Is demonization a failure

UNHCR Deputy Chief: "Many heads of government demonize refugees"

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) now counts over 80 million refugees worldwide, and their situation has worsened due to the shift to the right in many countries and due to Corona, says the Deputy UN High Commissioner for Refugees Gillian Triggs in the STANDARD interview. The Guardian reported on Wednesday that the EU pushed back at least 40,000 asylum seekers at the external borders during the pandemic. According to the report, this is related to more than 2,000 deaths. Triggs also explains why the UNHCR has limits in its work and why the crisis in the Mediterranean can only be resolved in the long term.

DEFAULT: The UNHCR turned 70 in December. What's his greatest achievement?

Triggs: For most of these 70 years, an overwhelming majority of the international community of states has accepted two fundamental principles: Everyone who has fled persecution, violence and torture has the right to seek asylum in another country. Second, no one is returned to where they face persecution, violence and torture.

DEFAULT: And what is its biggest failure?

Triggs: In 1950 there were two million refugees and it was thought that within three years the problem would be solved. 70 years later, we have over 80 million displaced people worldwide. As we talk, there are more and more. It is already clear that many of them will never be able to go back home and they will not be granted asylum anywhere either. The UNHCR has done its best, but the international community has not managed to put an end to ongoing conflicts, for example in Afghanistan or South Sudan.

DEFAULT: But the UNHCR itself is repeatedly criticized by experts. Alexander Betts, professor at Oxford University, complains that the UNHCR has too little political and financial influence to contribute to solutions.

Triggs: It is a valid objection. The international system is based on states with national sovereignty, and we are not a state. We have as much influence as the states give us and as much financial resources as the countries and private donors give us. We have 520 branch offices in 139 countries. We do what we can, but we always need the consent of the state concerned, otherwise our hands will be tied. Whether in Mozambique, Afghanistan or elsewhere.

DEFAULT: Has country support decreased over the past five years? We had a President Trump in the USA who drastically cut resettlement programs. We had the great refugee crisis in Europe, which in some countries led to a shift to the right and tougher anti-migration policies. Just think of Salvini in Italy or the FPÖ in Austria.

Triggs: Everything you say is correct. At the same time, 181 of a total of 193 countries officially adopted the UN Refugee Pact in 2018. This is not a legally binding document, but a declaration of intent that says: We cannot tackle the global mass refugee movements on our own. That is why we need solidarity and a fair sharing of responsibility. 85 percent of the more than 80 million displaced people live in poor countries in the Global South. With the refugee pact it was agreed not to leave these countries alone with the responsibility for the refugees.

DEFAULT: What does that mean in detail?

Triggs: Financial aid, investments, combating the causes of flight, which is actually the most important task. In 2019 a global refugee forum was organized in Geneva. 3,000 state representatives and actors from all over the world were there who made 1,400 promises to help refugees. There was optimism to get a grip on the refugee situation worldwide. Then came Covid.

DEFAULT: But that alone cannot explain why there was as little resettlement in 2020 with 22,770 resettled refugees worldwide as it was 20 years ago, right?

Triggs: It's a factor. Another is the shift to the right that you described. Many heads of government demonize refugees and migrants. But the biggest problems at the moment come from the pandemic. Covid has had a huge impact on the departure and reception of refugees and our work. At the same time, however, we can also see that many host countries have tried very hard with innovative processes to maintain their resettlement programs.

DEFAULT: It has always been feared that there will be Covid outbreaks in overcrowded camps such as Lesbos.

Triggs: I was on Lesbos and visited the completely overcrowded Moria camp before it burned down. A year ago we also thought that if one of them had Covid, they would all soon have it in the warehouse. But the numbers in the camps are lower than in the surrounding towns. We don't know exactly why, sociologists will have to investigate. We believe that there was simply little contact with the outside world, which is why the virus hardly made it into the camps. There is the story of a man who was allowed to travel from Lesbos to mainland Greece. However, he could not find work or accommodation there, so he went back to Lesbos. And he brought Covid with him. It was similar in camps in Cyprus, where I was recently.

DEFAULT: Lesbos, Cyprus, that brings us to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz once proposed the so-called "Pacific solution" as foreign minister, and other European politicians also advocated it. This refers to Australia's approach by forcing boat refugees to return on the high seas or taking them to internment camps on foreign islands. You were President of the Australian Commission on Human Rights from 2012 to 2017, and you visited these camps. Do you recommend the "Pacific Solution"?

Triggs: Of course not. The "Pacific Solution" essentially means shifting the responsibility for those seeking asylum onto other countries. In Australia, it was Nauru and Papua New Guinea, both poor countries that depended on Australia's support. As for the conditions in the camps, it was a humanitarian catastrophe for years. There are some countries that are doing a similar thing and want to outsource the responsibility, currently Great Britain and Denmark to African countries.

DEFAULT: How can one then end dying in the Mediterranean?

Triggs: In the end, the point is to combat the causes of flight. It is mainly young people who are often sent away by their parents. Why? Because of violence, criminal gangs, armed extremists, poverty, inequality and a lack of future prospects, to name a few reasons. All of this has to be combated. It takes a lot of time, a lot of money, good cooperation and leadership qualities, combined with visions, in order to take a political risk.

DEFAULT: Who do you see these leadership qualities in right now?

Triggs: Take, for example, the EU Commission with its asylum and migration package. The document outlines a strategy that is sure to be helpful. The new US administration also wants to find new solutions. Or let's take Canada, which has long been very involved in the global refugee issue. In Africa there is Uganda, which has opened its borders to refugees, even during a pandemic.

DEFAULT: In 2014, then Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, now Prime Minister, refused to allow you to visit the internment camp in Nauru. Have such experiences been helpful for your current job at UNHCR?

Triggs: Absolutely. I was never allowed to visit the camp in Nauru, but I was allowed to visit the one on Christmas Island. And that prepared me for what I saw in camps in Greece, Cyprus, Mozambique or on the border with Syria. To be honest, I've seen more of these tragic fates than I ever wished for. (Kim Son Hoang, 6.5.2021)