This week's guest is Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Filippo is recovering from Covid-19, and says it's given him a sense of the fragility of life, especially for refugees and displaced people. Filippo says that feeling motivates him in his work, and his constant concern is to do everything possible to support those in need. 

“What keeps me awake at night in general, in this job, I think it is the thought that I have not done everything that I could to help the people that we work with. This is what keeps me awake at night. This is what has kept me awake at night for years. Have I done everything possible, humanly possible? We don't go to sleep if we have not finished doing everything that we can do to solve the problem, to rescue a person to allow a refugee to have access to safety, to find the solution for a group of displaced people.”


Full Transcript +


Melissa Fleming  00:00

From the United Nations, I'm Melissa Fleming, and this is Awake At Night. My guest this week is Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Filippo, you're speaking to me today from Geneva, where UNHCR is based. And you and I have worked very closely together. But before we get to hear about what you do and how you came to this job, I'd like to ask you how you are, as you have just recovered from Coronavirus yourself, tell me what happened.


Filippo Grandi  00:32

First of all, it was a big surprise, I thought I would never get it. This is how we all are, I think. But it was also first and foremost, the realisation that it can happen to any of us, no matter how many precautions you take. And I did. But of course, the precautions are so important. And having gone through it, although I was lucky, I didn't have symptoms that were too severe. But even having gone through the fatigue and  the sense of really being sick, especially the first few days, I really think it is so important that we all pay attention to what we're being told to do, wash our hands, keep our distance, wear our masks, and so forth. You know, it's a sobering experience in a way that makes us feel how fragile we are. But unlike other illnesses, it makes us feel that we are all exposed in the same way, at least from the health point of view. I also felt how privileged I am to be supported by friends, by the Organization, by good medical care, I am in Geneva in Switzerland, medical care is very good. And I kept thinking of all those who do not have that type of medical support, who do not have that type of human, psychological support, that are alone with this very complicated illness that is also psychologically very taxing. There were evenings where I thought everything was wrong. And I was just tired in my mind and in my heart, even more than in my body. And I was thinking, imagine people that cannot pick up the phone and call their family, their friends. And for millions, it will be like that. So it's a very sobering experience and an opportunity to reflect on all these important issues.


Melissa Fleming  02:26

Indeed, and because this disease is so mysterious, and it evolves, I guess there are times that you must have been quite frightened.


Filippo Grandi  02:35

Yes, but like I said, of course, I was fortunate not to have symptoms that were too severe. I had fever, I had cough, I lost my sense of smell and taste, the things that we all read about all the time they happened to me.You know, the fact that for example, you cannot even be visited by doctors. The doctor would call me twice a day, morning and evening. The first question was always how's your breathing? How's your breathing? And you know, that question in itself is scary, isn't it? Because breathing is everything. And luckily my breathing was always good. But I realized how even more scary it could get if it had been affected.


Melissa Fleming  03:16

I imagine you were also specifically thinking of the refugee populations, who are now in very precarious situations and in many parts of the world the Coronavirus is reaching them too. What were your thoughts when you were sick yourself?


Filippo Grandi  03:34

My thoughts were the same as I had in the previous month, but perhaps more vivid and real, because I was going through the experience myself. So I was thinking of all those refugees, but not not just refugees, because this illness doesn't distinguish if you're a refugee, if you're not a refugee. I was thinking in particular of those and many are refugees that are in very vulnerable situations -without medical care or away from hospitals. You know, for me, the question is to decide whether I should go to hospital or not. For most refugees, for many vulnerable people the question is, what to do if you're hit by this worse symptoms and you cannot go to hospital, because there is no hospital, or the hospitals are full. So that, of course, was a big thought. But you see, we've been now grappling like everybody in our work with this for months and months. The big question is also other consequences of the Coronavirus, in particular, in the social and economic sphere. And again, it's not just the refugees, it's many vulnerable people, but here refugees are perhaps in a particularly vulnerable situation. We've conducted some studies, for example, schools closed for all kids and they closed also for refugees, but because meanwhile, everybody got so poor and poorer, we believe, for example, that 50% of the refugee girls who used to go to school before the pandemic, may not ever go back to school afterwards, because their families are too poor to support their education. They'll go to work. But it could be even worse. They could go into early marriage, they could go into exploitation and worse. So this is an example of the type of vulnerability that Corona has caused to this population. And I thought a lot about that, and how we can talk about this in this huge discussion on the Coronavirus. It's difficult to talk about specific issues to make yourself heard. And yet it is important that we lend a voice to these people. We have these people join their voice to the chorus of those that say help us, help me.


