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.
Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge
“When we go out and encounter others, we are asking for something that is not already there to come alive in us”read more
Senior Director of Law and Policy for Amnesty International
“The stranger or ‘the other’ is a notion that we construct in our quest for a resource. In reality, there is no ‘other’…”read more
“What makes humanity so beautiful is our multiculturalism… the variety in our colours, cultures and beliefs is what makes us all unique.”read more
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Brendan Simms and Alison Liebling
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Lord Rowan Williams
“To be able to imagine that things don’t have to be as they are is perhaps one of the most important things that human beings ever do.”read more
The inclusive vision of Glenn Murcutt’s Australian Islamic Centre
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The spiritual foundations of our contemporary desire for private space
“…the notion of solitude was essential to the development of concepts we now see as foundational for western society: individualism, freedom, social and political equality, democracy.”read more
An interview with Judith Hanson Lasater
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Richard Twinch contemplates the message of an important new book by economist Kate Raworth
“The most powerful tool in economics is not money, nor even algebra. It is a pencil. Because with a pencil you can redraw the world.”read more
John Lloyd talks to Jane Clark and Hilary Papworth about the philosophy behind the QI project
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Andrew Singer talks about the vision behind the literary journal Trafika Europe
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Dr Andreas Weber talks to David Hornsby about a new way of understanding nature
“It is intrinsic to life to create the experience of self through connection. What is the difference between this and saying that there is an intrinsic yearning to love?”read more
A review by Jim Griffin
“The Western Isles are often referred to as ‘thin places’ – places where the separation between the divine and the human easily breaks down”read more
David Apthorp praises the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque in Istanbul
“Standing here, before the plain, unadorned mihrab, it as if one has been brought to some ultimate secret.”read more
Dr Vasileios Basios talks to Jane Clark and Michael Cohen about new ideas in science
“I think we have to come back to considering the ancient concept of the ‘great chain of being’ – that somehow consciousness manifests itself from the rock to the plant to the human being.”read more