Towards compassion and a ‘compact’ on refugees

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, 16 June. [European Commission]

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appeals to European leaders meeting in Brussels today (28 June) to contribute for a new Global Compact on Responsibility-sharing for Refugees, as well as a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

The author is Secretary-General of the United Nations.

New figures released last week by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that forcible displacement has reached new heights: 65 million. Every minute, 24 people are uprooted – four times the level of a decade ago. As European leaders meet in Brussels, they must focus on humane solutions that save lives, uphold international law and protect human rights.

Last week at the Kara Tepe Open Hospitality Centre, in the town of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, I met a young Syrian refugee who eagerly hopes to resume her studies in civil engineering. Like so many refugees and migrants, she is ready to contribute to the betterment of our world.

The waters were calm the day I visited.  But not so long ago, the horizon was filled with flimsy, overcrowded boats making their way across cold and choppy waters.  People arrived by the thousands, some still with shrapnel wounds from the fighting they had fled just days earlier.

The people of Greece and Lesbos have responded admirably. I talked with coast guard officers and lifeguards, who brought distraught people to shore, and teenage Navy Scouts who are being “big brother” to orphans. I met a priest who has brought faiths and communities together, as well as local volunteers and international NGOs, which have worked hard to ease suffering.

At Kara Tepe and the Moria “hotspot”, I spoke with Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and others.  I sensed immense gratitude for their temporary haven. But I also saw simmering frustration at their uncertain futures, causing tensions within and beyond the facilities.  As one person said, “it is the waiting that is killing everyone inside”.

Refugees chanted “freedom”.  They held up placards at every step: “no walls”; “no life without international protection”; “we fled death and now we are dying, but slowly”.  I also saw moving drawings by children — depictions of tanks, beheadings and women in chains that spoke of their trauma, but also houses and gardens that signified hope.

If tiny Lesbos can do so much, surely others can do far more.  I urge world leaders to uphold their political, moral and legal obligations by taking the following steps:

First, relocate more people.  Greece and Italy should not be left alone on the frontlines to address the European dimension of this challenge.  Nor should Germany, Sweden or Austria be the only main destination countries in the European Union. This responsibility must be shared globally.

Second, protect people. Many states have done remarkable work in handling massive movements of people. But too many people remain in precarious conditions, especially children, who make up half of the world’s refugees. We must do more to ensure access to education and employment, and to protect against negative “coping strategies” such as begging.

Third, provide more resettlement as well as humanitarian and complementary pathways for admission. Barriers and border closures will not stop the movements of desperate people, and may only drive them into the hands of smugglers. We need to speed up the asylum process and family reunification. We need to treat all equally, lest refugee communities be set against each other.

Fourth, fight xenophobia and hatred. Refugees are famously devoted to education and self-reliance, and bring new skills and dynamism into ageing workforces.  Attempts to demonize them are not only offensive; they are factually incorrect.

Fifth, address the root causes of forced displacement. That means resolving conflicts and strengthening the rule of law and national protection systems for human rights. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted last year by world leaders offers a platform to work preventively and not only when states collapse and flows begin.

I appeal to European leaders meeting in Brussels to act with compassion and foresight.  I urge all world leaders to attend the Summit meeting at the United Nations in New York on September 19th. Our goal is a new Global Compact on Responsibility-sharing for Refugees, as well as a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

The situation is complex, yet simple, in its fundamentals: we need to help human beings caught up in horrendous circumstances, which they had no role in creating and have no power to change. Large movements of people have occurred before and we have coped. With the world now richer than ever and more knowledgeable than ever, we should be able to cope better than ever, and do right for today’s and future generations.

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