George A. Papandreou (born June 16, 1952) is Former Prime Minister of Greece, current President of Socialist International, a Member of the Hellenic Parliament and former President of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). He served as the 11th Prime Minister of Greece from October 6, 2009 - November 11, 2011, after PASOK’s victory in the October 2009 national elections.

George A. Papandreou

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“We need to humanize globalization” | Interview on Club de Madrid | 24.06.2016

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What are, in your view, the underlying reasons of the current refugee flows around Europe and the Middle East?

The recent mass exodus of citizens from the Middle East to Europe is very much a consequence of the Syrian war. According to the latest numbers, 4.7 million people found refuge in neighboring countries as they escaped the bloodshed in Syria.

Additionally 6.6 million people have been internally displaced.

Syrian cities infrastructure has been close to totally destroyed.

It is a wonder how a family could survive without electricity, running water, hospitals or schools.

As the war unfolds the puzzle of which military group controls which territory continues to change.

Citizens have a deep sense of insecurity as they are caught between different factions and are pressured to shifting allegiances. This makes them easy prey of conflicting groups that could easily target them as possible collaborators of their opponents.

More than 250.000 Syrians – military and civilians – have been killed.

Each year of continued warfare will bring increased numbers of human beings trying to escape.  The refugee numbers will simply multiply.

According to the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps, in 2012, there were 100.000 refugees from Syria.

By April 2013 there 800.000.

That number doubled to 1.6 million in less than four months.

Eighty percent of the refugees that have reached Europe by boat in 2015 came from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, Syrian refugees are the world’s largest refugee population under the United Nations mandate. This will not abate until the international community, the countries of the neighboring region as well as the different factions of Syrian society put an end to the proxy war. So a basic consensus is created around a common road map towards a peaceful, open, tolerant and diverse society with a government that is capable to represent and protect the rights of the citizens of Syria.

Persecution of minorities is another reason for people to flee their country.

A characteristic example are Shiites from Afghanistan.

But also women, young girls who see no future in a society dominated by the Talibans or similarly oppressive groups.

Unfortunately, these categories of refugees are not considered a priority by most European countries and are often sent back to their country of origin.

Let us not forget the rising number of refugees coming from sub-Saharan Africa.

According to FRONTEX (the EU border control agency), in 2015, 108.000  undocumented Africans came to Europe.

That represents an increase of 42% compared with 2014.

People will more and more be on the move in this global economy. It could be conflicts, civil wars, oppression from authoritarian regimes, ethnic cleansing, violation of human rights. It will also be a consequence of global inequality or climate change degrading natural resources, bringing on draught, natural disasters or pandemics.

Citizens affected by the above will be in search of a better life.

As long as they cannot find it in their homeland they will seek a better future elsewhere.

What should the EU do?

The European Union needs to live up both to its capacity and to its principles.

As the EU has been a peace project it now needs to use and develop its capacities to be able to adapt to new challenges, mitigate crises and even lead in humanizing a global society.

Only one – if a complex one – is the issue of refugees and migration in general. As for its principles, the EU has served open, democratic societies, a fight for human rights and social cohesion. We need to assess and approach the refugee issue through this perspective. One that takes into account how we implement these principles both for the refugees reaching our shores and for our own societies whose resilience is being tested. Certainly more robust growth policies in the EU would allow our societies to cope with integration of newcomers much more effectively.

It is therefore most important to address the crisis in a comprehensive, realistic and humane way.

The difficulties of adapting to new challenges in our globalizing society have become a source of insecurity in Europe. Such are the pressures on the middle class, and our social welfare system, the divisions between those that thrive in a global economy and those that are marginalized such as the unemployed or pensioners.

The refugee issue has compounded this insecurity. And populist politicians have exploited and fueled these fears. Promoting an extreme nationalism, bigotry and racism. Pushing for isolationist solutions at a time where we need more cooperation.

This not only undermines our capacity to find viable solutions to the refugee exodus but it undermines the basic underpinnings or our European Union.

A unified EU policy is urgent. Confusion and contradictory statements or policies help no-one and create mixed reactions by the refugee communities.

Certainly xenophobic sloganeering will only create more divisions and hatred.

On the positive side the European Commission has a designated Commissioner responsible for Migration.

Together with other Commissioners of related portfolios they are working on building a fair and sustainable common asylum policy.

As the challenge we face is immediate it is urgent to implement a European Asylum System that will minimize bureaucratic procedures, will achieve greater convergence among member states, will provide fair treatment and protection of the asylum seekers, will pursue systematic cooperation with third countries and will promote a coherent plan for integration.

The EU – Turkey agreement may have temporarily stemmed the flow of refugees but it cannot be a long term solution nor can it stand up to the test of international standards.

The above are important political-technical steps. However this issue is not so much a technical one as it is a highly political and adaptive issue. Therefore leaders, stakeholders and civil society need to think out of the box, boldly, of a very different narrative around the issue of refugees and migrants.

