Saturday, 23 January 2021

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Exclusive interview with Vincent Cochetel, United Nations Special Envoy for Refugees

cochetel interview

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean Situation, Vincent Cochetel, warned at a news conference in Brussels on June 26 of the numerous human rights violations occurring along migratory routes towards the Mediterranean. He emphasised that there was an urgent need for US $210 million in funding to reinforce the protection of migrants. The United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe was honoured to welcome Mr. Cochetel at its office in Brussels and interview him on the situation along routes leading to the Mediterranean.

During your recent news conference in June, you announced an urgent need to raise US $210 million to reduce risks along migratory routes. Has UNHCR, the UN’s Refugee Agency, progressed in seeking funding for its various programs in support of victims?

Continued efforts are needed in the search for funding. We must remind States, one after the other, as well as institutions who have the financial means to help us. We need to stabilise population movements and avoid, where possible, these people embarking on dangerous routes to Morocco or Libya because they are in a desperate situation. They face multiple risks to their safety, and we must try to create credible alternatives for these people on different routes.

Since financing relies on institutions which have the means to help you, with 2019 being a transitional year for the EU with a new Parliament, Commission, as well as new national mandates, are you optimistic when it comes to future EU migration policies and the bloc’s support of UNHCR’s activities?

There is a degree of continuity when it comes to maintaining relations between the EU and UNHCR; it doesn’t solely depend on the person in charge. A number of policy frameworks, such as the Valletta Action Plan, have been adopted. We do not need a new plan of action, new dialogues. These processes already exist; we need to concentrate on implementing what was decided in Valletta. This involves five areas, two of which focus on the return to country of origin and border control, and substantial resources have been allocated to this. However, if we really want to have a dialogue with African partners, this is not enough. We need to work on all elements of the action plan, including the issues which are the most delicate for Europe.

I’m generally optimistic, but you do not always need to revisit an issue. We are of course going to get to know our new counterparts and find out if they work in the same way, but the geography or basic facts remain the same. On the one hand, people are moving for economic reasons due to overpopulation and a rural exodus, partly created by climate change. On the other hand, in 22 African countries (so almost 1 in 3), we are witnessing internal as well as external displacements linked to conflicts, human rights violations, and conflicts between communities. Unfortunately, until these conflicts are resolved, people will continue to move. However, not everyone moves; most people remain in their first country of asylum; they do not take the risk of going to other countries. Some people are more likely to move, particularly young men aged between 15 to 25 years old, who set off on these dangerous routes.

On July 30, the United Nations will honour victims of trafficking. Many refugees are faced with various types of exploitation and violence during their migratory routes. Can you give any examples of initiatives undertaken by UNHCR to protect these victims?

Unfortunately, trafficking is not a recent or modern phenomenon. There will always be people who seek to exploit the most vulnerable. So, our job mostly involves informing communities and local authorities, so that they are able to flag these kinds of cases, and encourage victims of trafficking to find the right help and to have what we call the appropriate safety nets for when the State is unable to protect its people. UNHCR, in partnership with other NGOs, tries to provide people with basic services to get them out of situations where they are exploited. It is nonetheless an enormous task because most of these types of abuse are underground and thus hidden. Victims therefore need to testify, so we can gain an understanding into these specific cases.

You underline the importance of testimonies to understand the reality on the field. Do you therefore include such testimonies in your programs and conferences?

Some Libyan refugees have resettled in European countries through our evacuation mechanism, by travelling through Niger. We can give a voice to these people, so they can talk to us about their route, their ordeal, and why they chose to go to Libya. Other refugees stayed in their first country of asylum and chose not to go to Libya. We need to take note of and understand this decision. We generally try to increase refugee participation in the implementation of our programs. This happens in the field, because UNHCR would traditionally consult with refugees to assess their needs and find out their future intentions, and whether they wanted to voluntarily return to their country of origin. Beyond this consultation, we did not engage a huge amount with refugees in this area. Now, as well as evaluating their needs, we must make sure they participate in the implementation and evaluation of programmes. This would allow them to become actors of their own destiny and not simply recipients of humanitarian aid. That requires a real cultural change.

What is UNHCR putting in place to make these situations more visible and to give refugees their voice?

Maps are a good communication tool to show the routes taken by people and to highlight that most mixed migratory movements do not occur through capitals. We must work outside cities, in the heart of small communities, where people are really passing through, because if we are not there throughout their journey, there is no way we can have an impact and a dialogue with them. We are sometimes a little frightened when States do not have the answers to curb movements. But it is not by building walls, or with more controls at the borders that we will have a real impact on these movements. You need coherent and practical responses and actions along the routes to respond to the root causes, otherwise people will find other ways of travelling through.

Another significant issue is Europe’s understanding of borders. We cannot reproduce measures made in Europe and impose them as a standard for border control in countries where borders have been artificially drawn, and where populations move regularly.

During your recent news conference on June 26, you spoke about the Mauritanian government’s refusal to register Malian refugees outside the UNHCR camp set up in Mbera. Has the situation changed since?

The situation has improved since June 26. The Mauritanian government demanded that Malian refugees stay in a camp in Mbera, and UNHCR was not permitted to register Malian refugees who wanted to live outside of the camp. And yet no refugees want to live in camps. On the contrary, some want to live independently, find a small job, but the issue is that they do not have the right paperwork. UNHCR had to highlight to Mauritanian authorities the need to document these people, to have a more flexible approach in registering them rather than having a vulnerable population who are essentially hidden in their territory. Mauritanian authorities recently resolved the issue and allowed UNHCR to register refugees in the towns of Nouakchott and Nouadhibou.

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