Melissa Fleming  05:58

At the beginning, there were many people who were saying the Coronavirus is the great equalizer, but in fact it isn't. It's making the vulnerable more vulnerable, and those who have the means, continue to be employed and can access healthcare are going to be okay. What keeps you awake at night these days?


Filippo Grandi  06:18

I was thinking before this talk with you. What keeps me awake at night, in general, in this job, in this job that has been the job of my life, I think it is the thought that I have not done everything that I could to help the people that we work with, we work for. That there is something that I could have done and I haven't done - could be a small thing, could be a big thing. This is what keeps me awake at night. This is what has kept me awake at night for years: have I done everything possible, humanly possible? You know, many times we hear you know, the UN is a bureaucratic organization, they tick boxes, they write papers, which end up on shelves. Well, I'd like to say something different. I am proud to be part of an Organization, and this is the UN and UNHCR, of course, where it's rather the opposite. We don't go to sleep if we have not finished doing everything that we can do to solve the problem, to rescue a person, to allow a refugee to have access to safety, to find the solution for a group of displaced people. Of course, there are exceptions, we can make mistakes, sometimes not everybody is so thorough, but by and large, this is what keeps me and most of my colleagues, awake at night - have we done everything? Could we have done something more?


Melissa Fleming  07:46

Year after year, the numbers of refugees continue to rise and you before the pandemic were visiting the field all the time. You and I used to travel together and when you think about the growing numbers, does it give you a certain, you know, more determination or motivation, as you go about your day and your work?


Filippo Grandi  08:08

How I miss those days of big travels, of going around. I used to curse that sometimes, you remember, we travelled together, say oh my god, let's take a break. We travelled too much. But that's the lifeline of this job, isn't it- this is where it comes to life, literally, through the people for whom you work. It's so simple in a way, but you have to go through it to understand it fully. It's being with them, understanding the problem, getting the energy yourself from the people for whom you have to produce solutions and mobilize resources and advocate for their safety.


Melissa Fleming  08:48

I'd like to get into how you got into this in the first place. So you lead UNHCR, you work to help refugees around the world. And your career has been dedicated from the start to refugees. You've served in Africa, in the Middle East, in Afghanistan. You're originally from Milan, in Italy. And after your studies, you went to work as a volunteer for a US humanitarian organization in Thailand to help Cambodian refugees. This was in 1984. What made you do that?


Filippo Grandi  09:23

Well, I finished university, where I studied history. And then I started a job in a publishing house, you know, a very regular job - I was.. maybe I shouldn't say that I was bored, because I don't get bored easily anyway, ever. But I felt that I wanted to be something different. And then you know, as often in this situations, circumstances led me there, because once I was with a friend and American friend, who had studied in Italy and was now leading an NGO in Thailand, working with refugees. And he was spending his holidays in Italy. So we were chatting one evening, having a drink and saying, what can I do in life? And then I told him, he asked me and then I said, I'd like to do something like you do, something useful, something a bit exotic, in faraway places. Remember, this was pre-Internet. And and then he said, why don't you come and work with me for, you know, a few weeks, just to try it out. So I dropped everything. And I went as a pure volunteer, and he didn't, you know, he was the head of this NGO in Bangkok, Thailand. But he sent me and this was very wise, he said, you should not work here, you should go out there in the field. This was at that time, the Cambodian border was a border full of refugees, and learn the the hard way. That's what I did. I went for a few weeks. And this is what - 36 years ago -  here I am still.


