Frankly: Senior EU aid official denies Europe is selective on refugees, says Syrians were treated the same as Ukrainians

JEDDAH: Denying that the European Union discriminates against refugees, Michael Koehler, Deputy Director General of European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), claimed that Syrians were welcomed in the same way as Ukrainians and that the crimes of Bashar al-Assad regime will not be forgotten.

In an extensive interview with Arab News, Koehler also reiterated Europe’s commitment to supporting Palestinian humanitarian needs, saying any cuts in EU aid relate only to financial transfers for development aid. , not humanitarian aid.

Koehler denied that Europe’s treatment of Ukrainians fleeing their country because of the war with Russia and those in the Middle East revealed racism, double standards and hypocrisy. “The only difference I see is that the refugees from Ukraine have, based on a decision by European interior ministers, immediately obtained work permits,” he told AFP. host of Arab News’ “Frankly Speaking” interview show, Katie Jensen. “But other than that, the treatment is no different from refugees from other parts of the world.”

“Frankly Speaking” features in-depth discussions with top policy makers and business leaders, diving deep into the biggest news headlines in the Middle East and around the world. While appearing on the show, Koehler addressed a number of questions, including what the future holds for displaced Ukrainians and whether the EU plans to withdraw funds from crisis areas in the Middle East to fill the gap. humanitarian aid.

Koehler said one should look back at the arrival of Syrians and Iraqis in 2015 and 2016, when slightly more comparable numbers of refugees were pouring into Europe. “The million Syrians who have flocked to (Germany) have been very well received,” he said. “It is not entirely fair to compare the reception that Ukrainians are now receiving two months after the start of the crisis, with the situation of other refugees who have been in Europe for four years, five years, six years or seven years, and where some problems have arisen.

“We are absolutely not there yet in the Ukrainian crisis, but it is a very general phenomenon. Structurally, this is a very well-known phenomenon,” he said, pointing to instances where the initially warm welcome given to refugees by the host population gave way to problems that “sometimes leads to populist reactions”.

Yet Koehler regretted remarks such as those of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov (“These are not the refugees we are used to, these people are Europeans, smart, educated people”), and the implication that countries have the right to choose refugees based on their race, religion or politics.

” Absolutely not. Absolutely not,” he said. “However, of course, it is normal that if you are a direct neighbor of a country that is in the situation that Ukraine is in, then of course there is maybe a little bit more emotion. There is a slightly greater willingness of individuals to help, but we have seen the same in other scenarios.

Alluding to the insensitive remarks of European politicians, Koehler said, “We should not consider the statements of this or that politician as the type of political line of European member states and the EU. Politicians may express their personal opinions, but that does not mean that the legal order that governs how refugees are welcomed, the support they receive, etc., would be changed.

Koehler disagreed that with Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis in the spotlight, the atrocities committed by the Assad regime in Syria, where 6.2 million people remain internally displaced , have been forgotten. “No, they weren’t forgotten,” he replied. “In fact, I shared via Twitter part of the ministerial meeting on Syria in the region that we are hosting here in Brussels for the sixth time. It is the annual meeting of the international community.

“The international community has put in place a record pledge: 6.4 billion euros for 2022-2023, half a billion more than the equivalent pledge last year. So what this tells us is that there is no fatigue within the international community when it comes to helping the Syrians. The donors are there, there is no fatigue and the international organizations are mobilized.

But what about all the complaints from aid agencies that they are short of money? Koehler says he doesn’t deny there is a “donor shortage” problem.

“If you look at the amount of money that is mobilized each year for humanitarian aid, you see an increase in money. It is totally overwhelmed by the needs, because every year we have more crises. The existing crises unfortunately do not go away and the number of people who suffer continues to increase.

Asked how the humanitarian funding gap could be closed, Koehler said the solution was a mix of things, starting with more donors, especially those from the EU. “Look at clubs in rich countries. There are 38 members of the OECD or the G20,” he said. “Not all of these countries have yet started providing humanitarian aid. Some do, but not very consistently. There may be a year where they can put a lot of money on the table, and other years they are a bit more (clenched fists) with their resources.

