Inspire Dialogue Introductions: Frederick Smets

United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)

“Most of these people do not need money, but they need somebody that they can have a conversation with.”

I am here to talk about one group of strangers in the world today who are extremely vulnerable. These are the refugees, the people who are fleeing conflict. Today we have the largest displacement of peoples in the world since the second world war: more than 65 million people – which is equivalent to the entire population of a country such as France or the UK, or one in every 113 people worldwide – who are displaced by war, conflicts and persecution. This is an enormous crisis.

This group of people is increasingly exposed to prejudice, racism and xenophobia – and there are a large number of clichés which circulate about them. To name just a few that are prevalent in Europe: one is that all these refugees are coming to Europe, and we cannot take all of them; another one is that a lot of these people are terrorists and therefore they are a security risk; another is that they will come to Europe and take our jobs.

What can we do to counteract this, as states or as individuals, to ensure that hatred and bigotry and all these negative things are not accommodated? First of all, we need to get our facts right: for example, take the idea that all these people want to come to Europe and we are likely to be overrun by them. This is not a true fact. Only 6% of the world’s displaced people find refuge in Europe; the majority, 90% of the refugees, are in the countries surrounding the area of conflict – countries such as Lebanon or Turkey. As for the second cliché, that these people might be terrorists: if we look at the vetting procedures that are already in place under the Geneva Convention and international asylum law, it is clear that every refugee who comes to Belgium or to the UK gets vetted very carefully. They all have to submit a lot of documents and are interviewed for hours on end. So the system that is in place is already pretty solid. Finally, we have the idea that refugees take our jobs. But if you look at the German situation, for example, a lot of industries and businesses actually welcome the opportunity to employ refugees and migrants because they might bring skills and talents that are needed in Germany.

So the first thing is to get the facts straight – because, as Lord Williams has said, there is a lot of untruth that has been fed to us recently. The second point is that I think that many people have lost their curiosity about ‘the other’. I have lots of speaking engagements in many different settings, and I gave one recently in my own village where there were many elderly people. After I had finished they said: Okay, these refugees are not so bad, but now what? What can we do for them? Well, the situation in Europe now is that most towns and cities have refugees living in them, and it is very simple to reach out to them, and offer help with things like going to the supermarket, or advice with administrative things etc. Most of these people do not need money, but they need somebody that they can have a conversation with, or who can help them with practical things. In my experience this is more valuable than simply giving money.

Finally, there is the importance of education. One of the main things that we are doing in the UNHCR is developing a worldwide platform for educating school children about refugee issues. The objective is to offer teachers the tools and the facts that they need for instructing their pupils in primary and secondary education, so that they can bring this big issue into the classroom and start educating our young people and children. It is very important that we create minds that are open to strangers, and in this way change our attitudes towards them.

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