The Danish Refugee Council is providing emergency relief to the hundreds of migrants stranded at the former Lipa camp in north-western Bosnia. The organization's secretary general, Charlotte Slente, says EU migration policy is partly to blame for the crisis.
Charlotte Slente heads the Danish Refugee Council, one of the world's most active and respected international humanitarian organizations. At the site of the Lipa camp in Bosnia, the DRC is responsible for the provision of health care to the migrants and asylum seekers who have been without adequate shelter for over two weeks.
Charlotte Slente spoke with InfoMigrants' Marion MacGregor.
InfoMigrants: Why is the situation in Bosnia so intractable, and how do we move forward?
Charlotte Slente: We and other humanitarian agencies have actually been talking about this for months, and warning about the impending humanitarian crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But despite these warnings, the authorities have failed to find an agreement to ensure adequate reception facilities to host the around 8,000 migrants and asylum seekers and refugees that are in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But the crisis is also a result of EU policies on migration and asylum, and a reflection of the dominant trend that we see now of shifting the responsibility for ensuring protection of migrants and asylum seekers onto neighboring countries of the EU.
We believe it is necessary for the European Commission to move beyond the current ‘crisis mode’ approach to migration and ensuring that there is sufficient long-term and predictable financial support made available, in this case to Bosnia and Herzegovina, to ensure that a dignified reception capacity can be put in place.
Also read: Calls growing for EU action on migrant situation in Bosnia
What will the Danish Refugee Council be focusing on this year?
We are focused on delivering humanitarian assistance in close to 40 countries around the world, both emergency assistance and also support for more sustainable solutions in long-term displacement situations. We will also be working on the root causes to refugee situations.
In relation to these situations we see a number of concerning trends, including that there are a number of countries threatened by food insecurity. The UN warned in November of around 20 countries that are what they call ‘hunger hotspots’. Those facing the highest threat include Burkina Faso, Yemen, the north of Nigeria and South Sudan.
Another issue is the very high number of displaced people, which is expected to rise above 80 million displaced people globally during this year. We see no end in sight for these crises, which are the cause for the high number of displaced people, or the majority of them. Finding solutions to existing crises is a very basic and important criterion for being able to end the situation of displacement.
Then we also see that the effects of COVID-19 continue to be quite severe, especially for the most vulnerable people around the world, including the displaced. So it's very important to ensure the inclusion of refugees in the COVID-19 response, and also to support the host communities, many of which have been seriously affected, both health-wise and also socio-economically, by COVID-19.
Another trend that is on the increase is that, due to climate situations around the world, people are forced to displace themselves. Strange weather situations actually drive displacement and the level of crisis in many places. A number of predictions are quite severe, saying that the number of people being displaced due to climate-related issues will increase many-fold over the coming decade.
European solidarity and access to asylum
In Europe, we will continue to engage in the reform of the asylum system, including recommending solidarity and relocation from countries. One of our main concerns is that, due to lack of solidarity on the distribution of asylum seekers and refugees, the countries at the EU’s external borders really bear the brunt of responsibility for dealing with asylum seekers that come to the EU.
We will also continue our engagement in policy development at the EU's external borders, including a focus on access to territory, the issue of pushbacks and refoulement, and looking at whether people effectively get access to the asylum procedures and to safe and dignified protection.
What about the Canary Islands, with more people taking that very dangerous sea route from West Africa. What is your main concern regarding the Canary Islands and what do you see as the solution there?
First of all, it's important to say that we do not have a presence in the Canary Islands and we are not present on the Spanish mainland either, so it's difficult for us to comment specifically on the situation on the ground. But we have seen a shift on the migration routes from central to the western Mediterranean, and now, increasingly, more dangerous routes such as from West Africa to the Canary Islands.
What we see is that the increased number of arrivals to the Canary Islands generates similar challenges as we see in other hot spots, which is I mean, lack of capacity, lack of reception facilities, overcrowding, et cetera.
But no matter whether the asylum seekers and migrants arrive at Lampedusa or Lesbos or Tenerife, our position remains the same, and that is that the EU must ensure that there are dignified capacities of reception facilities and access to a fair asylum procedure, so that they can determine whether they are in need of protection or not.
Also read: Will Spain's Canaries turn into a second Lesbos amid surge in migration?
What do you think of the idea of these new closed camps on the Aegean islands then? Are they in line with the objectives and the direction that the EU should be taking?
I think that we'll continue to see these pockets of humanitarian crises in whatever hotspot we're talking about, the Aegean islands or Tenerife or Lampedusa around the EU’s border, unless we get to a fair sharing of responsibility.
A reform of the Dublin III Regulation will be needed with the aim of establishing functioning solidarity measures that ensure better sharing of responsibilities among EU member states and also ensures respect for human rights of asylum seekers.
And pending that reform of Dublin, we stand firm on the encouragement of member states to contribute to interim solidarity measures, so beyond financial and technical assistance to member states at the EU’s external borders. So real solidarity in terms of the distribution of asylum seekers.
Returns from Europe to Afghanistan are continuing. Do you support returning people to one of the world's most dangerous conflicts? Or should they be stopped?
What we saw and what we're seeing is that Afghanistan is experiencing more violence and a worsening security situation. It is actually reverting to an active conflict.
Last year, Afghanistan was considered the world's deadliest conflict. 4.2 million Afghans are displaced within their own country, and nearly 2.5 million are UNHCR registered refugees in neighboring countries, Iran and Pakistan.
So protection needs in Afghanistan have tripled in just one year from 2.4 million in 2019 to seven million people in 2020, with all kinds of negative coping mechanisms derived from that. More than 600,000 people returned in 2020 from Iran and Pakistan, the majority of them from Iran. 2020 also saw the largest ever return of undocumented Afghan migrants.
Our position is that we have to look at an approach that addresses all durable solutions – voluntary return and integration, but also local solutions in the wider region that hosts Afghans and that carry a very significant burden of the Afghan displacement. And then finally, resettlement for the most vulnerable.
Our position on Afghanistan is that we should go beyond a predominant focus on returns to acknowledge that the dynamics of migration from Afghanistan and within the region are extremely complex.
So there shouldn't be any forced returns?
We don't believe that the conditions are right for that at this time.
This interview has been edited.