Interview with Karen AbuZayd, Special Adviser on the Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants

6 May 2016

Interview with Karen AbuZayd, Special Adviser on the Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants

05-06abuzayd-web-3.jpg Karen AbuZayd wants you to think of refugees and migrants in a positive way. The United Nations Special Adviser has been working behind the scenes since January to raise support for global compacts to support large movements of refugees and migrants. These will be up for discussion on 19 September 2016, when the UN will host a high-level meeting to address large movements of refugees and migrants, with the aim of bringing Member States together behind a more humane and coordinated approach.

Ahead of that summit, the Secretary-General will issue on 9 May a report, In Safety and Dignity: Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.

There are close to 250 million people on the move globally, of which nearly 15 million are refugees, according to the report. Close to 75 per cent of the people in the latter group come from just 11 countries and more than half of them are hosted in just seven countries.

So how do you emphasize the positive contributions of people leaving or forced to leave their homes against the challenges of trying to help large groups of people? And how do you analyze the challenges shared by “refugees” and “migrants” while taking into account legal distinctions between the two groups?

The UN News Centre spoke to Ms. AbuZayd about these questions, and her work with UN entities, Member States and civil society in the lead up to the Summit.

UN News Centre: The Secretary-General’s report on large movements of refugees and migrants will be submitted on 9 May. What are the key findings?

You treat the emergency, treat the development and help the people be happy with what they're doing.

Karen AbuZayd: Our findings are not going to be surprising because they describe the situation of refugees and migrants around the world in general terms; we don't deal with any specific situation or a specific group of people. We're talking about refugees and migrants everywhere and the report is addressing a global audience so we're not talking […] just about Syrians or just about Europe, but about the refugees and migrants who are increasing in numbers around the world.

And our findings are more recommendations – that's the important part – which we address as commitments that we expect and hope that the Member States will be making [and] that will be negotiated now. These are mainly commitments to work faster when there's a refugee outflow; to work more collectively, because no State can handle any of these – neither the migrants nor the refugee crises – alone. They have the earlier [unedited] version of the report, so they are already beginning to work on what kind of outcome there will be, and we'll have to see which recommendations they agree to.

They need to look not just at getting people to a place safely, which is one of the first things, but also to help them be included in the countries where they are staying; to have jobs, to have scholarships, to learn a language. All of the things that […] are on the development side. So you treat the emergency, treat the development and help the people be happy with what they’re doing.

UN News Centre: The UN and the wider international community are pushing for a new approach to large movements of refugees and migrants. What could this new approach include?

Karen AbuZayd: Well, what we’re recommending, and what we hope [Member States accept], are two global compacts. One is on fulfilling their commitments to refugees in terms of the legal instruments already in place, that's really all they have to do, is to carry out things they've already promised to do. And for people, for nations, who have not signed up to the 1951 Refugee Convention to do so, and anyone who has expressed reservations to the Convention to lift [them] and fulfil it in its entirety.

But also, too, UNHCR [the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees], has asked to come up with a comprehensive plan for whenever there is a large outflow; we're talking about large movements of refugees and migrants, so when there's a large flow which could be a crisis or emergency, they come up with a comprehensive plan for that emergency and that people immediately come to help. This way, it’s not just a neighbouring country that is always the one that receives the refugees. Often times, these places are as bad off as the country refugees have come from. So they need help with that and they need help in a development sense as well, not just through emergency aid and so on.

And then on the global migration side, we’re talking again about a global compact, but one that looks at better governance of migration; generally, around the world, because there aren't the same legal instruments as there are for refugees. So in that sense, people focused on migration issues are interested in having something worked out over a period of time.

UN News Centre: There have been discussions about the need to differentiate between migrants and refugees. Why is that?

