May 30, 2017

An Interview with Melissa Fleming

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by Ellen Lewis,

Democrats Abroad Executive Committee Member


The number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people around the world has topped 65 million.  Just this week, more than 30 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as hundreds fell from a migrant boat off the coast of Libya. Some 60,000 refugees are currently stranded in Greece. In South Sudan, political conflict, drought, and famine have created a dire situation, with tens of thousands fleeing to neighboring countries.

I sat down with Melissa Fleming, Head of Communications and Chief Spokesperson for the UNHCR, who will be speaking on June 8th to DAA members and friends on the plight of refugees. Melissa has written a book, A Hope More Powerful than the Sea, recounting one Syrian woman’s perilous and dramatic journey to reach safety and a new home in Europe.

The statistics are mind-boggling and the individual stories heart-wrenching. Melissa’s work is informed by both and during our conversation it became clear that in her position as spokesperson for the UNHCR, she is personally driven by a compassion for and dedication to helping refugees throughout the world.


EL: You’ve worked with the UNHCR since 2008. How would you compare the refugee crisis today with what was happening when you started at the organization?

MF:  It’s much much bigger, and I think that it has been going up about 10 million a year; I have to look at the exact figure from 10 years ago, but it has just consistently gone up. The Syria conflict is a [major factor], but every year we keep announcing the new figures and it’s always the [largest] number since WWII. We also still have large numbers of Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, refugees from South Sudan, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo as well. There are now 65 million people who are forcibly displaced; these are record numbers; the organization has continued to grow to meet the demands, the budget has increased fourfold…

EL: Given the disproportionate number of Syrian refugees taken in by neighboring countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon, what can the UNHCR do to get the wealthier nations of Europe to show more compassion and take in their ‘fair share’?

MF: 86% of refugees are [taken in by] developing countries…for example, Lebanon, with a population of 4 million, has 1 million refugees; we’re saying, “Please, this tiny [country of] Lebanon can’t do this alone. Provide funding but, in addition, take some of these refugees to your countries.”

EL: Is this also the case in parts of Africa, as with Jordan and Lebanon, in which the neighboring countries end up taking in the majority of refugees?

MF: Yes, and of course they’re struggling themselves with their own issues and often they allow the refugees to come in [to the country], but they relegate them to a camp where they have to live in tents and they can’t work, so we really try to advocate for them.

EL: So you go into the camps?

MF: Oh, we run them - that’s where we’re really operational, but we also operate in towns and cities and villages. Most refugees are in towns and cities and villages and we operate everywhere. For example, in Lebanon there are no refugee camps. They refuse to allow the establishment of refugee camps for Syrians. In Lebanon, you have what are called ‘camps’ in sections of Beirut. What they don’t want are official camps, like in Jordan and Turkey – [in Lebanon] they’re basically rented pieces of land where they can pitch a tent…we supply the tents but the government wants the whole thing to be temporary. That’s why I’m always saying it’s so political. When you have so many people coming into your country, it is a hot potato political issue. The UNHCR is in the middle trying to advocate for them, not just to have a place to be sheltered but also so that their kids can go to the local school, that they have the ability to access health care and work; we don’t always succeed. Local governments, elected leaders, are responsible for their own population and they see the refugees as guests so they want to make sure that they don’t present liabilities…

EL: On behalf of Democrats Abroad Austria, I wanted to ask you to talk a bit about the present U.S. government’s stance on refugees and the implications of the U.S. President’s policy, which does not champion the cause of refugees and which sought to order a ban on specific groups.

MF: The U.S. is one of the leaders in taking refugees, over decades, with huge bipartisan support. When the Trump Administration came into office, one of its measures related to refugees was to cut that program in half – to 50,000. The second measure was to put a hold on refugees coming from certain countries, which includes Somalis, for example, many of whom were already screened and ready to come…so many of them are kind of waiting in limbo – Syrians [as well]. We’re hoping that the ban will be...

EL: Is this related to the ban?

MF: Well, they’re reviewing the resettlement screening procedures to see whether they’re vigorous enough. We’ve said there’s probably no more vetted human being coming into the United States than a refugee. It’s a two year process of vetting. It’s done partly by UNHCR but mostly by the United States and the different arms of the government, so fine if they want to review that – it’s their security – and we’re hoping that maybe they’ll [only] introduce a couple more steps but this is…

EL: Who does the reviewing actually?