Among the many ways the Middle East is exposed to the vagaries of war in Ukraine, Russia has hinted that it will veto the renewal of the mandate that allows the UN to use the Bab Al crossing. -Hawa in northern Syria when it expires on July 9. means that EU aid may have to pass through Damascus and thus be under the control of the Assad regime. “If Bab Al-Hawa were closed, there would be a huge supply problem and we have already seen what that means in northeast Syria,” Koehler said.

“However, we are also very supportive of cross-border cooperation, so we have no problem bringing aid from Damascus to the northeast, for example, or the northwest. Unfortunately, this only happens on a small scale, which has to do with political but also logistical problems.

According to Koehler, there is a new system whereby aid is always channeled through specialist partners, never through governments, “so bringing aid, for example, to the part of Syria controlled by authorities in Damascus, does not mean giving money to the Assad government.

“It is implemented through specialized organizations, NGOs, UN agencies, etc. For that, we have oversight, we have audits, we have independent third-party audits,” he said. “We have our offices in the field. ECHO has an office in Damascus which can monitor what is going on, and as soon as there is a suspicion of misuse of aid, we stop. We stop, we inquire and we only resume aid once we are sufficiently, let’s say, reassured about the way aid is being implemented.

Koehler said ECHO used the same modus operandi in Afghanistan. “As I said earlier, we never work through governments. So we work with local NGOs. We work with the Red Crescent, we work for example with UNICEF and other organizations and we make sure that this money directly benefits the population concerned,” he said.

However, he acknowledged that with more restrictions announced by the Taliban, many of which targeted women, “we are frankly disappointed with the way things are developing in Afghanistan.”

Last April, the EU pledged to provide €525 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and, according to Koehler, following developments in Afghanistan since the takeover of the country by the Taliban last year, the international community, in particular the EU, has stepped up humanitarian aid funding.

“The Taliban have offered a number of assurances regarding, for example, girls’ education and women’s rights. However, we now see that many of these assurances have been found to be questionable or even officially revoked. and this of course creates major problems.

Moving on to another humanitarian hotspot, Koehler downplayed fears that funding for humanitarian aid will stop despite a UN warning this month that more than five and a half million Palestinian refugees may no longer have access. to basic services such as food, education and health care due to lower contributions from Member States, especially the EU.

“We support UNRWA and we are continuing our assistance,” he said, referring to the UN agency which supports relief and human development for Palestinian refugees.

Regarding the EU contribution, he said it was “not a reduction in funding. This involves negotiating the conditions for the 2021-2022 tranches.

He added: “What has stopped for a short time is not humanitarian aid but the direct financial transfers that EU development aid makes available to the Palestinian National Authority. And it’s not a final judgment, but it’s about accepting a number of conditions, under which this money would be made available.

But amid concerns over the possible closure of UNRWA, what is the EU’s position on the right of return? “The EU has a principled position in this regard and we remain committed to the two-state solution. We want a negotiated solution between the parties,” Koehler said. “We view the occupation of Palestine as something that must end, in accordance with relevant UN resolutions on the basis of bilateral negotiations which we are ready to encourage and support as much as possible.”

Koehler concluded by saying that aid agencies and donors must come together and “speak with one voice” for effective humanitarian relief efforts in crisis areas. “Wherever the international community, donors from the US to the UK, to the EU, to Sweden, to Germany, to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, wherever donors speak with one voice, that one voice has an effect,” he said. , citing the example of the failed attempt in 2020 by the Iran-backed Houthi militia to impose a 2% tax on humanitarian aid deliveries to Yemen.

“The international community said ‘no way’. Also, the World Food Program said “no way”. We said, “If that’s what you want to do, we’ll just cease our operations in the territory you control.”

Mary I. Bruner