Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | August 25, 2015
Vincent Cochetel is the director of the Bureau for Europe at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He joined UNHCR in 1986, initially working as a legal/protection officer in various duty stations, mainly in Eastern and Western Europe. He subsequently managed UNHCR field offices in Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Cochetel participated in several emergency missions in Asia, West Africa, and Europe (North Caucasus). He was kidnapped near Chechnya in 1998 for 317 days and he was kept chained to a bed frame, tortured and deprived of light. He continues to work to improve the rights of refugees worldwide.
Cochetel has written numerous articles on refugee issues and contributed to the drafting of several UNHCR training manuals related to staff safety, emergency management, protection, and durable solutions. He spoke with Shreerupa Mitra-Jha:
How would you describe the EU response to the huge refugee crisis facing the continent?
The European Commission has adopted a number of measures, including the common area for migration, which is a step in the right direction. We hope that countries will implement it without delay and will implement the whole common agenda – if they use components or data, they will not opt out of some parts of the package.
The quota system proposed by Brussels was scrapped in June. Is it unfair for some countries like Turkey, Germany and Greece to take the disproportionate burden of the crisis? Do you think the problem has reached a stalemate with a footballing of the issue and a lack of leadership?
The challenge is that because some of the countries are located where they are located, they are getting more pressure than other countries. The countries located at the external borders of the EU are likely in the Mediterranean to receive more migrants and asylum seekers than other countries. Because the sea is the last open border to access Europe, so people will come, continue risking their lives, take crazy measures, in order to reach Europe. So those countries which are on the frontline need support in order to address the complex challenges that exist in terms of reception. Of course, for those who are in need of international protection – it’s not the case for everybody – there needs to be a distribution system. [It] should not be only a few countries receiving refugees. The situation that we see now is that many of the people arriving in Greece or Italy don’t stay in Greece or Italy. They move on to a very few countries in Europe. Last year, Germany and Sweden received 46 percent of the asylum seekers. That’s not normal and that’s not sustainable.
How big is the crisis? Can you give us a sense?
Asylum seekers are coming to Europe, more than the year before. On the other hand, when you compare it with the displacement in countries neighbouring Syria, I mean, there are four million Syrian refugees in the countries neighbouring Syria. Europe only receives a small portion of the consequence of this crisis. 86 percent of the refugees in the world are living in developing countries. They are not living in industrialised countries. So we should not think that everybody is coming to Europe or that everybody wants to come to Europe. When you talk to Syrian refugees in Turkey they tell you [that they] dream about going back to their country. They don’t dream about Europe. But some are coming.
You said earlier that there is a need to distinguish between economic migrants and asylum seekers and refugees. Could you elaborate on that?
Asylum seekers, on the basis of European legislation, have the right to have their claim examined. If they are found to be refugees, [then they] have a certain set of rights in Europe. If they are not refugees, then they don’t have a vocation to stay in Europe, they need to be returned but returned humanely to their country of origin. As to economic migrants, there is no right to migrate, say, to EU. Some EU countries have some migration programmes because they are niche in their economy where they need labour migration in certain sectors. But there is no right. Countries select whoever they take, for how long they want. We need to probably have more consistency and more common and courageous approach in Europe to recognise that Europe with its ageing population and in spite of the unemployment in some countries will continue to need labour migration. So this needs to be regulated, programmes need to be put in place. This is not popular in the public opinion but this is an economic and demographic reality that Europe won’t be able to escape.
Is there a link between the health of an economy and and a hostile reaction towards refugees?
Sometimes, but not always. I have seen many countries in Africa that are economically not doing well but where you have a lot of support of the host community [for] refugees – [not] as job takers, as people that are causing problems. Those countries try to do their best to integrate them. [It is] not necessary [that] the level of economic development creates the best or worst condition for reception.
How much is the EU’s response to the crisis being coloured by public antagonism against refugees?
Many politicians are out of touch with what the public think. Some are very worried by the movement of refugees and migrants in Europe which is sometimes legitimate because they feel the system is not well managed. But if the politicians would spend a bit more time with people, they will realise that this is a manageable problem. There are procedures and laws in place. These are human beings. Irrespective of the reason they left their country of origin they need to be treated with humanity. And then solutions are different. Not everybody has the right to seek asylum. Greek people are using their money to feed the people. Not everybody is xenophobic, not everybody is anti-foreigners. But, of course, it is an easy target, an easy topic for politicians. But let’s keep in mind the numbers: you had 4,50,000 asylum seekers in Europe last year. Half of them, more or less, have been recognised as refugees. The other half should have been returned. It’s nothing in terms of numbers for 28 countries. It’s nothing compared to the four million refugees in the three countries surrounding Syria. What are we talking about! 28 countries should be able to manage that. So let’s keep also the numbers in perspective. Yes, there are large-scale arrivals on those islands in Greece, there are situations that need to be better managed in Italy, but this is manageable.
Would an aggressive public campaign help?
We need to do that. When I was citing the number of asylum seekers in the UK – 9,000 – it’s nothing. There is no “swarm” here. Two-thirds of them arrive legally in the UK. So let’s tell the people the facts. Let’s not create [a] false image of the situation.
(The interview appears in the August 16-31, 2015 issue)
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