Throughout your career, you have been working on a number of missions taking place in a range of different continents, meeting people in really desperate situations. Which of the missions has been most impactful for you personally?
I will mention two experiences that have been very important for me. My first mission overseas was when I served as a volunteer for an NGO in Thailand. This was in the eighties, and I served there for about one and a half years. Initially I was posted very near the border with Cambodia. It was the time of the Cold War when Europe and many other parts of the world were divided. The Vietnamese army which had ties to the Soviet Union controlled Cambodia. I was a young volunteer, in my mid-twenties, working in this humanitarian situation. There were many Cambodian refugees I met while I was there, but I found that the underlying highly politicized situation really showed me the importance of humanitarian work to save lives and help people. It proved to me how important it was to always be aware of the politics behind conflicts that generate humanitarian problems. I could tell you many stories, but that was my first experience.
My second experience was when I spent four years in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2005. In 2001 the previous Taliban government regime was defeated in a military war and left Afghanistan. UNHCR had dealt with Afghan refugees fleeing the situation in Afghanistan for many years. However, in the early years after the Taliban’s departure, elections were held and Afghanistan appeared to be set in a new direction, meaning millions of Afghan refugees returned. That was a fantastic experience because I have served so many years in emergency situations and in this situation, we did the opposite to what we usually do – helping people come back to their homeland. It was almost seen as an emergency because thousands of people were returning to Afghanistan every day. We had to help all these people rebuild their lives, so I spent four fantastic years in a really difficult but completely different situation. Unfortunately, it was a situation that was not sustained, but for me it was an important experience.
Very interesting. You said that you find it important to look at the political background of crises. We have an ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, with huge political consequences. How do you assess the current situation of reduced reception capabilities for refugees in Europe? Could the previous measures that were put in place to restrict refugees be reversed due to demographic change and the shortage of skilled workers in Europe?
Since 2015, there has been a big influx of refugees coming into Europe. We have observed many politicians utilizing the arrival of refugees and migrants for political purposes. They have understood that if they say these people are dangerous who threaten security, values and jobs, then some of the public will agree and these politicians will get more votes. It’s as simple as that. Refugees do not come here to threaten values. They actually escape from danger and from risks. Of course, there are also many people who are not refugees and have to follow specific procedures to enter a country.
What happened with Ukraine was very interesting, I think that the political rhetoric around these refugees changed as a result of the war. I think public opinion could see clearly what was happening in Ukraine. There was a moment this year in which all Europeans understood the bombs, destruction and violence the refugees have to put up with. The reason why many Ukrainians have come to Europe is because there is a lot of sympathy for them. It was more difficult for European countries to reject these refugees due to these circumstances; all politicians knew they have to take in these people. What we are now saying to the European governments and institutions is that we should draw some lessons from the good acceptance of Ukrainian refugees in Europe.
A few days after the Russian invasion, Europe announced that all refugees from Ukraine are welcome, they declared something called temporary protection which is a special status that allows refugees to stay wherever they want in the Schengen area and to have access to services and work. This is a very good model of reception that actually makes it possible for Europe to take in millions of Ukrainians. I understand you cannot apply the same criteria to every other crisis in which refugees are involved, each influx of people is different and maybe more problematic for certain groups making it more difficult to get acceptance and integration of the refugees into society. However, this should not discourage us from trying to accept them anyway.
The lessons we have learned in Europe through the acceptance of Ukrainians have been very useful and I’m glad that many governments such as the German government, which I have visited recently, agrees with this view. Mind you, Germany took in 1 million Ukrainians. They also took a lot of Syrian refugees in the previous big crisis, but Germany is very organized, with a good system of reception, which allows it to offer opportunities. It should be a good model, which should be implemented in other European countries as well.
On your website it is stated that the UNHCR has a funding gap of $700 million. If that gap cannot be closed what factors would have to be considered when prioritizing projects and crises?
