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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
Migration in Italy and Europe - Interview Beat Schuler
Nicoleta Nichifor and Stephanie Samedi, NYU Florence students
La Pietra Dialogues
April 30, 2015

Interview conducted with Beat Schuler, the Senior Protection Officer (Legal) for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by Stephanie Samedi and Nicoleta Nichifor, at New York University in Florence, April 14, 2015.

Nichifor: What is the role of the UNHCR, and what are some of the current projects you are working on?

Schuler: The UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is a UN organization that was founded in 1951 in the aftermath of WWII. WWII produced millions of refugees and the international community decided that there needed to be a specialized body to deal with the problem of refugees. So the UNHCR was founded first, with a mandate for 5 years because everybody thought that the problem of refugees would be solved in 5 years, and there would not be any new refugee related problems. But, as you can see we are now in 2015, and the organization still exists and we are still dealing with refugees and recently, with internally displaced persons.

Samedi: Can you describe your work with UNHCR and the role you play within the organization?

Schuler: I’m working in the legal department of UNHCR at the regional office in Rome; we are covering countries like Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Italy, Spain and Portugal. What Im doing is overviewing the legal work with the Italian team, which is responsible for the situation in Italy from the moment refugees and migrants have been saved on the Mediterranean Sea: they obviously need to be identified and assisted with accommodation and with the determination of refugee status. So, we are overlooking this process in each and every refugee status determination commission here in Italy. The UNHCR staff working here defends the principles of UN international refugee law and assures that Italy is applying all of the human rights principles. Then we are negotiating with the Ministry of the Interior to see that enough accommodation places are put at the disposal of the new arrivals, the asylum seekers, and that social assistance is working for them, that medical assistance is available. And then, once refugee status has been decided, we see that those recognized as refugees also get help being integrated into Italian society.

Nichifor: How would you describe the evolution of immigration policies in Italy and in Europe? 

Schuler: Right now, we still do have very strong national systems working which, for example, do not include the element of mutual recognition. Someone may be recognized in Germany as a refugee, but he or she is not automatically a refugee in Italy. He or she can travel freely within Europe but cannot take up residency in any country. That person can only have residency after a long waiting period. So that is an example of a point that has to be taken into consideration: to work towards mutual recognition of refugee status in Europe. Then, the national systems of recognizing refugees needs to be built in a common way because nowadays you have discrepancies. Someone may get a positive asylum decision in Sweden, but the same person may get a negative decision in Poland or in another country. So you have huge discrepancies in the national systems that obviously lead to asylum-seekers trying to go to the place where they think they have the best chance to be recognized. So you see that the harmonization process needs to grow, needs to be built, and there needs to be a political will for that.

Additionally, at the moment, Europe has the Dublin system*. I cannot imagine that the Dublin system will continue to work forever. Next year there will be an evaluation of the system, and Europe will have to decide if it wants to continue with this system or if it wants to change it to a system that will bring more solidarity and more shared responsibility among European states. Currently, the Dublin system is bringing persons back into the country of first reception, and this can’t be the solution for Europe. For example, states like Greece and Italy, the two front states, are responsible for most of the arrivals in Europe. There needs to be mechanisms of quota, shared responsibility and solidarity. The same can be said for search and rescue missions at the moment in the Mediterranean Sea. It cannot only be Italy’s task to save migrants on the Mediterranean Sea. I think this is a European task. There needs to be more solidarity. What we see is a beginning, but it needs to grow. 

Samedi: If the ultimate goal is unification, is it difficult to have a common policy when different countries within the European Union have different relationships with immigration? How do you get countries for whom immigration isn’t a large issue to get on board with a common policy? 

Schuler: The citizens in the member states see that some states are doing something and others not, and they will have to question their own government. “Why aren’t we taking Syrian refugees? We should also show some solidarity and take at least some vulnerable Syrian refugees in our country.” So it is the desire from the grassroots, from NGOs, from the work of active cities — they are also questioning their own governments and helping their governments make decisions and participate in such programs. It is, in any case, a difficult decision, since it has to be unanimous. If that does not work, things can only move forward on a voluntary basis (e.g. states decide to resettle a contingent of Syrians voluntarily).

Samedi: We have been hearing a lot of stories about smugglers taking refugees onto their boats. Are governments of countries such as Libya taking any steps towards resolving these issues or is it viewed as less important than other issues that they are facing in their countries? 

