Photo: UNHCR/Diego Ibarra Sánchez

Soli­da­rity on a clear decline

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Being able to help people in dire situa­tions is the force that drives him. Filippo Grandi, the UN’s High Commis­sio­ner for Refu­gees, has devo­ted his whole life to supporting refugees.

The Philanthropist: You have been working with refu­gees for more than 30 years…

Filippo Grandi: …almost 40…

…in all these years, have you ever faced a situa­tion where you told yours­elf you just could not do it anymore?

Chal­len­ging moments do crop up time and again. Actually, every day. But then I go to bed and I wake up to a new day and new beginnings.

The incre­a­sing number of refu­gees and displa­ced people must keep you very busy, right?

The number of people who have been forced to leave their home has shar­ply incre­a­sed over the last few years. Today, more than 82 million people have either had to leave their coun­try or flee within their own coun­try. That number has conti­nued rising over the past 10 years. I

We’ve heard you say that we should not wonder if we’ll one day reach 100 million displa­ced people world­wide, but rather when we’ll reach that number…

“100 million” is a striking figure. Howe­ver, 82 million is already very bad – espe­cially when you realize that this figure was just half of that a few years ago.

So, this number will conti­nue to rise?

Yes, unless we put an end to the current wars around the world. To accom­plish that, many of the power­ful nati­ons in the world will have to work toge­ther. Today, that is not the case. And if we do not address the current huge chal­len­ges like climate change and poverty as a united front, which again is not the case, I do not see how that number can go down. 

Were we resol­ving them before?

In the 90s, we had crises such as Yugo­s­la­via and Rwanda. We ente­red into nego­tia­ti­ons to find solu­ti­ons, and many people were ulti­mately able to go home. Such solu­ti­ons are not on the table today. 

How were things diffe­rent back then?

After World War 2, lots of wars broke out on a local scale. The major powers of the time, the US and the Soviet Union, fought many proxy wars. When the Berlin Wall fell, the world chan­ged and we step­ped into an era with the poten­tial for all kinds of solu­ti­ons: it was a messy time full of crises, but we always mana­ged to find solutions.

Why have things chan­ged since then?

The geopo­li­ti­cal situa­tion was impac­ted by three major events: 9/11, which trig­ge­red a climate of fear. Then, about a decade ago, there was the finan­cial crisis. Global power shifted, and the world grew into a multi­po­lar system in which even medium-sized and small States have influ­ence. Today, we are in a tran­si­tion phase towards a balance of power, but we are not there yet. We are seeing many compli­ca­ted wars and complex situations.

On top of that, we have a new batt­le­field of disin­for­ma­tion war. Unscru­pu­lous poli­ti­ci­ans use digi­tal commu­ni­ca­tion to spark fear; they claim that the people who come to your coun­try want your jobs, threa­ten the values you cherish, and put your safety at risk. This narra­tive is quite preva­lent and very common, and can win elec­tions. The tragedy is that it has tremen­dously weake­ned people’s feelings of soli­da­rity towards others.

Does this have a direct impact on your work?

UNHCR is an orga­niz­a­tion of member States, not an NGO. We need the citi­zens of those member States to help uphold the princi­ples of human rights and justice — to call on their governments to help refu­gees and displa­ced people. 

It’s even taken Europe a long time to find solutions…

Europe is in a unique situa­tion. The issue of refu­gees over­laps with the chal­len­ges faced by the Euro­pean Union of migrant influx. EU Nati­ons must work toge­ther. People will always come to Europe: people have been moving to Europe for centu­ries and that won’t change. Europe is wealthy, which makes it an attrac­tive desti­na­tion; and there is peace in Europe, which is appe­aling to migrants. But refu­gees — people forced to flee — are driven by life threa­tening circum­stan­ces. Walls are not the answer. Notwith­stan­ding the ethi­cal issue they raise, they simply don’t work. Coun­tries need to stand toge­ther and resolve conflicts. It’s hard, but it’s not impos­si­ble. There are 27 EU-coun­tries, plus Norway, the UK and Switzerland.

Photos: UNHCR/Diego Ibarra Sánchez

‘Helping people going through terri­ble situa­tions is the most important mission we have.’

Filippo Grandi

What can the Swiss phil­an­thro­pic sector do to help? 

