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“There is a crisis, but not in Europe”

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi answers questions about migration and refugees – and the politicisation of the debate.


Filippo Grandi
Filippo Grandi is familiar with the reality of life faced by refugees © REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Filippo Grandi has worked with refugees for three and a half decades. We spoke with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.

For some years now, there has been much talk in Europe about a refugee crisis. Would you agree that there is a crisis?

Filippo Grandi: Of course, there is a crisis, but not in Europe. I recently travelled to Africa, and that is where the crisis is – and not one, but many. Poor countries take care of more than 80% of forcibly displaced persons. In 2015 and 2016, Europe experienced a steep surge in arrivals, initially as an effect of the worsening of the Syrian war. This de­terioration and the decreasing support for refugees in neighbouring countries created a market for traffickers. While Europe has had a very good asylum system for many decades, it was designed for small numbers. When that system collapsed, it generated a perception of crisis in Europe that was bigger than it was.

Has Europe learned from this experience?

Europe remains unprepared. The EU has not taken advantage of the recent decline in numbers to reform the Dublin system, establish a sharing mech­anism or simply agree on a disembarkation mech­anism for people crossing the Mediterranean. If there were another massive arrival, there would be another perceived and possibly real crisis. Furthermore, there are parties and politicians, those advocating building walls and tightening borders, that benefit greatly from this disarray. I am convinced that they do not want a solution; they want this to continue so that they can present themselves as the saviours of Europe – which they are not.

Angela Merkel has demonstrated that a country can take many people and look after them when need be.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi

What role do you see for Germany?

Many people have criticised Chancellor Angela Merkel for the choice she made to not close the borders in 2015. I think she made the right choice, because she demonstrated that a country can take in and care for a lot of people at a time of need. Most refugees then were Syrians, fleeing from a war that the world was not able to resolve politically. She was failed by the rest of Europe, which provoked a backlash in Germany. But up to now, Germany continues to have a very sensible position. It has tightened some rules, but less so than others. Germany continues to show the way forward and has been a strong champion of greater European solidarity. And Germany has become by far our second largest bilateral donor, which has allowed us to step up the work we do, in particular in Africa and the Middle East.

As a non-permanent member of the Security Council in 2019 and 2020, Germany has made the prevention of reasons for fleeing one’s country a priority. How important do you consider this issue?

Nobody should be prevented from fleeing if he or she needs to save their lives or to address very ser­ious protection problems. But if we did more to stabilise situations in neighbouring countries where the vast majority of people fleeing war have found refuge, I am sure most of them would opt to stay. That would mean doing a lot more in countries that host large numbers of refugees in terms of providing more opportunities in the areas of edu­cation, food rations, cash assistance and access to health services. And you also have to help those host countries by investing in their infrastructures, because the impact there is far bigger than the impact on any European country.

How does this impact show?

Refugees are not only a political issue in Europe. Go to Tanzania, to Lebanon or Ethiopia. There, they do a lot for refugees, but their humanity can pay a political price as well. We tend to have a very colonial view of things: Europe can take a few refugees, usually the most qualified, and leave the others elsewhere because it is perceived to not be as big a problem for them. But that is not true – most of these countries have scarce resources and populations with big needs. We can’t take their contribution for granted.

Has it become harder to distinguish between refugees and migrants?

It has become more complex. Unfortunately, a lot of movement is determined by traffickers who don’t make that distinction, so they create mixed flows of people on the move. And the rising number of barriers put up to keep people out has created a bonanza for traffickers. Migrants leave their countries for reasons that are often compelling – poverty and in search of opportunity. Refugees flee war or persecution, so if you return them to their home countries, their lives are put at risk. Therefore, refugees have to be dealt with separately, and that can be done easily through asylum processes. But what complicates things is when people abuse the system – which is especially prevalent in Europe. In these cases, there should be a better system for returning people not determined to be refugees to their home countries in a humane way. To do this, Europe needs a more sophisticated, common migration management system.


What still moves me even after working with refugees for 35 years is the resilience and dignity they show.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi

How will the Global Compact on Refugees, which was endorsed by the General Assembly in December, improve the situation?

Traditionally, a refugee crisis has been seen as a purely humanitarian issue. But with very long conflicts, you have many refugee situations that seemingly endure forever: think of the Afghans, the Somalis and even the Syrians. Humanitarian resources are barely sufficient for the first few years, but then they decline and you generate a kind of underclass that are the perfect clients for secondary movements. With the Global Compact, development actors like the World Bank as well as the private sector are encouraged to come in to help us move beyond only giving them shelter or medicine, but looking at investing in education, the local economy, agriculture, energy and the environment. This is a fantastic new blueprint for refugee response. But it’s a mixed picture; I also see signs of apprehension when it comes to burden sharing.

You are the world’s chief diplomat when it comes to refugee issues. How hard is it for you to contain your anger sometimes?

It’s very hard, because the rhetoric is so unreasonable and irrational. There are large numbers of refugees, but in the greater scheme of things, this is a manageable issue. And when you consider the horrors they are fleeing from, everybody should understand that they need our collective help. It’s the politicisation of the issue that often makes a reasoned debate impossible.

You talk to refugees a lot. What moves you most?

The absolute horror of some of the stories I have heard – for example, the recounting of unthinkable atrocities from the Rohingya people who I spoke to when I was in Bangladesh. There are heartbreaking stories, like when you see Venezuelan doctors or engineers surviving by selling food in markets which makes you realise the dimensions of the crisis they have fled from. Nevertheless after 35 years of work with refugees, what still strikes me – increasingly so – is the resilience and dignity of the refugees. Contrary to the manipulated perception that they want to take advantage of our wealthy world, they mostly want to contribute to their communities in exile until there is peace and they can return home.

Interview: Marc Engelhardt


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