Angelina Jolie Pitt: Refugee system break down


UNHCR special envoy Ms Angelina Jolie Pitt at the BBC Radio Theatre in central London as part of BBC News World on the Move, a day of special coverage examining how the movement of people is changing the world we live in.

Her speech at that event goes as:

Over sixty million people are displaced today, more than at any time in the last 70 years.

That is one in every 122 people.

This tells us something deeply worrying about the peace and security of the world:

It says that for all our other advances, this type of human insecurity is growing faster than our ability to prevent or reverse it.

The international humanitarian system is supposed to work on the basis that refugees will be protected, largely in camps, where they can be given basic food, shelter and education, as a temporary measure until they are able to return to their homes.

During this time, the exceptional cases of the most vulnerable people can be identified for asylum in a third country, and then moved.

That is how the system has worked, and how it should work.

Today, we are seeing it break down – not because the model is flawed, or because refugees are behaving differently, but because the number of conflicts and scale of displacement have grown so large:

In the past six years, 15 conflicts have erupted or re-ignited.

The average time a person will be displaced is now nearly twenty years.

The number of refugees returning to their homes is the lowest it has been in three decades.

Africa has more people displaced than ever before.

And millions of refugees live without sufficient food or proper shelter, let alone education, because UN appeals are drastically under-funded:

The UNHCR appeal for Central African Republic, for example, is less than 3% funded.

With this then the state of today’s world, is it any surprise that some of these desperate people, who are running out of all options and who see no hope of returning home, would make a push for Europe as a last resort, even at the risk of death?

The question is, how will we respond, as democracies and as an international community, to this major test of our values and our resolve?

The spotlight has been firmly on Europe.

But the crisis in Europe is only a fraction of the global refugee problem, and therefore the solutions being discussed for Europe are only a fraction of the overall answer.

We in the West are neither at the center of the refugee crisis, nor – for the most part – the ones making the greatest sacrifice.

The majority of the world’s refugees live in countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan.

My argument is that unless we address the root causes of the crisis, we will not see a slowing in the numbers of refugees crossing borders, and in fact, quite the opposite: countries around the world will be asked to do more and more.

European nations are currently negotiating to resettle 10% of refugees from just one conflict, Syria, while other countries are bursting at the scenes with millions of refugees from multiple conflicts.

So what we must do first and foremost as citizens is to demand our governments show the leadership necessary to address the fundamental causes of the refugee crisis at a global level.

This is the wider picture that I would like to address today.

I know that no one can speak for 60 million displaced people.

I also know that it is the democratic right of the citizens of each country to reach their own conclusions about the right way forward.

I therefore put my thoughts before you with humility and respect, seeking to understand all points of view.

On the one hand, the refugee crisis has produced acts of great generosity and solidarity with refugees, here in Europe and in other parts of the world.

On the other hand, fear of uncontrolled migration has eroded public confidence in the ability of governments and international institutions to control the situation.

It has given space, and a false air of legitimacy, to those who promote a politics of fear and separation.

It has created the risk of a race to the bottom, with countries competing to be the toughest, in the hope of protecting themselves whatever the cost or challenge to their neighbors, and despite their international responsibilities.

But since no country can seal itself off from the impact of the refugee crisis, such a free-for-all would lead to an even greater set of problems.

It would amount to the worst of both worlds: failing to tackle the issue and undermining international law and our values in the process.

And there is another factor.

At the moment when we need strong collective action, we are questioning our ability to cope with international crises.

I am sure that many people listening feel this.

We have watched the events of the last few decades wanting to see progress, probably feeling that we were doing our part to make that happen.

But after so many years of failed attempts by governments and leaders to do the right thing we are angry, we feel cheated and we feel confused.

We are starting to think that maybe it is simply not possible to make a lasting difference.

But the worst possible choice we could now make is to decide to step back from the world.

The last time there was this number of refugees was after World War Two, when nations came together to forge the United Nations, the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I believe this is again that once-in-a-generation moment when nations have to pull together.

How we respond will determine whether we create a more stable world, or face decades of far greater instability.

At its extremes, the debate about refugees in Western nations has been polarized – with, on the one hand, some people calling for open borders, and on the other, for the complete exclusion of all refugees, or – worse – certain groups of refugees.

But policies should not be driven by emotion: by what might be termed naïve humanitarianism, placing the perceived needs of refugees above all other considerations, or by irrational fear and unacceptable prejudice.