Melissa Fleming  10:57

I read in the memoir that you wrote that you come from a tradition of charity, I mean, a privileged background, but surrounded by, particularly your female family members, who were all doing acts of good in the community - is that what influenced you to do this?


Filippo Grandi  11:14

Yes, and I think it was two powerful influences, if you want to speak about culture. One was a tradition, a very northern Italian Catholic tradition, which was charity in the old days, and transitioned into what we would call now social work. People in my family among my friends were very engaged, especially women, because my mother, she worked for an NGO of only women doing social work, she certainly inspired me, or encouraged me in that direction. But then remember, this was also the 60s and the 70s, it was a time for people in schools of great engagement, engagement was good. And I was very attracted also by international issues. And then there was this opportunity, I had no clue that this would last more than a few months. But I just went into it. And then it also became a career. But that's not what I thought in the beginning.


Melissa Fleming  12:14

Let's take you back then to, you know, landing in that border region with all the refugees, I believe he worked in a field hospital?


Filippo Grandi  12:21

This NGO ran medical and nutrition programmes. So they were nurses and doctors, local, international, it was a big team, a very big operation. And my job was to provide support to all of them, you know, very practical support, operational support. And it was a fantastic school to learn, you know, how an operation works. It was the first school I had, I couldn't have learned this in any university. I learned it the hard way in one year in this godforsaken place, really, near the forest at the border with Cambodia. The first week I went to this field hospital, which the NGO ran, and as I was in a room very hot, lots of people with severe illnesses, mostly malaria, these were all Cambodian refugees, and a little child died in front of me. Now, you must realize how new in the most dramatic sense this experience was to me. I had never seen anybody die, first of all, physically die in front of me, and least of all, a child, a little child in the arms of his mother. So to me, this was a defining experience. It shocked me, I felt sick, I felt faint. I felt weak, I had to sit down, but then it made me reflect a lot about the importance of humanitarian work. Of course, you know, I'm well placed to know that humanitarian work is not the solution, is the first response that you have to give in a crisis when people suffer. But that experience made me realize how important it was - the pure solidarity of helping a person, helping this child not to die is so fundamental. And I could see the failure there. We didn't manage to make this child survive. But it made me think about how important it was to devote my life, in a way, to this.


Melissa Fleming  14:21

During your time in Thailand, you were brought face to face with the moral dilemmas and compromises of humanitarian work. I believe that when the aid organization you were working with at one point, they decided to send food to a group of Khmer Rouge - this was the group that was responsible for the massacre of so many Cambodians. How did you react to that?


Filippo Grandi  14:42

After so many years, it's almost difficult to explain that. But the Khmer Rouge, of course, were the previous Cambodian regime, which had caused the Cambodian genocide a few years earlier. Then they had been ousted by the invading Vietnamese forces. So the Khmer Rouge had fled. And they had taken civilians with them, their own families and other civilians. So the idea was that these people could not be left to die in the jungle. And we had to help them, irrespective of the fact that they were led and under the control of people that were criminals. So, I was asked to, to go with a little lorry, there was a driver and me. And to bring a truckload of vegetables to these remote camps, we had to drive for hours. And when I got there, I realized that all the recommendation that had been made to me make sure that the food must go to the civilians, you know, the usual, they were completely useless in that context, we were tens of miles away from any other village, the only thing we had was a radio that didn't reach the other radio station. So we couldn't communicate. And the people who were there to receive the food were all in military fatigue. So obviously, these were the Khmer Rouge. So of course, we had to leave the food there, I wanted to quit, I said, I failed miserably. I have fed military people, and I wasn't supposed to do it, etc, etc. So there were many discussions. When I went back, I said, I wouldn't go again. But then, of course, more important than what happened next is, I realized, another big issue, that humanitarian aid noble, as it is in its motivation, and crucial as it is to saving people's lives is also part of complicated politics, especially when it is delivered in a war. So, you know, that was an awakening for me, it was to say, sure, you know, it's fantastic, devote your life to giving food to children. But be aware that in doing this, you will have to understand political context. And you will have to make decisions sometimes that are extremely difficult because of this political context.


