Eavesdrop on Experts, a podcast about stories of inspiration and insights.
It's where expert types obsess, confess and profess.
You’ll meet people who you wouldn’t normally meet... but will be glad you did.
I’m Chris Hatzis. Let’s eavesdrop on experts and see how these 21st century explorers are changing the world… one lecture, one experiment, one interview at a time.
I'm in Swanston Street and I’m about to walk into the Ian Potter Gallery at the University of Melbourne. It's a typically overcast and wintery Melbourne day, perfect for being indoors, in fact. Specifically at an exhibition titled “EXIT”, part of CLIMARTE’s ART + CLIMATE = CHANGE 2017 – a festival of exhibitions and events harnessing the creative power of the arts to inform, engage and inspire action on climate change.
EXIT is an artwork that brings home the huge and increasing scale of population movements across the world. It confronts us with the stark realities of what is a political, economic and environmental crisis.
Someone who understands these challenges first hand is Erika Feller, a former Assistant High Commissioner at the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, and now a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne.
Our reporter Steve Grimwade is meeting Erika at the exhibition. In fact, right in the middle of the exhibition. It's In a darkened room surrounded by a brilliant 360-degree projection complete with an immersive multi-dimensional soundtrack that warps your sense of time and space.
In your role at the UNHCR you're overseeing the protection of 34 million refugees, internally displaced and stateless people. Can you give us a broad idea of what that work actually entailed?
Well, first of all, the statistics are misleading, but there were many more than 34 million. I suppose they began at that when I started in UNHCR, but by the time I'd left we were up in the 60 million bracket of displaced people, including stateless people, including internally displaced people, so the numbers were consistently rising.
What did it mean? It meant a lot of things for me very directly. Of course, it was a senior management position, so I was managing quite a number of staff underneath me whose roles were various. UNHCR protects refugees. What does that mean? Protection is an advocacy function first and foremost. It's about encouraging states to be receptive to refugees, encouraging communities inside countries to receive them, to assist them, to look after them, to - trying to counter xenophobic trends and tendencies in countries et cetera.
That’s part of the advocacy role of the organisation, but the visible aspect of protection - what you see on your screens when you turn it on and you see UNHCR up there and out there - it's very much a hands on activity in what we call the field; going to refugee situations, going to camps, going to settlements, negotiating conditions of stay in very, very inhospitable regions for refugees, standing between governments who are not right-minded towards them and the refugees who have to absolutely rely on their generosity and their support.
It means going into detention centres. It means meeting them in detention, trying to negotiate their release. It means standing at borders so that borders remain open so that people can cross them et cetera. There's a - it's a very hands-on responsibility for protection staff. My role was to go to these places to reinforce them in their attitudes to show some support from Geneva for the work they're doing, and then to actually engage with governments direct to do the senior level negotiations when it comes to protection situations.
There's a lot more to protection as well. There's a lot of inter-governmental meetings and there's a lot of standard setting work, which is about drafting conventions, drafting new protection provisions for refugees, but the core of it is helping refugees realise their rights, encouraging states to accept their proper responsibilities.
I know - understand how it might seem somewhat ridiculous to talk about one person - this person being you rather than the 60 million people you're helping, but we are concentrating on you, so I hope you forgive me that. I'm interested in what particular skill set you thought you brought to it. What were the things that informed you as a person earlier to make you - to give you the ability to perform in the role?
Well, I grew in the role, like everybody does, I guess. You don’t just come and be perfect from day one. I didn’t originally encounter UNHCR with any expectation that I wanted to work with it and I wanted to be employed with it for the next 26 years, which is what actually happened. I mean I began my career as a diplomat with the Australian Foreign Service, and I met UNHCR at the same time, if you like, I met my husband to be. The two came together at a certain point.
I was posted for the Government to Geneva. My responsibilities were the human rights bag of responsibilities. I had a law background. I had a human rights background - in my training at university and in my work with the Department of Foreign Affairs - so it suited me for the humanitarian bag of responsibilities which the permanent mission to Geneva covered and I was asked to follow UNHCR.
