“We Should Never Give Up Hope”

For two years now, the refugee crisis has dominated the news. The European
Union and UN agencies responsible for humanitarian aid have been heavily
criticized for failing to deliver adequate responses. We met for a coffee with Christoph Pinter, head of the UNHCR office in Austria, to get some first-hand insights.

For two years now, the news has been dominated by the refugee crises. The European Union and UN agencies responsible for humanitarian aid have been heavily criticized in failing to deliver adequate responses. The social implications are enormous. There are some 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, inclusive 21.3 million refugees- over half of whom are under the age of 18. In addition, there are 10 million stateless people and thousands of migrants stuck at the European borders. The picture looks grim. In a recent interview with Polemics the Head of UNHCR Office in Austria Mr. Christoph Pinter commented on refugee crisis, European responses to it and on the criticisms of global refugee framework, as well as the capacity of UNHCR to manage the mentioned crisis.

Polemics: We often hear that Europe was not ready for such a refugee flow. Do you agree?

Christoph Pinter: The Problem is not the number of asylum seekers, but that there is no solidarity among EU Member States and no political will to solve and manage the situation together. Europe could be ready for the situation with which we are confronted now. 2015 the highest number of asylum-seekers and refugees entering the Europe Union was recorded at 1.2 million- a considerable increase compared to the past. Nevertheless, the EU with 500 million inhabitants should have been able to manage a case of 1.2 million asylums.

Polemics: How about collective measures? Do you have any suggestions how 28 Member States can better reach collective decisions?

Christoph Pinter: We need to distinguish between the EU and its Member States. The EU was quick in taking decisions. In the fall of 2015, during the peak of the refugee movement through and to Europe, the European Commission made number of proposals which were finally adopted. On the other hand, the Member States didn’t subsequently implement these decisions and this caused the problem leading to asylum-seekers staying in first arrival countries. I think, from this point of view it is understandable that refugees want to move to safer places such as Austria, Germany, Sweden and other countries in Western and Northern Europe.

Polemics: Many Member States also advocate strengthening the border controls. Should this be European border policy?

Christoph Pinter: It is the right of every state to protect its borders and to establish a border management system. At the same time, the international refugee law says that every person who is persecuted needs to have access to fair and efficient asylum procedures. People must have the possibility to knock on the door of a state and say “sorry, I need protection, please let me in” and a state is not allowed to deny the entrance. Fences and walls make it more dangerous for refugees to reach safety, contributing to growing trafficking networks. What is needed are more legal pass-ways for refugees to enter other states.

Polemics: Yet some critics say that original structure of refugee system was flawed from the beginning. Is this fair?

Christoph Pinter: Referring the European structure on asylum system, I agree that the system was not prepared for such a movement. The Dublin system no longer worked, the member states were overwhelmed. One could talk about a collapse of European system, which resulted into the beginning of re-thinking process for future scenarios and what to change to make refugee protection work again in Europe. I think that the number of EU Member States, among them Austria, managed quite well. In the Austrian context, we faced asylum applications that exceeded our expectations and capacities; there were problems in the reception centers, in the asylum procedures, but ultimately everything was managed. UNHCR in Austria never became operational though, it was all managed by the Austrian state together with NGOs, the military, the police, and number of volunteers.


Polemics: Some critics blame it on inexperience of European Union with such issues. Is it true?

Christoph Pinter: It was more due to lack of preparedness. We have been warning EU Member States for several months ahead, indicating at the situations in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where refugees were receiving few supports. It was expected that they would move on, it was just a question of time and nobody listened. Secondly, the Dublin system doesn’t work if one million people arrive within 12 months and when 28 Member States operate with different standards of reception and asylum procedures.

Polemics: Prof. Paul Collier from Oxford University, criticized UNHCR at the Vienna Migration Conference, for not being equipped with necessary tools to solve this crisis and that the organization was created for short-term solutions. Is it a fair criticism?

Christoph Pinter: He is right that UNHCR in 1950s was mandated for only three years, however, this was later extended and UNHCR became a permanent organization. Therefore, as we have demonstrated at various occasions UNHCR is equipped to deal with refugee situations all over the world. The question is if UNHCR should be solving a problem which is the responsibility of the EU. The EU is not a developing region, it has a strong economy, sufficient funds and it should contribute to solving refugee situation globally. The criticism we receive, which is partly justified, is that we were too late in becoming operational in Greece for example; that we watched the situation and observed it too long instead of becoming active. The question was if a UN organization had to become operational and active in the EU affairs, where different mechanisms apply.

Polemics: One issue that has been overlooked in the refugee context is the problem of statelessness. Currently there are 10 million stateless people in the world. What kind of policy you want to see in this regard?

Christoph Pinter: Most urgent remains awareness raising. The issue of statelessness is still often ignored because of other pressing issues. Nevertheless, we took some initiatives worldwide, such as IBELONG campaign and had some success.  We need political will and states have to follow up on our recommendations. There are good examples of good procedures on statelessness determination in France, Hungary, UK. This is something we also want to see in Austrian context.

Polemics: Our issue’s topic is- “Weltschmerz- trying to keep hope in crisis-ridden world”. It seems like collective institutions are unravelling. Do you agree?
Christoph Pinter: We put our hope in the New-York Declaration adopted on 18th of September of current year by 193 states. UNHCR was asked by UN members to deliver concrete ideas and proposals for managing the refugee situations. We have already started building a special team in our headquarters and will soon start pilot projects, maybe in Uganda at first. We want international community, private sector and finance institutions to work together and combine humanitarian aid with development aid. If this works, we could copy it for other cases such as in Syria or Somali. For now, we have this declaration and we need to see if it can be implemented in practice. But I think we should never give up.