Instead we need to find a rational center, rebuilding public confidence and ensuring democratic consent for the long-term approach that will be needed.

I believe each government should make a new compact with its people, setting out what their country can contribute:

Based on an objective assessment of the needs, the available resources, and the capacity of local communities to absorb certain numbers of refugees – where that is appropriate.

It calls for policies which balance the needs of local communities with the needs of refugees, which are properly funded, communicated and implemented consistently over time.

The point is, every country must do its fair share and no country can abdicate its responsibility.

I suggest this should be based on four principles:

First, it is not wrong for citizens in any country, faced with a sudden surge of people seeking refuge within their borders, to want to know that there are strong processes in place to preserve law and order and to protect their security.

No one should be crossing a border and not registering and going through an asylum process.

Second, it is important to maintain the distinction between refugees and economic migrants.

An economic migrant chooses to move in order to improve their lives or livelihoods.

Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom.

However difficult the situations economic migrants are seeking to escape, however understandable their motivation, there is no blanket human right to resettle in another country, and there is no answer to global poverty and insecurity that involves the mass transfer of people.

To put it another way, all human beings deserve equal human rights, but all people seeking asylum do not have equal grounds for asylum. Everyone must respect the laws and asylum procedures.

That said, we must bear in mind that the distinction is complex, and must never be used as a way of dismissing migrants who have a valid claim for asylum.

I would add that we will fail the basic test of humanity if we discriminate between refugees on the basis of religion, race or ethnicity.

When I meet a refugee I do not see a Muslim refugee, or a Christian refugee, or a Yazidi. I see a mother or father, a son or daughter, a person with an equal right to stand in dignity on this planet.

Populations uprooted are the future of their countries.

These are the decent families registering and waiting peacefully for a chance to return home. The majority of them are women and children.

We should never make them feel like beggars, or worse – like a commodity to be traded between countries, a burden, or even a threat; or that their children are not considered equal to others.

Nobody wants to be a refugee. Nobody deserves to be a refugee. And for as long as war is part of the human condition, none of us are immune to becoming refugees. So all refugees merit equal respect and compassion.

Third, it would be naïve to think that we can protect ourselves selectively, alone, from challenges in a globalized world, by pulling away from other countries or peoples.

As with any global problem in the 21st century, uncoordinated national responses are not the answer.

An unstable world is an unsafe world for all.

There is no barrier high enough to protect from such disorder and desperation.

If your neighbor’s house is on fire you are not safe if you lock your doors.

Isolationism is not strength. Fragmentation is not the answer.

Strength lies in being unafraid: in working with others, and living up to our highest ideals.

We must not change who we are because we face a crisis.

Finally, none of this will be enough unless we address the underlying causes of the refugee crisis.

Shouldn’t we be asking how to make the world more stable, rather than asking how to stabilize a mass of displaced people?

What are the failures and flaws of our international system that are causing the numbers of refugees to grow larger every day?

We need to recognize that decades of broken promises, double standards and partial justice are a fundamental part of how we got to today’s situation.

If we look back and see this many people displaced and this much conflict and so little accountability, then we have to question the source of the problem.

When a Security Council Member uses its veto when civilians are being killed by their own government;

Or we turn away too soon from a conflict situation;

Or a case is referred to the International Criminal Court and then we don’t give it sufficient support;

When we don’t help nations trade fairly in the world so they can stand on their own;

Or partially meet a UN aid appeal and think that we have achieved something;

In all these cases, the consequence is deeper conflict and wider instability, which leads to the type of mass displacement we are dealing with today.

If these things continue to happen, there will be further displacement and more people on the borders of Europe and elsewhere.

The long-term answer involves founding our world on laws and accountability, however distant that ideal, and genuinely working towards the common interest.

Achieving this will be the work of generations.

But it underscores why we cannot step back from the effort to build a more stable world beyond our borders, and a better future for our children.

Yes, it is a difficult time in history where there are people bent on violence with no thought for the lives that are ruined by their actions.

But we have been through tough times when we have faced the worst inhumanity on a global scale, with people intent on destroying our democracies, and we have fought back from that.

We have more awareness and we have matched bigger enemies.

And if we learn anything from the past, this is what should rally us together – not withdrawing, but deciding to come together and show leadership.

This is a duty that falls to all of us – to the next UN Secretary General, to all governments, to civil society – to every one of us.

Whether we succeed will help define this century.

The alternative is chaos and further displacement – a world without order and law, and institutions built by our predecessors buckling under the strain of a human catastrophe that we could have prevented.

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