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From supporting efforts to combat conflict to helping refugee host countries provide services to taking in an influx of migrants and asylum seekers, Germany is at the forefront of the global response to human mobility, and refugee protection. This year has seen the European country attempt to lead its continent and union by example, receiving more than 450,000 refugees this year. Thus far, not many European nations have followed the country’s lead but their open door policy stands, and their support to refugee outposts such as those in Gambella, Ethiopia continues. Capital’s Eskedar Kifle spoke with Joachim Schmidt, Ambassador of Germany to Ethiopia, about this visit to refugee camps in the Gambella Region where over 200,000 South Sudanese refugees reside. He also discussed the situation of migrants in Europe and Germany’s stand regarding the situation.
Capital: You recently visited refugee camps in the Gambella Region, what was the purpose?
Joachim Schmidt: The Ethiopian people and the Ethiopian government have been extending an admirable sense of hospitality to people in need. With over 730,000 refugees, Ethiopia is hosting the largest refugee population in an African country. Germany highly respects these efforts and is engaged in supporting its Ethiopian partners. Gambella region alone is currently hosting a total refugee population of over 270,000. I decided to join the field trip organized by UNICEF to get a better picture of the situation on the ground, to witness the collaboration between the Ethiopian government and international organizations, such as the UN agencies involved, and to assess the activities supported by Germany.
Capital: What was your impression and observation at the camps?
Schmidt: I saw in Gambella region a remarkable joint effort of the Ethiopian government, international organizations and civil society. In Europe, and particularly in Germany, we know what it means if a huge number of refugees seek help in your country. Having our own, most recent experiences in mind, it makes me even more appreciative of what the Ethiopian government has been doing. Hosting more than 730,000 refugees is not easy, but it is very important task to help stabilize the affected neighboring countries and the Horn of Africa as a whole.
I was also impressed by the infrastructure that has been built, such as schools and health centers. One should remember that it is not only refugees who are benefiting from the refugee-response in the region. The host communities in Gambella state have similar benefits from the measures taken. To me, this approach is essential to not only preserve communal peace, but also to contribute to the general development of the region.
Capital: What has been the contribution of Germany for the refugee centers in Ethiopia?
Schmidt: Germany has been doing its part to try to help those negatively affected by the conflict in South Sudan. We have been providing humanitarian aid since the outset of the fighting through UN agencies such as UNHCR and WFP. In 2015 alone, the German government made available over 8.1 million Euros for Ethiopia to projects that are implemented via German NGOs or international organizations.
Those funds are used to provide medical support to refugees in Dolo Ado, as well as for water-related issues and child protection for camps in Gambella. In July 2015, Germany gave an extra grant of 3.5 million Euros, supporting UNHCR’s work in the region. Five million Euros were also directed to a UNICEF intervention in Gambella.
Another important tool is DAFI, the German Albert Einstein Academic Refugee Initiative. Since its creation in 1992, several hundred refugees in Ethiopia have been granted scholarships, and overall more than 6.000 refugees worldwide, to study at universities, colleges and polytechnics in their host countries.
Capital: Germany as well as other countries in the EU have been facing a surge in the number of refugees mainly coming from Syria this year. Can you tell us a bit about how that crisis is being handled by your Government?
Schmidt: Germany’s support for refugees and our solidarity with the hardest-hit partner countries has been going far beyond words of encouragement. Not only have we taken in thousands of refugees, but we are supporting the countries and institutions affected by the refugee crisis with a view to resolve the conflicts that are a key source of the refugee flows. A challenge of this kind cannot be managed by a government on its own. You need strong contributions from civil society. For that reason, also in the present context, we should not forget those tens of thousands of German volunteers who are working day and night to make refugees’ lives easier once they have arrived in Germany.
Capital: Do you think EU countries as well as developed countries in general are giving much needed attention to the situation of refugees in the world?
Schmidt: This current refugee crisis is unprecedented in recent history. Never since World War II has a higher number of persons worldwide been displaced from their homes. But no country in the world can solve the refugee crisis alone. Europe as a whole must step up to the plate. This is why we are committed to a fair distribution of refugees in the EU. The Valetta summit has shown the clear commitment of the European Union and its member states to better organize migration between Africa and Europe. At the same time, the current refugee situation in Europe cannot be managed in the long term if the root causes are not successfully addressed. Germany very much hopes that the intense diplomatic activities of recent weeks, for example the recent Vienna talks on Syria, contribute to improving the situation.
Capital: With the recent terrorist attack in Paris, France comes a sense of increased insecurity for refugees travelling from Africa and the Middle East, as they fear they would not be allowed a safe haven in EU countries. Do you believe that would happen?
Schmidt: First of all, the horror embodied in these attacks is beyond comprehension. We stand firm by the side of our French friends at this time of suffering and despair in France. Our thoughts and sympathies are with the victims and their families and friends.
One should not forget that the vast majority of those that are fleeing to Europe from the Middle East are escaping from terrible violence, which is to a considerable extent committed by terrorists whom the murderers of Paris associated themselves with. Security agencies in Europe and elsewhere are at present assessing the situation and I am confident that they will come up with the right investigative and preventive measures.
We must certainly not fall into the trap that the terrorists posed us; they want us to create rifts within our societies, to change our tolerant, pluralist way of life and to put human beings from a certain region or adhering to a certain belief under general suspicion. We shall not allow them achieve this goal.
Capital: Recently, the EU and African governments held discussions in Malta on the issue of migrants and how to bring about a durable solution. Can you tell us more about that?
Schmidt: The so-called Valetta summit was an important step to further develop a common understanding and approach regarding migration between Europe and Africa. The agreed Action Plan focuses on five priority domains: developing benefits of migration and addressing root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement; legal migration and mobility; protection and asylum, prevention of and fighting against irregular migration, migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings; return, readmission and reintegration.
What matters now, however, is the swift implementation of this action plan. It is important to note that the monitoring of this implementation will employ existing mechanisms, i.e. the Rabat Process, the Khartoum Process and the Joint EU-Africa Strategy.
Capital: Do you think the EU’s proposed 1.8 billion Pounds to African countries to deport unwanted migrants is a solution to Europe’s migrant crisis?
Schmidt: Given the complex nature of migration between Europe and Africa, different measures have to be taken to improve migration management. Financial contributions can be one of them; others are the commitment to peace and security in various regions, as well as the international engagement for development in our partner countries. Looking at the various action points agreed at the Valletta Summit, one can see that Europe and Africa rely on more than one measure.
Capital: Many NGOs clam that the EU has not been doing enough to sort out the migration crisis. What is your thought on that?
Schmidt: As the German Ambassador, I can only speak for my country. First of all, we should try to avoid looking at migration solely from a negative angle. There has always been an exchange of people between countries. This must and will not change. The countries involved are currently working on better management of a high influx of migrants.
As mentioned before, I do believe that the German people and the German government have been making immense efforts to address the high number of asylum-seekers and migrants coming to our country during these recent months. Apart from measures taken in Germany itself, UN agencies working in this field are also receiving support from us. This also applies partner countries, including Ethiopia.