I have now been serving in Malta as the new representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for 100 days. The UN refugee agency, as we are known, is working with governments to find solutions for refugees and asylum seekers. We also see how refugees are treated in every country and monitor the situation to establish whether the Geneva Refugee Convention is being respected by member states. Some 147 states around the world, including Malta, have signed the 1951 convention.
Coming from the UNHCR’s regional office in Rome, I had some knowledge on how Malta works and is dealing with refugees, asylum seekers, boat arrivals and migrants. Now, my impressions are deeper, more immediate and mostly positive.
I observe that a lot of people from all walks of life are involved in positive work in this regard. I will not close my eyes to any negativity I might come across and I would ensure that we will sit down and speak so both sides can understand each other better.
Work can and must be completed on all levels to achieve success.
The integration of refugees starts with neighbours being open to newcomers and continues with refugees learning the language, the laws and the customs of their new home countries.
Going up a level, local governments, schools, Church groups, sports clubs and others can do their share to bring about a positive environment. To integrate the children of a refugee family at the local school is the best recipe for a harmonious future for society. It is a great opportunity if a refugee father or mother finds a job and can start to build again their own life and also contribute to the community that hosts them. To let a young talent in sport mix together with the locals would start to bring some dignity to the life of an asylum seeker.
Each one of us can help to bring about such chances and opportunities.
I often hear that problems involving refugees and migrants are too big, too complicated, can never be solved.
True, big problems require big solutions. For example, the war in Syria is still forcing citizens and families into exile on a daily basis. A total of 2.7 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey. Only when there is lasting peace will this situation end. Until then, Syrians and many other victims of violence and human rights abuses need a safe place of refuge.
Big problems need to be worked out by big players but they never justify that we can close our eyes at our level.
Many refugees and migrants take risks when they seek a safe place to live. Some pay smugglers to take them in unseaworthy boats to travel from Libya to Italy. Over 50,000 people have arrived in Italy so far this year but we shall not forget that more than 2,800 others lost their lives and/or went missing.
The Mediterranean Sea is the theatre of very dramatic situations and it is our humanitarian duty to help. Europe is doing that in a joint effort by sending Frontex ships to perform search and rescue operations. Malta is generously participating with teams, planes and boats and Italy shows generosity as all rescued refugees and migrants are allowed to land in Sicily or Lampedusa. A fair distribution of those refugees/migrants across Europe had a slow start (the so-called EU relocation programme).
Much more generosity and solidarity by all European member states is required. More needs to be done by our politicians to achieve that. Clearly, to shy away, to build walls and re-erect barriers at internal borders in Europe will not contribute to solutions.
I look ahead to continue with my work and deepen relations with all those involved in the work with refugees and asylum seekers. They can be my Maltese neighbours, government officials, those manning the office responsible for such matters, people in the service of the Church, the business communities, football coaches… basically everybody including you.
Only when we work together will we be able to find solutions for a challenge that exists and will not just go away. After all, they all are human being, whether they reach us by sea or arrive as tourists.
Today, World Refugee Day, one can already do something positive: one can sign the UNHCR petition (refugeeday.org) on refugees asking world leaders to do more for refugees. The signed petition will then be submitted to the Humanitarian Summit in New York on September 20. Please sign up.
Beat Schuler is the UNHCR representative to Malta.
This opinion piece appeared on the Times of Malta