Melissa Fleming  17:02

What led you to the United Nations? And what was your first posting?


Filippo Grandi  17:06

I got the job with UNHCR and I was sent to Sudan. It was the end of '87, early '88. It was coming out of the Big Horn of Africa crisis of the mid-80s. And then, from there, I entered UNHCR. I had a career there. And then I moved to other parts of the UN before coming back to UNHCR.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, meets South Sudanese refugees.

Melissa Fleming  17:25

A few years later, the first Gulf War broke out with the invasion of Kuwait. I think it was 1990. You were involved in that - describe that, how did that affect you?


Filippo Grandi  17:36

I was made part of special teams that were positioned in the countries surrounding Iraq, when it became clear that there would be an international war to liberate Kuwait. So the UN not only participated in the political discussion, but also was asked to set up a humanitarian plan, in case there would be a big outflow of people from Iraq as a consequence of this projected war. This was the end of 1990. So I was part of the team, which went to Syria. As things turned out, there was no outflow of Iraqis into Syria. But if you recall, this was '91, there was a massive outflow of Iraqi Kurds, into Iran and Turkey. So I was then moved to Turkey. And that was another extraordinary experience, because the UN was nowhere as organized as it is now in terms of emergency response. And UNHCR certainly wasn't. So we were very much left to our own devices in these Turkish villages at the border with Iraq to help refugees, to work with the military, because there was a huge international military effort, also helping the refugees. And then there was a big return of refugees, the Iraqi Kurds into northern Iraq, and we accompanied them. And then we worked for some time in Iraq to reintegrate these people help them reconstruct their villages, etc, etc. So that was, that was my first big emergency operation, if I would say, and from there, you know, I became a global emergency officer, when UNHCR after the experiences of the Gulf, decided to revamp its emergency preparedness.


Melissa Fleming  19:31

You had no shortages of emergencies that I think probably the worst was the crisis that sparked the genocide in Rwanda. What is your most vivid memory of that?


Filippo Grandi  19:43

Most likely, unfortunately, was the cholera among the refugees in Goma. Now it's in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was called Zaire back then, in 1994. In four days, 1 million people crossed the border between Rwanda and Congo, and if that was not enough, in the space of a few days, cholera exploded in these, I can't even say, it was not even camps, in this enormous area full of people living in the open, you know, there wasn't enough shelter, there wasn't enough medicine, enough food, enough water, in particular. So we had to face an emergency, where people literally died walking, it was so severe for people that were already very debilitated that people just dropped on their knees, and I saw people dead on their knees, without even having reached the ground. And this lasted for 10 days, approximately. And I have never been in a situation, where you feel such despair and powerlessness. I had colleagues that spent several days working with the military digging graves for the dead, because there was not enough space to bury the dead. Nobody knows how many people died out of this million. But the estimates vary between 30,000 and 50,000. It's enormous. So this, this is one thing that I still dream about. The dead people, this was the custom, were wrapped in a straw mat before being buried. They were put by their families along the road, so that the trucks could collect them. I know this is tough to even tell. And those long, straw mats, wrapping dead bodies, children, adults - that image comes back in my dreams still now after 26 years.


Melissa Fleming  21:53

It must have been deeply traumatising for you in a way. And I know that, you know, we do talk about the trauma of refugees themselves having to flee and all that they've lost. But for the humanitarians, also there is secondary trauma, have you, do you think that you experienced that and how have you coped with it?


