The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has warned that significant obstacles remain in the way of many refugees returning to their homelands and any returns must be “voluntary”.
In a "Euronews Uncut" interview in Davos, Switzerland, top political commentator and journalist Andrew Neil asked Grandi if a migration crisis was still facing Europe, and the best way to manage migrant flows.
Andrew Neil: Filippo Grandi, welcome. This conversation will be uncut. We'll talk for 20 minutes and the viewers will see exactly what we say with no editing at all.
Filippo Grandi: Wonderful.
Andrew Neil: So let me begin by saying. Is there still a migration crisis facing Europe?
Filippo Grandi: "Has there ever been one. You know, I understand why one has to be careful when you speak about these matters. But frankly, when you look at the figures, and let's look at our figures, refugees, displaced people, about 70 million worldwide, 85% to 90% are not in Europe, [they're] not in America, [they're] not in Australia. They are in poor or middle-income countries. So that's where the crisis is. Now, of course, we have seen people arriving in Europe - at some stage - in large numbers. That was critical and it was not handled well. That made the crisis more acute and it has then been politicised, which made it irreversibly acute."
Andrew Neil: "The politicians certainly thought it was a crisis and they've treated it like a crisis and for some politicians themselves, it became a crisis for them." (Including Angela Merkel and Germany.)
Filippo Grandi: "I don't blame Angela Merkel, who did, in my opinion, the right thing. [She] showed that Europe still put value in solidarity. But the problem with it was that when she made the famous statement that Syrians would be welcome in Germany, and let's not forget Syrians were fleeing an atrocious war at that time. When she made that statement the rest of Europe didn't follow, the rest of Europe didn't share that responsibility with Germany. She was left alone. That was the problem."
Andrew Neil: "And the message that politicians seem to take from that, though, is that "Angela Merkel went out on a limb and welcomed a million refugees" or migrants or whatever they were. She was the most powerful leader in Europe. And it pretty much destroyed her political career. That was the message that the rest of Europe took. In other words: "We're not going to do that!"
Filippo Grandi: "And I think that’s where I would disagree. To attribute that failure to her. When the failure must be attributed to the inability of Europe to deal with these matters. And my point is also that Europe must deal with those matters. Firstly, because Europe has a duty to receive people fleeing from war and persecution. So that's not a choice, in my opinion, that's a European value. That's a European obligation. Also, according to international law. But in doing so, Europe must be more organised than this — this is where we come back to the politicisation. It's become so politicised that every little boat wandering in the Mediterranean with 20 people becomes a European drama."
Andrew Neil: ...or in the English Channel where the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force are scrambled."
Filippo Grandi: "And you've certainly noticed that, nowadays, in Europe, the race is about who does the least to accept these people and dealing with them rather than a race for generosity. It's quite the opposite. This is absurd. Also, it's a race to do as little as possible and give the responsibility to others because it has become politically toxic. And that's a vicious circle — this discourse."
Andrew Neil: "Let's look at the scale of the problem, what's happening, then some of the possible solutions and political responses. The numbers are way down from 2015. It moved along the Mediterranean, but they're also about 85% down crossing the Mediterranean into Italy as well. So they're down, but last year 117,000 migrants still reached Europe by sea. Overwhelmingly, Italy, Spain, and Greece. 2000 died in the process. It's still a major problem, unresolved."
Filippo Grandi: Of course it is a major problem because — I don't want anybody to misunderstand me when I see that it is not a crisis. I can also say it's not a crisis compared to what Lebanon or Bangladesh are facing, with much fewer resources than Europe, and much bigger numbers. It’s a crisis in that one death in the Mediterranean, in my opinion, is a crisis. Especially in Europe, that has a duty to rescue these people. But once again, you know, to organise the rescue, to share disembarkation, to reform the asylum system, so it's not only the countries at the edge that have to deal with all the problems as it is now. Greece, Italy and now we see Spain. To do all this, you need some cohesion, working together and depoliticising the whole phenomenon."
Andrew Neil: "Well, let's just look at how that's not happening. I mean as we speak there's a boat: "See-Watch 3". It's a rescue ship. It has rescued 50 migrants. It's been refused entry into Lampedusa - the Italian island closest to the Libyan coast. It's now heading for Malta. We don't know if Malta is going to take it either. Malta feels "We're a little island. We have to take too many. We are on the frontline". What happens to these people?"
