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Peter Sutherland, UN Migration Envoy, Says: Do Not Shirk the Refugee Crisis


Peter Sutherland
“A year after #EU launched two-year plan aiming to resettle 160,000 from Italy & Greece to other EU states, less than 3% have been resettled,” Peter Sutherland, UN envoy on migration, wrote recently on Twitter. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

As the special envoy to the United Nations secretary-general on international migration since 2006, Peter Sutherland, an Irishman, has minced few words on the topic of people leaving their homes in search of better lives.

In his role at the UN, he advises the secretary-general on issues related to international migration and development and promotes cooperation on critical issues such as protecting migrants who have been affected by a crisis and ensuring that migration is followed up in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, known as the global development goals.

Sutherland is refreshingly outspoken for a UN envoy, especially on Twitter, where he has almost 10,000 followers. There, he comments, albeit briefly; some of his latest tidbits reflect his biting wit: “When ‪@realDonaldTrump spoke of plans to build walls to keep Mexican migrants out, most of us in ‪#Europe recoiled in disgust.”

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Or he tosses out uncomfortable facts about governments: “A year after ‪#EU launched two-year plan aiming to resettle 160,000 from Italy & Greece to other EU states, less than 3% have been resettled.”

As the first-ever UN conference on migration and refugees takes place on Sept. 19 at UN headquarters in New York, the day before the world’s leaders begin speaking at the green-marble podium in the General Assembly Hall, UN member states will focus on one of the most difficult crises plaguing world affairs, the record-breaking number of people forced from their homes: 65 million.

Sutherland, who is based in London and speaks with a crisp brogue, was interviewed in early September by phone from New York by Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and a columnist for PassBlue. The interview covers basic information about the differences between migrants and refugees but also delves into what nations must do to alleviate the suffering of so many people fleeing their homes.

The interview has been edited and condensed. A fuller version is available on podcast, produced in partnership with the Carnegie Council.

JOANNE MYERS: In addition to his role of special envoy, Peter Sutherland has also had a very distinguished career on the world stage, including past service as attorney general of Ireland, European Union commissioner for competition policy, director general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and first director general of the World Trade Organization. The focus of our discussion is the high-level summit for refugees and migrants, which will be taking place on Sept. 19, followed by a pledging conference the next day, led by the United States.

Could you explain the difference between refugees and migrants and whether the distinction is just political or is it a legal one?

PETER SUTHERLAND: The distinction is very definitely a legal one, and it is a very real one in terms of the legal responsibility of states.

Refugees are defined by a convention, which very many of the global community of member states of the United Nations have ratified. It was introduced in the post-World War II period, but was of course influenced in its genesis by the appalling history which had occurred in the preceding couple of decades, particularly in regard to refugees. It has placed an obligation on those who accepted the convention by its ratification to provide asylum to those who are escaping persecution. It was amended subsequently in 1967. It basically provides an obligation to member states of the United Nations who have signed the convention to provide sanctuary to those who are escaping from these mortal conditions.

All other migrants — and of course international refugees are themselves migrants — who are not within the definition do not enjoy the strict legal rights contained in the refugee convention. But they are still entitled to the human rights that are supported, inter alia, by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the Charter of the UN.

MYERS: And are the challenges in meeting the needs of refugees and migrants the same or, because of the definition, are the challenges different?

SUTHERLAND: The challenges, in a sense, are distinguishable. As far as the United Nations is concerned, there is an overriding concern to provide sanctuary and rights to all international migrants, particularly vulnerable migrants. Whilst all refugees are by definition vulnerable migrants, there are others who are vulnerable migrants as well. For an example, those who are escaping a natural disaster, they are not refugees, but the United Nations, obviously, must have a particular concern to these vulnerable migrants and others who leave dreadful conditions which may not fall within the convention of 1951.

MYERS: In the past year, there have been attempts to deal with the record-breaking numbers of refugees and migrants who are crossing international borders: in February there was a Syrian donors conference, which focused on equitable responsibility; in March a resettlement conference, which was convened by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and in May there was the World Humanitarian Summit, which focused on displacement. But this is the first time the UN General Assembly will gather to deal with the issue of refugees and migrants. How does this gathering differ from the others that took place this year?

SUTHERLAND: This is the culmination of a series of conferences which were arranged in the light of the dreadful humanitarian crisis that we have in many parts of the world, particularly visibly in the Mediterranean, Syrian refugees and so on, to try to create the global response that this crisis demands. I should point out that in the [Refugee] Convention of 1951 it is made clear that the obligation to provide recourse to refugees is not simply an obligation for those in close proximity to the refugees; it’s a global responsibility that should be shared.

