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
“How do we have a dialogue with someone who is fifty years away from inhabiting this earth? This leads to considerations of inter-generational responsibility.”read more
Brendan Simms and Alison Liebling
“We were criticised and ridiculed by other professional groups for coming into a maximum security prison with the word ‘trust’ in mind.”read more
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
MORE IN BESHARA MAGAZINE:
Robert Hirschfield on the contemplative practice of a remarkable 20th-century poet/mystic.
“For Lax, there was no seam between walking, praying, writing. All experiences were to be fully absorbed, integrated into a life fully lived.”
David Hyams describes the creation of a new ark for the Synagogue in Oxford, UK.
“The proposal was that the patterns on the ark could be produced by the sound of the congregation at prayer.”read more
Kira Perov, wife and long-term collaborator of the video artist Bill Viola, talks to Jane Carroll about the ideas and experiences which inspire their work
“These video works give us the gift of time. They give the viewer time to spend with these images, to move from our physical ‘real’ world to a metaphysical one.”read more
Distinguished calligrapher Ann Hechle talks about her lifelong quest to understand the underlying unity of the world
“As I grapple with putting letters, words and drawings together, I am using strategies that belong to a much bigger and grander world, which are part of universal law.”read more
What is the universal significance of this festival celebrated at a pivotal moment of the year?
“What would it be to experience time, once more as the moving image of eternity, the continual incarnation of the divine…?”read more
How a nation is trying to heal the wounds of its colonial past and reconcile with its indigenous people
“People had been asked: ‘What can be done to heal the situation?’ and many had replied, ‘If only someone would say sorry’.”read more
Jane Carroll visits a new memorial which aims to heal a dark period of American history
“We have to face up to the past in order to come to a proper understanding of ourselves and our world.”read more
Michael Sells and Simone Fattal talk about a new translation of Ibn ‘Arabi’s famous cycle of love poems Translation of Desires
“For Ibn ‘Arabi longing or desire is a cosmic force. It goes beyond all boundaries, and it is the closest taste of the infinite that people can have in their own experience.”read more
Emma Clark visits the Luohan at the Temple Gallery in London
“This majestic and profound sculpture is both timeless and deeply meaningful in its capacity to give us an insight into what it means to be human.”read more
An interview with Heidi Herrmann about the work of The Natural Beekeeping Trust in preserving our precious populations of bees
“We need to address the many ways in which we have fallen so far from the ideal place of humanity. The bees demonstrate this as a whole phenomenon – as ‘the Bee’.”read more