Provide resour­ces, donate, be phil­an­thro­pic in the tradi­tio­nal sense. But we also need authen­tic part­nerships, in which we work toge­ther to solve a problem. Obviously, tech­no­logy has become one of the most exci­ting areas for colla­bo­ra­tion; I see many ways to get invol­ved here. But sustainable energy and climate change are also in our line of sight. 

How so?

The link between climate change and migra­tion is very intri­cate. We must fight climate change and also reduce our own carbon foot­print. There’s no doubt that the private sector is the best sector to part­ner with here. 

Are you reaching out to the corpo­rate sector?

Yes, but not only. By ‘private sector’, I mean compa­nies and indi­vi­du­als. While States will conti­nue to be our main donors, to date, we have three million donors, inclu­ding private sector part­ners, foun­da­ti­ons and indi­vi­du­als, which is a lot, but it’s also frustra­ting because we could do more. Most of the time, we work with coun­tries. There can be a lot of red tape and the governments are often, natu­rally, driven by their own inte­rests. That’s why I’m always very happy when we can build a rela­ti­ons­hip with the phil­an­thro­pic sector. Foun­da­ti­ons and indi­vi­du­als under­stand that coming up with solu­ti­ons invol­ves true phil­an­thropy, and not only self-inte­rest. That’s very refreshing. 

The refu­gee situa­tion is beco­m­ing incre­a­singly complex. Will your work become more complex too, in a posi­tive sense?

While I love comple­xity, there is nothing posi­tive about this kind of comple­xity. It’s always a chal­lenge. If anyone today says the situa­tion is easy to solve, they are either a popu­list or they are wrong. I do not wish to be either. Howe­ver, I am cautiously opti­mi­stic that in these chal­len­ges lie oppor­tu­nities to part­ner crea­tively, inno­vate and adapt, and ther­eby, change the way we conti­nue to tackle these problems.

COVID-19 has not made life easier. The vacci­nes have been dispro­por­tio­nally distri­buted over the world. 

Vaccine equity remains a global chal­lenge, but there is hope. Uganda is a good example: it’s a very generous nation towards refu­gees, offe­ring a home to 1.5 million people from South Sudan, the Congo and other conflict-stricken regi­ons. Uganda gives these people land, access to the labour market and addi­tio­nal services. It’s a poor coun­try that displays great gene­ro­sity, which much richer nati­ons have failed to match. I’m not saying that everything’s perfect in Uganda, but you asked about vacci­nes. I was there in the spring, and the local autho­ri­ties explai­ned that if they had had enough doses, they would have already finis­hed vacci­na­ting ever­yone, inclu­ding refu­gees. Their plans include refu­gees! But because they have very few vacci­nes, their schools, among other things, are still closed. In Europe, about 62% of people have been vacci­na­ted, but there are coun­tries in Africa where it’s less than 10%. Of course, there are coun­tries such as the US who are sending vacci­nes to deve­lo­ping coun­tries, but that’s not enough. When I hear that our frid­ges are full of vacci­nes that people do not want, it makes me pause. 

Is there a solution?

Yes, but only one: wealthy coun­tries must send more doses to poorer coun­tries. When the pande­mic is over, we will need to iden­tify the reasons behind this distri­bu­tion inequality. 

What is UNHCR doing?

We do not distri­bute vacci­nes oursel­ves, but we have stron­gly advo­ca­ted for inclu­sion of refu­gees in natio­nal vaccine roll­outs through GAVI, the Vaccine Alli­ance. Among other things, we have worked with refu­gee commu­nities to educate on conta­gion and imple­ment social distancing and other measu­res to prevent the spread of COVID-19, inclu­ding the distri­bu­tion of hand saniti­zer and masks. We needed a lot of funding to carry out all our efforts world­wide, and people heard us. But since then, the phil­an­thro­pic urge has some­what wave­red. We are struggling to commu­ni­cate that we still need large amounts of funding; howe­ver, the crisis is not quite as visi­ble today.

Could it be that we have gotten used to it?

Yes, it could be. We need a lot of help from the private sector, from public autho­ri­ties and busi­nes­ses, in parti­cu­lar regar­ding preven­tion, hygiene and logistics.

COVID-19 was a cripp­ling layer to severely compro­mi­sed commu­nities. What are the most chal­len­ging huma­ni­ta­rian situa­tions at present?

