger problem in the future than the problem posed to the EU from the number of people arriving.

Many of the refugees who’ve fled Syria in the recent years are in dire need of psychological and social support as they grapple with the traumas and mental problems that are a result of the war. However, support options are not always adequate and available. Who do you think is responsible for providing psycho-social support to the traumatized refugees coming from the conflict zones?

As a starting point, the countries hosting the refugees are responsible for taking care of them. This include providing education, food, jobs and healthcare, including psychosocial support. It is very important that countries that host refugees are cautious not to develop policies or practices that increase the vulnerabilities and traumas of refugee populations.

But we need to ensure a greater responsibility-sharing among the countries in the world, especially taking into consideration that the vast majority of refugees are hosted in developing countries. As a couple of examples; Lebanon hosts 164 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants, Jordan hosts 71 per 1,000 inhabitants and Uganda 32 per 1,000 inhabitants. The numbers for most European countries is nowhere near to this. In the Western world, we therefore have a responsibility to ensure assistance to these countries, enabling them to provide adequate assistance to their large refugee populations. This is also why organisations such as the Danish Refugee Council works globally in some of these major hosting countries – to support the countries in providing adequate assistance to refugees and displaced persons, within a range of sectors, including psychosocial work.

What does the Danish Refugee Council do to help and protect the persons and communities affected by conflict and war across the world? What are the major activities that the Council is involved in and in which countries does the Council operate?

The Danish Refugee Council assists refugees and internally displaced persons across the globe and throughout the entire displacement cycle. We provide emergency aid, fight for their rights, and strengthen their opportunity for a brighter future. This includes a wide range of activities ranging from life-saving humanitarian aid to longer-term assistance including for example access to legal documentation, justice, labor markets and decent jobs, housing, education and other basic services. We work in conflict-affected areas, along the displacement routes, and in the countries where refugees settle. In cooperation with local communities, we strive for responsible and sustainable solutions in a way that also benefit hosting communities socially and economically. We work toward successful integration and whenever possible, for the fulfillment of the wish to return home. The Danish Refugee Council was founded in Denmark in 1956 and has since grown to become an international humanitarian organization with more than 7,000 staff and 8,000 volunteers. Our vision is a dignified life for all displaced. All of our efforts are based on our value compass: humanity, respect, independence and neutrality, participation, honesty and transparency.

DRC works in more than 30 countries globally, with the largest programmes being in countries such as Somalia, Uganda, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Greece, Lebanon, Afghanistan Yemen – and Denmark. We assist refugees and the displaced, protect their rights and empower them towards a better future.

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