UNHCR responds to Solomon over Mitarachi’s definition of “real” refugees

Greek minister of Migration Notis Mitarachi invokes international law to distinguish "real" from "non-real" refugees. The UNHCR's response to Solomon refutes his allegations.
March 22, 2022
UNHCR responds to Solomon over Mitarachi’s definition of “real” refugees
Greek minister of Migration Notis Mitarachi invokes international law to distinguish "real" from "non-real" refugees. The UNHCR's response to Solomon refutes his allegations.
March 22, 2022
Visual: Fanis Kollias
Translation: Gigi Papoulias

On February 26, 2022, the Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, stated during a TV morning show that the people who were forced to flee Ukraine due to the Russian invasion “are war refugees, they are the real refugees.”

Responding to criticism of “à la carte humanity” made by the opposition leader a few days later, Mitarachi said that “Ukraine borders the EU, the country has been invaded illegally and these people come straight from the country at risk into EU soil.”

He compared their case with asylum seekers “coming from distant lands and continents” whose asylum applications are judged to be “inadmissible” under European law. Mitarachi concluded by stating that this is defined by “international law and not the ideologies of the Left.”

Are such provisions really included in international law? Solomon appealed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for comment on the distinction between “real” and “non-real” refugees, as well as whether the experience of the organization confirms the minister’s statements.

The UNHCR replied that the 1951 Refugee Convention which includes the universal definition of a refugee, “nowhere provides that a refugee should seek protection in the country closest to his or her home country or in the first country he or she escapes from.”

“For example, a Ukrainian refugee still needs international protection, even when moving to countries such as Italy or Greece, which do not border Ukraine. Similarly, an Afghan refugee is entitled to international protection, not only when she is in Iran or Pakistan, but also when she is in Greece,” they told us.

Solomon has addressed these points in our extensive coverage regarding the invalid statements recently made by government officials over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The following is the full response we received from the UNHCR:

In public debate, the impression is often that only those fleeing war zones or other catastrophic events are refugees. However, in the light of international law, the answer to the question “who is a refugee?” is a little more complicated.

The primary and universal definition of a refugee is contained in the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which stipulates that a refugee is anyone who is outside his / her country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return to it due to a justified fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or membership in a particular social group.

Although the basic definition of the Convention refers to individual persecution, the concept of refugee, or more generally of the recipient of international protection, also includes persons fleeing armed conflict and violence, which are currently the main causes of large-scale displacement of refugees. The 1951 Geneva Convention, together with the 1967 Protocol, which removed the geographical and temporal restrictions of the Convention, are therefore directly applicable to civilians displaced by armed conflict or violence.

It is important to emphasize that nowhere in the Convention is it provided that a refugee should seek protection in the country closest to his or her home country or in the first country where he or she escapes. For example, a Ukrainian refugee still needs international protection, even when moving to countries such as Italy or Greece, which do not border Ukraine. Similarly, an Afghan refugee is entitled to international protection, not only when she is in Iran or Pakistan, but also when she is in Greece.

International law stipulates that all countries have an obligation to grant access to their territory, even temporarily, to asylum seekers and protection at their borders, in order to consider requests for international protection. Otherwise, the fundamental right to asylum and the basic principle of non-refoulement would be completely meaningless. This is an obligation that applies to both the land and sea borders of the states.

It is also worth remembering that of the 34.4 million refugees and asylum seekers in the world today, 86% are hosted in the least affluent countries. If policies were implemented that would require refugees to seek asylum in the first country they seek refuge in, this would put even more pressure on those countries, undermining efforts to find solutions. This would also encourage secondary refugee movements. There is a huge need for international solidarity – and solidarity must not just be limited to providing funding and financial assistance, but must also include effective responsibility-sharing measures.

In the face of the humanitarian drama unfolding in Ukraine, European countries and their peoples have shown great solidarity and hospitality to refugees fleeing the hell of war. We hope that this warm welcome will be an occasion for reflection and reflection in order to move away from policies and rhetoric that deal with the refugee issue in a toxic way, as we have seen happen in many countries and on various occasions. And we hope that this humanity and solidarity will be extended to other refugees and displaced persons, wherever they are in the world, and regardless of their color, origin or religion.

Let us not forget that this month marks two sad anniversaries: 11 years since the crisis in Syria and seven years since Yemen. Many refugees from these countries continue to suffer today as people are uprooted by the ongoing wars – and they deserve the same protection and solidarity as Ukrainian refugees.

As the custodian of the Geneva Convention, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees will continue to defend the right of every person in need of international protection to have access to asylum. The rights of refugees must be respected, without arbitrariness and without discrimination.

For any further clarification, I am at your disposal.

Stella Nanou

UNHCR Greece

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