Refugee & migrant flows must be managed honoring people’s dignity – UN chief’s spokesman to RT
RT:The UN has been pretty critical of Europe’s approach to this crisis. What more do you think the EU could be doing?
Stephane Dujarric: First of all, I think the focus right now needs to be on saving lives and on treating people with dignity. You have tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees and some migrants who are making track either across the Mediterranean or across Europe. There are international conventions in play that need to be respected.
The flow of refugees needs to be managed. And I think what we are seeing now is an unfair burden being carried by some countries while others are carrying a smaller share. We need to see the more equal sharing of the burden. You are seeing Italy, the former Yugoslav Republic and Macedonia, Greece carrying so much.
And also we hate to remember where these people come from. They are coming from Syria, Iraq, and from the bordering countries. There is lot more people can do in terms of managing the flow while respecting people’s rights and their dignity.
RT:Has the time come for the UN to intervene?
SD: It’s not so much the UN intervening. We have the legal aspect, the convention on refuges has been in place since 1951. Countries know what the law is and it need to be applied. People who have legitimate refugee claims, those need to be applied.
But what we also need to do is address the root causes – the conflict in Syria, the fighting in Iraq. And also the other part of this equation is lack of funding of the humanitarian operations in Syria, Lebanon, in Jordan and Turkey. We are not able because of lack of funds to provide adequate housing and shelter to the Syrian refugees.
RT:Your organization aims to maintain peace, protect human rights, obey international law and deliver humanitarian aid. Seems that you’ve got your hands full. In real world terms what can you do to ease the suffering?
SD: In practical terms we have our colleagues at the UN High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, who are in the field. We are on the Greek islands, on the borders in the Balkans and in Italy trying to help and trying to manage this flow and trying to bring some relief in terms of food and water, working with local organizations. What we are trying to do is ensure that the member states who have responsibilities step up to those responsibilities, share the burden and treat people with dignity.
We are seeing young children, women who have walked hundreds of miles for safety, who have a real fear of persecution, and they need to be treated correctly.
RT:There must be doubts on whether all these people are genuine refugees. How important is it to distinguish between who is a refugee and who is what some are labeling a migrant, somebody who just wants to move to another country for a better life?
SD: They are two very different categories. Every case needs to be examined. Refugees are fleeing violence, persecution. They are people who know if they go home they will be killed or persecuted. These people have rights under the international convention on refugees. The have right to be settled and be taken care of.
Migrants are a different issue. Migrants need to apply through general immigration procedures that are different in every country.
And this is where the UN is coming in: on the sideline of the General Assembly we’ll be holding a special meeting on refugees and migrant flows.
We need to figure out how to manage these flows. We need to bring together the countries where people come from, the countries they are transiting, and the countries they are trying to reach, together.
Because it can be managed. We cannot see anymore all these pictures of overloaded boats in the Mediterranean, people being taken advantage of by criminal gangs because the only way through they know is to be smuggled. And that gives more money to criminal gangs.
RT:Is that practical, though? You have got thousands of these foreigners turning up. How could you distinguish who has got genuine reasons to be there and who hasn’t. Is that just logistically possible?
SD: People are interviewed, cases are examined. It’s been done in the past, it happens in many countries. Obviously certain countries in Europe are being overwhelmed, like Greece and Italy to mention just two. They need help from other European countries. We are encouraged by the EU meetings that will come up, so that some sort of coherent EU-wide policy is put in place. But I think every country has a role to play.
You know we focus right now on the Mediterranean, but we are seeing also there is another crisis going on in Asia with people fleeing Myanmar, and being smuggled through Bangladesh to Thailand and Indonesia though horrendous conditions. Countries need to step up to the plate and do what is right in terms of treating people with dignity.
RT:You pointed out the significant difference between the words refugee and migrants. Is it worrying to hear senior EU politicians constantly using “migrant” as a collective term for everybody?
SD: I think we all have a role to play. Whether you are a journalist or a politician, we must ensure that we use the right words. Words matter. First of all, we are talking about men, women and children, each deserving of human dignity.
The difference between migrants and refuges is a critical one. Refugees have rights. There is a body of international law which describes those rights. Refugees are people fleeing war, fleeing persecution.
What we are seeing in the Mediterranean should force the international community to redouble the effort to settle the conflict in Syria, to deal with the threat of Daesh [Islamic State, formely ISIS, ISIL] and other extremist groups. This is what is pushing the vast majority of people we are seeing in Europe to flee.
It takes a lot of courage to leave your home. It’s not an easy thing to do. People aren’t putting their families through great risks because they just feel like. They are doing it because they fear for their lives.
RT: And yet when they come across fences put up by some European countries and troops are coming in to control them. What do you make of those responses?
SD: All countries have a security issue to deal with. But then I go back to the issue of dignity: we don’t want to see people trapped behind barb wire. We want to see people treated fairly and according to the rights that we have. Countries have rights and responsibilities themselves. There needs to be a better way to manage the flow of people. Humans have been on the move since we started to walk. Through the ages we have seen that walls didn’t work out that well. We need to sit down and make sure that the right policy is applied, the law is respected and the flow of migrants and refugees is managed properly.