Filippo Grandi: "Well we have seen it now in the past three or four months, several cases like that. The last one were those two boats around Christmas time that were wandering in the Mediterranean. Difficult conditions for about three weeks, three weeks, 49 people, talking of a continent of 500 million people. One of the richest parts of the world. So what is the problem? In the end, a solution was found, seven, eight countries decided to share that responsibility. That's good because I agree with the Italians or the Greeks before or the Spaniards now that it should not be just one country receiving them all but you need to have a system that works. That is in place. Otherwise, it becomes a negotiation that in the present climate is very difficult."
Andrew Neil: "And this was an ad hoc solution as well."
Filippo Grandi: and it will be for this boat. I can make a bet with you."
Andrew Neil: "Well let's look at one of the policies: Operation Sophia. It has been the European naval exercise patrolling in the Mediterranean. It has saved some 50,000 people since 2015. It's cracked down on people smugglers as well. It looks as if Operation Sophia which is run by the Italians, that it contains many European nations' navies including the Germans. It's being scaled back and it may come to an end. What do you say to that?"
Filippo Grandi: "I'm worried because and it's not just Operation Sophia, which has already been scaled back last year, by the way. It's in general, the rescue mechanism in the Mediterranean. The NGOs have played a very big role in that. And the NGOs have been attacked publicly, have been criticised, have been limited in their scope of action. They've been accused of fomenting, of increasing trafficking, whilst the NGOs, in reality, perform an indispensable job together with national coastguards and Operation Sophia ships in rescuing people. Not according to refugee law or migration rules but the law of the sea, which is very ancient, and goes back to the 17th century. We have a duty. You know this is part of humankind. Saving people that are in distress at sea."
Andrew Neil: "And but now we seem to be cutting back rather than getting coherent resources. Even the Germans are telling us that because their ships are being sent by the Italians to areas where there are no refugees."
Filippo Grandi: "You know, what we have seen is - as you said earlier and correctly - we've seen a decrease in the numbers of people arriving. A sharp decrease, in fact. But the percentage of those dying is increasing, prorated to the numbers of those arriving."
Andrew Neil: "We've had a number of deaths this year even though."
Filippo Grandi: Actually between 2017 and 18, the percentage of those that we estimate having lost their lives has doubled, which means that there are less rescues. Leave aside every other consideration because I do fully realise the complexity of this problem. This is absolutely unacceptable, especially for Europe. And I speak here as a European not just as a high commissioner for refugees."
Andrew Neil: "You have said that these movements, the migrant and refugee movements, you said and I quote your words, that they should be “managed in a principled and pragmatic way.” That's fine. But what would that mean in practice?"
Filippo Grandi: "In practice, it means having, what we would call, an asylum system that works better. First of all, a better distribution of arrivals. Like I said not just in a few countries. And second, a system that is more efficient and rapid in adjudicating who is a refugee and who is not. We've made countless proposals to the European Union to adopt a better system. We are the ones who are promoting a very solid system with safeguards, but we are also telling them how it has to be efficient, otherwise, people stay for a long time and then it loses impact and value. And then, of course, in this is difficult you have to have a system so that those that are not recognised as refugees. They enter a different track. They are migrants and migration is absolutely legitimate. But it has another logic and another dynamic and some people may have to be returned to their homes. And that is not working that there are no functioning agreements between European countries and countries from where these people are coming. So this is very complex. I am not for a moment underestimating the complexity of all this but to do this because of the complexity. Europe needs to be united. And around this, there is no unity at the moment."
Andrew Neil: "A lot of people though think it's getting harder and harder in this modern world to make a distinction between a refugee, on which there are legal obligations of asylum. And an economic migrant - that's someone that just wants to try and get away for a better life. They may feel unsafe in the country they're coming from too but they're not quite refugees and they see better prospects. Why would you blame them? But the distinction is blurred and doesn't work anymore."
Filippo Grandi: "I would agree with part of the argument and I would agree that it has become more difficult to make that distinction. Not because people don't flee for very valid reasons. All of them in fact, or move for a very valid reason but because there's a lot of mix of reasons. Some people move for a variety of reasons. Take the Venezuelans - I was there in October and it was very interesting. You know Venezuelans are leaving their country in enormous numbers. We estimate about 3 million have left in the last couple of years and they move for reasons that range from not being able to put food on the table for their children, to political persecution and everything in between. So I know it is difficult but when you judge these cases you have to err on the side of caution because returning people to their country that may face danger or risk to their lives is something that we cannot face. And this is where you define the benchmarks for international protection. And then there are different types of international protection that you can provide to people you know temporary protection, humanitarian protection, refugee status, which is the most solid. So I think that those distinctions are still valid and important if we want to preserve the institution of asylum. But they need investment, they need discussion again they need unanimity in Europe to be applied consistently."
