The invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 has triggered the fastest-growing refugee crisis to emerge from a European country since the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. In certain respects, responses by the European Union have demonstrated a continuum of revolutionary human security approaches emerging from the aftermath of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. The European Council's activation of the 2001 "Temporary Protection Directive" on 4 March 2022 provides those fleeing Ukraine with comprehensive assistance including guaranteed access to residence permits, employment, accomodations, health services, and the normal asylum procedure. It is clear this harmonized refugee flow regulatory framework was built upon lessons learned from uncoordinated Member State responses to the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis in particular. It is the Balkan region's historical legacy that has the potential to provide a wealth of parallel knowledge relevant to the international community's handling of the Ukrainian refugee crisis.
It is this catalog of lived and learned experiences from the Yugoslav Wars that has shaped the policies of both European and international multilateral actors in their approaches to Eastern European internal migratory management at large. This nexus prompts the retrospective basis of our interview with Mr. Søren Jessen-Petersen, the James Anderson Adjunct Professor of Migration and Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe. Professor Jessen-Petersen's extensive and distinguished career includes service as Assistant UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Director of the UNHCR Liaison Office at UN Headquarters in New York, High Commissioner's Special Envoy to the former Yugoslavia, Chef de Cabinet of the High Commissioner for Refugees at UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva, Director of External Relations at UNHCR Headquarters, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Kosovo, and Under Secretary-General of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).
Professor Jessen-Peterson has an unparalleled breadth of expertise in the field of migration and human security, and the SAIS Europe Journal of Global Affairs welcomes his reflection on his experiences in former Yugoslavia as we conduct this comparative analysis on the ongoing humanitarian crisis resulting from the war on Ukraine.
Editor's Note: This interview was recorded on 9 April 2022. Given the fluidity of the war on Ukraine, events may have changed before the publishing of this interview.
Christian Juarez: So, Professor Jessen-Peterson, we'd like to start off the interview by asking you about your professional experiences, particularly during your time as a director within the UNHCR and as the High Commissioner's Special Envoy to the former Yugoslavia. To begin, how would you characterize Europe's initial reaction and response to the influx of asylum seekers emerging from the Yugoslav wars?
Søren Jessen-Petersen: Let me say, different from the situation in Ukraine, in former Yugoslavia it was a fairly "slow beginning" because it started first with wars between Serbia and Slovenia in only ten days. Then, war between Serbs and Croats, which lasted longer and brought a lot of displacement and suffering. But it was really only about two years from the beginning of the first conflict, after the declaration of independence by Bosnia, that displacement numbers and suffering rose very quickly and reached dimensions that we hadn't really prepared for.
For that reason, in the summer of 1992, UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, convened a meeting of governments to agree on how we would address this new situation, which was getting worse by the day. And we in UNHCR put forward a seven point plan where we looked at assistance, but one of the points was to urge states outside of the region to provide temporary protection because until the conflict started in Bosnia, those who were displaced in Serbia and Croatia had stayed in the region because of links between families. But with the Bosnian conflict, it developed into a situation that went way beyond the region. It was important for us to appeal to governments to allow those fleeing the conflicts in former Yugoslavia and to provide temporary protection. That was the difference. Initially, the response was positive. But as the conflict dragged on, it became more and more difficult, and states started to lose their support.
Matthew Schleich: Professor, could you expand on the comparison or the differences between Europe's response to the influx of refugees due to the Yugoslav crisis and due to the current Ukrainian crisis?
Jessen-Petersen: Yes, and as I mentioned, the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, in terms of displacement, began rather slowly. A couple of years before Bosnian independence in 1992, displacement was a lot, but it was limited to the region of former Yugoslavia. Here, the displacement and refugee crisis started very, very soon after the Russian invasion. After the war began already, and after a few days, we had tens of thousands that immediately increased to hundreds of thousands. And up until today, six weeks after the start of the war, all in all 11 million displaced persons of which 4 million are outside of Ukraine.
The main difference, and that's why I talked about temporary protection, is that in 1992 temporary protection was an idea that came from the UNHCR. Here, it was the European Union, I think within five days of the start of the conflict, that immediately urged member states to provide temporary protection, meaning allowing the refugees in and not having them go through an asylum process to determine whether they were in need of asylum protection. In the former Yugoslavia, temporary protection only came into action two years after the beginning of the first of the conflicts and was not an EU decision. It was UNHCR that urged states and then the EU states agreed that they would try to provide temporary protection.
So the way Ukraine developed very shockingly, very fast, very quickly, and also the way that the EU then responded by urging member states to provide temporary protection is a major difference. And of course, a very welcomed difference because it in some ways addresses some of the suffering that the Ukrainians are going through.