Karen AbuZayd: Partly because there are different regimes for them. A refugee of course is someone who crosses the border fleeing persecution. [As for migrants], there are many different kinds: there are climate change migrants; there are forced migrants; there are survival migrants. But even when we're talking about forced migrants, which people could say, ‘well isn't that something like a refugee,’ migrants also move by choice as well, so we're talking about millions of people, a couple hundred million people, who move every year.

So there has to be some definition of who you're really talking about. The rights of refugees are pretty clearly accepted. But migrants’ countries need to be reminded that migrants have human rights and that [they have those rights] even as they are moving as migrants. That's why in our report, we consider the journey as well. We talk about leaving a country, arriving in a new country, and perhaps moving on to yet another country. So we talk about the countries of origin, what needs to happen there; countries of transit; and the countries of destination. And much of that is the same for both refugees and migrants, but they are two distinct groups of people with different needs that have to be treated in the appropriate way.

The first chapter of the report in fact is data trends and so on, and the second chapter relates to the reasons for moving. For the refugee, whether its conflict or a bad government or lack of human rights, you know it's still a refugee who deserves a certain protection [regime] when they get where they're going. And migrants, of course, probably more often the great majority of them, are in search of a better life. So they're leaving [because of] poverty, sometimes conflict, sometimes the kind of government they have, but with a little more free will, I would say, to make the decision [to move]. They’re not shoved out of their country or they're not fleeing persecution, as it were, as the refugee is.

UN News Centre: What will happen after the report is released?

Karen AbuZayd: The report will be negotiated from now until the time of the high-level meeting in September. And then we hope the report shows up in all of the commitments that governments will make. This is something that's done not by us but by the Ambassadors of Member States themselves. There are two Ambassadors facilitating the process – of Ireland and Jordan – an excellent team who are working with the Member States to come up with this negotiated outcome.

I would have to say that when we first started, we were wondering if we were going to have to fight for this negotiated outcome, but we found that every country was in favour of one. They said we want a summit that has something that comes afterwards, that asks us for commitments. And that's what we have in mind too. The report also checks that UNHCR will report on whether the commitments for them have been made in its annual report to the General Assembly. As regards migrants, it looks at bringing the International Organization of Migration (IOM) into a closer relationship with the United Nations so we have, within the UN system, a go-to place. That will help a lot in focusing [our work] and allowing the IOM to work around the world with the United Nations, as well.

UN News Centre: What is your role between now and the Summit?

Karen AbuZayd: It’s partly advocating for the report. We still hope to be in touch with Member States. We met with 80 Ambassadors on the way up to the report from January to now, and a lot of civil society organizations and anyone who asked to meet us. So from now on, we will just follow that up. We already have a number of travels and are placing the invitations to certain places that we want to talk about. We’ll go to the World Humanitarian Summit, we’ll be going to Brussels, we’re going to Gent, where there are agencies dealing with refugees.

We may be able to visit some of the refugee-receiving and refugee- producing countries, and especially where there are large numbers of protracted refugee situations, which are extremely important and very much neglected. [For example] Kenya and Pakistan have such long-standing refugee situations and nobody really thinks about them anymore.

UN News Centre: What are you hearing from Member States and civil society groups that you’ve met with?

We have had nothing but positive, strong support from everyone we met with.

Karen AbuZayd: We’ve already been surprised that they all want this negotiated outcome. I must say, we have had nothing but positive, strong support from everyone we met with. And we've met with all different sorts of countries. Some have reminded us that they are not just a country of refugees but they are a country that receives refugees in a country that produces themn, so they’re a country of origin, transit and destination; there are more countries than you think in that sort of situation. So I think even if there are some differences between the refugee-receiving countries and the refugee-producing countries, even then, many are speaking the same language.

They are all very positive, very supportive, and are very interested in what we're doing and what they're going to contribute and I think in the meetings that have already been held by the co-facilitators, we've seen that, as well. We’ve been sitting in back of some of the meetings to hear what they're saying and they're looking forward to making this a successful summit – or High-Level Plenary as it's called. So we're quite pleased. Really, we haven't had any pitfalls; no stumbling blocks yet.