At the same time I met the person there - not in UNHCR, but in the UN - who I was to marry, and I felt that it would be appropriate to take some leave without pay and try and spend some time outside the Foreign Affairs environment with him. I sought a short term secondment to UNHCR and, luckily, they - happily, they agreed to take me for six months, and that six months turned into 26 years. I didn’t come envisaging I would be a refugee expert. I came as a human rights and humanitarian - a person with a human rights and humanitarian background.
I guess it would be crazy of me not to mention the exhibition we're currently standing within, given the background noise. We are live from Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne, which is hosting the work EXIT as part of the CLIMARTE Festival, which presents arts for a safe climate. I'm not going to go on for too much longer with your time at the UNHCR and the personal impact, but I am interested in the personal impact on someone working in that field for the length of time you did. I mean it's - does it have an impact on your values and your own humanity?
Yes is the short answer to that. The longer answer is that working with UNHCR exposes you to some very heart rending situations, some very dramatic human circumstances which you otherwise wouldn’t encounter but, ironically, it shows you some of the better sides rather than the worst sides of human nature. It shows you the capacity of people not only to survive, but to thrive with absolutely nothing that they have. It shows you the generosity of people, again, who have nothing, but who offer whatever they may be able to find to you.
It never ceased to amaze me how just very simple things - how people could remain - how they could retain their dignity and their humanity in very undignified circumstances where there's virtually none of the health facilities we're used to, the toilet facilities we're used to, the shelter facilities we take for granted, and people stay clean, they can stay happy, they can stay on top of their lives rather than depressed deeply by them. I think that’s a very uplifting experience.
It doesn’t mean, however, that one didn’t come away from some of these experiences very shaken; not necessarily by the people themselves, but by the reactions to them. I was reminded recently about an experience I had in Tanzania where I visited a community of people who'd been there since 1972. Over 33 years they'd been refugees. I thought to myself what happened to me over that 33 year period? I grew up. I went to university. I had a job. I had several postings with the Government. I was in Geneva. I joined UNHCR. I got married. Many things happened and, in all of that time, people were being born and growing up in this refugee experience.
The most salutary remembrance that I take from that experience was how - I mean it's about Government policy, and especially about Australian Government policy, at the time, which was much more generous than it is now. I met in this camp a family of five people who had just been given a resettlement acceptance for Australia. Five visas were issued. One of the women was pregnant. She had a child just before they were to leave on resettlement. There were only five visas, not six visas. The Government could not be brought to actually provide a sixth visa for a newborn child.
What happened - this is a terrible story, but they had a choice. Resettlement is a hugely valuable commodity for people who have known nothing but living in these terrible environments for five, 10, 15 years. They actually killed the newborn child because they said rather than jeopardise our chance as a family to leave for resettlement in Australia and keep the child, we chose resettlement over the child. I think that’s a terrible story. It says less about them and more about the intransigence of Government bureaucracies when it comes to understanding the refugee experience.
Maybe we can turn to that, maybe from the view of a policy expert. What would you say about the efficiency, the legality and the morality of Australia's current refugee policy?
Needless to say, it quite shocks me, some of the things that are happening in relation specifically to the boat people problem. I would divide the refugee policy of the Government into several different streams. Australia is a generous resettlement country. It takes people from first countries of asylum and brings them here for durable settlement. It doesn’t have the biggest program by any means, and its program, relative to its population, is quite small, and certainly, relative to the demands out there, it's very, very small. Nevertheless, it's good and it's well-resourced inside Australia. There's a very high engagement of the community, the local community, with resettled refugees.
All of that’s extremely positive, but that’s not what you really read about. What you read about at the moment is Manus Island and Nauru, and you read about people who come in very small numbers on boats being turned around and being taken to these detention centres - which is what they are, even if they have, formally, a different description. they are detention centres - for indefinite detention and for no reason other than having tried to resolve their difficult personal circumstances by coming to a country that they thought might receive them.
