Forced Displacement Today: A Matter of Humanity

This text is drawn from the Martini Lecture Bicocca delivered by Filippo Grandi at the Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca in Milan on 22 March 2019.

A growing number of people are uprooted from their homes and countries and are looking to the international community for solutions.

The number of people forcibly displaced by war, violence, and persecution has exceeded 70 million for the first time in history. A significant portion — some 25 million — are refugees, having crossed a border, and sometimes several borders, in search of international protection. The consequences have reverberated globally, but the most profound and immediate impact has been in the developing world, where more than eight in ten refugees are hosted, and in those extremely fragile countries where conflicts result in the displacement of tens of millions of people within their borders.

Despite this, the prevailing perception in Europe today is that the refugee “crisis” mainly affects rich countries. It is a perception fuelled by the rhetoric of “invasion”, which rests on a complex system of cleverly manipulated fears and carefully cultivated prejudices, with devastating consequences. The reality is quite different. It is in fragile countries torn by war and violence, in border communities, in the peripheries and often in the poorest areas of countries and regions neighbouring conflict zones that the refugee “crisis” is most acute and dramatic.

Take the situation in Bangladesh: in the last four months of 2017, more than 650,000 Rohingya people arrived across the border from Myanmar — traumatised, exhausted and desperate, fleeing a deeply brutal military operation in which thousands of their family members were killed, and their homes and villages destroyed. A few weeks into the crisis, I visited Cox’s Bazar District — one of the poorest areas in Bangladesh. Thousands of refugees were living in improvised shelters along the sides of roads, forests and hills, mixed with their compatriots who had previously sought refuge in the region: almost a million people in one of the most geographically and economically disadvantaged areas in the country. In the midst of that terrible, desperate misery, in the chaos of emergency, the local population had organized itself to help the refugees, and a humanitarian operation had swung into action. Disorderly and improvised as this was, it proved to be effective and even indispensable in saving people in danger and in providing a little comfort; meanwhile, the government of Bangladesh kept its borders open throughout the crisis, ensuring a relatively safe refuge for the displaced and providing an initial emergency response. The plight of the Rohingya people — uprooted from their homes by violence and persecution, after decades of exclusion, discrimination and repeated displacement — is a very stark example of today’s large-scale emergencies resulting in mass movements of refugees to countries with limited resources. And it forcefully conveys how the consequences of these crises are first and foremost felt in the Global South. But it also illustrates a surprising phenomenon: often the local communities of those countries are the first to share their homes, land, food and water with those forced to flee. I have seen this for myself in many countries — not only in Bangladesh, but in hundreds of African villages and cities, at the borders of war-torn countries such as Syria, and in South American countries where millions of Venezuelans have fled from violence, and from collapsing infrastructure, economy and institutions. Almost always, this response based on solidarity does not become the object of political negotiations and media manipulation — but rather, it spontaneously expresses the values of traditions, cultures and societies which, despite their differences, are all equally open to the concept of “asylum” in its most profound sense. In other words, it reflects a shared humanitarian imperative present in major cultural traditions and enshrined in international refugee law. In Syria, nine years of deadly conflict have uprooted almost half of the prewar population — including five million refugees in neighboring countries, and a million more in Europe and beyond. For the vast majority of Syrian refugees in neighboring host countries — Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt — life remains a daily struggle, as it is too for the urban communities that host them, under immense strain.

Again, the generosity and hospitality of these communities have been remarkable. In Lebanon for example, family and social ties and a strong tradition of local hospitality shaped by a diverse, multicultural history all play an important role. The challenges, of course, are many: Lebanon has a fractured history; its complex politics — both on a regional and local level — and the social, economic and political impact of the Syrian conflict next door are significant; and many refugees face hostility and discrimination. Even in Jordan, a country that over the past seven decades has received successive waves of Palestinian, Iraqi and now Syrian refugees, growing economic problems make that hospitality more difficult and controversial.