UN News Centre: What will be your message at the World Humanitarian Summit?

Karen AbuZayd: The same message that I’m giving to you. Overall, eventually we'd like to have a better situation for refugees and migrants, so that when they arrive somewhere as refugees or move somewhere as migrants they are received well, that they are seen as assets. As for migrants there is no doubt: all the statistics show that countries need migrants. We know that there are aging populations here and there. There are people who need migrants for different sorts of work. I think people sometimes have to be reminded that migrants are a very positive element in society. Most of our countries are made up of migrants.

But even for refugees, in instances such as when the Canadians took in some 25,000 people from the crisis last year, they said immediately the economy improved where they were settled, and that's what happens. Refugees are very keen to make their contribution and to benefit the hosts being so good to them. And I think most countries find the benefit in getting people out of refugee camps and into jobs. We've had these statements made by people who say 'when I give a refugee a job, he’s no longer a refugee.'

UN News Centre: With xenophobia on the rise, what can the UN realistically do to help?

Karen AbuZayd: Well, we can talk about it, and one of our main recommendations is that we have to work on the narrative and making that narrative a positive one. And I think we might see the Secretary-General taking charge of starting a campaign against xenophobia and talking about the language and so on. And if he does that, I think that's a really important thing that he will leave behind [at the end of his term in office]. I think that's one reason he wanted to have this very important summit. He saw how crucial the issue is after last year and that we do have to […] address this better, we have to manage it better and we have to do it together and not just leave it, as I said, to the neighbouring State or to one receiving State. We have to get together and work on this.

UN News Centre: You’ve worked with the UN for the past three decades. How has the situation of refugees and migrants changed over that time?

Karen AbuZayd: I think it’s changed enough to see that when I first started working with refugees it was in Sudan with a million people coming in from three different sides of the country and with UNHCR's help, then the Sudanese managed that. We've seen other large flows of refugees coming from Viet Nam, coming from Bosnia and it's all been managed there has been a system set up to make it work – temporary protection here, the inclusion in development elsewhere and just, you know, refugee camps […].

But it seems much more dire now, it’s probably how fast they have come in or how many have come in. They’ve come into small places like little islands, [and it is] not fair to the island and not fair to the refugees either. So I think that's why we have to look again at a special plan for each; when we can have this standard plan of going in and registering everyone in putting them in temporary housing or temporary tents or whatever. So there are differences and I think, not just more refugees and migrants, but also not as many people going back home, and that's something that we had in parallel in UNHCR in earlier years.

We had repatriation operations which were very happy ones because the refugees were going home, their governments wanted them home, the host governments were happy to see them go […], so you're just not seeing as much of that happening right now.

UN News Centre: What are some of the favourite experiences that you recall from your 30 years with the UN?

They are trying to make their lives as positive as possible and do the best they can.

Karen AbuZayd: I just mentioned repatriation operations, and if you're working them, they are happy operations. But I worked in some of the most difficult places with refugee outflows. I worked and lived in Gaza for 10 years with the Palestine refugees. But I think what one always remembers is the resilience; it’s a word we hear a lot and is used a lot, but it is what the refugees manage to do in the midst of the worst sort of circumstances, terrible living conditions. You know they're refugees in the camp [wherever they are] but yet they make things work and they keep things going and they keep smiling sometimes.

And we just have to remember that the children growing up in these kinds of conditions need as much attention as we can give them so that they have some good memories of their childhood and are getting educated and seeing some positive examples of where they might go or where their family might go.

I just feel I've had a really rewarding life. I'm very grateful for somehow getting into this refugee business and human rights business, because you really feel that there there's a need out there and that you're somehow helping to move others to understand that need and to maybe do something about it.

UN News Centre: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Karen AbuZayd: Just think about the refugee and migrant and think about them in a positive way. I did try to do that. They are trying to make their lives as positive as possible [and] to do the best they can.

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