INTERVIEW: “Refugees are the responsibility of the world… Proximity doesn’t define responsibility.”
– Peter Sutherland

Peter Sutherland, the Special Representative for International Migration (right), advises Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on issues relating to international migration and development. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

2 October 2015 – Peter Sutherland is the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration. A strong advocate for the rights of migrants – and for action to increase the benefits of migration for countries of origin, destination, and migrants alike – he works to foster cooperation on issues such as protecting migrants affected by crises and ensuring their role in the development process. A former Attorney General of Ireland, Mr. Sutherland has served as EU Commissioner for competition policy, and headed the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

As the world confronts the biggest refugee and migration crisis since the Second World War, with thousands of people fleeing armed conflict and persecution and risking their lives to find safe places to live in Europe and elsewhere, the UN News Centre sat down with Mr. Sutherland to find out what can be done to address this complex emergency.


We should’ve known, and we should know, that where there are terrible conflicts now, as in the past, the inevitable result is huge migratory flows.

UN News Centre:  Is there a way out of the current refugee crisis in Europe?

Peter Sutherland: Put it this way: there may be no simple solution, there is no magic wand, but there are a lot of things that we could and should be doing to make things better – to make things better, above all, for the people who are suffering so much, who are the migrants themselves.

UN News Centre:  Is there anything that can be done now to make life better for the refugees in the short term?

Peter Sutherland: Yes, there are many things that could be done. For one thing, some of them are remaining in places of squalor, which are called camps. They’re of very different standards in different places. Recently, two weeks ago, I was in Calais [France], in the camp there, and all I can say is it was, and is, appalling – hygienically, in terms of sanitary conditions, in terms of the way that people live. I have seen other camps which are better.  But we can do something there.

And we can do something also for those who are in camps in the countries which are closest to the area of conflict in Syria, for example, Lebanon, Turkey -- Lebanon and Turkey in particular, but also Jordan, where there are large numbers of refugees who deserve and should be helped. UNHCR is doing a great job, as are many voluntary organizations, but more can be done.

UN News Centre:  The Syrian conflict is in its fifth year. Why this sudden influx to Europe?

Peter Sutherland: Anyone who watches their televisions with the films of the appalling nature of the conflict that is taking place there can readily understand how people, particularly those with children must feel obliged to leave.

The huge numbers that are coming are the inevitable concomitant of a terrible conflict.

And we should have known, and we should know, that where there are terrible conflicts now, as in the past, the inevitable result is huge migratory flows. 

We should also recognise that we have not merely a moral but a legal obligation to protect refugees. And those who are not refugees, those who are not escaping persecution, who are economic migrants, are also deserving not merely of respect, and due regard to their rights, but also a constructive engagement in regard to migration more generally.

Europe is going on, and the rest of the world is going on, with a response to this as if the numbers that we are talking about are beyond the capacity of a continent, of a European Union, with over 500 million citizens, to be able to handle. This is simply not true.  The numbers are tiny relative to the total population.

And it’s not merely Europe, incidentally, that has a responsibility to refugees. Under the 1951 [Refugee] Convention… refugees are the responsibility of the world. They’re the responsibility of the United States, of Canada, of Latin America and of Asia, as well as Europe.  Proximity doesn’t define responsibility. 

The world has to get its act together with regard to what is happening in North Africa [as well]. Other areas, too – Eritrea, Afghanistan. There are many areas of conflict which are causing people understandably to leave and have the right to be protected.

UN News Centre:  There seems to be such a difference in attitudes towards refugees now compared with, for example, after the Second World War, or in the case of the Vietnamese boat people.  Why is it different now and what can be done to change that?

Peter Sutherland:  Well, first of all let me say that it’s not everywhere.  Some of the response, in Europe, for example, to the recent crisis, has been an enormous outpouring of human sympathy – taking people into your arms, bringing them into your homes, feeding them. I’ve been in camps in Rome where the response of ordinary households has been evident and very admirable.

[But] in the European debate, there have been areas, there’ve been pockets of political activism, which I consider to be racist and xenophobic, and [ought] to be condemned. 

I do not believe that represents Europe – it doesn’t represent my Europe, it doesn’t represent the majority Europe, it doesn’t represent the values of humanity that are in the UN, in UN conventions and UN statutes.  It is not, either, the Europe of the European Union.

And we have seen the political leadership from people like [President of the European Commission Jean-Claude] Juncker, and, indeed, from [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, and from successive Swedish Governments, just to take examples, who have been extremely generous and open in their response.

