1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Eliasson: We should accept diversity

Interview: Bernd RiegertApril 26, 2016

UN Deputy Secretary General, Jan Eliasson, worries about the negative view on refugees in Europe. In a DW interview, he said Europe needs to accept the necessity of migration and diversity for a vital society.

Line of refugees
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Deutsche Welle: Mr Eliasson, Europe is struggling with the refugee crisis. From your global perspective, is Europe taking in enough refugees?

Jan Eliasson: Well, we know this is a huge challenge for European countries. But, of course, you should also be aware, that this is a global issue. We have millions and millions of displaced people around the world. We should be aware of the fact that most of the refugees and migrants are living in countries which were very poor. You have also tremendous pressure on countries like Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey. We should keep in mind that the heaviest burdens in terms of receiving refugees are mostly put on neighboring countries close to crisis areas. We hope very much that we will have a more unified European Union position on migration. We hope also that we will develop much more legal pathways and a structure that makes it possible to avoid these horrible tragedies of people drowning in the Mediterranean. We are helping as much as we can with our own agency, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but we also want to remind the world about the basic promises given in the 1952 Geneva Convention, basic issues related to human solidarity.

Your own refugee agency, the UNHCR, has voiced some concerns about the refugee deal between the EU and Turkey. This deal effectively keeps refugees inside Turkey. How did the EU react to the criticism; are you satisfied?

This was, of course, a very important agreement. It will hopefully lead to a better situation, less smuggling and fewer illegal ways to enter European territory. But we also need to be reminded that there has to be an individual assement of every person's reasons for applying for asylum. And there have to be conditions under which a person can safely return. There were some reports about Syrians being returned to their country from Turkey. We have not substantiated that, because that would be serious. But I think it is important that we try to live up as much as possible to the commitments in the Conventions and the basic principle of helping people who are in need.

UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson
UN Deputy Secretary General Jan EliassonImage: picture alliance/AA/M. Kaynak

The United Nations is hosting peace talks for Syria right now. What do you expect from the Europeans to buttress that process. Can they help the neighboring countries more? More boots on the ground? More military engagement?

I think there is great need to help the neighboring countries. I have been to Lebanon twice. Every third person living in that country comes from Syria. It is a tremendous burden on their schools, on their health system, on the job market. Thus, I think to show solidarity with Jordan, Lebanon - apart from the help for Turkey - is very important. But when it comes to the peace talks it is important that everybody pulls their weight and strength so as to get back to a secession of hostilities. If that is not working, we will go back to an absolutely horrible situation. This has also prevented us from doing what we want to do; namely, to save lives. We have saved 400,000 to 500,000 people who lived under siege, under starvation conditions. That work has now been made so much more difficult with the fighting around Aleppo, Idlip and Damascus. I hope that the major countries on the UN Security Council, but also the neighboring countries, will do their best now to use their influence on the parties to come back to the rather quiet situation we have had for eight weeks. We must continue the political path.

With the refugee crisis in Europe comes also the rise of rightwing populist, mostly anti-immigrant parties in the EU. Re-nationalization is on the rise. The United Kingdom is even considering to leave the EU. Are you worried about the state of the union?

I am worried about the trend that we have seen, not only in Europe, but also in other parts of the world, to see refugees or migrants as a problem and not as a possible potential. We have a rather negative narrative about migrants and refugees, particulary if there are attempts to see it in connection with terrorism. Being in my position for so long, I know what conditions they are fleeing from. For them being associated with terrorism in some cases is, of course, tremendously damaging. I know the public opinion situation in Europe. I was foreign minister in Sweden. So I know what the mood is, also in the world. I think we have to come back to a neutral, even positive narrative about migrants and refugees. Economic growth will be very much dependent on migrants' contributions to our societies. Demographic growth, population growth would stop if we do not have migrants coming to our countries. The money, the remittances the migrant workers sent back home are twice as big as the whole offical development assistance in the world. On a personal note, let me say that we have to come back to the beauty of diversity. We have in our nation states different cultures, people with different backgrounds and that provides the health and vitality of every society. I think, there is a need for the UN conference we plan for in September to send out the message and correct that negative narrative. I know that people who feel fear or are scared look for easy short term solutions. But they don't work. They don't work. We can only find solution when we work together and accept diversity.

Jan Eliasson (75) has been deputy secretary-general of the United Nations since 2012. The Social Democrat served briefly as foreign minister of Sweden and held several high ranking posts in the United Nations. He was also special envoy for the Darfur region in Sudan.