Fruit tapestry cover the inside a fruit vendors shop along Champs Elysees inside Za’atari refugee camp. Za’atari, Jordan’s largest camp, was opened in July 2012 and is currently home to more than 85,000 Syrian refugees.
The camp is equipped with schools, hospitals and a bustling refugee-run commercial district known as Champs Elysees, which sells everything from mobile phones to wedding dresses. © UNHCR | Dominic Nahr

A third example is Colombia — a country trying to emerge from decades of conflict within its own borders, now struggling to cope with a massive influx of people from Venezuela that has gathered pace over the last year along the 2,000-kilometre border between the two countries. In those areas where peace is most fragile, local communities are sharing what little food and shelter they have with the new arrivals, most of whom arrive destitute and in despair. I recall, for example, a community of Colombians near Cúcuta who were displaced within their own country by the long conflict between the government and armed groups, and yet had organized themselves to share their few resources with the Venezuelans crossing the border. With more than 4 million people now outside Venezuela, the impact of this crisis has reverberated across the entire region. Look also at Ethiopia — a country that continues to host close to a million refugees from neighbouring countries such as Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan and which, in the last few years, has become a powerful voice for the values of solidarity, refugee protection and inclusion. However, the price has been very high. One small district alone, Gambella, hosts more than 400,000 refugees, uprooted by the devastating conflict that has displaced more than a third of the population of South Sudan. This is now more than the local population. In January 2019, Ethiopia adopted a historic new refugee law, expanding refugee access to education, jobs and legal documentation. This was not uncontroversial; as in other parts of the world, the presence of refugees has given rise to complex political debates. But well-informed analysis and courageous political leadership are helping forge an innovative approach to refugee protection, setting an important example across the African continent and beyond.

These four examples, from very different contexts, illustrate the profound impact of today’s displacement crises on local communities in countries with limited resources that host the vast majority of the world’s refugees with compassion and humanity. The consequences for those forced to flee are also harrowing. Every day, around the world, millions of refugees are facing impossible choices. To return home to fragile and dangerous situations? To remain where they are, struggling on the margins of society, often without a secure legal status, in grinding poverty? Or to set out on a dangerous journey, risking their lives in an uncertain search for greater security, protection and a stable future? For some, the last option – to travel further away — may seem to be the only way forward, particularly in situations where international support for asylum countries is weak, or where refugee rights are restricted. For the refugees embarking on such journeys, their stories often become intertwined with those of migrants, who have left their countries for other reasons. It is important to recall that the vast majority of migrants travel through regular channels, their decisions shaped by migration policies and practices and by labour demand in destination countries. However, demographic imbalances and the economic gap between rich and poor countries, combined with increasingly inadequate migration management and the lack of regular migration channels, have resulted in a growing number of migrants embarking on journeys through irregular pathways, under harsh and desperate conditions. These routes are very often the same as those taken by refugees, who are fleeing not as a matter of personal choice, but because they are left with no other option. Thus, both refugees and irregular migrants are often exposed to the risk of being exploited and abused by those who have made these routes into a huge, networked international criminal business. The phenomenon of “mixed” population flows is not new, but it is growing, and raises very complex challenges. The circumstances that lead migrants to leave their countries often overlap with the causes of refugee flows. Weak governance, impoverishment, deep inequalities, environmental degradation, lack of resources, water scarcity, food insecurity and the impact of climate change are almost always part of the contexts in which conflict and violence take root. In addition, the grave, often fatal, risks to which refugees and migrants are exposed are very similar. Both groups may include particularly vulnerable people, such as unaccompanied and separated children, female victims of trafficking and violence, the elderly or the sick. That said, my organization, UNHCR, believes that it is importantto maintain the distinction between the two groups in order to better safeguard the specific rights of each. Refugees — regardless of where they are, or how they have travelled — also have a set of rights under international law, based on their inability to return home without placing their lives in danger. The management of international migration is regulated through a different set of arrangements, including provisions for the return of asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected. Addressing mixed population flows therefore calls for a coherent, yet differentiated, approach that ensures refugees are protected, while safeguarding the dignity and rights of all those on the move, and especially the most vulnerable. It is a complex, but feasible operation. Protecting refugees, and finding solutions for migrants, are fully compatible with good border management. This requires close cooperation between states, at both the regional and international level. given the inherently transnational nature of mixed flows. It is precisely the inadequacy of this cooperation — especially in Europe — that has transformed a serious and complex, but essentially manageable, phenomenon into a “crisis”. One of the foundational values of the identity of post-war Europe – especially of the European Union — is undoubtedly a commitment to being a continent of hospitality and refuge. In the decades following the Second World War, Europe developed a solid and relatively effective asylum system. Displacement caused by the wars in the Balkans during the 1990s put the reception system to the test, but by cooperating and complying with basic principles, European States were able to manage that crisis.