Andrew Neil: "And one of Europe's policy responses has been to put money into Libya where a lot of the migrants and refugees leave Africa to set out for Europe across the Mediterranean. To put them into camps, to help finance the camps, to return them to the camp, sometimes, if they're picked up at sea and everything I read is that these camps in Libya are hellholes."
Filippo Grandi: "I've been in those camps....
Andrew Neil: "And am I right?"
Filippo Grandi: "You're absolutely right. You know I said recently and it was reported and I want to repeat it that if I were a refugee or a migrant, or a person, let's say like that, a person in one of these camps I would take any risk to get out of them including -because they know very well - crossing the sea which is very life-threatening. But they're so awful, and so dangerous, and so humiliating for people, that it is understandable. Now I have to say something when you said about putting money into Libya, you know if the international community invested properly in Libya it wouldn't be a bad thing. First, resolving the conflict which badly needs an end because that's the source of all other problems in Libya. And then, of course, reconstructing the country. The problem is that most of the resources seem to be put in one aspect of the Libyan institution - the Coast Guard. Why? Because the Coast Guard controls the coast and that serves Europe's purpose to limit the arrivals. You know, in itself, this is a good thing to reinforce the Coast Guard and rescue people along the coast. The problem is that if you don't address everything else, as you say, what ends up happening is that people are disembarking in Libya. They're put back into the detention centre and then we have to start again the process of trying to have access, pulling them out, rescuing some of them etc etc."
Andrew Neil: "But I was looking at 144 refugees and/or migrants rescued by a cargo ship, but they were then taken to a detention centre in Misrata in northwestern Libya. There have been stories in these centres of torture, sexual attacks, extortion, forced labour. I mean that surely cannot be European migration policy?"
Filippo Grandi: "Surely not. But it is also true that we have to look at the problem realistically. There are tens of thousands of people stranded in Libya and clearly not all of them can come to Europe. That's clear. And you know many of them want to go back to their countries if they're not refugees. You know people that have moved for economic reasons they realise that it's too difficult and dangerous. They want to go back now. About a year ago, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a fellow agency of ourselves have started working there. We've managed to make a bit of progress. IOM flies back people that accept to go back to their countries and for those who cannot because they are refugees, we help them get out of Libya. But it's still a fraction of the total. However, if we could expand that work, that would be useful because that would be giving them protection in Libya. Safety out of Libya, in a manner that doesn't expose them to trafficking and the dangers of crossing the sea. But to do that we need more space. In Libya, space is limited. A lot of these centres that you're talking about are not actually run by the authorities, they're run by militias. These militias; one should not imagine them as big political groups. They're just criminals they're just gangs that are profiting from all sorts of trafficking, including of people."
Andrew Neil: That's Libya, High Commissioner, but 500 people have just been ousted from a refugee reception centre close to Rome. By the Italian government. Not Libya. Not North Africa. In Europe, close to one of Europe's greatest cities. I mean I don't want to be too depressing here but if you look at these and I think these stories really humanise it. It tells you what is really happening. It's hard to be optimistic."
Filippo Grandi: "Well may I slightly say it differently? They have helped in humanising, by highlighting how dehumanising these policies have become. What happened in Italy is the result of a new law that the government has passed. Now we have said....I've been very public. We have said to the government that that law would not be good for the people that it was supposed to protect and help and it would cause more problems especially shortening the support that is given to people that are asylum seekers and so forth. Not allowing them to have access to these centres. The situation was not perfect before. It needed improvement. But this is a step backwards, not a step forward."
Andrew Neil: "Now, your agency, I think it was one of your people, not you yourself, but it said politicians must stop using human beings for political point scoring. Which is a pretty fair thing to say, but I would suggest to you that the European elections coming up, in which migration is going to be at the core. In which populist parties are going to be calling the shots. That is precisely what is going to happen and that will get worse before it gets better."
Filippo Grandi: "Unfortunately, I agree with you. I wouldn't be worried if migration was in focus. It's important. It's an important global issue that needs to be addressed properly. But you have to address it seriously not just by having a hype about who will get the next 20 people on a boat because that's the migration debate. That's what the migration debate is reduced to. Instead of being a debate about the root causes of how people move, political causes, conflict, economy climate change and so forth. That's the type of migration discussion that Europe should have and it is not having. So all we have to do at this point is to hope that these elections come and go and we enter a phase in which we can resume that serious discussion. Europe deserves it. Europeans deserve it. And millions of people on the move certainly deserve it."
Andrew Neil: "Well we know you have to come and go because you have a busy schedule here Filippo Grandi. Thank you for being with us."
Filippo Grandi: "Thank you very much."