Katarina Leskovar: I believe you kind of touched on this on the tail end of your point on receptiveness to refugees coming out of the Balkans. Do you believe that asylum fatigue will arise in the case of Ukraine, as it did in 2015, when Europe experienced the massive wave of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees? And how do you think that that was similar perhaps to asylum fatigue, if it happened, in the nineties?
Jessen-Petersen: Well, I think starting with the last point first, in the case of the former Yugoslavia, there was an initial response after the start of the conflict in Bosnia with the displacement of Bosniaks, Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats. Then temporary protection was granted, but not on the basis of an EU decision.
States outside the region of the former Yugoslavia responded differently, and quite a few of them, even before the conflict in Bosnia came to a formal end with the Dayton Peace Agreement, were coming to the UNHCR and saying, "We know that there is some kind of peace in parts of Bosnia. We would like to go ahead and return the refugees," and we were urging them not to do so. So it was only after the Dayton Peace Agreement that the States slowly started to insist on return.
The difference with 2015 was that there was not one group of refugees that were easy to define. They didn't come from either the territory of former Yugoslavia or now from Ukraine, they came from all over the world. Therefore, coming up with a united political response was difficult. Secondly, it also happened very fast and there was no guidance coming from the EU. Europe was divided, and member states acted on their own. Some closed their borders, there was total chaos, and it was a very messy response.
Whereas today, it is an easily defined group. The objective conditions calling for refugee status are, to most countries, very very clear. This prompted the EU to immediately decide that temporary protection should be given immediately without status determination. So it's in many ways three different situations and I will certainly hope and prefer that the response now would introduce the idea of temporary protection. And if in the future, there are crises at the level experienced by Syrians, and now the Ukrainians, that temporary protection will be given and not discriminated between various groups, various nationalities, et cetera.
Leskovar: Furthering on that point, was there equal treatment and reception with respect to all groups of asylum seekers fleeing the conflicts in the Balkans?
Jessen-Petersen: Yes and no. First of all, let me be clear because I'm talking about my experience in UNHCR. There is no discrimination on the basis of nationalities. It is very clear because UNHCR is, like States, bound by international conventions, human rights conventions, refugee conventions, and the equality of treatment based on the individual situation. Whether he or she is a Syrian or Congolese, Ukrainian or a Croat, it is exactly the same approach that should be applied in accordance with international human rights and international refugee law.
Schleich: Obviously the role of international organizations is incredibly complicated in conflict situations, but I wanted to get your opinion. What do you believe the role of multilateral and international organizations should be in ensuring the equal treatment of all asylum seekers?
Jessen-Petersen: Well, let's now talk about the UN. The UN is an organization of 193 member states and it is certainly based on the principles of equality. That's clear also in accordance with the UN Charter. However, it is member states, and we see it right now in the UN Security Council, that determine political action. Unfortunately, and I should say as a former humanitarian worker, it is not up to humanitarian organizations. They look only at the needs of the persons irrespective of nationality. The needs are based on objective conditions and subjective conditions.
Whereas political institutions look at national interests and state interests, and that is the reason why for example, the Security Council of the UN is sadly, tragically unable to take decisive action on stopping the conflict in Ukraine, also in preventing the conflict a few months back. So for humanitarians, there is no difference because it's based on human security, whereas the states in the Security Council look at it first and primarily on the basis of, unfortunately, their own national interests and not in the interests of their mandate or what they should do, which is to look at the interest of peace and security irrespective of their individual political interests.
So when there is a big conflict, unfortunately, humanitarian workers and organizations depend on political action to prevent conflicts causing displacement so that a solution can be found to the humanitarian suffering. Without political action, humanitarian organizations can only provide emergency assistance and they do so irrespective of nationalities, et cetera, only on the basis of humanitarian needs. And as we see now in Ukraine, the humanitarian needs and the humanitarian suffering is colossal.
Leskovar: Building on the subject of humanitarian needs, one of the most heartening responses in support of the Ukrainian people has been seen through the massive fundraising efforts that have been earmarked for Ukrainian humanitarian aid. However, as we discussed in your course, such efforts also reveal the imbalance of funding available for responses to concurrent global humanitarian crises. What actions can multilateral organizations take to alleviate such institutional factors which hinder equitable operations?
Jessen-Petersen: Well, first of all, I mean there is a significant difference between what's happening in Ukraine and causing refugee exodus and internal displacement. Contrary to previous conflicts of this significant level, we know what's going on. You see it almost second by second, some of the worst violations. You see it! Whereas just 30 years ago in former Yugoslavia, there were reporters on the ground, but there were not, as now, minute to minute reports on what was actually going on. And if I could just say, we don't have TV reporting moving around in Congo, or moving around in Afghanistan, Myanmar, or Yemen reporting minute to minute or day to day on what's going on; how people are suffering, being displaced, and having their human rights violated. So that's a big difference.