A dreamscape on the outside of living quarters in the Zaatari refugee camp in Zaatari, Jordan. © UNHCR | Elena Dorfman

A number of factors changed the scenario in the following years: mixed flows, especially from Africa, of which I have spoken; the growth of human trafficking; the global financial and economic crisis; the evolution of terrorism; and finally, the war in Syria, causing mass displacement of people towards the gates of Europe. The international system soon proved unable to resolve the Syrian conflict; millions of Syrian nationals quickly understood that the war would last for a long time, and millions of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries realized that aid would be limited and insufficient, especially in important areas such as education and employment. Traffickers smelled a deal, and between 2015 and 2016 hundreds of thousands of people from Syria and its neighbouring countries, but also from a number of other crisis-affected countries, set out on journeys towards Europe. The European reception system didnot hold up. Unscrupulous politicians chose to exploit public anxiety, rather than offering practical solutions, while others — with rare exceptions – were afraid to follow Chancellor Merkel in her courageous attempt to promote a better-organised approach, based on solidarity. Intra-European cooperation collapsed. The impression of chaos that resulted has been enormously destructive, giving way to complex and widespread fears and prejudices that up to that point had remained relatively latent in European societies, but which now played into the hands of those who realized that by stigmatizing refugees and migrants, they could gain votes and build political consensus. The concerns that have been exploited through this skilful manipulation should not, of course, be underestimated. They are real and justified. Millions of people — especially in industrialised countries — feel left behind by globalisation, frustrated by the economic insecurity and growing inequality they see around them. Those governing in recent decades — political, economic and cultural leaders — did not understand or respond in time. Frustrations exploded, especially with the financial crisis of 2008. The arrival in Europe of large numbers of refugees and migrants in the following years, especially in 2015, became the perfect scapegoat for all those frustrations and fears. The result, in Europe, are societies that have become more fragmented and divided than at any time since the post-war period. Refugees and migrants have become one of the flashpoints around which fear and uncertainty have converged, stirred up by irresponsible politicians — perhaps the most difficult, most serious and most debated flashpoint. In this context, narratives of rejection and exclusion have often prevailed. It is a manifestly unfounded solution and does not solve anything, but it offers the advantage of simplicity in addressing issues that, on the contrary, call for complex responses. And, therefore, it garners consensus.

Containers sheltering refugee families stretch down the hillside at the Vathy Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) on the island of Samos, Greece. © UNHCR | Markel Redondo

The reality is that there is no migration “crisis” in Europe. The number of people arriving on Europe’s shores across the Mediterranean has dropped to the lowest level in six years. The responsibility for responding to refugee and migrant arrivals has however fallen disproportionately on a small number of states, dictated largely by geography: Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain. Today’s crisis in Europe is not one of numbers, but of solidarity. What is of concern, however, is that the rate of deaths at sea has soared alongside restrictions on rescue efforts, especially by NGOs. In 2019, on average, more than 3 people died every day on the Mediterranean – an indelible shame for our continent. Rescue at sea and the right to seek asylum in Europe must be preserved. In the case of recent arrivals, arrangements were reached for the relocation of those on board to other European states. This is encouraging, but efforts to build a more sustainable, equitable system have not yet gained traction. We cannot go on negotiating disembarkation on an ad hoc basis, every time a vessel approaches European shores. Together with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), UNHCR has put forward a number of proposals to the European Union for practical, achievable and predictable measures for states to share responsibility for refugees and migrants disembarked on Europe’s shores. They call for improvements to reception arrangements, support for the vulnerable, swift and efficient registration and screening processes, and efficient adjudication of asylum claims, followed by integration support for those granted protection, and arrangements for the return of those whose claims are not accepted. The aim is to ensure that people in need of international protection are swiftly identified and receive the support they need, and that irregular migrants who do not have a legal basis to stay are treated humanely and with compassion, within the framework of an effective migration management system. Population movements towards Europe (and in other parts of the world, for example from Central America towards the United States) must however be considered and managed from a broader perspective. The “downstream” solution, so to speak, is to reform the European asylum system as a matter of urgency — as the Dublin mechanism is clearly no longer adequate to meet the current situation. But “upstream”, the response must become more farsighted and strategic. People pass through a series of countries in order to reach Europe. Of these countries of transit, the most problematic is undoubtedly Libya, which is lacerated by a complex conflict. There, a population of refugees and migrants is living in extremely difficult circumstances– many in detention centres, which are among the most dreadful places I have seen in my long humanitarian career. The Libyan conflict is extremely complex. It is clear, however, that over the past two or three years Europe, and also Italy, have given priority mainly to the issue of disembarkation, choosing to reinforce the action of the Libyan coast guard to reduce sea crossings; today 85% of those who try to leave Libya on illegal vessels are intercepted and brought back to the coast. And since the conflict persists, and no other Libyan institution functions as well as the coast guard, the fate of those brought back to Libya is to be exposed once again to abuse, exploitation, torture and violence.

