UNHCR Vincent Cochetel: “Ukraine has to realize that granting asylum to someone is a humanitarian act. It’s an act of protection, not a political statement”
Director of the Bureau for Europe of UNHCR speaks on refugees in Europe and Ukraine
UW: Which countries are the top destinations for refugees in Europe today and which ones produce the most refugees?
C: Right now, the biggest destination country for refugees is Turkey. It has accepted 400,000 Syrian refugees. This is more than the number of refugees who arrived to the rest of Europe in 2012. In Europe, the main destination countries for asylum seekers are Sweden and Germany with refugees arriving from Syria, Afghanistan or Russia.
UW: Where does Ukraine stand on this map of refugee migration in Europe?
In 2002, Ukraine signed the international refugee protection instrument. Every year, there is a certain number of people crossing Ukraine and applying for refugee status here. The important thing is that this is not a large number. Last year, you had less than 2,000 asylum seekers coming to Ukraine. This is nothing. Turkey has 2,000 crossing its border with Syria every day.
It has taken Ukraine a lot of time to put the adequate legislation in place, and we still see many gaps in the local procedures. It’s a pity because progress has been made since 2002 in legislation but not the implementation thereof. And different governments in Ukraine have seen it as a transit country. So, they were reluctant to take any effort to determine the status of refugees, since they had the impression that people are just transiting the country and there is no point in integrating them into society. Now, Ukraine has to wake up a bit and realize that some of those people are coming to stay in Ukraine as a middle-income country which may be attractive for some.
You also have people coming for economic reasons who have no right to stay in the country, while others flee persecution in their country. And they think that they can’t find asylum, peace and protection in this country. In fact, asylum seekers face numerous practical problems in Ukraine, the first one being inability to talk to the authorities. They can’t make themselves understood without interpreters. In principle, the local legislation provides for interpreters who should assist asylum seekers in filing and examining their applications. But there are none in many institutions, so the administration has a hard time dealing with such cases and often makes a negative decision.
UW: We’ve had some negative experience in terms of political refugee protection over the past few years. What problems do you see in this respect in Ukraine today?
Ukraine has to realize that granting asylum to someone is a humanitarian act. It’s an act of protection, not a political statement. The fact that a country recognizes someone as a refugee does not mean that it condemns the person’s country of origin or expresses a judgment about the situation in the country of origin. It is not just Ukraine, but several more countries in this region that do not understand it this way. Some of them say that they can’t have asylum seekers from certain countries because they are neighbour states or the ones they don’t want problems with, so they prefer to not recognize asylum seekers from there as refugees. However, the 1951 Refugee Convention says that people who flee persecution for political reasons, religion, nationality, race or membership in a particular social group can qualify as refugees regardless of where they come from.
UW: What are the biggest challenges you face in terms of refugee policy and protection not only in Ukraine, but in Europe in general?
One of the problems in Europe is access to territory. We realize that states have their national security concerns. They need to protect their citizens and borders. However, border management should be protection-sensitive to help people who move because they face persecution in their country of origin. Sometimes people flee persecutions and wars, and do not have the necessary papers to cross borders. Border management has to recognize that these people flee for their life and freedom, and they need to be identified. They are not economic migrants. That’s one of the big challenges in Europe.
The other one is consistency in decision making. It shouldn’t be like a Russian roulette where one person applies for a refugee status and gets it, and another doesn’t because of skin colour, nationality or any factor. The only thing that matters is whether there is a well-founded fear of persecution, and the authorities should be looking at that. They should not look at whether the person is a trouble maker or whether he will be able to integrate easily. And this is not an easy fix. It takes time, resources and commitment.
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UW: Can you speak of any examples of effective refugee integration in the European society?
All Nordic countries are doing very well in this respect. Germany and the Netherlands do, too. The interesting aspect here is not only the responsibility of the authorities, but the private and public partnership. Authorities admit that they cannot do this all on their own. They have laws and procedures, but when it comes to practical implementation, they need principalities or NGOs to implement government projects and programmes. They realize that the government can’t do everything. Integration is not just about one government taking a decision on someone staying in its country and integrating into it. It takes a welcoming community. This means that the process can involve neighbours, a local organization or a church. They make sure that the kids can go to a local school or young men in a refugee family can join the local football club. Integration has several components to it: it’s not just an economic issue, but a cultural and a social one.
Vincent Cochetel has been Director of the Bureau for Europe of UNHCR since March 1, 2013. Mr. Cochetel joined UNHCR in 1986. He managed UNHCR field offices in Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.