The pictures are coming in. When you want to do something, you support it. The international organizations are exactly up against that problem because even if the numbers of Ukrainian refugees have reached record numbers all over the world, there were already 80 million displaced people, and now this is adding another 11 million or so. But the other 80 million are basically in countries in the Global South, with very little attention, and certainly very little media coverage.
So all that international organizations can do, as they do on a daily basis is, yes this sounds a little unfortunate, but use the current crisis in Ukraine. Nobody can be ignorant of what happens there now. Use that to fundraise with the risk that all the funds go into one situation. So I know from my own background that staff in the UN humanitarian internal organization and NGOs are working daily trying to keep all the other crises on the agenda by trying to raise funding. But just over the last three or four weeks, there have been two pledging conferences. One trying to mobilize funding for the very difficult situation in Afghanistan, where less than 50% of the needs assessed by the UN were raised. Then there was another pledging conference on Yemen where there are more than 2 million displaced persons. The pledging conference on Yemen provided only 20% of the needs.
I remember my time with UNHCR when we had the crisis in former Yugoslavia, we got a lot of funding, more than what we could use while we were underfunded in Africa and other parts of the world. And sometimes we actually asked donors who would come in maybe for the fourth or fifth time with funding for the former Yugoslavia and say, "That's very good of you and all, however, is there any way that we could suggest we move some of that funding to other parts of the world?," because we were not just funded, we were overfunded. So organizations try very hard, but you cannot drive donor responses beyond just appealing and reminding them about needs in other parts of the world. It is a very difficult situation.
Juarez: Thank you, professor. On a different note, I kind of want to talk about something that I remember from class. Personally, one of the most memorable points you made in your class was based on the optimism that you felt when describing the future of migration and migration policy. Can you elaborate on this and explain to us why you expect this area will improve?
Jessen-Petersen: Yeah. What I did say in our very first class, when I was giving an overview of what we were going to cover over the next 13 weeks, I did express a degree of, yes, optimism that the populist political parties in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere, were running out of steam. And my view was that whereas populism certainly was very prominent during and following the refugee and migration crisis in Europe in 2015 and 2016. By 2018 or so, the political agenda in elections from 2010 right up to 2016 and 2017, including Brexit in 2016 had immigration on top of the political agend, driven by populist political parties. In 2018, there were elections to the EU Parliament, and there was a concern that populist political parties in Europe would move forward and increase their support. That did not happen. By 2018, climate change has moved onto the agenda and was at the very top of the agenda. Then, a little over a year later, we got the pandemic, so health issues moved up, and migration moved down so it didn't play the same decisive role it had played in many elections such as in 2010, 2012, 2015, and 2016, including Brexit.
But now unfortunately, just over the last couple of days, we have seen developments that to me would also suggest that clearly populists parties are not running out of steam. In Hungary, clearly anti-immigration sentiments were at the top of the agenda, without any doubt because they were referenced constantly by Prime Minister Orbán. And we also see now that anti-immigration sentiment, unfortunately once again, is very prominent in the French elections. And what we are seeing there is exactly the same thing that has happened in other European countries. For these elections, even political parties, let's say those in the political center, are starting to move over to the political right. They have started compromising their statements on migration policies in order to make sure that they also get some of the votes that would go through the populist political parties. We have seen clearly that President Macron is increasingly becoming very very negative on a lot of migration issues because he is losing ground to the declared anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen.
I'm seeing again the issue of autocracy among populist political parties, and I think it's not wrong to say that the war in Ukraine is also a war between liberalism and autocratic regimes. So the optimism I had sort of dampened after seeing what happened in Hungary, not only that the autocratic Prime Minister won, but that he won big. Also, seeing the differences in France, for example, between the populist Le Pen and Macron. And then with the war, where really what is happening, what people are fighting for, what people are dying for in Ukraine is freedom, and it is the freedom to be European and a part of liberal democracies. Therefore, what's happening in Ukraine right now is very much a matter of freedom versus autocracy. So I'm not that optimistic. I hope, as everyone would hope, that the war in Ukraine concludes as a confirmation that freedom is what we all want, and that eventually again in future political elections in Europe that we will focus on climate change, on dealing with the pandemic, and with growing political and economic insecurity not using migration and migrants as a scapegoat for economic difficulties.
Juarez: I do think it's important to contextualize the fact that you had this belief several months ago when the course began and given the recent developments with Ukraine, do you mainly attribute this change in belief to be caused by the situation in Ukraine, or do you attribute it mostly to domestic politics in Europe? Or is it maybe both? Or do you see other factors contributing to this as well?
