Tue 08/03/2022 - 12:30

Today is international women’s day. In partnership with Corriere del Ticino, we decided to mark this day not only by talking about the challenges faced by forcibly displaced women, but also by highlighting the advances made in terms of gender equality for people forced to flee. Which better person to speak to about these issues than Gillian Triggs, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection of the UN Refugee Agency, who not only embodies female leadership, but also has an overview of what protection of women in the context of displacement means?

Gillian Triggs, it is a pleasure to have you. In light of the current situation in Ukraine, how are you holding up these days? 

Firstly, thank you very much for this interview, and for the opportunity to speak with you in these very troubled times. We have about 40 emergencies around the globe the UN Refugee Agency is responding to, 21 of them have emerged in the last year, and one, of course, has started a bit over a week ago. Colleagues around the world are working to support the now over 84 million displaced people- a number that is continuing to rise as we speak, so we are very stretched and trying to scale up activities to respond to the different situations. It is very important however to take the time to talk about these activities for the Swiss public to understand the issues at stake. 

With over one million refugees who have fled abroad and over one million internally displaced, Ukraine risks becoming the worst refugee crisis of the century for Europe. Many of these refugees are women and children. What are the main risks they face and how is UNHCR reacting? 

UNHCR is leading in the response in terms of providing protection and working with the respective governments. Obviously, those governments in the European Union are better placed to manage their own registration systems for asylum, but we are of course scaling up our staff to support the countries on the front line, like Poland, Romania or Moldova. The High Commissioner has been in Moldova and Poland these last days where he has been speaking to all senior European leaders- Ministers of foreign affairs, presidents and prime ministers. We are today playing the leading role to provide protection. 

Most at risk in these situations are of course women and children. They are on the move and are very vulnerable. We’ve been absolutely heartened by the response of European countries to receive them with open arms. Sadly, there are and will be people watching this situation unfold who will try to exploit and abuse it. We’ve got to be engaged to ensure that children are fed, warm, and have protection, and that women on their own also get the protection needed. We’ve been very heartened by the extraordinary generosity across Europe, and of course of the consideration of the temporary protection directive which is very generous as an emergency response.

© Switzerland for UNHCR
© Switzerland for UNHCR
While the world is watching Ukraine, we must not forget that 2021 was particularly marked by humanitarian crises: in Myanmar, in Afghanistan or in Tigray. How did the situation develop in these countries? There is the risk that as these situations are further away, they will get less attention. How is UNHCR trying to keep attention on those crises high? 

Well, this is human nature up to a point. Of course, you will focus more attentively on something closer to home, that affects you more directly than a similar situation elsewhere in the world- we understand that. But as you say, last year it was over a million Afghans which were forced to flee, and before that over a million people in Myanmar, or the Sahel, which has millions of displaced people... We have been working very hard to be present on all different levels, and not to leave behind people who need support in Central America, in the Middle East, in Asia or in Africa. 

As a UN Agency, we must make sure that the attention on those emergencies is not lost, where in fact the numbers and needs are also immense. Think of the Democratic Republic of Congo or Mozambique, where the numbers are huge. But I believe it is also important to acknowledge that it is normal that in these times the attention is more focused on Ukraine. 

As the UN Refugee Agency, we’ve been very impressed. Europe is one of our biggest donors, they are one of our most reliable resettlement partners and will continue to be, and we hope and expect that they will continue their work globally, but now that the current challenge is the outflow of refugees from Ukraine, it is understandable their focus is shifted to the closest and most pressing needs. 

For the moment, the focus is on people being forced to flee Ukraine. But with the situation in Russia, isn’t there a risk to see a rising number of people forced to flee that country too? 

We are a humanitarian organization; we are non-political, and our objective is to protect everybody affected by forced displacement. There are and will be many, tens of thousands of people, who will want to return to Russia, or who will need protection. Our job is to protect everybody, and we will continue being non-political about this. We do not choose among different countries; we must work with all of them to ensure people in need of protection or asylum are supported. That is our job, and we will continue doing it. 

© Switzerland for UNHCR
© Switzerland for UNHCR
During your time as Assistant High-Commissioner for Protection, you have witnessed a lot of crises. How have women’s rights evolved during this same period, namely also with the pandemic? 

It’s fair to say that before COVID, significant advances have been made for women and children’s rights. It was accepted and clear almost everywhere, for example, that young girls must go to school. Women were getting much better equality, economic empowerment, and given more space to speak up and decide politically and at the level of local communities. Real progress was made slowly -it’s always slow- but real progress was made. 

The pandemic, I’m sad to say, has really been regressive for women and children. They are globally among the people most affected by the pandemic, but this is even worse for forcibly displaced people. In a context in which girls across the world have not been able to go to school, it is really worrying how in some areas where children are now going back to school, the boys have been able to go back, and not girls. We’ve encountered shocking evidence of girls being sold, because families lost their jobs in the pandemic and weren’t able to sustain themselves. People who are displaced are always at the informal end of the economy and are among the first ones to lose their jobs and housing. The impact of this falls mainly on women and children- who are increasingly kept at home to take care of the household or forced into marriage. 