At the moment, it is not being shared. The vast bulk of refugees are coming to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the areas closest to the great source, which is the Syrian war. It is a global responsibility that should be shared, and the United Nations has been propagating that view.

Within the European Union, those refugees are also landing, particularly in Greece and in Italy. Why should a responsibility of Greece and Italy be such that it excludes a sharing of that responsibility within the European Union and more generally?

MYERS: The question then is, how do you get countries to work closer together and enact a more robust and humane sense of sharing the responsibility?

SUTHERLAND: That’s exactly what has to be done, and that’s what this conference seeks to achieve on the 19th of September, to set out a general series of principles which will be agreed in a negotiated outcome, and also to indicate a track to a 2018 international conference on migration which will make hopefully concrete much of what has been expressed in general statements in UN resolutions, not merely the negotiated outcome, but also in the post-2030 Development Goals, which have already been agreed and which relate also to migrants in part.

MYERS: Are there specific mechanisms that are needed to create this more responsible and predictable system for dealing with these challenges?

SUTHERLAND: There are a number of mechanisms. First of all, I think that institutions, and the United Nations in particular, have an obligation to create and to develop the arguments for specific commitments and obligations. The UN conference on the 19th and the Obama conference, which immediately follows it [Sept. 20], hopefully will bring forward more commitments in these areas.

Then, we will move into a series of other discussions and developments, including in November the Global Forum on Migration and Development, which will take place in Dhaka, hosted by the Bangladesh government. I have been doing a report myself on the future of migration leading up to that, where we will hopefully help to develop on the impetus provided by the Sept. 19 conference towards developing more and more specific commitments, obligations and ideas.

MYERS: The challenge is to make sure that the Sept. 19 conference is more than just a photo op.

SUTHERLAND: The challenge is precisely that. What is unacceptable is a simple repetition of general expressions of concern and good intent which are not effectively carried out in terms of practical realization. Whilst the conferences we’ve already had this year looking for commitments of a financial kind or in terms of resettlement have had some results, they are nothing like adequate to deal with the problem which we have at a global level.

This conference, I think, will have the effect of highlighting, particularly through the involvement of heads of governments or states, the commitments at a very visual level; it will have specific concerns expressed through the document, which will be the agreed negotiated settlement; and it will lead into a further period of development of obligations leading up to the 2018 conference; and it will deal with both questions, the obligations to those who are refugees and to international migrants more generally.

Aylin Kurdi
A mural in Frankfurt, Germany, of Aylan Kurdi, the 5-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean in 2015 and became an instant symbol of the crisis. CREATIVE COMMONS

MYERS: How do you think the “receiving countries,” those taking in refugees and migrants, can better convey the positive aspects of such flows to their citizens to allay their tremendous anxieties and fears about “the Other”?

SUTHERLAND: They can do it first of all by articulating a humanitarian concern linked to the factual evidence, which is that migrants in general contribute to society, contribute to growth and are a desirable part of society, not something to be rejected.

There are various governments, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, but elsewhere as well, and various political candidates, including in the United States, who are expressing very negative views on migrants, which to my mind are utterly unacceptable in terms of the realities of the world in which we live and the obligations which are incumbent on us all to protect the dignity of the human person and the equality of man as expressed in the Charter of the United Nations.

Recently, the high commissioner for human rights expressed these views and obligations in relation to individual heads of government who should be providing leadership very forcibly in a statement issued in The Hague. I absolutely commend what he has said.

I believe that there is a time now where we have to express forcibly our concern and we can no longer accept without criticism the statements which some are making that they will, for an example, refuse to give refugees sanctuary if they are of a particular religion. This is an outrageous response to human suffering.

MYERS: Yes, I agree. But are there concrete measures that can be taken other than outing them?

SUTHERLAND: The only concrete measures one can take are through the mechanisms of the United Nations, the obligations to comply with those obligations, and to have particular incidents examined, discussed and articulated by the relevant authorities, including the high commissioner for refugees and for human rights, and indeed the secretary-general, who has made the same points in the last 24 hours. This is a period where we are seeing unacceptable behavior, unacceptable statements, and contraventions of the spirit of the United Nations in dealing with the problem of providing sanctuary and help for those who are most distressed in global society.