It’s hard to say. This summer, Afgha­ni­stan was undoub­tedly the biggest crisis. It’s a deva­sta­ting and tragic situa­tion. When the Tali­ban took over the government, many people feared the worst. The world was focu­sed on the evacua­tions, but a big crisis loomed in coun­try, where some 700,000 people have been displa­ced since the begin­ning of the year. There wasn’t the mass move­ment or exodus people were expec­ting across borders. If the coun­try doesn’t reco­ver econo­mi­c­ally, and if secu­rity and stabi­lity remain preca­rious, there could well be a bigger refu­gee crisis and the situa­tion will be worse than in 2015/16. And we should not forget that the Afghan people need help, even without any new displacements.

High Commis­sio­ner for Refu­gees Filippo Grandi plays with young Syrian refu­gees at Azraq camp in Jordan.
Photo: UNHCR/Diego Ibarra Sánchez

What’s the situa­tion like in Afghanistan?

There are already milli­ons of refu­gees in neigh­bou­ring coun­tries like Paki­stan, Iran, Turkey, and others. The number of displa­ced people within Afgha­ni­stan is also huge: these past few months, hund­reds of thousands more have been added to the 3.5 million who have had to leave their homes over four deca­des of protra­c­ted conflict. If we do not want them to become refu­gees as well, we need to help them now, so that they can return home. The current stabi­lity is very fragile. The people who depend the most on aid are either in coun­try or in refu­gee camps along the borders. It’s a compli­ca­ted situa­tion to get across to the public. During the summer, people were aware and concer­ned about the situa­tion, and we recei­ved propor­tio­na­tely large dona­ti­ons: in the first three weeks, we raised USD 20 million from private donors and companies.

Has the concern waned?

Yes. And here is the diffi­cult part: while the media spends less time reporting on this crisis, winter is around the corner. The people need to be protec­ted (from the cold) with blan­kets and other basic items.

Is there a solution?

When huma­ni­ta­rian disa­sters of this scale occur, the world typi­cally rallies. Even the Tali­ban want to help the refu­gees, there’s no doubt about it. I was there and I spoke to them. We are focu­sing on how we can help displa­ced people through the winter, and provide them with shel­ter, protec­tion, tents and so on. UN aid agen­cies have an effi­ci­ent and opera­tio­nal network in Afgha­ni­stan. We have space to provide aid, but we need the resources.

Child­ren are parti­cu­larly expo­sed. What message of hope do you have for child­ren who are born as refu­gees in a crisis like this one? 

It’s important that refu­gees are given access to educa­tion. This topic, which has gained momen­tum, was spar­ked by the Syrian crisis. When Syrian refu­gees were asked what the reasons were for fleeing their coun­try, they answe­red the chal­len­ging life-condi­ti­ons, the food shor­ta­ges, and also the fact that their child­ren were not able to go to school. This showed people in wealthy coun­tries that educa­tion for refu­gees is an abso­lute neces­sity, and there’s been some real chan­ges in that regard. About six years ago, just 50% of refu­gee child­ren atten­ded primary school. The global average for non-refu­gee child­ren is almost 90%. Targe­ted program­mes have enab­led us to improve refu­gee children’s access to educa­tion from 60% to 70%. Progress which was drasti­cally under­mi­ned during the pandemic. 

What gives you the assurance that what you do is making a diffe­rence and is helping people?

I am an opti­mist. When I meet with people forced to flee, I see in many their indo­mita­ble spirit; they have witnessed the worst of huma­nity, but when someone can show you compas­sion, belie­ves in you, stands up for you and with you – that soli­da­rity can make all the difference.

I mean, given all the nega­tive and sad things you’ve mentio­ned...

Well let’s talk about the ‘Global compact for refu­gees’ initia­tive for instance. This frame­work contains goals for climate change, educa­tion and other important issues. It’s really a kind of tool­box full of ideas, an invi­ta­tion for ever­yone who can and wants to help. The parti­ci­pa­ting UN States appro­ved the content toge­ther, but it’s not targe­ted at States alone. It’s crucial as a tool for civil society and for the busi­ness, cultu­ral and sporting sectors. The fact that all the States agreed to the frame­work is encou­ra­ging and gives us hope. Helping people going through terri­ble situa­tions is the most important mission we have. I believe this – and I have always belie­ved it.

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