It is very interesting to analyze this funding gap because overall we have received quite a lot of funding this year since the emergency in Ukraine has attracted funds. While we did receive good funding, the funding has often been earmarked. Earmarked means that a country gives the UNHCR $1 million for example, but tells us that $500,000 of this amount must be used for Ukrainian refugees and $500,000 for something else. We are always telling donors, not to earmark. We need to be trusted to decide where to use the money. With Ukraine, there was a lot of earmarking meaning that operations for Ukrainian refugees or displaced people inside Ukraine, Moldova and Poland, were well funded. However, in many other parts of the world where there was no earmarking, the funding declined. That has been a big problem.
The funding gap of $700 million in the business world is not much, but for us, it’s more than 10% of our income. We have managed to fix maybe half of that deficit through new contributions from donors who have responded to our appeal but we are still short of money in some operations. What do we do in this scenario? We are forced to cut assistance where there is less earmarking, which is unfortunately often in regions like the Middle East, Africa or in Asia.
I am telling the governments that they are not giving enough money. Government should not be surprised to have refugees knocking on their doors- if we decrease the assistance that we give them, refugees will make their way to richer countries. Financing of aid operations is at a very critical juncture today. With COVID and the situation in Ukraine we realize that rich donor countries have had to increase their public spending, which has been primarily domestic. It means that there is not enough funding for everything and unfortunately the first thing that gets cut is foreign assistance. This is because people benefiting from foreign assistance do not vote in the elections in donor countries. They have no voice to plead for the budget not to be cut. We are their voice. We try to tell donor countries not to cut aid budgets, we are sometimes successful and sometimes not.
The difficulties in funding must also mean that the role of private organizations is becoming more important for the UNHCR?
It is in so many ways. It is important to think about who is there to help first in a refugee emergency? The citizens. Take one country that was heavily affected by the crisis in Ukraine, Moldova. Moldova is a small country in Europe which is quite poor and outside the European Union meaning it is very exposed to instability. Yet, many Ukrainians went to Moldova since it is bordering Ukraine. I was listening to the foreign minister of Moldova speaking at a conference the other day. He was saying, that the country received a lot of help to cope with the refugees, but the first people who helped was civil society, the Moldovan people. This observation occurs time and again all over the world.
Secondly, the work we do with private organizations, NGOs is very important. They are very often our closest partner. We work with both local NGOs and international NGOs.
Then we have the private sector, which is a very big financial supporter. We have contributions of almost $6 billion given to UNHCR and over $1 billion, roughly 20% of contributions, are private sources which includes companies and foundations. However, companies are increasingly telling us that they don’t want to solely donate money. They want to partner in many ways. I was in Silicon Valley recently which was fantastic. I went to Google and Uber for example which are partner companies of the UNHCR. Uber gave us free rides on Uber cars for our staff in Poland and helped us with transporting goods in Ukraine. This is just one example of many, Google is also putting so much technology at our disposal. These are important contributions from the private sector.
If we stay with the topic of the Ukraine crisis. Now that winter is approaching and a lot of infrastructure in Ukraine is destroyed, do you think Ukrainian people are sufficiently prepared for harsh winter ahead? Do you think that the winter may be another push factor that is encouraging people to get out of Ukraine?
This is a very important question. We have been planning for winter in Ukraine with other humanitarian organizations and the Ukrainian government for many months now. The UNHCR was well prepared to provide money. A lot of aid these days is through cash meaning you give people cash to buy stuff they need. We distributed blankets and heating material and crucially helped the government fix buildings as well. They have a lot of empty public buildings in Ukraine where displaced and homeless people could go if their house may be destroyed. The problem is that in the last month or so, there have been appalling airstrikes on civilian infrastructure, especially energy infrastructure. For this reason, the Ukrainian government has requested around 25,000 generators because most of the people are disconnected from the grid. However, this number is impossible to reach, I fear we cannot keep up with needs if indiscriminate military attacks continue, which by the way is against the rules of war because it disproportionately affects civilians. The situation is very worrying because if the level of destruction goes faster than the level of relief, we risk seeing more people being displaced both in and outside Ukraine. We are preparing for all possible situations, hopefully the level of relief will remain sufficient but we need to be ready, which is why we still need a lot of help. I said a lot of help has already come to Ukraine, but luckily this is the case because it is an enormous operation and needs continue.