Jessen-Petersen: I think it is a bit of both. I said earlier, a very big difference between the war in Ukraine and other conflicts like Syria and the former Yugoslavia, that this one is transmitted directly into our homes and onto our screens 24 hours a day. So nobody can be in doubt of what's happening. Nobody. And then there was the very, generous reception of Ukrainians, although all receptions should be generous.
The fact that the states, which had been the most critical of the EU's attempts over the past 5-10 years of coming up with a common comprehensive migration asylum policy, the so-called Visegrád countries: Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary, are now the countries in the forefront, with open borders, welcoming and immediately inviting in Ukrainians. The hope that somebody like me would have is that this way of receiving refugees reminds all of us that when we talk about displacement, whether its internal displacement or refugees, what we're seeing on TV right now or on social media is happening every day to Syrians, to Yemenites, to Congolese, to Ethiopians, et cetera. And rather than seeing the response to Ukraine as a specific response to a specific situation, one might see it as a guide on how we should move forward in developing more humane refugee and migration policies. That I think is an opportunity.
One of the other reasons that countries are receiving the Ukrainians with open hearts, open homes, open houses, et cetera, is of course that the Ukrainians are very clear. They want to go back the sooner the better; actually, a few are already returning right now. This, of course, is where we have a challenge. I still believe, based on 30 years of work with refugees, that essentially all refugees want to go back and return to their own place. But I also know that if they have been away for 5 or 10 years, the conflict is still ongoing.
It may be a difficult prospect, but I hope we can learn from the response to Ukraine and that we can push government leaders, political parties to understand that all human beings have to be treated equally, irrespective of where they come from and not have specific arrangements and specific protection arrangements for specific groups. Can we do that? It's too early to say, but I hope there's an opportunity. So in a way Christian, I'm back to the optimism that I expressed two months ago, but seeing what's happening right now in Ukraine it is difficult to be optimistic. I hope in the medium or longer term we can use this as an opportunity. But meanwhile, people are paying an unbelievable price for this madness and insanity that we are seeing.
Leskovar: To close the interview on, again, a forward thinking question, as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to Kosovo and Head of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, you have written extensively on the challenges which arose during peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts. What parallels, if any, do you see arising in post-conflict Ukraine?
Jessen-Petersen: Yeah, I think this is again, as I said many times, a very different situation. First of all, this is a war. It is a war, and not sort of the internal kind of conflict we have seen over the last 20-30 years. It is also a war, as I mentioned earlier, where the UN Security Council is divided. Where regions of the world, governments within regions of the world, are divided on the causes of the conflict, and therefore on the response. Because in Kosovo, at the time, there was an agreement in the UN to establish the United Nations mission that I led for two years. There was a clear mandate of what that mission should do, and therefore, on the basis of a unanimous decision by the UN Security Council, it was very clear what that mission would be, and what I as the Special Representative should and could do. It was also very clear that the end of the mission in principle should be the moment when a political decision would be taken to determine the status of Kosovo. Unfortunately, that was also the moment where the unity that had existed while I was there, and had support from all governments, broke down.
But I'm saying this because what you need in all situations, and in Ukraine, is a political decision to end the conflict. That decision should ideally then end in a mandate on how to rebuild Ukraine, from trauma, from destruction, et cetera. That should be based on a clear mandate so that those moving in to support the Ukrainian government have a clear mandate on what to do. So in the case of Ukraine, we will not have a peacebuilding mission, because to be clear a peacebuilding mission requires that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council agree to establish a peacebuilding operation with a clear mandate. One of the parts of such a mandate would be, for example, the protection of civilians. We will not have such a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine. It is most likely that any peacebuilding effort will be evidently led, and should be led, by Ukraine. In this case, the support will come from the European Union, the European Bank for Reconstruction based in London, and from bilateral donors, rather than from the UN.
So, it will be a different set up without peacekeeping, but hopefully we will get to an end of the war with a clear mandate on how the Ukrainian government can rebuild. This, of course, would be massive, almost at the level of the Marshall aid that came to Europe after the Second World War, and the impact of that, as we all are aware of, will be based on the magnitude of needs and complexity of the tasks.
I think that there is only one thing that's clear, the government of Ukraine will be in charge. But how regional organizations get involved, again, depends on the Ukrainian government. Unfortunately, you cannot compare previous experiences, though there are a lot of commonalities. We will not have a clear peacekeeping mandate that defines what should be done by whom and how. The contours in setting up peacebuilding will certainly be around the government of Ukraine, in charting support major from European institutions, bilateral donors, nongovernmental organizations, et cetera.
But all of that depends on how the war ends, when it will end, how it will end. And there we unfortunately do not know.
Leskovar: Thank you for your time Professor Jessen-Petersen.