Schuler: You can see differences in how North African states are tackling the serious problem of smuggling and trafficking people. You see large efforts from Morocco, from Tunisia, from Algeria, from Egypt. It is a big challenge for these countries and some of them manage better than others. Now, in Libya, you have the post-Gaddafi era: you don’t have one government anymore, you have two entities and they both claim to be the official government, you have factions and militias. You have clans fighting each other, you have criminal syndicates, you have terrorist groups, ISIS - there is a lot going on. There is absolutely no state control and the existing militias are fighting against each other, but they are also using the migrants as a money making machine because they are able to cash in; they are providing the boats and they have an interest to organize these travels in order to make money that they can use to finance militias, arms, and the war. And unfortunately the chaotic situation in Libya continues; the civil war deepens and there is at the moment no perspective that there will be a strong state in place that will be able to control the huge coastline of Libya. Trafficking and smuggling from Libya will continue and the militias will continue to take advantage of that situation to cash in.

Nichifor: All the tragedies that have happened on the Mediterranean provided the impetus to start Mare Nostrum, and then Mare Nostrum was replaced with Triton, which has been criticized for not being as effective as the previous operation, so how do you see the next operation functioning? 

Schuler: It is correct that Triton, the Frontex led operation, is not strong enough. More needs to be done by Europe, more means and finances have to be put at the disposal of Frontex to build up a bigger operation which comes close or is as good as the Mare Nostrum operation. We can see that Triton cannot cope with the current situation, we see that the Italian coast guard is stretched to its limits — in addition to Triton, they are the driving force behind rescuing as many people as possible. We also see a growing number of private vessels which are ordered by the Italian rescue command to go to specific places where signals were sent out. … Obviously, this costs a lot, and more organizations, transport enterprises, ships say “It is not our task. Europe has to do more. We cannot just pay from our commercial money this extra work we are providing.”... So there needs to be a compensation scheme where they can get some insurance money, for example, if they do have to provide search and rescue operations for migrants on the high sea.

Samedi: How do you find the balance between humanitarian efforts and border regulations and financial constraints? Does one have precedent over the other?

Schuler: This is a very good question! Nowadays, I have seen NGOs that are jumping in, because they think Europe is not doing enough. Now there is big cooperation with Médecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), and with some private ship owners — MOAS is one of these private ships, of a U.S. millionaire, a philanthropic person, who bought this big boat and stationed it in Malta in order to help and assist with saving lives. Together with MSF now, they are launching a private operation to assist in this crisis and to save lives. So, you see more efforts there and efforts from NGOs. You see efforts from citizens being conscious and putting in some money to make private, sponsored operations possible.

Nichifor: Would you say irregular migration is not a “problem,” but rather a consequence, and that more effort should be put in stabilizing the situation in countries where there is ongoing war or where there are unfavorable conditions that drive irregular migrants to the European continent?

Schuler: There are millions of Syrian refugees, and Syria continues to produce more. Ninety-five percent of those refugees stay in neighboring countries — only 5 percent have reached Europe, which is a little bit more than 200,000 refugees. So, yes, the problem exists, the problem continues to exist. More efforts are needed to tackle the root causes. I see only minimal efforts at the moment to tackle the Syrian situation. We are at least two years, even five years, away from signing a peace agreement with Syria. Significant efforts are not put in by all the nations.

Nichifor: What lessons have you learned while working in migration, in terms of how the system works,and how interesting and difficult it can be to deal with people when raising awareness, particularly about irregular migration?

Schuler: I think one thing that I can say is that it is always very touching when you listen to a migrant arriving after having survived a shipwreck. He or she lost loved ones: children, their mother, their brother. The real stories, when you hear them, when you work in the ports where these disembarkations take place and you are confronted with the stories of human beings, they are enormously touching. And I think, after listening to and hearing these stories, we should not forget them. I wish I could tell some people from the North - the politicians screaming and yelling against migrants - that they should go to the ports, to the point of disembarkations, and have the human kindness to listen and to hear the stories, what people are telling us. Or to see the reactions of people, to see the tears, to see the fear in their eyes, to know that they have lost their children. That’s enormously touching and it creates something, probably in everybody’s heart. I do not think many people have hearts of stone . . . Italy has shown heart and has created the Mare Nostrum operation. So, these are moments when things change. I hope these moments are not forgotten . . . I think we cannot not always argue with political motives, we cannot only try to influence policy to raise awareness. I think at some point it is very important to see the human face behind the tragedies and behind the numbers and to understand what it means for a human being, and I think that would create some kindness, some solidarity, and some changes.

* The European Council on Refugees and Exiles defines the Dublin System as a “hierarchy of criteria for identifying the Member State responsible for the examination of an asylum claim in Europe.” The ECRE explains that the Dublin Regulation ensures that the EU member state in which the asylum seeker first entered is responsible for the examination of his or her asylum application.

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