MF: You name the arm of the U.S. government and they’re involved, from the State Dept. to the FBI to the Homeland Security (laughs) to all of the different…

EL: And while they’re reviewing it, it’s on hold?

MF: It is. UNHCR identifies the refugees for resettlement and they send our criteria; this means that these are vulnerable people who are not doing well in the refugee environment where they are living because they are, for example, victims of torture, women who’ve been raped, single mothers with children living in a very difficult refugee environment, kids with a terrible medical condition…

EL: Does the UNHCR develop the criteria? They write up the criteria?

MF: We’ve had these criteria for decades; it has been ‘our’ criteria. And the countries accepted it. I remember there’s this one child in Lebanon who had a condition where he couldn’t grow and in Lebanon he couldn’t be treated. In Syria, he was actually being treated but there was one medication he needed and he was resettled to Finland where he’s getting all the health care he needs and he’s growing again. So just sometimes that kind of simple help… it’s transformative for the refugees. For the United States it has also been… refugees form the fabric of the United States. For example, the Vietnamese are the largest refugee population, the Vietnamese boat people - those were massive resettlements and they’ve become a part of U.S. society.

EL: Does an organization like yours, when facing an agenda like President Trump’s, feel somewhat powerless or is there some sort of mechanism that can either compensate or fight this kind of…?

MF: Well, we look to other countries, we look to the private sector to compensate…we don’t know if the funding will be cut, we hope not, so we’re working with – we’re reaching out to the Trump Administration, we’re trying to demonstrate the importance of what we’re doing and why it’s in the U.S. interest to fund it.

EL: Do you work a lot with NGOs?

MF: Oh yes, we have a lot to do with NGOs, operationally - we have so many [operations], we would not survive without NGOs as what we call our implementing partners…

EL: So does the UNHCR have political influence, does it have the ability to…?

MF: Yes, at the national level and at the international level; we have offices in over 140 countries and we have huge operations. In Syria we have over 400 staff but in places like Jordan we have many more than that. We have [major] operations - we’re basically caring for hundreds of thousands of people. In countries like Austria we don’t have an operational role, we have more of an advocacy role, working with the government – when they introduce new laws, we see the drafts, basically to keep governments who signed up for the International Refugee Convention, to keep them in line.

EL: Well, actually, that links to another question about the EU decision in March 2016. You’ve made the statement that the EU needs the “political will” to step up to the demands of the refugee crisis. How do you and your agency view the EU’s controversial March 2016 decision to block refugees from moving into Europe?

MF: Well, we believe that refugees have the right to seek asylum, this is international law; however, the influx into Greece was not managed well by the EU. That resulted in large numbers of refugees going to countries like Austria and Germany and Sweden because they heard here they could get protection, they could get the chance to start over. What should have happened would have been a managed arrival of the refugees: registration centers, screening, distribution...We believe fundamentally that this is an international responsibility, refugees are an international responsibility. If you as powerful governments are unable to stop the wars, then you should be taking responsibility for the victims, and that does not only mean paying them to stay away but also being willing to take in your share. Refugees won’t also feel compelled to take these illegal routes with smugglers who are not only notorious for risking people’s lives and not caring at all but just profit-oriented…you’re basically looking at a huge crime network that is actually evil. We would prefer that governments invest in the refugees where they are and the government's support them and take their share via resettlement or student visas. For example, there are so many university students who [sadly] had to break off their university [studies], who broke off their high school studies – they’re sitting in a refugee camp having to do labor and they see no future. They can’t go back home because the war is still going on. These scholarship programs – and there are some – are transforming young people’s lives and are also investing in the future of their country.

EL: So actually, you’re saying the ideal scenario is resettlement in the sense that you take people from where they start so that they don’t have to make these dangerous journeys and risk their lives…

MF: Yes,there are two reasons that were cited by refugees for coming to Europe. Some of them would not have been resettlement cases. People who wanted to work or who said I want to put my kids in school. Only half the Syrian refugee children are in school and when you get to the secondary level, it’s only one in four and when you get to the university level it’s only one percent, so when they don’t see any chance of returning to Syria because the war is not being solved and they’re sitting in a place that does not provide school for their children, all of a sudden, they see Europe which…maybe there’s a dangerous journey, but once I get there…

EL: But they wouldn’t be considered resettlement potential?

MF: Not if they’re not considered [or classified as] ‘vulnerable’.

EL: Vulnerable in the sense…?

MF: Of course they’re vulnerable but not all 5 million people – there are 5 million refugees, many of whom are in a situation which is poor [but do not meet] our vulnerable criteria.

