The refugees question is not an emergency and does not only concern Europe: Africa and the Middle East face situations that are even more complicated. Carlotta Sami, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Southern Europe, has agreed to give us an overview of the situation.
What is the situation in the Mediterranean and along the Balkan route?
The Balkan and Mediterranean routes are often associated with one another and described together but they are distinct and different. This can be seen, for example, from the nationalities of people that arrive in Europe from these routes: they do not coincide, they vary greatly. Obviously the intensity of migrant flows varies too. Now we are seeing the growth in numbers on the Mediterranean route, while before we had a peak along the Balkan route.
However, I would like to underline that all of this focus on the Mediterranean route and the Balkan route and the European countries affected by the migrant flows (Italy in particular), risks relegating to second place the situations being experienced in some other countries like Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Each of these countries hosts enormous numbers of refugees. For instance, there are two million refugees in Lebanon, which has a population of around 6 million. To make a comparison there are currently 200 thousand refugees present in Italy, the EU country most exposed to the flows. Then there is Niger, which is in second-last place in the Human Development Index yet hosts thousands of refugees from Nigeria and Mali. The scenario is complicated also in Uganda with 800 thousand refugees from South Sudan.
How do you work in these countries?
We try to develop programs that facilitate work and education. In many of these countries, until very recently, refugees could not work at all and access to school was not guaranteed. A case in point is Lebanon, where the majority of schools are private with prohibitively expensive fees. Fortunately, in some of these countries we have managed to convince the local authorities to approve legislation aimed at guaranteeing better access to schools and work. Initially in Turkey less than half of young refugees went to school, now the situation is much better. Ankara has demonstrated great willingness. It’s not just Turkey: it should be acknowledged that these countries make great efforts to deal with a situation that is genuinely difficult for them. In addition to schools and employment UNHCR is also active with other initiatives. We also provide economic support to refugees, as much as we can. We pay the money onto chargeable cards and we give no restrictions on how it can be spent. They are free to use the money as they feel and buy what they need.
Why do refugees, at a certain point, leave these countries and try to get to Europe?
Anyway it’s necessary to be clear. In Turkey, Lebanon and elsewhere refugees live mainly in cities in rented homes or, if they don’t have the resources, in precarious accommodation. The fact that they are forced to try to reach Europe – a phenomenon that, to tell the truth, is in decline – depends on the way they lived their lives in their home countries, based on their vocations and the education of their children that in Europe could be more assured of prospects and plans for the future. The drama is that there isn’t a safe way to get here. Poor countries that are home to very high numbers of refugees do not understand why Europe doesn’t do more.
What should they expect from Europe?
In Europe there are just two million refugees compared with 65 million spread around the world. More could be done and what is done could be done better, beginning with the internal distribution of refugees. The European Commission’s plan has remained largely unfulfilled: few countries have respected the obligations that they have signed up to maintain. A happy exception is Portugal, which has welcomed the number of refugees that it was meant to and has established welcome programs and integration pathways. It is not and will not be easy, but it is a country that has considered its own demographic composition, taking into account its aging population. Some months ago the UNHCR presented a document indicating pragmatic solutions for the management of borders, internal redistribution of refugees, welcoming and exercising influence abroad.
Influence over whom or what?
Europe must be able to impose radical yet coordinated change, avoiding that its members reason and act in disparate ways. By radical change we intend the strength to enact strategic development policies. It is necessary to understand that a refugee is not an emergency because he or she can remain a refugee even for twenty years but it is necessary to modify the way in which we support the affected countries. It is necessary to empower schools, fight climate change and train administrative staff.
Compared with a few years ago we are seeing that today there is a lesser capacity to resolve conflicts. Therefore, there are more wars and more refugees. This situation will continue and, consequently, the poorer countries will encounter growing fatigue when it comes to managing refugee flows. It is increasingly necessary then to invest in these situations. The World Bank, the EU, but also private individuals: everybody can play their part.