Refugee policy in Europe: “Asylum in the EU is extremely important”

Refugee policy in Europe: “Asylum in the EU is extremely important”

People in need are taken in because it’s right, says the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi – not because it’s easy.

People hold up signs at the main train station that say how many people they can accommodate

People at the main train station in Berlin signal how many refugees from Ukraine they can take in Photo: Pierre Adenis

taz on the weekend: Europe has been doing everything it can to keep refugees away from the continent for years. Suddenly, however, millions of Ukrainians accepted it collectively, in solidarity and with dignity. How do you explain that?

Filippo Grandi: Yes, the response to the refugee situation was very good. There were difficulties, but overall the response was very effective. People were allowed to move to where they could find support, had access to the labor market and social services. There were elements that made this easier in the case of Ukraine: geographic proximity, close pre-existing ties, sympathy for the country in the face of invasion, and the clear link between the bombings and the movements of people fleeing. But you take in people in need because it’s right and because they have rights – not because it’s easy.

How can what the EU has shown here be preserved?

She proved that there can be effective recording. And that’s surprising; or not, seeing that the EU has had such difficulties with much smaller numbers of arrivals from other parts of the world, but has now been able to organize itself so well in a matter of days.

Can this be transferred to other situations where people reach Europe?

Filippo Grandi, 65, has been the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since 2015. The historian comes from Milan and has worked intermittently for the UNHCR since 1988. Grandi is patron of the Human Rights Film Festival Berlin of the NGO “Action Against Hunger”, which runs until October 23rd.

There has been strong anti-refugee, anti-migrant rhetoric in recent years. It contains many elements. One is outright racism. Another element is a rhetorical figure: impossible to absorb more, ‘We are full, public opinion is against’. The example of the Ukraine recording has refuted all that. It is possible, and as Chancellor Merkel said, we can do it.

Let’s talk about Angela Merkel. Last week they awarded her the Nansen Prize for her refugee policy during the Syrian crisis, partly because she “did not shift responsibility for the refugees onto others”.


Apart from the short phase in 2015, Germany did exactly that during Merkel’s term in office: shifted responsibility to others, to the countries on the EU’s external borders, Libya, the African bouncer states, Turkey.

Germany played an important role from 2014 when there was a large influx of Syrians. Incidentally, it has been shown that their integration in Germany has been very successful – not ideal, there are challenges, but Chancellor Merkel’s assessment was correct and forward-looking. We gave her the award to show that leadership and courage are important in such situations. We all know that there was a lot of resistance, that there was a political backlash and anti-migrant tendencies in other states.

Since that time, Germany has been a driving force behind closing Europe’s borders.

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After 2015/2016, Europe restricted access. But that doesn’t change the fact that people will continue to come. It is important that they have access to protection, a fair trial and that they are not turned back at borders. And that asylum procedures will not be relocated to other countries, as Great Britain or Denmark are planning. We don’t agree with that, we’ve said it many times.

The idea of ​​relocating asylum procedures to extraterritorial camps outside the EU is still being pursued today. That would only be conceivable if the UNHCR were to participate. Can you rule out doing that?

It would depend on how it was designed. It is crucial that all rights are protected. When you arrive in Europe and they say – as they do in Britain – we will take you somewhere else so that you can go through an asylum procedure there, and if you are recognized then you still have to stay somewhere else, then we cannot accept that. A journalist once criticized me for helping countries like Sudan to improve their asylum systems. Why shouldn’t we? There are many refugees arriving there. If they were well received, there would be more stability and security and fewer reasons to go down difficult escape routes. This is of course hypothetical. And yet, we have to look at it holistically instead of saying: only this is wrong, only this is right. And instead of just looking at asylum in the EU. Asylum in the EU is extremely important; it must endure and that includes access to the territory.

But this is being refused with increasing violence, through internment or pushbacks.