UNHCR and IOM are present in Libya. For the last two years we have multiplied our efforts to help — as far as possible — thousands of refugees and migrants stranded in the country, through humanitarian aid (in places we can reach), negotiations with authorities and armed groups to remove people from the detention centres we can access, voluntary repatriation of migrants who decide to return home, and evacuation to third countries for refugees who are unable to return home. These are huge, expensive efforts undertaken in conditions of grave and constant danger, criticism from those who would like us to do more, stigmatisation by those who claim that we endorse an exploitative system, and opposition by the armed militias that control a large part of Libya and benefit economically from human trafficking. Yet, they are necessary, and we will continue to sustain them. Tens of thousands of migrants have returned to their home countries thanks to IOM. Through UNHCR‘s emergency evacuation and resettlement programmes, over 5,700 very vulnerable refugees have been taken out of the country, some direct to Europe (especially Italy), or to facilities in Niger and Rwanda, where solutions, including onward resettlement to third countries, can be arranged. Certainly, these are drops in the ocean in the face of such a grave and massive problem, the real extent of which nobody knows. And it is important that nobody instrumentalizes our presence in Libya to exempt Europe from receiving those who reach the continent, and from cooperating strategically to urgently seek a political solution to the Libyan conflict. We also need to look beyond Libya, however, even further “upstream”. Europe invests a great deal of resources in humanitarian operations and economic development in Africa and the Middle East. It is clear, however, that these resources are not strategically allocated, and that they are insufficient to address the root causes of irregular migration flows, especially poverty and climate-related issues, or to contribute to a more coherent and concerted search for political solutions to the conflicts causing displacement. Likewise, it is necessary to allocate more longer-term aid to support those countries hosting the vast majority of refugees, to enable choices that avert the need to set out on dangerous journeys. UNHCR‘s operations in the major African countries of asylum, for example, are still among the most difficult to fund. The argument frequently put forward by donor countries — that the aid allocated so far has been substantial, and has reached the limit — is not only questionable; it is also strategically wrong. Without greater sharing of resources, inequalities between countries and societies will increase, making population movements ever more difficult to manage. Resettlement is an important, life-saving tool — but regrettably, one that is less and less available globally, as the number of places made available has dropped. Yet, used strategically, it can have an important impact. For example, in October 2017, I called for 40,000 resettlement places for the 15 asylum or transit countries along the Central and Western Mediterranean routes. Thanks to the collective response of resettlement countries, this number was already exceeded by the beginning of 2019, including through pledges of approximately 15,000 places by European Union countries. Since then, States have continued allocating valuable resettlement places to this particular priority situation. This demonstrates that it is possible, but it should not happen only when an increase in arrivals places us under greater strain. It is an effort that must be sustained, asan important safety mechanism especially for the most vulnerable refugees, for whom safeguards in many of the states neighbouring conflict zones are not sufficient. I have described the reality of today‘s displacement crises, and I have set out UNHCR‘s view on what should be done to address the phenomenon of migration flows. I do not deny that this is a difficult context.

Perhaps it is the first time, in the history of my organization, stretching over almost seventy years, that we have been faced with such complex challenges, especially in the political sphere. It is important to reflect on the resilience of solidarity, and on how to transpose it to the institutional level, to make it more universal and effective. The conviction still persists that protecting the persecuted and sheltering the uprooted are part of the moral foundations of our societies — calling for effective, humane action and cooperation. In recent years, in the midst of the uproar of a certain hostile political discourse, we all have seen powerful examples of solidarity in many countries — from civil society, associations, faith leaders, business people and schools, to prominent figures in sports and the arts. Countless people — certainly more than we know of — have contributed to receiving and helping refugees integrate in their communities. Cities are increasingly at the forefront of organized solidarity, innovating new ways of receiving refugees, as part of a strong but open civic identity; bringing to bear their practical experience of delivering services; addressing vulnerability; and bringing together different actors from across the urban community.

