The Elders

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Who has the courage to protect refugees?

Hina Jilani, back from a series of meetings in Evian and Geneva, expresses her grave concern with the lack of political will to protect refugees during the current crisis and calls on political leaders to show more courage.

"It is crucial that all governments face up to their responsibilities, including those countries who are the main “exporters” of refugees."

A Greek volunteer carries a baby girl from an inflatable boat on Lesbos island, Greece (Photo: Achilleas Zavallis | UNHCR)
A Greek volunteer carries a baby girl from an inflatable boat on Lesbos island, Greece (Photo: Achilleas Zavallis | UNHCR)

Our discussions in Evian had particular poignancy because the town was the setting for an infamous Conference in 1938 to discuss the question of Jewish refugees as Nazi persecution in Germany and Austria worsened ahead of the Second World War. Back then the international community singularly failed to meet its responsibilities and abandoned vulnerable people to their fate. It is vital that we learn from the mistakes and crimes of history to ensure that refugees are treated with dignity, rights and respect.

Political leaders – particularly in the European Union and other developed countries – need to show courage to tackle the current refugee crisis in an effective and fair way, and to devise secure, legal mechanisms and channels to cope with future migration flows.

And yet we felt, 70 years on that this political will is again lacking. Political leaders – particularly in the European Union and other developed countries – need to show courage to tackle the current refugee crisis in an effective and fair way, and to devise secure, legal mechanisms and channels to cope with future migration flows.

I believe it is crucial that all governments face up to their responsibilities, including those countries who are the main “exporters” of refugees. Leaders there need to be held to account for the dire social, economic and human rights situations that cause so many of their citizens to flee abroad, believing there is no prospect of peace or security in their homeland.

In Pakistan, my home country, millions of people wish to move abroad because of the low-intensity conflict of the past decade and the natural aspiration to seek a better life for themselves and their families.

In Pakistan, my home country, millions of people wish to move abroad because of the low-intensity conflict of the past decade and the natural aspiration to seek a better life for themselves and their families.

Even if they are not strictly classified as political refugees, they should also be seen as forced migrants because of factors beyond their control like terrorism, heavy-handed counter-terror operations, growing sectarian tensions and poor prospects for economic growth.

At home and abroad, people who find themselves classed as refugees or migrants all deserve human rights. One important aspect of this is the very language that is used in public and media discourse. Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein made this point forcefully when we spoke with him in Geneva, urging politicians to move away from toxic talk of “swarms” and “hordes” of migrants, that dehumanises individuals and can enable violent extremists to feel they have a licence to physically attack incomers.

A young refugee boy wrapped up in an emergency blanket on the shores of the island of Lesbos, Greece after crossing from Turkey (Photo: Achilleas Zavallis | UNHCR)
A young refugee boy wrapped up in an emergency blanket on the shores of the island of Lesbos, Greece (Photo: Achilleas Zavallis | UNHCR)

“Disgraceful, avoidable human suffering is being generated… If we don’t accept this is a collective responsibility, we strip ourselves of our collective conscience,” he said. The Elders will continue to use our collective voice to demand a compassionate and coherent international response to this crisis and, as always, we welcome and value your ongoing support.

This blog from Hina Jilani forms part of our November 2015 newsletter. If you would like to receive it please click here.

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