Schilling: We live in a world cynical about the refugee problem

Roland Schilling is the acting representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Turkey, which he says is like a big book.

Schilling: We live in a world cynical about the refugee problem

In an interview with Today's Zaman, he said that he believes there are a lot of things to learn in Turkey and also that in today's world everybody accepts the existence of a refugee problem -- but are not ready to share the burden. According to Mr. Schilling, the UNCHR's workers have developed some mechanisms to cope with the psychological issues that emerge from witnessing difficult conditions, like keeping an internal distance and getting help from family. He says he is sometimes surprised at himself for being cool-headed, but that this does not mean that he is not affected. Mr. Schilling says the happiest moment for UNHCR personnel is when they are organizing trips for refugees returning to their home countries. But, he adds, sometimes as a father he feels guilty for traveling with his children; on the other hand he is extremely proud that his daughters are so tolerant of other cultures.

"We live in a world where there is an element of cynicism with regard to the refugee problem. If you ask people 'Who is a refugee?' the answer will be 'innocent'. But when it comes to protecting them, they will say, 'Please, not in my country; go somewhere else.' I experienced this in many countries. This is sometimes a very cynical world. We say Einstein was a refugee, but they see them as a burden," says Mr. Schilling.

Mr. Schilling, who is Dutch but grew up in Germany, started to work on refugee issues as a law and political science student in Berlin.

"It was a time where Berlin was hotspot of refugees. We were young law students. We wanted to support them; we were idealistic and naive to certain extent. I though maybe it is not good enough to give advice," he says, explaining how he joined the UNCHR. He started in Hong Kong and was then posted to Yemen, Somalia and Moldavia, where he opened up a very small of UNHCR office, and then on to Sri Lanka before being appointed to Turkey two-and-a-half years ago.

He says there are a lot of things to learn in Turkey. While explaining this, he says, "Turkey is like a big book."

"For me, sometimes countries are like a book that you read. Some countries are small books; you read and understand. But Turkey is very big book; you read and it is more complicated," he laughs. According to him, many countries claim that they are at a crossroads, but Turkey really is. This is something very positive, but very challenging too, especially when it comes to border-monitoring, but Mr. Schilling says Turkey is the most interesting post that he has ever been assigned.

During all these years the most difficult experience for Mr. Schilling has been seeing the deaths of children. But he says he does not want to talk about that. Instead, he explains the most difficult part of his work as a cynical world approach to the refugee problem, in which people think "the refugee problem must be solved, but not in my country."

Mr. Schilling thinks that poor people are more sensitive to the refugee problem, reminding us that the majority of refugees are those moving from poor countries to poor countries. When people see a woman with a child in reality, they show compassion. But to the extent that the refugee problem becomes abstract, as in to people who see it only through a television screen, individuals are able to say, "We don't want people." But if they are face to face, ordinary people can relate.

As for his happiest experiences, Mr. Schilling cites organizing "trips for the refugees who are going home" and saving lives. "We did this in Somalia. We organize people … hundreds of people happy to go home, dancing, singing in the road. You are a part of it, people thanking you personally for organizing this. And you have in this situation literarily saved people's lives. I was a part of the negotiation team with Germany during the Bosnian conflict. The idea was to protect Bosnian refuges in Bosnia; it was a big failure not only for the United Nations but also for the international community, because nobody could ensure security within Bosnia and as a consequence massacres were committed. We had strong negotiations. Germany was very, very hesitant. If you see that you are part of these negotiations and people are saved, it is very rewarding."

He points out that sometimes the people who are working for the UNHCR are driven crazy when trying to do their job, because the solution is there, but it is not immediately reachable: "We do lose our minds. We have an ideology in the UNHCR: If there is a problem, there is a solution. There are some refugee problems which are not solved for decades. But you should never give up. If you give up, I have seen people who either physiologically cannot work -- or some people over work and don't have free time for them and collapsing after years. We need to find a balance," he says. According to him the international staff of the UNHCR is a part of a diplomatic community and has different assignments and the possibility to change posts, but for the local personnel who are conducting interviews with refugees or working in a camp, more difficulties are faced:

"I am very worried about them. After some years, it is too much. ... Another story of people who were raped, tortured." Although the UNHCR has a system to help its staff overcome these problems, Mr. Schilling says it is not enough: "We just had some thoughts, we looked at our budget. Do we cut from refugees' food or from our salaries? These are difficult choices to make."