For example, a common asylum policy need be complemented by the creation of a European citizenship and passport. And I do not mean a greek, german or swedish citizenship, I propose an altogether unique european citizenship that could be obtained by citizens of third countries. With rights such as being able to vote in the city and nation of residency as well as the european elections.

With responsibilities of attending a robust program of education and training for integration.

Going back to ancient Athens, a debate took place as to who could be an Athenian or indeed a greek or hellene. Could a migrant, a slave, a ‘barbarian’ become a Hellene? Isocrates, an intellectual of the time, pronounced that “Hellas (Greece) is no longer distinctive because of race but because of intellect. And the title of Hellene a badge of education rather than of common descent”.

His was a very modern concept. We are Hellenes because of the values we share.

In a global society we are now challenged to nurture a set of basic common values.

In this way Europe should be seen as a microcosm of the world to come, and needs to become a champion of the concept of a global citizen.

One that has equal rights and responsibilities whatever his or her descent, wherever he or she may come from.

Imagining democratic participation transcending borders.

As a precursor – an example – to a world that needs to go beyond the confines of nations, identities, xenophobia, fundamentalisms, in order to avoid great catastrophes and tackle new and daunting challenges.


What kind of leadership is needed to solve this crisis? 

How can we create messages to counter the opinion that refugees pose a threat?

Leaders first need to live up to the facts and be frank with their constituents.

We must accept, and relate this message to our citizens, that population movements will continue from countries suffering from violence, insecurity and climate change towards countries which appear safer, freer and more prosperous.

Secondly, many studies, including recent studies of the World Bank, the ILO and the OECD have shown that migrants have beneficial impacts on developed economies without undermining the native workers.

Integrating refugees should be seen as an opportunity to make our societies more dynamic through diversity.

Thirdly, we should never confuse refugees with terrorism.

Refugees are the victims who flee terror and persecution.

In fact, like it or not, most terrorist attacks in Europe have been undertaken by Europeans and not refugees.

We must view the issue from a different angle.

We should realize that for instance the Syrians we accept in our societies, at least a significant number of them, will go back to their homeland once the war is over. They are by definition agents of change as they have not accepted the situation they were in.

They can and we should support them to become the architects, engineers and singers of a new and democratic Syria. By bringing them into our societies – at least temporarily – we should arm them with ideas, practices, creativity, that they can use in building a peaceful and tolerant Mid-East. So let us see that we in fact are part of this project, and it is for the benefit of all.

I was also a refugee years ago. And I always remember how Olof Palme, who invited me to speak at his political rallies, presented me as a refugee from Sweden that was now working for building democracy in Greece! As so many others have done from other parts of the world.

What would you say to those who want to close their borders to immigration?

It is very simple.

In our globalized world there is no way to be a protected isolated island.

Walls will not solve the problem.

If physical walls could alleviate desperation in the world they might have been a solution.

But walls will not keep out the poor, the persecuted and the desperate.

They can’t keep the desperate from seeking a better life.

Borders are a false solution, actually a fraudulent solution. Even when talking of security Admiral Stavrides in his recent TEDTALK states that his ‘thesis for today is, instead of building walls to create security we need to build bridges’.

I would add that walls are a bad substitute to tackling real problems – actually – breaking down existing walls. The walls between the wealthy and the rest, the 1% and the 99%, the walls between the free and the oppressed, the walls created by an environmental apartheid or those that have access to clean natural resources and those that suffer from unhealthy and inadequate access to basics such as water.

So solving these problems would be actually building bridges not new walls.

Finally if we are to lead we need to fight against the walls created by fundamentalists, racists, ultra-nationalists. Walls in our minds.

Each country, each society has its memories and historical experiences.

Greece received millions of refugees traveling across the Aegean to our islands in the 1920’s after a war with Turkey.

This helped positively in understanding and embracing refugees.

We are a nation of migrants.

But no country has been without similar experiences. We all have been or are in our histories migrants or refugees.

We all are migrants in a globalizing world.

The refugee crisis therefore begs another question: what do we cherish from our traditions, what do we learn from them, what do we keep and what demons do we abandon.

This is a process of adaption that challenges how we shape our identity for today’s circumstances while keeping the best of what we were.

Leaders need to bring out the best of us all not the worst.

What can the Club de Madrid do? 

In the long term, it goes without saying that we need to address the deep causes of population movements. It means making all necessary efforts to stop ongoing conflicts and prevent new ones, it means investing through external development aid in improving the economic and social conditions in the most vulnerable countries, it means engaging dynamically in the efforts to address global issues like climate change.

The Club de Madrid is a unique organization that combines the wisdom and the experience of former Head of State and government from all continents.

From bringing new ideas on how to cope with global issues like the refugee crisis to giving a voice to the most vulnerable, it can make an important difference in our common effort to humanize globalization.

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