The International Organization for Migration is among the leading relief agencies that are responding. In a sit-down interview with The Post, its Deputy Director General, Laura Thompson, discussed the hardships of supporting refugees and migrants while underfunded, the European plan to disperse refugees throughout the continent and the U.S. resettlement response. (This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)
Washington Post: The European Union is planning to disperse 160,000 refugees throughout Europe. Is it enough?
Laura Thompson: It’s extremely positive to see a shift in the logic and approach with regard to refugees. And that shift has been also in the public opinion. At the beginning, the public opinion was very much against it, and now it’s the opposite. There are a lot of reactions from people and communities helping Syrians and others arriving. Europe has not received, historically and traditionally, a lot of refugees to resettle -- unlike for example the United States, which has a large resettlement program.
It’s something to think about it: to allow a larger amount of people to get a resettlement option in Europe in the future. The numbers should increase as well. It’s a beginning, taking into account the political and economic situation in Europe. Certainly we hope it’s going to be the beginning of a larger reception program for asylum-seekers and refugees, and also eventually the beginning of a larger program of resettlement.
WP: In the long-term, what is a sustainable, meaningful and realistic solution to the situation with Syrian refugees?
LT: The solution is the stabilization of Syria and people getting back. We don’t have any type of solution inside for the moment. In the meantime, everybody has to realize, Syrians have been out of Syria for five years now. The reality is, when people went to the three countries neighboring Syria, they spent years and years there. It is only really now they are looking for longer term solutions.
Part of the problem is the humanitarian assistance is also becoming strained. International organizations like mine are receiving much less support now than three or four years ago. And as a result, the assistance that is provided in these countries is much less. We need to either continue providing assistance in these countries so that the people in Turkey and Lebanon and Jordan can remain there in conditions that are decent, and provide them with a good perspective to stay there, or open other locations so people can go.
At the end of the day if they don’t find jobs and they don’t find a possibility of working, which is very often the situation when we talk about refugees and asylum-seekers, you create a whole dependent community waiting for humanitarian support. If you want to have something that is really sustainable, you have open the possibility as well for the Syrians and any refugees to become economically independent. And open the possibility for them to work.
WP: The United States has contributed $4.1 billion in humanitarian assistance to keep the refugees near Syria. Why is that not working, and how many need to leave?
LT: It depends a little bit on what you’re expecting in life. If your expectation is to be in a camp, or you don’t have any possibility of doing anything, and conditions are really difficult, then probably all of us will try to leave and look for a solution that is better, where you can work and find living conditions that are normal. Where you can live in a proper house, and provide to your family their basic needs that everybody needs.
Our own appeal for assistance -- the regional appeal for assistance is in regard to Syria, but covers four countries -- has been funded only a fourth this year. Money that the organizations have for providing food to refugees is also going down dramatically. The reality is the needs are there and people look for longer term solutions. They think Europe is the solution to everything, but it’s a better solution to what they are living in now. And it’s the closest one.
LT: Well, I think everybody has to. The United States has been traditionally extremely generous with refugees. I don’t have any means to judge if the United States can do more. But everybody has to do as much as they can for the moment because there are millions of people in need. Unless Syria gets stabilized, it is only going to increase. And it's not only Syria. You have the situation in Iraq, you have Eritrea, you have Somalia, you have others with very long-term situations like Afghanistan.
When we talk about numbers, we have to realize 1.9 million Syrians are in Turkey. So 10,000 is nothing compared to 1.9. And 1.1-1.2 million are in Lebanon; Jordan has somewhere around 900,000. And these are only official figures. You can imagine the reality. So compared to that -- the 10,000 in the United States, or the 140,000 in Europe -- it’s really small numbers.
Obviously, we have to be clear that this is not only a refugee issue. There are large amounts of migrants, economic migrants, in those flows. It’s part of the complexity of the situation -- how to differentiate, and what measures address which categories. Very often we get lost in the discussion about categories and legal conditions and rights, rather than the people themselves.
Europe needs migrants -- economic migrants. Demographically, the population of Europe is highly educated and they are not willing to do some jobs that need to be done. They need migrants that are willing to do those low-skilled jobs, and that will bring new ideas and new ways of working. Migrants are generally extremely entrepreneurial. They already made the decision to move from one country to another. That shows a predisposition for adventure and initiative.