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Refugees have to be dealt with as human beings, stresses senior UN official

8 September 2015 – Refugees have to be dealt with as human beings, and the broader migrant community, including economic migrants, cannot be dismissed “with a wave of the hand,” the top United Nations official dealing with migration said today.

“I’d like to start by making a fundamental point which I think has been overlooked in quite a lot of this crisis,” Peter Sutherland, the Special Representative for International Migration, told a press conference in Geneva.

“The obligation and responsibility to refugees and persons in distress is not defined by their proximity to the place that caused the problem,” he explained. “I think it’s important to make that point, because the burden that is being taken at the moment by Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, and the burden in European terms being taken by the frontline States of the Mediterranean, in particular Greece and Italy, seems to by implication define a responsibility related to location rather than to the humanitarian concerns that we have.”

On the same issue, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has underlined the need for compassion and global solidarity in dealing with the arrival of refugees and migrants in Europe, in his calls with the leaders of Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.

“Recognising the challenges this poses to some Member States, the Secretary-General stressed the individual and collective responsibility of European states to respond responsibly and humanely,” his spokesperson said in a statement. “He stressed that the large majority of people arriving in Europe are refugees fleeing war and violence, who have a right to seek asylum without any form of discrimination.”

Commending the efforts of many European leaders, Mr. Ban encouraged the European Union countries to live up to their obligations and the standards they have set. “He underlined the need for compassion and global solidarity, and applauded the inspiring examples that have been displayed all over Europe by private citizens and civil society.”

The Secretary-General also appealed to these leaders to be “the voice of those in need of protection” and to quickly find a joint approach to address their basic needs. “As European leaders, their stand against increasing xenophobia, discrimination, and violence against migrants and refugees in Europe is particularly important. He hoped that any manifestation of these phenomena would be addressed firmly and without delay,” the statement added.

In his press conference, Mr. Sutherland described the current situation faced by refugees and migrants fleeing conflict zones as an “appalling catastrophic situation” by which the UN is challenged.

“In earlier crisis, for example of Viet Nam and the Vietnamese boat people, where over a million people were concerned, or indeed in 1956 the Hungarian Revolution, there was a global acceptance of a responsibility in terms of refugees,” he recalled.

He noted that at the time of the crisis in Viet Nam, an international conference was convened, and responsibilities were taken across the globe.

“So in a situation where some countries take no refugees, including for example a number of the Arab countries in the immediate vicinity, or where others argue that financial contributions are the mechanism to be used for their contribution to a dreadful situation, let me say that that, in my opinion, is not enough,” Mr. Sutherland warned.

“The United Nations stands for the dignity of the individual and the quality of the individual,” he continued. “It cannot condone or accept those in government who say, for example, that refugees can be defined by their religion in the responsibility that is owed to them. That is utterly unacceptable.”

The Special Representative underlined that it is not acceptable that within the regions, the burden is not shared in a fair and transparent way.

“If we have a situation where one, two, three, four, or indeed currently five countries take 72 per cent of the total refugee community, and others take much less, some virtually none, the inevitable consequence over time will be that the political pressure placed on those who are most generous will become more and more difficult because of the unfairness of what is happening,” he noted.

The official added that the UN has to drive a much more proactive response by the international community.

“I’ve seen also the outpouring of a human response which has been an example to the political response, which has been absent,” he said.

“How is it that the dreadful, tragic photograph of one appalling incident transforms public policy? We have been talking for months, for years, about the deaths of people in the Mediterranean. Maybe there wasn’t a sufficient photograph to elicit change? But isn’t that a poor reflection on decision making?”

Mr. Sutherland also told reporters that many UN agencies are struggling to deliver humanitarian relief, including the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which he said cannot maintain its support.

Meanwhile, in a press release published today, UNICEF announced that a rising number of women and children are passing through the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia to seek refuge in Europe.

Nearly 10,000 people, approximately 40 per cent of whom were women and children, were registered crossing into the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia at Gevgelija from Greece between 1 and 6 September. More than 7,720 people were also registered crossing into Serbia through Presevo over the same time period.

The agency also informed that with its partners, it is continuing to expand humanitarian services at reception centres in the two countries.

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