On the theme of climate, current trends in global warming determine the issue will be a huge push factor for refugees in the future. What are your demands to politicians in order to take care of these future refugee flows?
I think the demands are the same as all my colleagues in the UN. Please reduce emissions and make sure that there is enough money for poorer countries to offset the negative impact of climate change.
I am sure you followed the situation in Pakistan where there have been huge floods. One third of the country was under water in September. These disasters are so costly in terms of human lives, displacement, refugees, poverty and destruction. Unfortunately, they hit the countries that are the least guilty in terms of release of carbon emissions. The rich countries which are primarily responsible for the release of emissions do not bear the consequences of climate change to the same extent. They are also hit, as demonstrated by the drought we have seen in Europe and the fires we seen in California. This situation is often called climate justice. I think it’s very important for politicians to put greater focus on this topic. There has been a little bit of this focus at the COP 27, but not enough in the right direction.
From the perspective of the UNHCR, climate change causes displacement in many ways. You read a lot about it in the news where there are often figures stating that there will be a given number of millions of climate refugees. It does not really work like that; it is not so automatic. Climate displaces people in so many ways. If you lived in a low-lying country near the sea, you may be displaced by the rising sea levels. If you are on a small island, for example in an area prone to hurricanes, you may be displaced because of a natural disaster. However, climate is also a key driver of conflict, especially in Africa we see it a lot. In poor communities, resources such as water get scarcer because of climate change and communities start to fight, which generates refugees.
It is important to note that refugees themselves can have an impact on the environment. If you go to Bangladesh, 1 million refugees from Myanmar have cut down forests when they arrived because they needed the wood to cook and for heating. This is another relationship between refugees and climate which is very complicated to manage. All these situations mentioned need attention and resources.
Very interesting. Taking your answer into consideration, do you think that Western countries that historically emitted a lot of greenhouse gases have a much greater responsibility for climate change than they admitting to at the moment?
I think so, it is very obvious. I would say in general, if you are rich, you have a greater responsibility for the world because you have more resources which can be used to have an impact and help other people who are poorer and more vulnerable. Nobody can oblige anybody to be generous or to be a philanthropist but I think it is important to remind the people with available resources that they have responsibilities. This is an important job of the UNHCR. Raising awareness amongst young people is also especially important.
People in Western countries wanting to help refugees often don’t know how to have the biggest positive impact in crisis situations. What is the one thing we could do to have the greatest positive impact on crises occurring in the world?
There are many things to do, but if I have to pick one which can apply to anybody is to be informed and to inform the people around you. The worst thing that is happening in the refugee sphere and has also been seen during COVID as well is ignorance. Sometimes ignorance is manipulated for example through fake news in order to get public opinion against something. I think you students have a responsibility to be informed correctly and scientifically on topics such as migratory movement, refugees, conflict, climate and world crisis, it is your responsibility to be actors of good information. You know, this is very important because good information, especially in my area can predisposes public opinion in a good way, through solidarity for example, which can make coming up with solutions for refugees far easier. However, information is very often manipulated in a bad way by politicians which can generate the exact opposite response, especially when information is based on fake news or wrong data. The foundation of knowledge is to know the truth and learn about the truth. As students it is most often the case that you are exposed to truth, which gives you a very important role to play.
There are many other things you can also do to help. Volunteering, getting to know refugees in your community, working for the UN, but that is usually more personal. I think the obligation to be well-informed does not only apply to the topic of refugees. It can be climate, social justice, equality, gender and all other important topics of our time.
To conclude, it is not only about acquiring knowledge, which is easily done through your studies. It is also about your civic duty. The main civic duty for those fortunate enough to live in democracies is voting. I am not going to tell people who they should vote for. I am neutral and I am not a party person. However, I can say to all young people, vote for people who have concerns for these global causes and that don’t only concentrate on the immediate short term domestic concerns. People that are concerned about climate, forced migration, global poverty and hunger are the people that need to represent all of us. If they are representing us, then we have a chance that these global issues will be addressed.