When asked if it is necessary for humanitarian relief organizations to have a missionary approach to their work, Mr. Schilling smiles. "I think that some are motivated just by saving the world -- but these are not the ones who stay long. Once you start to work, it is important to keep the idealism. We work in very, very difficult situations and living conditions in many countries. Do not forget that 80 percent of our posts are hardship posts, in war zones and so on. We see quite often that if you just enjoy working for the UN that is not enough. You need to have a strong commitment to the refugee cause. Soon after, or years later, you get grey hairs like me; you become very realistic. You need a certain commitment; if not, you don't do it. But you need to be realistic. We are quite balanced between humanitarian interests, state interests and security interests; but it is often also quite difficult to keep this balance," he says.

Mr. Schilling underlines that there are several ways to cope with the psychological impact of being in war zones or difficult living conditions: "I think there are various different forms of coping mechanisms, but also sometimes mechanisms which don't work. I have colleagues who, for instance, after living in countries where there are a lot of minefields, cannot walk normally in forests or on grass," he says and relates the following memory: "During the Bosnian war we were at a seminar in Amsterdam in which the UNHCR tried to be quite nice and put us in a hotel next to a train station to make it logistically easier for us. When the trains passed at night, some of our friends literally fell out of bed because they were sort of thinking that they are under attack. ... I think some colleagues cope better than others.

"… I remember during the tsunami I was in Sri Lanka, where there was a lot of suffering; I saw the death of a lot of people. Basically, and actually in the moment, I was surprised how cool-headed I was. We needed to organize ourselves, we had to do the right things to ensure more people did not suffer; ensure more people did not die. A kind of self-reflection comes afterward. Actually, when I came to Turkey I said this is a healing place, you don't see people dying on the street." Mr. Schilling says he got the help of his family to heal. But he adds: "Are we totally healed in the end? I don't know."

Mr. Schilling traveled with his family to his previous posts, too. Both of his daughters were born in Berlin, but lived in Sri Lanka with him. His youngest daughter is 6-years-old and thinks that she is from Sri Lanka -- even though she is very blonde!

"Sometimes I feel guilty, because children need to have a home, a kind of belonging; stability is important. My children have Dutch and Moldovan passports; they are growing up in Germany in an English environment. Sometimes they are confused [about] who we are, where we come from. I remember my daughter went to a Sri Lankan school, where everybody is dark, she was the only light one. It was a strong contrast. At the same time, I realized how tolerant they are of different cultures and different religions. Their friends are Christians, Muslims, Jewish, Buddhists, Hindus. For this gain, I am very proud. But not being close to their grandparents, not having an environment that a normal child normally has; having new friends every three to four years… We are nomads and we pay a price for it," he explains.

Mr. Schilling says that living in difficult conditions and witnessing a plethora of tragedies causes people to learn to appreciate more in life. Not only appreciation for a glass of clean drinking water, he says, but also not to worry about small issues. "When we [my wife and I] came to Turkey, you can just imagine. We can walk on the sidewalk -- yes, there is a sidewalk! We can get whatever we want," he laughs. "I appreciate certain material things: that things work, water is flowing. Maybe more important for me is another thing: It doesn't get on your nerves if the elevator does not work, you may make a big issue out of it if somebody is promoted instead of you -- but it is much less important for me," he says.

Mr. Schilling thinks that the worse refugee case in history was before World War II: "Everybody shut the doors and people died. They did not find any refugees. The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (often termed the "Magna Carta" of international refugee law) was a consequence of this failure in refugee protection. Those who wrote this convention were war survivors; they knew what it means not to be protected. We have to remember that. If today's states were drafting the 1951 convention, they would never agree."

He adds an anecdote about the UNHRC: "In 1951 we were created for a three-year period. At that time the world thought that the refugee problem would be solved in three years. But its mandate was prolonged for five years and then for another five years, then another five years. It was only a couple of years ago that we became a permanent organization," he says, but adds that the ideal situation is a world in which nobody is forced to leave their country -- a world with no need for the UNHCR.

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Güncelleme Tarihi: 20 Aralık 2007, 17:02