Filippo Grandi  22:12

For sure there was. I think I was fortunate to be able to absorb it and not suffer too much from it. You know, it would be foolish of me to say this happen, because I'm tough. Nobody's tough in front of extreme suffering. Nobody's tough. I think that maybe my luck is that I'm a rather extroverted person. So I talk about these things, and I get them off my psyche. But I remember I gave you that example of our colleagues digging graves, this was also still a time when we were not as organized as we are now. So for example, we rented a small house, we all slept on the floor in the same room. So I remember those evenings, lying down on this floor with a mattress, hearing other colleagues, who had been even more on the front line than me, sobbing because they couldn't sleep. And you know, now we have developed much better responses for the situation, we have specialists to help us, who guide us on how to help people that are traumatized. Back then it was left pretty much to us, to our intuition, or to our ability or not, to help these people through. When to say for example, you should take a break, or you should go away, this is too much. And of course, the worst is for the people who are abused, it's not for us. But we vicariously live through that, yeah.


Melissa Fleming  23:50

Of course, I mean, I've even heard stories of UNHCR colleague, who experienced secondary trauma just from doing interviews with refugees, just hearing their stories, not necessarily witnessing the horror, but hearing about it. And why do you think then that so many of your colleagues at UNHCR just continue this work? It's really trying on the soul.


Filippo Grandi  24:12

It is, it is. But I think on the one hand, I'd like to think that, like me and my colleagues, we believe that it is important for people that do not just get secondary trauma, get the first trauma, see the violence. You remember, you and I were in the refugee camps in Bangladesh talking to the Rohingya refugees fleeing from Myanmar, from Rakhine State and you remember, the terrible stories that we heard of kids witnessing the killing of their parents, or vice versa - parents witnessing the killing of the kids, or rape of women conducted in full, you know, in front of everybody in the family, and the list is so terrible and long. So I think that, yes, we know that this will be tough on us. But I think that, first of all, it's nothing compared to what they have gone through. And if that can help them, it is important to do it, it's a bit the reaction I had in front of that dying kid, right? But also, I think that on a more positive note, there are also huge satisfactions in this job. Or let me put it that way. Because satisfaction is a bit selfish, right, as a term? There's huge moments of shared joy in this work when you see, you know, a kid smiling, because finally, she can eat or drink some clean water. I was the head of UNHCR in Afghanistan in the years 2001 to 2004, when 3 million refugees came back to the country after decades of exile. And I will never forget, the exhilaration of those returns, they were hugely challenging, because they came back to nothing, to a country devastated by war. And unfortunately, as it turned out, it was not very sustainable, because the country then backtracked again into violence, but many of those people stayed back home. And when we could give them a little help to rebuild their houses, or try to find some work, you know, we've spoken about my most traumatic experiences - that remains in my own history, personal history as the best experience because it was positive, it was projected positively to the future. Because the energy, the hope, of the people returning against all odds, was overwhelming, in a good sense, and so motivating, you know, that this came about in the middle of my career. And it came not so long after these traumatic experiences in the Great Lakes of Africa. Somehow, it helped me overcome them. And it gave me the energy to go on for another 20 years.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi meets with Rohingya refugee children

Melissa Fleming  27:05

Well, I know you always have been very passionate about refugee return. How does that.. what do you think home means to people? Why does it have so much significance and importance,


Filippo Grandi  27:17

For the same reasons that it has significance and importance for us - this is the place you know, this is the place where you have been a child, happy or not, but you have been a child. This is the place where you feel, in spite of everything, an element of safety. This is why exile, refugee exile is so devastating, because it is the admission to oneself, that home is not safe anymore. There are very few decisions that a human being can make, that are as difficult as choosing the path of exile. And this is what displaced and refugees do. At one point, they have to decide that they leave everything behind, that sense of safety. So there is no wonder that they feel so strongly about going back, you know, there's so much terrible rhetoric about refugees in the modern world, pushed mostly by very unscrupulous politicians. And the rhetoric is always - don't believe what this do gooders tell you, these people are here to get your jobs, to change your values, to bring insecurity. I don't want to even comment on that. I've commented so many times. But I think that the real narrative that we should talk about, to oppose this is that the overwhelming majority of refugees of this 80 million refugees and displaced people that unfortunately live in our world, they want to go back home, of course, there will be always somebody who wants to go to a wealthier country to have opportunity. Why not? This is also very human and good, isn't it? But the vast majority in reality, they want to go back to what they know, not to what they don't know, and what they know, is home. But of course many times they cannot. So we have to help them do that.


