Filippo Grandi heads the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR | Photo: Imago
Filippo Grandi heads the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR | Photo: Imago

After more than three decades of refugee and humanitarian work around the world, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi seems more determined than ever to help forcibly displaced people. On World Refugee Day, InfoMigrants spoke to the UNHCR chief about the most emotional moments of his career, how to tackle the root causes of migration and what UNHCR is doing to help vulnerable refugees.

Elected by the UN General Assembly for a five-year-term in 2016, Filippo Grandi heads one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations, which has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize. UNHCR’s 15,000-strong workforce spans 128 countries, providing protection and assistance to more than 70 million refugees, returnees, internally displaced people and stateless persons.

Before being elected High Commissioner, Grandi was engaged in international cooperation for over 30 years, focusing on refugee and humanitarian work. Born in Milan, the 62-year-old holds degrees in modern history and philosophy.

During his visit to Berlin to mark World Refugee Day and to present UNHCR’s annual “Global Trends” report, Grandi sat down with InfoMigrants to talk about solidarity campaigns to combat growing anti-immigrant sentiments, secure pathways to Europe and the “crisis in refugee education.”

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


InfoMigrants: To mark today’s World Refugee Day, UNHCR is putting on hundreds of local events as well as large campaigns like ‘Step with Refugees,’ which is encouraging people around the world to count the steps they walk, run and cycle. How can these solidarity campaigns counter the growing anti-immigrant rhetoric and reduce stigmatization?

Filippo Grandi: World Refugee Day is an occasion for the entire world to remember and reflect on the fact that there are almost 71 million people who had to make that very difficult decision to get on the road towards exile leaving their homes, their communities and their jobs. It’s also an opportunity to think about solutions to the phenomenon of forced displacement.

The rhetoric around refugees, migrants and other people on the move is very negative. Some politicians always portray them as abusing our welfare systems and as being a threat to our security, to our jobs and to our values. This negative rhetoric gains traction in prosperous societies around the world where broad swathes of the population feel insecure, especially about trends like globalization. And then it becomes consensus for these people who stigmatize refugees, thus turning into a vicious circle.

Yet whatever the very complicated political discourse, there’s strong, tangible and concrete solidarity when people understand that refugees are people like them.

The "Step with Refugees" campaign, for one, wants to highlight symbolically that forcibly displaced people walk to seek safety. And we walk with them to support them. We want to humanize this phenomenon by portraying refugees as people who do something any ordinary person does every day.

This month, the Italian government decided to impose stiff fines on rescuers who bring migrants into port without authorization. In an interview with InfoMigrants, the new European Parliament member Pietro Bartolo said the new decree is unconstitutional, violates all international norms and must be retracted. Do you agree with Bartolo?

Regarding the rescue at sea, it’s very important that the capacity of European states to rescue people in distress in the Mediterranean is not diminished. Unfortunately, said decree in Italy along with other norms and pronouncements have weakened this capacity. We are less able to save people than we were last year or in 2017. This is against all principles and norms. We have been publicly criticizing Italian laws, and have also discussed with the government privately how some aspects of the Salvini Decree are contrary to international refugee law.

On the other hand, Italy has one valid point: It lies on the central Mediterranean route of people coming through Libya. Unless there is some more predictable, well-planned sharing of these arrivals, Italy will continue to be on that frontline. But "sharing", which is the only way that Europe can deal with these arrivals, seems to be a difficult word in European politics today. And that's really what we are trying to promote.

In a tweet from June 9, you said there’s “little action on addressing causes of unnecessary flows and creating secure pathways for those who need to move.” How can secure and legal pathways for refugees to Europe look like beyond the known "solutions"?

When we talk about secure and legal pathways, we mean especially resettlement. Resettlement means that stable and prosperous states, mostly in Europe, North America and Australia, take in some of the refugees already in other countries, especially the most vulnerable ones. Resettlement, however, is a very small solution: Last year, only 100,000 people of all 70.8 million forcibly displaced people were resettled.

Still, resettlement is a very important solution for two reasons. First, it can really help the weakest and most vulnerable people find better opportunities, lives and security. Second, if rich countries, in addition to the aid they provide, accepted to bear a very small part of the burden, this would send a powerful signal of solidarity to the countries hosting 90 percent of the refugees. They're poor countries.