EL: But they’ve also lost their homeland…

MF: Yes, well in that sense, everyone is vulnerable but, realistically-speaking, we believe that 10% of all refugees should be resettled because they are vulnerable in the extreme sense.

EL: so 90%...

MF: But actually not even 10% get resettled; only about 1% get resettled because that’s the number of places that are available.

EL: Wow, only 1%? And these are the vulnerable?

MF: What you call vulnerable. And you’re right to say aren’t all refugees vulnerable but what we’re talking about are the extreme vulnerable, people who will not survive well in those neighboring countries…

EL: Right, but in the long term, what that says is that while the war carries on and they have no home to go back to, that 90% or, more practically-speaking, 99%, are supposed to just be supported by neighboring countries ad hoc…?

MF: Yep. It’s just that geography dictates…

EL: Realistically, it will naturally follow that a large portion of these ‘non-vulnerable’ people will set out in dangerous circumstances…

MF: Of course, unless you invest more – this is what we’ve always been saying: the UNHCR only gets half of the budget that we say is needed. So what gets cut? Education for the kids, decent living conditions, etc. So, if you were to invest more in these neighboring countries plus increase the level of tolerance –  if the neighboring countries of say, Lebanon and Jordan, were to see that the international community says thank you Lebanon, thank you Jordan -  we’re going to be doing infrastructure projects in your towns and cities, we’re going to start a new economic zone so that we can help your people plus the refugees in coming up with ways to stimulate the economy, start new businesses and we’re going to build schools that will benefit your children and the refugee children, then you would not have as many people saying I can’t deal with this, this is not a life.

EL: What if a neighboring country took the same stance that many European countries take, which is that these are not our people so we won’t take them; if the neighboring countries didn’t have them, then where would they go?

MF: And that’s one of UNHCR’s biggest roles is to advocate for borders to be open. Now those countries because of years of lack of help, years of lack of investment, they’ve pretty much closed their borders so Syrians who need to get out now have a really hard time. There’s almost nowhere to go so that’s why you have so many people displaced inside Syria.

EL: It’s tragic. But wasn’t that forseeable on the part of the EU? There is a lack of political will. Given the Turkey Agreement and the decision about keeping the refugees in Greece or sending them back to Turkey –  wasn’t it ultimately that the EU didn’t step in ahead of time to help?

MF: Yes, if there had been systems in place for regular processing of people, nobody would have really noticed that this was a crisis. Europe is huge.

EL: So it really is that Europe did not…

MF: know how to handle it.

EL: take responsibility? Also, it wasn’t spread around. Mostly Germany and Austria – other European countries weren’t taking their share…

MF: Well, but people weren’t coming to those countries. The mechanism was not in place. What they did in retrospect was not working very well because public opinion has turned and large numbers of people, about 50,000 refugees are stuck in Greece and they’re supposed to be relocated now under a quota system to other European countries.

EL: Is this agreed to by the EU?

MF: Yes, but it came into place too late. There’s a registration system now, there’s an asylum system, there’s a relocation system but there are many countries now who are not participating – the Eastern European countries aren’t taking any.

EL: I wanted to ask you about the situation in the Mediterranean Sea and the Malta Summit - what was the UNHCR’s reaction to the decisions of the EU about refugees crossing from Libya?

MF: We basically said that the conditions in Libya are not [acceptable] for them to handle it.

EL: The loss of lives in the Mediterranean sea of African refugees and migrants is tragic and yet the EU wants to outsource border control to the Libyan coastguard who, again this week, has been shooting at the refugee boats. How does the UNHCR handle this situation?

MF: Our High Commissioner just went to Libya and met with the government, visited detention centers, increased our staff there and has said to the EU that it’s not the time to establish anything; we have a hard time because of the lack of security there so it’s really hard to provide [safe] conditions for people. I mean we agree with the UN when they say let’s address the root causes more as to why people are fleeing, increase information because they’re being sold a complete pack of lies. They have no clue what the journey is like, but they also think that when they reach Europe, it is this dreamland for people leaving for economic reasons. So information needs to be put out there…many say if they had known this or that…

EL: And the rescue operations, is the UNHCR involved in any of that?

MF: No, we don’t do rescue but we’re involved in Italy in all of the ports of arrival, but it’s the Italian Navy and the NGOs.

EL: Do you officially keep track of the…casualties?

MF: Yes, we do it together with IOM.