So, we shouldn’t fix our eye solely on the few minority parties who represent, in my view, a sort of nationalism which is to be condemned by our history, and by our present.

UN News Centre:  You’ve spent time with refugees. Are there any stories or people that have stayed with you?

Peter Sutherland:  Yes, yes. I have been moved by people I have met. I’ve been stunned by the standard of articulation in a language other than their own of the extent of their dilemma and the dilemma of their children. And I can’t but believe that if their voices were heard more in our media rather than some of the strident nationalism that is shown so often from some marginal political parties, that you’d get a better response.

I have been moved by people I have met… And I can’t but believe that if their voices were heard more in our media rather than some of the strident nationalism that is shown so often from some marginal political parties, that you’d get a better response.

I mean, it is amazing to me that public policy was changed by the dreadful photograph of a child on a beach, [while] we have been losing thousands and thousands of children, and mothers, and fathers over the last ten years.

The figures and statistics are irrefutable.  And yet, these politicians who change their minds so readily when a photograph is published in their newspapers did not respond to the facts that they knew could have been reflected in thousands of photographs.  So, I think it’s time for political leaders to recognize, in some countries, not in all – political leadership has been forthcoming, as I’ve said, in some places – that the judgement of history, and the way that we deal with this huge crisis, will be a serious judgement, and a justifiably serious judgement.

We’re well able to handle this problem in Europe. We’ve 29 per cent of global wealth. We have a huge population. We actually have demographic problems that require us to bring more, not less, migrants to fill the voids in our economic systems.

UN News Centre:  Could you elaborate?

Peter Sutherland:  Well, if you take Germany as an example – Germany has the lowest birth rate in the world. That lowest birth rate in the world requires perhaps over a million migrants a year over the next 30 years to keep a situation where you have the same number of retirees to workers in 30 years’ time.

Now, Germany is responding well to this. I don’t actually think that they’re driven by the calculation which I’ve described. I think Mrs. Merkel is driven by the moral concern that she has expressed. And I’ve heard her, personally, express that. And I believe her. But I think that there is also an economic argument which is equally evident in other parts of Europe, particularly in Spain and Italy and Portugal, for example, where there are huge problems in the future if migration doesn’t take place.

Special Representative for International Migration Peter Sutherland discusses the migration crisis, issuing a plea for countries and individuals to accept and protect refugees. Credit: United Nations

So we have to learn that our membership of the human race creates a humanity that we have to show to everybody, and an integration capacity that some seem to be unable to accept.

You cannot have a society today which is one which denies others the right to participate in it because of their race or their religion. We have to share values, but we don’t have to share the same blood.

UN News Centre: Are there any instances of civil society stepping in where governments don’t, or private sector interventions that you would regard as models?

We’re well able to handle this problem in Europe. We’ve 29 per cent of global wealth. We have a huge population. We actually have demographic problems that require us to bring more, not less, migrants to fill the voids in our economic systems.

Peter Sutherland:  Well, again, to go back to Calais, I was amazed by the number of small NGOs [non-governmental organizations], many of them from Britain, travelling across the Strait of Dover, and providing the real help that was being given in that camp, a camp which I say was terrible.

I think that there are NGOs all over the world working, many of them religious, both the [Red] Crescent, coming from the Islamic community, and Catholic organizations. I’m involved with one – I’m President of the International Catholic Migration Commission, ICMC. And there are many organizations like those which are providing a great deal of support.

I know one corporation that within a couple of days raised from its staff something like $2 million to put into a UN agency as support when they recognized the difficulty of the problem.

So society is much more generous than people – including their leaders – recognise.

UN News Centre: You’ve written that of the world’s 20 million refugees, only 100,000 refugees per year actually benefit from UNHCR’s resettlement programme. How could that change?

Peter Sutherland:  The resettlement statistics are an indictment of society because so few are really settled on an annual basis.  Let me explain that resettlement as I am expressing it relates to resettling people who are in camps other than in their own country into other countries.

Why is it that we expect Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, as I said earlier, to carry so much of this burden? Why can we not resettle far more? The actual figures are pathetic.

UN News Centre: What is your message to governments?

Peter Sutherland:  I will ask the governments to cooperate, to recognise that sovereignty is an illusion – that sovereignty is an absolute illusion that has to be put behind us. The days of hiding behind borders and fences are long gone. We have to work together and cooperate together to make a better world. And that means taking on some of the old shibboleths, taking on some of the old historic memories and images of our own country and recognising that we’re part of humankind. 

See more on the crisis at News Focus: Migration and Refugees


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