I find it un-understandable (sic) that there can be a deterrence justification for dealing - well, it's not the justification, but it's the reality of these programs. They're about deterrence. They're not about aiding and assisting people to find solutions to their problems. They're about deterring anybody else trying to get here by these means.
I don’t think it's the right way to deal with this problem. All that it does is shift the burden on to other countries. People will continue to get on boats for as long as the impetus is there to get on boats, for as long as the causes are there which drive them to get on boats. They’ll just do it under some other country's watch and probably die under some other country's watch as well at sea, so they're not solving the problem of deaths at sea.
There are many aspects to it. It's, of course, very much at odds with the purposes and principles of international refugee law, which the Australian Government has signed up to through its succession to international instruments. This policy is leading to what I believe domestic lawyers in Australia should be very, very concerned about. All sorts of questionable pieces of legislation designed to cushion Australia even further from its international legal responsibilities, excising the territory of Australia from the ambit of existing national legislation, for example. I mean there are many aspects to it which I think are wrong.
From decades ago with Tampa and Australia to the election of Trump, to Brexit, to the French election we've seen the rise of nationalism and nativism. Can you explain that with regards to the work you’ve done? Are there responses to the rise of nativism?
I think you can see some of the seeds for all of this in the way the refugee problem has evolved over recent years. Governments, I think, particularly in Europe, have felt that they’ve lost the control they felt they had over the problems which were presenting themselves at the European borders. The European arrangements for distributing responsibilities amongst European states were found wanting when larger numbers started to arrive, for example, from Kosovo with the wars in the Balkan countries. That was one of the earlier challenges which directly impacted European shores and caused European countries - not all, but a number - to rethink how they delivered on their responsibilities.
The whole problem of responsibility sharing, I think, is the cardinal issue today when it comes to refugee protection. There are an awful lot of people who are in need. There are many countries who are generous, but they're usually countries in low or middle income countries and their generosity is provided in very remote and inhospitable regions of these countries, and they themselves cannot continue to bear the burden.
They already bear 80 per cent or so of the burden of displacement, external displacement as well as internal displacement. They're looking for more support. Money is not there. Everything's getting much more expensive. The systems that have been set up in countries like Australia, but much further afield, in Europe for example, the systems are costly. They are necessarily heavy. They could be streamlined. They could be shortened. They could be expedited. There are a lot of elements that have gone into having countries understand the refugee problem, not as a humanitarian responsibility, but as a burden that’s been imposed on them.
That, of course, fails to take into account the contribution that refugees themselves make to the communities they live in, and they're known actually to make quite a large contribution to the development of the countries where they find themselves over a longer period of time, and they bring, of course - including to Australia - they bring different skills. They bring different cultural backgrounds which actually enrich a multicultural country like Australia, but still there's a tendency to define refugee problems in terms of burdens.
Of course, one of the great exacerbating things has been the growth of international terrorism and the growth of transnational crime. Under transnational crime I would subsume people smuggling, even though I would add the caveat that there are circumstances when people have no choice except to take to boats to get where they can't otherwise get for their own physical security, safety, and that of their families.
That aside, the people smuggling industry is a huge one. It's an exploitive one and it's a thoroughly dangerous one for the people who put their fate in the hands of people smugglers. That, coupled with fears about the growth of international terrorism, have also made countries much more circumspect about receiving people whose background they don’t know enough about and, particularly, people who come from countries that are deemed, rightly or wrongly, to be producers of - or supporters of international terrorism.
Associate Professor Peter Christoff described this exhibition we're in - called EXIT - as a thundering juggernaut of data. This seems to fairly reflect the magnitude of the problem in the real world. Are there ways of resolving what seem to be intractable issues? How do we better communicate the solutions? Is it about policy making? Is it about media? Is there any one consideration you'd give me?
Well, if you're talking about solutions, one of the big problems is that solutions are just not readily there at the current time. They’ve probably been less readily there recently than, in my experience, they’ve ever been. What we've seen - one of the big solutions, of course, is people go home when they can, and voluntarily, but now we're seeing people leaving cyclical conflict situations which are not resolving themselves. In fact, they're just getting worse, so people don’t go home in the same way or in the same numbers they used to do.