MYERS: You say it so eloquently. But what are the most positive, effective measures that receiving countries have undertaken that could serve as an example for other countries so that they won’t be so fearful?

SUTHERLAND: There are countries that have led by example, and their leading by example is something to be applauded. In Europe, Germany and Mrs. Merkel have taken the courageous route and political cost for herself of accepting responsibilities, which are considerable, and numbers of refugees. So have some others. Sweden has been a leading force, and there are others. But there are many EU states who have not taken up their responsibilities.

More globally, particular credit has to be given to Canada in terms of what it is taking by way of resettlement and its attempts to integrate. I think that they are to be publicly applauded. The more that join this group and the greater the numbers that they accept, the better.

Funnily enough, in some respects, in the time, for an example, of the Vietnam problems in 1979 and 1989, in many ways the world community responded more effectively to the distribution of refugees than is taking place today. I think that we in the United Nations system — and this is being done, particularly by Filippo Grandi [head of the refugee agency] and Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein of the Human Rights Council; the secretary-general [Ban Ki-moon], of course, and deputy secretary-general [Jan Eliasson]; I hope myself — who are being forceful in what we say and we are not ducking issues, and won’t, at the conference on Sept. 19.

MYERS: The secretary-general has said that this is a crisis of not only numbers but of solidarity. So I guess he’s hoping to mobilize countries to work together. In Canada, what has been particularly effective is that people band together to adopt a refugee family so that hockey moms, dog-watching friends, book-club members, brokered by decent lawyers, have formed circles to take in Syrian families [For more on Canada’s response to the refugee crisis, check out this recent Carnegie Ethics Online article.]

SUTHERLAND: Yes, this has been excellent, as of course there has been political leadership in Canada. There is political leadership also now in the United States in the Obama administration, who have been very helpful in various schemes and movements, including the Migrants in Countries in Crisis initiative, which the UN has been developing.

And we have to articulate our support for those countries, the fact that they are an example that others should follow, and they could do more. The United States could certainly do more when you look at the total number of refugees accepted [10,000] in the context of the total population of the country. Though I’m not saying anyone is by any means doing all that they should do. But there are the beginnings of movement which have to be applauded.

Equally, there are those who are making absurd and almost obscene remarks about migrants who deserve to be condemned.

MYERS: That brings me to the question about the media, because it has been almost a year now that the picture of that little boy, Aylan Kurdi, the five-year-old who drowned after the boat bearing him from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos capsized. At the time, this picture captured the imagination and focused our attention on the horrific refugee crisis. But since then there seems to be little that has galvanized the public outcry in the same way. So could the media be doing better?

SUTHERLAND: Of course it could. The media can be an extremely negative force in stirring up anti-immigrant behavior and responses in society. I’ve seen that in many places. It is particularly evident in parts of Europe. This is unacceptable.

Equally, the media, in highlighting, for example, the dreadful loss of life in the Mediterranean and the condition of camps, for example in Calais, the difficulties in dealing with migrants who are passing through Central America, often highly vulnerable, some elements of the media haven’t disclosed it. So the media is a crucial part of this.

But the media are in the end of the day an instrument of communication. The instruments of leadership that are demanded are political leadership.

MYERS: It comes down to leadership. So as a closing question, if you had one message to governments regarding this crisis, what would that be?

SUTHERLAND: The time has come for concrete realization of the obligation to deal with a global crisis globally and not to leave the responsibility to those who are geographically placed closest to it. Eighty-six percent of migrants are in fact  found in developing countries. Many of the refugees are to be found in the immediate proximity, as I’ve said, of the events which drove them from their homes. The obligation has to be taken by heads of government, not merely to show up at a conference and the General Assembly, but to deliver concrete suggestions and actions which can be mirrored and reflected subsequently in the assessment of what they have done.

We are not going to simply have a conference, walk away from it, and not see what the results may be.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Joanne Myers is director of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs’ Public Affairs Programs, for which she is responsible for planning and organizing more than 50 public programs a year, many of which have been featured on C-SPAN’s Booknotes.

Previously, Myers was director of the Consular Corps/Deputy General Counsel at the New York City Commission for the United Nations, Consular Corps and Protocol, where she acted as the liaison between the mayor of New York and the consulates general. Myers holds a J.D. from the Benjamin C. Cardozo School of Law and a B.A. in international relations from the University of Minnesota.

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Peter Sutherland, UN Migration Envoy, Says: Do Not Shirk the Refugee Crisis
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