By pushbacks and not rescuing at sea. That’s part of the pushbacks. That is even worse. Abandoning boats at sea unfortunately happens, there is no excuse for that. I recognize the extreme difficulties of these escape movements, but pushing back cannot be a solution. Europe has largely reduced its sea rescue capacities, leaving only coast guards and a few NGOs. This is totally unacceptable. It is not just about refugee law, but also about the law of the sea and human rights. We are against pushbacks. But we also see that there is manipulation on the other side, think for example of the situation on the border of Belarus and Poland at the end of 2021. People were encouraged to come to Europe. This is not acceptable. Nevertheless, the pushbacks are unacceptable, they endanger life and physical integrity.

But a growing number of governments see themselves openly legitimized – and not just by such events – to pushback. They say clearly that they no longer want asylum applications in Europe, no more admission. What do you tell them?

Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

“Pushbacks are unacceptable, they endanger life and physical integrity”

We very rarely hear governments say they don’t want refugees at all. This is not an official line. What can I say, if you contradict the international treaties, then you are wrong. They should stick to contracts and we support them in this. We must therefore work on the EU asylum system to make it faster and more efficient. We have to recognize that these are complicated matters. There are people who come to Europe without being a refugee. This is due to a lack of pathways for labor migration, which is so essential to Europe. That is why these people apply for asylum. More effective and safe ways of migration are needed, otherwise the channels for asylum are always overloaded.

The UNHCR constantly warns that more needs to be done for climate refugees. At the same time, you are reluctant to demand that global warming be recognized as an official reason for fleeing – which the industrialized countries are keen to avoid. Why are you so reticent about that?

Who says we’re shy?

All your corresponding documents read like this.

Think about war. The UNHCR does not speak of war refugees, but of refugees. War is an important driver for this. It’s the same with the climate. The 1951 Refugee Convention’s definition is broad enough to include people fleeing climate change.

So far, however, they have had no comparable legal rights to protection.

When there is a natural disaster, a flood or a drought, people need protection and help just like everyone else. But where climate change has impacts that contribute to displacement, there is always more than a single reason for flight. Climate change is accompanied by conflicts in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, for example. The most devastating consequences are related to these conflicts. It is difficult to say which comes first, whether they are climate or war refugees. You can’t just put a label on escape movements. But if someone is fleeing a country X for multiple reasons, and climate is one of those reasons, I would have no doubts that that person is a refugee. If his country cannot provide this person with legitimate protection, then that is a legitimate reason for asylum.

The UN refugee agency’s reports are an annual inventory of escalating disasters. What gives you hope?

Hope is rare these days. When we see what is happening in countries like Ukraine, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Nicaragua and many other countries, it doesn’t exactly inspire hope. But the basis of my work is not whether there is hope or not, but because there are principles to uphold and because there are millions of people who need help. But they are also incredibly strong and resilient. In the EU we always look at the negative. But we should not forget that for the vast majority of the 100 million displaced people, solidarity is a reality. In Africa hardly any borders are closed to refugees. And these are not rich countries. About 1.5 million refugees live in Uganda. At the height of the corona pandemic, the government had closed all borders. Then she approached us and said: “There are thousands of people from the Congo in front of our border. We want to let them in, we can’t let them be killed with machetes. But because of Covid, that can pose a danger to our own population. Can you help us open the border for them?” There are many more such examples. This solidarity, especially in poor countries, and the resilience, the strength of people to deal with adverse circumstances, they are cause for hope.

And what scares you?

The Cleavage. She scares me. Take international refugee protection. Its legal basis is cooperation. The Geneva Convention is clear that refugees are the shared responsibility of the international community. But this idea of ​​burden-sharing is being riddled every day by divisions in this community that are getting deeper every day, and the war in Ukraine has made them even deeper than before. This is happening at a time when we have to fight the climate emergency, when we see increasing refugee movements, when we have to do something about pandemics and growing social inequalities.

They are from Italy. Your home country is now ruled by a woman who wants to take aggressive action against refugees. What does that do to you?

I will work with the Italian government as I work with any government. This is my task.

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