EL: Through your work, do you often have personal contact with the refugees themselves?

MF: I make a point of speaking to refugees because my job is to communicate on their behalf and people are numbed by statistics, so I find it extremely important to my advocacy communications work to meet with refugees wherever I am, to listen to their stories, and to use their stories to convey their messages to a wider public. That’s why I wrote this book.

EL: Actually, in your book A Hope More Powerful than the Sea, you tell the story of a young Syrian woman’s journey as a refugee from Syria. What difference does it make to tell personal stories?

MF: It really makes an enormous difference…the only way you can create a bridge of empathy to others is through stories. Individual stories, in particular, of one person – it’s proven in Sociology and Behavioral Sciences – really affect people the most; they allow people to really delve into the story and to start understanding the situation but to also feel sympathy.

EL: Actually, is it difficult sometimes to think of the number of people who are out there whose stories somehow don’t reach your organization? How do you get to them?

MF: I do think there is helplessness. Our organization pretty much knows about all [refugees] because we do the registration of most refugees in the world.

EL: Does the UNHCR intervene if refugees [are threatened]? For example, in Greece there were stories that on some of the islands of – when they were being held there because of the decision not to send them on, they were being mistreated by locals…

MF: Oh, absolutely.

EL: So, the UNHCR is present in those situations?

MF: Yeah, I mean, we were reluctant to get involved in Greece because we thought it was an EU responsibility and this is a rich continent, but when it was clear that it wasn’t happening, we now have a team of 150 staff in Greece so we’re quite operational there. I mean the frustration is when we don’t have the means to help the people who need it. We’re constantly restrained by budget and not enough countries willing to resettle.

EL: Does the UNHCR or do you think they can affect that…is there some way to get more active in changing the political will and the decisions of countries around the world?

MF: Yes, well, it depends…we really analyze how governments react and if some would be completely allergic to a public campaign… most countries feel very proud and a lot of countries welcome refugees but then they don’t have the means to take care of them and things turn really difficult, so it’s very delicate. You have to be careful about how you approach it.

EL: It’s interesting though because none of that seems to enter the realm of human rights violations by countries, of abandoning their responsibility.

MF: Well, if it’s at a border, then it is against international refugee regulations – if you push people back into a war zone, it is against the International Refugee Convention.

EL: How important is the role of communications in making a difference to the refugee crisis?

MF: I think it’s hugely important because, first of all, it’s a population of 65 million, most of them don’t have their own voice and they are without their country, without their language, they’ve often lost the most important things in their lives, so they really need people to speak for them…and with [xenophobia on the rise], communications plays a huge role in building empathy and trying to change the narrative.

EL: On a positive note, just this month the world’s first solar farm in a refugee camp has switched on, providing renewable energy to 20,000 refugees living in northern Jordan. Can you tell us more about the project and others like it? How did this partnership between the Ikea Foundation and the Agency come about?

MF: We’ve been trying to use ecological ways and sustainable ways of housing refugees and electricity costs at a refugee camp in the desert are enormous – we knew this from other camps. We live kind of hand-to-mouth with our budgets so it’s often – we get the money we spend and an investment like this needs a company or a foundation like the Ikea Foundation to help us finance the infrastructure.

EL: You’ve been there?

MF: Yes, I’ve been there and it’s hot during the day, it gets pitch dark at night and when it’s hot, you want to turn on a fan, you want to drink a cold drink…and now they’re able to do that and at night the kids can study by light and now people are out and they have little restaurants, so it really makes an enormous difference. The costs – the upfront costs – were a lot, but the cost of running the camp now and the electricity grid in the camp is so much less than in the other camp in Jordan. [Ideally], we don’t like refugee camps. We prefer refugees to be integrated into the cities, to go to local schools…it’s undignified [to remain in a camp]. Refugee camps should be used for emergencies and be temporary. You’re separate from the population, you’re living in an isolated situation, there’s no economy. We reluctantly build refugee camps, but we rely very much on the government, what the government is willing to do.

EL: Just personally, how hard is it for you emotionally and personally – obviously you have the happy ending stories but there’s just plenty of the news that you have to keep putting out there that is so tragic. Do you take it in much?

MF: I think we all have mechanisms but it does affect me a lot. In particular with Doaa’s story because the more I unraveled it, the more tragic it became and I kind of took in her…it’s almost like a secondary trauma that you go through. There’s always a sense that you wake up in the morning or you go to bed at night and you’ve never done enough because the problem is so massive.