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Sunday, February 14, 2010

In Celebration of Valentine's Day, Interview with Ms. Angela Li Rosi, UNHCR Senior Policy Advisor

At the end of 2009, I got the chance to sit down with Ms. Angela Li Rosi, a UNHCR Senior Policy Advisor, to talk about current issues facing refugees and trends in attitudes towards refugees from the states in which they live.

1) What do you think are the major issues and problems that the international community is facing right now in respect to refugees?

What has happened since 9/11 has affected the way states deal with refugees. As a consequence, today, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are generally seen as a threat to security. In this context, states are debating on whether they should or should not tell asylum seeks to seek asylum elsewhere. Developed countries are controlling their borders more stringently and, consequently, access has become more difficult. People who arrive spontaneously are no longer able to access developed countries unless they use illegal channels, like smugglers or traffickers.

In this way, the main challenge for the international community concerns the identification of refugees, the movement of mixed migrants who move for different reasons, and being able to assist them once identified. The debate right now is in trying to analyze the reason for movement from the moment of flight and assessing the reasons for stopping in certain countries.

2) What do you think are the major concerns of the High Commissioner right now? And what do you think are the difficulties that the office is encountering in insuring that their rights are upheld?

The protection space is shrinking and, in seeking to preserve that space in the context of combating terrorism, trafficking, and illegal migration, states are clamping down on irregular migration and smugglers. That is the main concern. However, of course there are wider concerns regarding how to work with other agencies in the states in making sure that what we call stranded migrants are protected, as they may be being exploited during the movement or having difficulties. How do we tackle that gap? The High Commissioner is trying to see how we can be a bit more cooperative with others and how can we try together to find a way to address all the different needs of all the different categories. This is quite a challenge because it dredges up the old issue of who is responsible for what.

3) How do you currently perceive states’ attitudes with regards to refugees? Do you think these attitudes can have a negative impact on refugee rights?

With regards to refugees, attitudes have changed. They are less tolerance towards refugees, and maybe less understanding of the refugee problems. The impact of these attitudes depends on the context. For instance, Xenophobia is rampant in Eastern Europe and parts of North Africa. This has a huge impact because, while there may be provisions and assistance for refugees, most of the time refugees are denied access to a territory or even to services in that territory and the right to seek asylum; they are frequently sent back to a place where their life is threatened. Although we do not have evidence to support this claim, the economic crisis is having a major impact in Eastern Europe. We are already seeing many coming back to Russia from the Central Asian Republic and other areas where they used to work. This, in turn, is affecting the informal labor market because that is usually where most of the refugees in Eastern Europe would find ways of surviving. Now we see more police raids and checks, and sometimes even those who already have refugee status have difficulty renewing their permits.

We also see industrialized states being less and less welcoming. For example, with regards to minors and children, they don’t have the same approach as before. They check the children’s age to make sure they are not 18, and then, if they are minors, the minors are allowed to stay until they are 18 and then, when it is legal to do so, they are sent them back to their country of origin. This occurs because when a child is under 18 there are certain protections and rights that apply to children across the board. This is more evident now than before, largely because more and more children are arriving in Europe; this is also an issue in the US.

4) What trends do you foresee in the future with respect to refugees and attitudes towards refugees, especially from the perspective of receiving countries?

The criteria will be more restrictive. Countries may be more inclined to provide temporary protection, also known as subsidiary protection in Europe. Temporary protection basically entails protection under human rights treaties, as opposed to under the refugee convention, because the individual does not qualify under the five criteria of the refugee convention. States are able to review this status much faster and more regularly, and eventually send people back. These days, states are much less inclined to provide refugee status because of the general implications, financial implications and long-term implications, and because people are more protected under refugee status than under humanitarian status or others.

5) At the Expert Seminar on “Linking Human Rights and Migrant Empowerment for Development” you mentioned the necessity for the inclusion, protection, and acceptance of refugees and others of concern by states and the local population. Taking these attitudes into account, how do you see this issue being addressed? How doe UNHCR aim to tackle this issue?

We could be a bit more proactive. UNHCR has not been as good in public awareness on the refugee cause. The term, ‘refugee’, is a very abstract. Those not in the business might not fully understand what it means. We haven’t been able to get both the governments and public opinion closer to what it means to be a refugee and what exactly the issue is there.

Media can be used as a tool, both positive and negative, as it is quite influential. In Europe, for example, it has political colors. It is used as a mechanism against illegal migrants and foreigners who come and ‘snatch the jobs’ from the citizens. In this way, for the most part, the media has not been helpful in presenting a message that would make civil society more supportive of refugees. That said, it is a two way street. Maybe UNHCR has not been able to get through to the media in a way that would make it more supportive.

6) At the Expert Seminar you also mentioned some of the major obstacles concerning refugees right now, like lack of knowledge of local language and culture and discriminatory and negative attitudes towards foreigners. How is UNHCR attempting to tackle these challenges?

There are major obstacles for refugee integration. Even when legislation exists, such as providing language training or other certain services provided to the refugees, most of the time the practices on the ground are completely different than what the legislation dictates, usually for discriminatory purposes. Also, some countries have different approaches. In Europe some are great at integration, for example the Nordic countries, while others should have the same type of legislation, at least on paper, and should be able to do the same, but do not. Greece is an example, however it is not only Greece. Most of the central European area is much less tolerant, largely because it is not in their cultural traditions. The mentality of dependency, the view that we will feed you and provide you services but that you should not be there and should not be an active participant in society, still presides. In this perspective, instead of capacitating the refugees and making them self reliant, they prefer to subsidize the system. Moreover, it is not only an issue of cultural approaches, but an issue of funding and lack of resources as well. The resources you have in Sweden are not comparable to those that you have in other countries, like Romania for example. It is a combination of factors that vary across the board.

Perception is one of the broader themes that UNHCR cannot tackle alone. A state cannot say that someone is entering illegally. A state can say that someone is entering irregularly, but that doesn’t make him illegal. Nevertheless, there is a fine less between illegal and regular migrants, and thus states use the term, illegal migrant, to give this negative perception. If one looks at the figures, one will find that the number of those entering in an irregular manner is quite small, especially compared to those who overstay their visas. But, this is not publicized.

It is public perception that counts the most. The average person does not know the difference between an economic migrant, illegal or regular migrant, and refugee. But, irrespective of that, freedom of movement and the right to seek a better life should be taken into consideration. This does not necessarily mean that everyone should be allowed to enter, but there should be more opportunity to immigrate. At the moment, there are not many opportunities. The only big countries with who have traditionally been countries of immigration are the United States, Canada, and Australia, all of which have very sophisticated systems of immigration. It is a wider and bigger issue than just the refugee problem. In fact, refugees would not be an issue at all. They are only a tiny percentage of the movement and the migratory flows. But, they make for good headlines.


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