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An Interview with UNHCR spokesperson, Ariane Rummery

Alex Chams By Alex Chams Published on June 15, 2016

By Alex Chams

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On June 20th, World Refugee Day, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, will launch their #WithRefugees petition to send a message to governments that they must work together to do their fair share for refugees. It is also a key moment, says the UNHCR, for the public to show support for families forced to flee. Their petition will be delivered to UN headquarters in New York ahead of the UN General Assembly meeting on September 19. The petition asks governments ensure that every refugee child gets an education, that families have somewhere safe to live, and that refugees can work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community. In an interview with Bookwitty, Ariane Rummery, spokesperson for the UNHCR based in Geneva answered some basic questions about the refugee situation:

What is the distinction between migrants and refugees?

With more people than ever on the move, the terms refugees and migrants are often conflated and used interchangeably. But there’s an important difference and getting it right matters.

A refugee is someone who has fled war or persecution and crossed an international border. A migrant, on the other hand, is someone moving to another country for reasons not included in the legal definition of a refugee.

By definition then, a refugee is someone for whom it is too dangerous to return home and therefore sanctuary is needed elsewhere. They have lost the protection of their own government and their recognition as a ‘refugee’ leads to access to help from other governments, UNHCR and other organizations.

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines who is a refugee and outlines the basic rights they should receive. One of the most fundamental principles laid down in international law is that refugees should not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom would be under threat.

Migrants choose to move mainly to improve their lives by finding work or, in some cases, for education, family reunion or other reasons. They don’t face the same impediments to return home and if they do, they will still have the protection of their own government.

Of course all human beings should be treated with respect and dignity and the human rights of migrants should be respected. But blurring the two terms – migrants and refugees - takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require. It can undermine public support for refugees and the institution of asylum at a time when more refugees need such protection than ever before.

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Refugees are unfortunately part of humankind's history. What are the projects that the UNHCR has developed around the general question?

Refugees are part of human history and so is the practice of welcoming them.

Indeed, the principles of hospitality, respect and equality are values deeply rooted in the world’s major religions. A few years ago, UNHCR worked with faith-based organizations to develop an Affirmation of Faith on the principle of welcoming the stranger.

It says, among other things, that “I will remember and remind members of my community that we are all considered “strangers” somewhere, that we should treat the stranger to our community as we would like to be treated, and challenge intolerance.”

I think that whatever our religion or whether we are religious or not, this reminds us of the values we share as human beings and that fair treatment of refugees is an integral part of that.

What are the main reasons for people becoming refugees?

There is no doubt that the proliferation of conflicts particularly over the past five years is fueling a huge surge in the number of refugees as well as the number of people who have had to flee their homes but remain inside their national borders.

In the last five years, we’ve seen new conflicts in many parts of the world – Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Ukraine, Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, northeastern Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Burundi, and Myanmar. Meanwhile the older conflicts don’t get resolved or get worse. So we still have refugees from Afghanistan and Somalia, for example, over generations. If we want to solve the refugee crises, then we have to stop the wars.

While war is the main driver, some refugees are also fleeing persecution by state or non-state actors on a more individual or group level due, for example, to their political opinion, religious or ethnic affiliation.

Where are most of the Syrian refugees?

Despite all the attention on the surge of refugees arriving in Europe, the reality is that most Syrians who have fled their homes during the five-plus-year conflict remain inside the borders of Syria itself. There are some 6.6 million displaced Syrians inside their country, with many having had to move several times as the frontlines of conflict have shifted.

And for those who have crossed international borders, the overwhelming majority is in neighboring countries. Turkey is hosting 2.7 million; Lebanon over a million, Jordan 655,000, Iraq has 246,500, Egypt has 118,000 and there are about 29,000 scattered in other parts of north Africa. Several hundred thousand have moved further afield, mainly to Europe and other industrialized countries.

Another misconception is that most Syrians are in formal camps, but in fact only about 10 per cent of the 4.8 million Syrians in the neighboring countries today live in camps. Most live in towns, cities and villages and they are becoming increasingly vulnerable as the crisis drags on, their savings long gone and possessions sold off.

Globally, almost 9 in 10 of the world’s forcibly displaced people are in low or middle income countries and not in rich countries. And the least developed countries give asylum to about a quarter of the world’s refugees – so these are countries least able to even care for their own people yet they are also hosting some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

What can be done on a political level and on a citizen's level?

On an international political level it is absolutely imperative that more effort is made to resolving crises and ending wars. There is no humanitarian solution to the refugee or forced displacement crisis; there has to be political solutions to the conflicts that cause them.

There also has to be more political commitment to sharing the responsibility of this global crisis more equitably. We cannot expect just a handful of countries neighboring conflicts to continue to shoulder the burden of hosting so many refugees alone.

So we need to see much stronger forms of solidarity both in terms of robust funding of humanitarian programs in the countries hosting most of the refugees and in terms of more countries taking in a greater share of refugees -- this includes through fair asylum systems and increased opportunity for Syrians to move to third countries through organized channels, like resettlement programs, work, study or family reunification programs.

Citizens can play a role by welcoming the refugees who have come to their countries, by combating xenophobia when they see it in their communities, and by letting their political leaders know they have a constituency that supports refugees and a strong moral response to this global crisis.

We have in fact seen a huge outpouring of support for refugees from ordinary citizens in Europe and elsewhere and that is important to acknowledge. People have shared their homes with asylum-seekers and refugees. I was deeply moved by the story of Panagiota Vasileiadou, an 82-year-old grandmother in Indomeni, Greece. She first started making cheese pies and sandwiches for the tide of humanity passing by her home, then opened up her home to the refugees from Syria and Iraq, seeing their desperate need for to feed their children, to shower and wash their clothes.

Even if you don’t have refugees passing by your door you can show you stand #withrefugees among your own community and network this World Refugee Day. You’ll be in good company.

Journalist, globe trotter and food lover


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