The drama of those who have to leave everything behind and flee because of wars, human rights violations or climate change have marked the three-decade career of American Kelly T. Clements. In the State Department of her country first of her, and, since 2015, as number two of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Clements has worked on issues related to forced population displacement. A scourge that in 2022 exceeded what for the UN agency is “a dramatic milestone”: the figure of 103 million people. Clements spoke with EL PAÍS this Wednesday in Madrid, after meeting with the Secretary of State for Foreign and Global Affairs, Ángeles Moreno Bau. He highlights the “commitment” of the Government, but also the “extreme generosity of the Spaniards with the uprooted.” In 2022, Spanish private donors were the eighth global contributor to this agency, with almost 134 million dollars (126 million euros), well ahead of the State, which contributed 31.6 million dollars (29 million euros).
Ask. What has been the result of your meetings with the Spanish government?
Answer. A commitment to continued and reinforced support from Spain, which we desperately need. We have a budget that is close to 11,000 million dollars (10,370 million euros) and, unfortunately, last year, the international community only contributed 55% of that amount. Each year we receive more financial, political and moral support than the last, but the needs are growing faster than we can meet them. In the last decade, the number of forcibly displaced persons has doubled to 103 million, around 1% of the world’s population. Due to so many needs, to the lack of political solutions, to the increasing complexity of displacement – climatic factors, poverty and inequality, persecution, wars and conflicts – many more people are not safe in their homes.
P. UNHCR defends a strong gender approach in its attention to these displaced people, what are its advantages?
R. Without women at the table, no solutions can be found. Most of the people we serve are women and children. They are the ones who take care of the families, take care of the children, feed them and try to get their children an education, so they have a lot to say in how a generation is raised. In addition, gender inequalities are at the root of the worst effects of wars. When a population moves, gender-based violence increases during the journey or in places of asylum and this violence is destructive for individuals, families and communities. Women must be at the center of our attention at all times.
P. In the second year of the war in Ukraine, is the international commitment to its 13 million displaced people maintained?
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R.. Yes. Now there is a more organized answer. There is a reception system and, of course, Ukrainians benefit from the European Union’s temporary protection directive, a very clear support system through which they can send their children to school, find work and access the health system of the host countries. That’s what has set this answer apart from others.
P. That temporary protection directive was activated for the first time with the Ukrainians. Is there a double standard between the displaced Ukrainians and those of other origins?
R.. The directive had been in existence for 15 years and we welcomed its activation. Obviously, we would like to see that type of directive used for refugees from any country. That is what the Global Compact on Refugees is all about, whose fundamental principle is inclusion. You also need to make sure you support the host community and refugees when they move. The Temporary Protection Directive does both, and we could see it as a model elsewhere. And I believe what I’ve heard [en las reuniones con representantes del Gobierno] from Spain is that they would like to see something similar applied in other situations of forced displacement as well.
P. Has UNHCR discussed with Spain the deaths of 23 migrants, including potential asylum seekers, in Melilla?
R.. We have not discussed that topic at this time, but more and more, we are seeing people using risky routes to get around due to criminal activity, trafficking and other ways of taking advantage of desperate people who feel they have no other options and that the international community has let them down. We are extremely concerned about the loss of those lives. In some of the recent shipwrecks, there were probably asylum seekers. We believe that there should be more options in terms of search and rescue, but also an equitable distribution between countries in which neither Spain nor other front-line States are the ones that receive all the asylum seekers who arrive on their territory. It is one of the reasons why we support the principles that would be enshrined in the new EU pact on migration and asylum. If there is responsibility sharing, there could be an orderly system that allows people to express the reasons why they need asylum.
P. Is there progress in establishing safe routes for asylum seekers?
R.. These safe and legal ways are to be able to access the territory [de un país].
Q. But is there progress? As you mentioned, in the last shipwreck in Italy, there were potential asylum seekers.
R. My answer is to look at what is happening in events like that.
Q. The trend seems to be the opposite, with countries like the UK trying to send asylum seekers to Rwanda or barring irregular entrants from applying for protection.
R. These policies remove the right to asylum and contravene international law.
P. The United States is also trying to outsource border management to Mexico.
R. Is the same. We defend that, in all cases, asylum seekers have the right to request it. Human movements in America are very complex. There are people who move for economic reasons and others do so because of conflicts, gang violence, belonging to certain social groups, persecution, etc. Everyone has their reasons, but everyone needs to be able to exercise their right to request asylum.
P. 74% of the displaced have been hosted by low or lower-middle income countries; Are these countries more supportive than the more developed ones?
R. It is true that most refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries. Uganda is an example. This country has one of the most progressive refugee policies in the world. They don’t have camps, they allow freedom of movement and the refugees have a national school system and can work, but those host countries need support.
P. What are the most forgotten crises?
R.. UNHCR does not forget any crisis. We are very concerned because there are underfunded crises, such as the one in Jordan, which hosts Syrian refugees, but also Palestinians and Iraqis. Another is Bangladesh, generously hosting a million Rohingya refugees since 2017. In the Horn of Africa, there are underfunded programs in Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan. And then, of course, there is the huge crisis and displacement caused by weather and drought in Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia. Another underfunded operation in 2022 was Colombia, which has provided residency and a work permit to the Venezuelans it hosts. [2,9 millones].
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