How can we tackle the root causes of migration and forced displacement, specifically from Africa and the Middle East, and why do you think the European Union isn't doing more?

Tackling the root causes of both migrant and refugee flows is important and complementary. Refugees usually flee from military or political situations, which requires political action. There, Europe needs to find a more unified voice to exercise positive influence in conflict resolution. We only see it occasionally, which is not enough. Especially in this very polarized world, where the great powers are often divided, Europe can really play a role to turn towards peace.

But then we should not forget the root causes of migration: the climate emergency, poverty and other economic causes. Those require more strategic development. Although Europe is the largest provider of development aid in the world, it very often isn’t strategically oriented when trying to address the root causes that prompt migrants to leave their home countries.

What has been the most emotional moment of your tenure so far?

I was very shocked by what I saw in the detention centers in Libya. It was one of the worst experiences in a long humanitarian career, and I can assure you I've seen a lot of bad things. And I was incredibly moved by what they saw in Bangladesh. In September 2017, when 700,000 Rohingya refugees crossed over from Myanmar under terrible conditions, the people responding to that emergency in the first few weeks were people from the local communities. They brought whatever little they had to share with the refugees. This is an example of solidarity we should reflect upon on World Refugee Day.

How do you, as an Italian, see the situation in your home country with regards to the rise of populists like Salvini, and the growing resentment toward refugees?

I regret the politicization that is being made of arrivals, be they refugees or migrants. Politicization doesn’t bring us to any solution. Sometimes I wonder whether all these politicians who are always criticizing even want a solution because a solution may deprive them of a good argument. But these are democratically elected governments, so we should really work together with whoever is in power. My role as a humanitarian is to talk to these governments towards concrete solutions. The figure of almost 71 million forcibly displaced people worldwide may be impressive or shocking, but in a world of more than seven and a half billion people, it is manageable. We need to work together calmly, without excesses and without negative language.

What do you want to achieve in the remaining 18 months of your term as High Commissioner?

I'd really like to do two things. First, I want to develop the Global Compact on Refugees approach we call “whole-of-society:” Instead of governments helping other governments and the UN playing a role, we need a larger coalition: civil society, NGOs, the private sector and development organizations. This approach, which we're using in some African countries now, is to show everybody else, especially countries hosting large numbers of refugees, that it is possible to manage.

Second, I hope that this message of “It is possible” gets through to people who keep hearing a different message: That it is impossible, and the only way to address this problem is to build a wall, to push people back, to have restrictive legislations and to ignore that the problem exists. But this won't solve the problem. On the contrary: It will keep it in another place where it would be waiting for us to haunt us later.

LGBTI refugees are often prosecuted in their home countries, but they also face discrimination once they get to Europe. What is UNHCR doing to support them, and what needs to be done better?

This is a development of the last few years. We are recommending that persecution and discrimination should be considered as a valid reason to determine the refugee status of people from LGBTI communities seeking asylum in another country. This is something we did not do 20 or 30 years ago. Still, they sometimes continue to be at risk even in the countries where they seek refuge because there might also be discriminatory legislation or maybe practices or a social environment that marginalizes them and puts them at risk.

In those cases, we try to intervene and create a safe space for them. Wherever cases are more extreme, we try to move them to other countries through resettlement. It's not easy given the small number of resettlement spots, but LGBTI refugees need particular attention.

Forced displacement is a global phenomenon. There is a growing sense that we need to work together.
_ Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

What are your expectations of the first Global Refugee Forum, which will take place in December in Geneva? Do you see it playing a similar role as the COP conferences in the fight against the climate emergency?

I hope it will be a very exciting and positive event. Yes, we will take stock of how difficult the problem is; after all, the number of refugees are growing. But we will also ask all the participants governments, civil society, faith-based organizations and others to tell us stories of how they creatively and innovatively address this issue. Moreover, we want states and other organizations to make pledges for the future. I hope that it will give us strength, resources, ideas and enthusiasm to continue to address this challenge.

Forced displacement much like the climate emergency, poverty and inequality is a global phenomenon that requires global responses. There is a growing sense that we need to work together. That word “together” is understood by many people, but unfortunately not by all governments.


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