A South Sudanese refugee boy plays with a car made out of a plastic bottle in Khor Al Waral camp, Sudan. © UNHCR | Roland Schönbauer

Perhaps even more importantly, underlying this solidarity is the understanding that refugees and migrants are also, and above all, people who make important contributions to our society, provided that their integration is promoted and sustained, as an opportunity for enrichment through diversity. Research published in late 2018, for example, tells us that more than seven in 10 Italians support the principle of asylum and believe people should be able to take refuge in other countries, including Italy. The values of hospitality, welcome and caring for the vulnerable are a fundamental part of Italian civic identity, even amongst those who are concerned about the impact of migration. Research in Greece in 2019 generated similar findings. At the same time, though — I will not tire of repeating this — it is essential that confidence in asylum and migration systems is restored, through better and more efficient management of reception and cooperation with other European governments. Restricting access to support, and taking away humanitarian protection, will not solve problems; this can only complicate matters, as people are cast out from support facilities, and forced them to live on the margins of our societies, where the risks are greater for everybody. On the one hand, therefore, civil society and local institutions play a very important role in upholding and defending the values of hospitality and solidarity; on the other hand, we are witnessing a breakdown of trust in the system that manages increasingly complex migration movements.

Clothes left to dry on a prefabricated house at the Kara Tepe refugee reception site on the Greek island of Lesvos. © UNHCR | Socrates Baltagiannis

After two years of negotiations, in December 2018 the United Nations General Assembly affirmed the Global Compact on Refugees. This acknowledges the 1951 Refugee Convention as a fundamental instrument of refugee protection; it is a document that reflects universal and shared values and, at the same time, it is a pragmatic, practical means for addressing refugee movements in a way that reflects the interests both of refugees, and of the governments and people receiving them. The Global Compact is grounded in the principle that all countries, not just those neighboring crisis zones, are responsible for refugees. The Global Compact envisages that the response to refugee crises should go beyond the traditional mechanisms of humanitarian assistance provided by some states through the UN system and by a limited number of NGOs. It promotes a broader approach envisaging a key role for organizations operating in the field of social and economic development, such as the World Bank, the private sector, local institutions, and civil society in all its components. The Compact called for a Global Refugee Forum, to be held every four years, to establish and drive these new international arrangements, based on a real commitment to responsibility-sharing. The first of these was held in December 2019, and resulted in more than 1,400 pledges from governments, businesses, humanitarian and development agencies, foundations, NGOs and even refugees themselves. Ensuring the implementation of these pledges, and bringing about real change in the lives of refugees and others affected by displacement, is now a paramount priority.

Colombia. Good Samaritan opens her home to Venezuelans in need: Marta Duque opened her doors to Venezuelan refugees and migrants two years ago. The modest family home she shares with her husband and adult son has become a shelter to a constant stream of Venezuelans as they pass through the mountains on their exhausting foot journey from the border. Every night, women and children pack into Marta’s home — where the furniture has been put in storage to make room for people to sleep on the floor. Next door, her neighbour Douglas Cabeza has taken in the men and boys. Colombia is hosting some 1.4 million of the estimated 4 million Venezuelans who have fled their country because of hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, a breakdown in basic services and sporadic violence. © UNHCR | Hélène Caux

Population movements, the management of migration, hospitality and integration are extremely complex and difficult issues. Yet it is not impossible to tackle and even to resolve them. In order to do so, we need to combine strong values such as solidarity, openness to dialogue – in other words humanity — with concrete, well-organized measures, resulting from international cooperation. In the Global Compact on Refugees, we now have a global instrument that can shape and drive this shared effort. It now falls to all of us to translate it into action.

Filippo Grandi is the 11th United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He was elected by the UN General Assembly on January 1, 2016 to serve a five-year term, until December 31, 2020. He has been engaged in refugee and humanitarian work for more than 30 years. From 2010 to 2014, he served as Commissioner-General of UNRWA, the UN Agency for Palestine refugees, having previously been its Deputy Commissioner-General since 2005.
He also served as Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Afghanistan and has worked with NGOs and UNHCR in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and at our Geneva headquarters.
Grandi holds a degree in modern history from the State University in Milan, a BA in Philosophy from the Gregorian University in Rome and an honorary doctorate from the University of Coventry.

This article was originally published in August 2020 in Folios n.3 “Golden Sea”, the Moleskine Foundation cultural publication.

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