Another solution is resettlement. That could, of course, be a solution for more people than it currently is if you have more countries giving resettlement places. The fact is there are something like only about 27 countries in the world that actually offer resettlement places. The three big ones are the US, Canada and Australia. Even then, big is a relative term. I mean Australia offers anything - over the years I've had something to do with it - between 6000 places to UNHCR to resettle people, or up to 13,000 places. I mean what's 13,000 when you have 21 million refugees and 65 million people displaced more generally.
The third solution is staying in the countries where these people arrive and find their first asylum. But I mean when you see where they arrive and the circumstances in which they're required to live for long periods of time, and you also see the limited resources and capacity of the host states generally to keep them, then you ask yourself how viable and feasible is local stay?
We're really talking about looking at the refugee problem slightly differently. We're probably not talking about resolving it at this point of time. We're talking about better managing it. Then you come to your question about policy. Yes, policy is about management, how you - management, not how you deflect it, how you deter it, but how you manage it.
I think what's happening now is that deflection and deterrence have been proved wanting as a response in most parts of the world where countries have engaged in it. Not all countries do, but where countries have engaged in it, it hasn’t really worked. Australia's lucky. If you look at this exhibition and you see all of these flows of people represented in all these pixels going around the wall at the moment, you see very, very few of them.
If you look at it now it's happening. You see very, very few of them arriving actually in Australia, so you realise how cushioned Australia is from the reality out there, which has enabled it, probably, to continue to pursue a policy of deterrence in the belief that deterrence is working. I don’t know what it's working to do, but it's certainly not working to solve the problem, which was your question.
Is the growth in the number of displaced people mostly due to conflict? Or is it broader than that?
Currently, the growth is largely due to conflict. Some of it is just generalised conflict: people fleeing without being targeted directly, but the conflict impacts their life very directly in one way or another. It's wrong to believe that conflict has nothing to do with persecution because, quite often, conflict is inter-ethnic conflict. Quite often conflict is no longer so often fought between the regular armies of countries. It's fought between a myriad of paramilitaries and mercenaries and irregular armed forces who have absolutely no respect for the civilising rules of international humanitarian law, the rules of war, so everybody's a target and individuals are deliberately targeted as weapons of war, as are, by the way, humanitarian worker and humanitarian aid.
My former boss, who is now the Secretary General of the United Nations - Antonio Guterres - he always used to say - I think very accurately - that there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems because these humanitarian problems have at their core political causes, and you have to have the engagement of governments, globally and co-operatively, to deal with them. They will not be solved through humanitarian aid or through organisations like the UN going in and running programs of assistance. That’s not how these problems will be solved.
In your prior work you've spoken of seeing the results of what you do "you can see the impact it can make on the lives of people because you're not working on abstract concepts remote from their impact". With that in mind, and with a slight smirk, I'm wondering how working at the University's going and how that’s different from your previous role, and what you hope to achieve.
I enjoy working with younger people, or working in relation to younger people. These are new minds bringing new ideas to longstanding problems. The challenge, I think, is to harness the energy, the creativity of new minds to think about this and think different; also to harness the advocacy of young people who are still motivated to do good things for people.
Universities are a place where all of that is possible. You have intelligent young minds, people who are committed to causes, people who understand the significance of concepts like human rights and whatever, and people who have not yet had to confront some of the realities of the world out there, so that they can still explore in their minds original and creative solutions unencumbered by national interest considerations or whatever. I think that’s great.
Much of what I do here is actually talking about what I have done. There's quite a lot of interest. Obviously, there's high interest in Australia in refugee issues, but there's also a lot of interest in what it means to have an international career, what it means to work in a globalised world and have the world, if you like, as your location rather than a particular national environment. I quite enjoy talking about it because it makes me reflect on the career I've had and what it does mean and what its possibilities are, what its limitations are.