Melissa Fleming  29:19

How did it feel to be appointed High Commissioner?


Filippo Grandi  29:21

I couldn't believe it. You know, first of all, these are senior positions in the UN system. Many of which, not all, in the last 20 years or so, or maybe more even, have been given to people that have essentially a political profile. I don't. So my bid, my pitch to be the High Commissioner was a little bit unorthodox. And I remember - I'm being very frank now - I remember that in my interview, which was with peers, with other heads of UN agencies, I was asked this as the first question, how can you want to do this job without political experience? So I didn't really know what to say. I just said, you know, this was 2015. And I said, look, look at what's happening in Europe. Remember, this was the time when huge flows of people from Syria from Afghanistan, were coming into Europe, through Greece. And there was a huge debate and a lot of political... politicisation of the issue. I said, perhaps it's time for this organization to have a non-politician, to have somebody whose background is absolutely humanitarian, to signal that this is a job that, of course, is steeped in politics, but is not political. So I don't know if this argument cut any ice. But they did appoint me as High Commissioner.


Melissa Fleming  30:59

Yes, you applied for the job when there was the so-called Europe refugee crisis, where almost a million refugees, mostly from Syria, and we'll talk about Syria in a minute, you know, were arriving in Europe. And at first, the reaction in Europe was very warm welcome. So how did that make you feel when you saw Europeans, particularly in Germany, and in Austria and in Sweden welcoming so many refugees?


Filippo Grandi  31:25

That was a very good moment, if you remember, I was not yet the High Commissioner. This was in the summer, or fall before I took my job. But of course, we were all already worried about it, because we could see, given the recent history of politics in Europe, that this would be... if it didn't stop quickly, it would be instrumentalized by those that stigmatize these migrants refugees for other purposes, there's many things one can say. But one is that the criticism of solidarity that we heard so much about since then, is very... is very useful to gain votes in an election. And we've seen many governments elected on that platform. But frankly, it doesn't solve the problem. None. None of the politicians, and even governments that were elected on an agenda very hostile to refugees to migrants, none of them has really solved the root causes of that problem. Building walls, pushing people back at sea, all the things that we have seen, may prevent some people from arriving in a certain country at a certain point, but those people will still be there in need of protection, and at some point will move on. So it doesn't even solve the problem. So I think that we need to reflect on that, really, and that's what we've been doing very intensely throughout the tenure, my tenure as High Commissioner. But one thing that I, and I want to go back to your point, because one thing that I always repeat, including to governments, including to governments, which do not have this agenda, but are very fearful of this agenda, and therefore become unnecessarily cautious, because they're afraid that somebody in their political system will accuse them of being weak, of causing damage to the country. So everybody becomes very cautious and conservative. And I keep reminding people that the first reaction was one of solidarity, solidarity exists. We need to be able to explain why these people are fleeing, we need to be able to be more rigorous in saying that some are refugees and deserve international protections, and others may have other needs, but they're not refugees. So they should not use the asylum channel, we need to become more rigorous on that. We and the states, we're working on this. Europe is working big time on this at the moment. And it's very important. For some people, this may mean that they have to go back to their countries. Fair enough. But we need to be bold in preserving the fundamental principles of asylum of solidarity with those that suffered that need protection, because we should not only listen to the negative voices in society, but also leverage better the positive ones that we saw in action very clearly in 2015.