On a positive side, when you have a pandemic, and that people need medical care, who is stepping up to do it? The women are. They are the nurses, the paramedics- they are helping in every conceivable aspect. When women are so obviously caring and doing the job, that tends to be reflected politically in the years afterwards. My hope is that there will be a recognition of the role that women play. Also, in some parts of the world we have aging populations which have been especially exposed to COVID. Women who are displaced often are the ones who get employed in the service industry to provide those increasingly needed care services. 

So, on the one hand we have a regression, namely in the context of education, but we also see the positive role of displaced women in fact stepping up in the health and care industry, which shows what women are prepared to do and the risks they are prepared to take in the context of a pandemic, and I hope that this will be recognized in the future. 

You have recently been awarded the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Medal of Honor. What message does highlighting the role of empowering female leaders like yourself send to women and girls throughout the world? 

I’m of course very honored to receive this inaugural recognition in the name of Ruth Bader Ginsburg – partly because she is an international lawyer, which is my own background, and I’ve read her decisions on the supreme court over many years, so I’ve always been a great fan and I did have the opportunity to meet her many years ago. She has been inspiring for everybody globally, so of course it is a great honor.  

I believe there is something to say to this maxim that “you can’t be what you can’t see”- that isn’t entirely true of course, as humanity wouldn’t have been able to make any advances otherwise, but nonetheless for women to see other women in senior positions -like Ruth Bader Ginsburg- and also in the context of the United Nations system, it does inspire other women, and I think the UN is a leader in getting more and more women in senior positions, and I have the pleasure and honour to serve as Assistant High Commissioner today. 

I have just come back from Tanzania, a relatively stable democracy which has historically been very kind in accepting refugees. There, they have a president who is a woman, the minister for foreign affairs who is a woman, and that makes a difference. Other women in Tanzania were saying to us that having these women in senior positions really made a difference in their overall position in society, as they begin rising in bureaucracy, administration, and other political positions. I do think that having women leaders, and to have their contribution recognized on international women’s day is very important. 

© Switzerland for UNHCR
© Switzerland for UNHCR
There have been reports of discrimination at Ukrainian borders, where non-Europeans have had trouble getting in. How does UNHCR respond to that? 

We really commend European countries for how they opened their borders in very challenging times, and over a million people have been able to enter with relatively little bureaucracy and hurdles, and people have opened their homes to them. It has truly been remarkable.  
That having been said, we are aware of reports that at some of the Ukrainian borders, people from Africa and Asia have been challenged to enter the country. That is very troubling. Now there may be technical reasons why it was challenged, but I fear that some will be turned back for purely racial reasons- I did hear some very convincing reports by people who have been subjected to it, and the High Commissioner personally is raising this issue now.  

I think that there is no doubt that the countries themselves totally reprehend this reaction, and are trying to get the message down to a particular border official who is taking a particular stance that might be seen to be racist. These things do happen, and we are working with the governments to ensure that there is no discrimination at the border, and that everybody gets to receive this otherwise extremely generously offered protection.  

In what way can the Swiss population contribute to the solutions of forced displacement, and to the especially difficult situation faced by women and girls forced to flee? 

Switzerland is one of the greatest supporters of the work of the UN Refugee Agency – here we are in Geneva, but all over the world Switzerland is always very quick to contribute to the resettlement of some of the most vulnerable people, and that is remarkable to see really- as much today as historically. 

For international women’s day, it is good to have a focus on the fact that overwhelmingly, people suffering from forced displacement are and will be women and children, and we are seeing this most vividly now in the context of Ukraine. Similarly in Afghanistan which counts 3.5 million internally displaced people, where UNHCR is staying and delivering, the situation is not as visible as people leaving Afghanistan, but the situation for people forced to flee within the country is as difficult, and about 80% of displaced people are women and children.  

What can Switzerland do? I think this interview is part of the response: advocacy, based on accurate facts, so that the Swiss people understand what the facts are is important. I think there is no doubt of course that the Swiss people support their governments policies, but advocacy and getting the facts and the stories right is a critical first role. That in turn, will ensure that the Swiss people remain behind government policy and that they will increase their donations, because frankly, money does make a huge difference.  

Most of our aid, in Afghanistan, and almost certainly in Ukraine, is actually cash based assistance. Of course, we provide shelter, water, hygiene kits, counseling and protection for women and children, for people who are disabled and the elder- but all of that depends on money, I’m afraid. I believe that the accurate facts, with the accurate stories will ensure that the Swiss people understands the realities, and that with trusted media there is credibility that the facts are right. We cannot do our work without funding- we need people, we need volunteers, we need government support, but we need money. Without it, education, access to health and inclusion is not possible.