In that reflection are there any particular points of advice you'd give to younger people about how to pursue their path?
I often get women asking me what it's like to have been a very senior professional woman in, essentially, a man's world, which the UN for many years - particularly the humanitarian agencies out in the field - has been. I guess the advice that I give to women is that I have seen women in the most extraordinary places, where you wouldn’t have imagined this would be an activity they'd be happy to take on or a responsibility that would be given to them. What I've learned from that is that women can work anywhere, just like men, and they shouldn’t be inhibited by those who tell them that you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and drive four wheel drive cars and communicate on radios and whatever.
I've seen women as our representatives in Iraq, for example, living in amazing conditions that UNHCR people live in. For example, in Baghdad, when I went there UNHCR's office was inside the green zone in an old airline hangar and people were living in containers which were set up inside this hangar. None of the containers, of course, had any windows or anything. They're just metal boxes. They are all sandbagged. There's just a little place where you can go in the door and then there's sandbags all around, and you imagine how can people psychologically thrive in that environment. But they do, motivated by what they do.
As I said, we have women who have run these operations there, women who have been the head of our office in Yemen, which is a very, very conflict fraught country. I mean I've been to all those countries. I've seen how people live, so one of my pieces of advice is always to young women: set your standards high. Don’t believe that because you're a woman it should constrain you in doing things that otherwise you might want to do.
Who's going to be our first female UN Secretary General?
Well, we didn’t get one this time, did we? We had hoped we might. Having said that, I did work with Mr Guterres for seven years as his Assistant High Commissioner. UNHCR structure is you have a High Commissioner, and then you have a coterie of three: two Assistant High Commissioners and one Deputy High Commissioner, but the Deputy High Commissioner position is very much one that’s reserved for the United States.
You have this gang of four, if you like, that run UNHCR, so you get to know somebody reasonably well. I left that organisation with a lot of respect for him and without really knowing, as I know him, the other candidates who were up for election, I did have this sneaking feeling that he was probably the best candidate. I think he's proving himself in the early days quite well. Maybe next time around.
Finally, the next time I'm discussing refugee policy, what's the one thing you want me to consider?
That it's not an exercise of charity. I think there are a lot of misconceptions here that humanitarian work is all about charity. It's going - handing out food parcels and tents and whatever. But, as I said earlier, it is a highly political issue, and people need to understand that it goes way beyond giving money to help refugees. The Government in particular, I would hope - I know it does understand it, but I'd hope the advocates can make it understand it in a different way, that you can't fulfil your responsibilities to refugees by contributing more and more to aid programs in different parts of the world. You have to buy in in very different ways, including in your own backyard. That would be a message, I think, would be good to get out there.
Well, after the all-consuming nature of the EXIT exhibition it takes a while for my senses to re-adjust. It's a little disorienting, but that's OK. By being taken out of our comfortable everyday existence, it gives us a moment to try and understand the harsh realities of a world that is being radically impacted by global patterns of migration, forced displacement and environmental disasters.
Thanks to Erika Feller, former Assistant High Commissioner at the UNHCR and now a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne. And thanks to our reporter Steve Grimwade.
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and Insights - is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia.
This episode was recorded on May 4, 2017.
Recording by Arch Cuthbertson, co-production by Andi Horvath, production assistance by Claudia Hooper.
I’m Chris Hatzis, producer and editor. Join me again next time for another Eavesdrop On Experts.
What does it mean to oversee more than 35 million internally displaced and stateless peoples? Erika Feller shares her many years of experience working for the United Nations Refugee Agency and contemplates Australia’s current refugee policy.
Episode recorded: 4 May 2017
Producers: Dr Andi Horvath and Chris Hatzis
Audio engineer: Arch Cuthbertson
Editor: Chris Hatzis
Production assistant: Claudia Hooper
Banner image: Climatalk.in/Flickr
The EXIT exhibition, part of the Climarte festival, is on at the Ian Potter Museum of Art from 19 April to 16 July 2017