Melissa Fleming  34:36

I recall that we made a visit that was seared into my mind, to Hungary, and we went to the border and we went to a detention centre that was lined with razor wire and you know, it was done to keep the few refugees that were trying to cross through in and signal to others crossing the border that this would be their fate, but when you looked into the eyes of those that we talked to there, you know, what were you thinking?


Filippo Grandi  35:05

We were together, you know how depressed we were after that visit. This was one place, where I was ashamed of being a European. Forget my job, forget, I was ashamed of being a European. The argument that was put forward was that this was the border of Europe and Hungary was defending Europe from an invasion. Basically, that was the argument, may I say it still is the argument. Now, I want to be very clear on this. I am not at all diminishing the importance of border controls, including the external European borders, that's very important. But I argue against the manner in which this was done by building a fortress that even, you know, visually looked like the antithesis of solidarity, stay out of here, you who suffer because you have no place in our continent, in our Union. And this is unacceptable, because the Union was built also, and I say this, as a European, before even being a High Commissioner - the Europe was built on a foundation of solidarity and working together, the Union is one of the results of the Second World War, and what happened afterwards. So if you tell people that suffer and want to get safety, all you get is a razor wire, this is betraying European values, not trying to construct a system that yes, allows for screening, for proper control, for security, all of this is legitimate, important and has to be done. But do it constructively and in a manner that doesn't send this message of rejection. And by the way, and by the way, what I thought in that dreaded place, where we were at the border with Serbia, I think it was, what I thought is also, what am I going to tell leaders in countries that are infinitely less rich than Europe, that have very few resources for their own citizens? And that host 90% of the world refugees, because the refugees are not mostly in Europe, or in North America, or in Japan or in Australia, or in you know, in rich countries, refugees, displaced people are mostly in poor countries that keep their borders open. Deliberately, they say, you know, these are our brothers and sisters, if they need help, they should come here, and please help us help them, of course. But we will do that. It's not always like this clearly. But it is more normally like that, and these leaders will start telling me, but much richer countries are building razor wire at their borders. So you know, I have to also look at it from a global point of view, this is what I always tell European leaders, you are... what you do has a precedent value that is global, is colossal, is very, very important. So Europe has been for years, actually a very good example of good asylum practices. The complications have arisen when these flows have become bigger. Those practices were designed for smaller flows. But Europe has the capacity to design good practices for bigger influxes. And this is what this European Commission is doing through this European pact on asylum and migration, which we support, and we hope it will be eventually adopted. That's the way to go. A well regulated, prudent, rigorous system. Absolutely, yes, but not rejection at all cost.

Filippo Grandi meets refugees in Djibouti

Melissa Fleming  38:56

And you saw this solidarity at its best during your countless visits to Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. And I know that you always, you know, brought that message home. And yet, year after year, after year, this Syrian conflict continues and does not allow for Syrian refugees to return.


Filippo Grandi  39:19

You know, when the big crisis we've just spoken about in 2015 people coming to Europe, many came from that region. Many were Syrians coming from Syria itself, but also Lebanon, Turkey, that are together with Jordan, the biggest Syrian refugee hosting countries. In fact, Turkey is the biggest refugee hosting country in the world. And largely because of the very big Syrian population there. And why did they come when we, you remember we also were together many times meeting them. I was in Greece, for example, in those years. And they used to tell us, yeah, there were two issues, essentially - one was insufficient assistance being provided in the countries of asylum, so they had benefited from welcome from the communities. But that welcome cannot be taken for granted forever. And in those years, especially three, four years after the start of the Syria, war, assistance was really declining. For example, most Syrian families could not send their kids to school anymore. Many of those arriving in Greece and in Europe said, we came here, at least our kids can go to school, but there was also the realisation. And this is why there were many coming from Syria directly, that after four years of war, there was not going to be a quick end to the war, there was a sense of despair. And that's why people were moving on. If you ask anybody, say what are the vital needs of refugees, they will always mention shelter, medicines, food, water, you know, the basics. I think we should add education, education is as vital as water. Of course, you need to make sure that people have water in order for them to be educated. But only water without education doesn't give them a future. And the future is so important. When you are uprooted. When you are away from your roots, as we described earlier, when you're longing from home, if you lose that hope that education gives, then you want to move on, or you are in despair.

Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, greets a young Syrian boy at a UNHCR refugee registration centre in Beirut.

Melissa Fleming  41:29

You've seen so much horror, you've seen so much suffering, what sustains you?


Filippo Grandi  41:36

Well, you know, sometimes we say this, and it may sound like a slogan, that the people that we devote our lives to, or our working life anyway to, are extremely resilient, and that resilience is the inspiration for us to also continue. It sounds a bit rhetorical. I don't think it is. I think it's true. Because it's a little bit what I said earlier, what keeps me awake at night, is the sense that I haven't done enough. And what's the comparison there, because when you start talking about these things, you have to have a a comparison, right? I have not done enough in comparison to what? Well, in comparison to people that in spite of having left behind everything, of having fled with nothing, many times of having gone through trauma, many times encountering stigma and rejection, even in the place where they're hosted. Yet these people don't give up. So if they don't give up, if they go all the way to try to continue to live, to have hope, to find solutions. All the more I should, no?


Melissa Fleming  42:48

I think people would want to know how you kind of entertain yourself, what, what do you do for fun?


Filippo Grandi  42:54

Well, I read a lot, and I listen to a lot of music. These were saving graces during especially the last few months of lockdown when we were very much relying on our own resources. But I want to say something completely counterintuitive. You know, I love travelling. Now, of course, this has been my life for decades travelling, because of work, but I find travelling, immensely entertaining. And of course, there is an aspect, professional aspect that comes with a lot of bad things that we see. But for me travelling is an endless fascination, being exposed to different cultures, being exposed to different food. I love food, by the way, I love cooking. That's another entertaining thing. Being exposed to different types of beauty. I think this is great. So in a way, I'm lucky because there is where my work and one of my passions coincide. And I hope we can go back travelling very soon.


Melissa Fleming  43:59

Same here. I think my final question, I think people will be very inspired, listening to this interview and might ask, you know, how they could help. What would you say to them?


Filippo Grandi  44:09

I get this question all the time. And it's a very important one, especially from young people. And I would say engage, engage, engage. Our world, partly because of the nature of communication and news, partly because of the complexity of the challenges constantly encourages young people not to engage. Unfortunately, it's like this, there's enormous pressure not to engage to embrace the, the short term, the superficial and engagement means many things means to study and to learn, means to be curious and means to also perhaps interact with the local community organizations in our own communities that do help people, dohelp refugees, for example. I think that's very important, engaging. And there is another form of engagement, which unfortunately is not, is not available to everybody - to vote, to participate in elections. If we believe that the big challenges of our times - forced population movements, but also an even bigger climate change, the climate emergency, poverty and inequality, now the pandemics - if we believe and we must believe that these challenges can only be resolved by working together, not through this rhetoric of me first, my country first, but working together, across borders, across continents, across cultures, then let's vote for people, who promote that and do not say that that is wrong. That is also a form of engagement.


Melissa Fleming  45:55

Filippo Grandi. Thank you so much for joining us for Awake At Night, and wishing you all the best.


Filippo Grandi  46:02

Thank you very much. Thank you for this opportunity.


Melissa Fleming  46:05

Thank you for listening to Awake At Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from the people trying to do some good in this world at a time of this massive global crisis. To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured do visit hyphen awake hyphen night; on Twitter we're @un and I'm @melissafleming. Filippo is @filippograndi Subscribe to Awake At Night, wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to review us. It does make a difference. Thanks to my colleagues here at the UN and to my producers Bethany Bell and the team at Chalk and Blade: Laura Sheeter Fatuma Khaireh and Alex Portfelix. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah, and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse.