by Christopher Moran, exclusive to WAM ABU DHABI, 19th November, 2016 (WAM) – Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has said that the humanitarian aid and logistics help given by the United Arab Emirates is vitally important to the agency, especially in view of the recent announcement that the state has committed to taking in 15,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years, joining the more than 240,000 Syrians currently living in the UAE.

In an exclusive interview with WAM, Mr. Grandi explained that the UAE has good mechanisms in place to collect donations, and, with Dubai International Humanitarian City (DIHAD), is also perfectly placed to handle the logistics of aid distribution worldwide, acting as the ideal hub in dealing with the delivery of physical aid to crisis-hit regions, wherever they may be.

Grandi is in the UAE for the first time in his capacity as the High Commissioner of the UN Refugees Agency, having previously visited when he was Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA.

In a series of meetings this week on the occasion of the 7th Annual Sir Bani Yas Forum, including high level ministerial consultations, Grandi will be hoping to consolidate the agency’s outlook for both the short and long-term future, while also working on the procedure for the UAE’s process of absorbing refugees.

The Sir Bani Yas Forum is organised annually by the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, MoFAIC, and the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies. The original initiative of H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the forum aims to create a space for action-oriented discussions among leading policy and opinion-makers concerning critical issues relevant to the Middle East.

But for Mr. Grandi, and his staff of over 15,000, the Middle East is just one of many hot-spots around the world where aid is needed. “The Syrian refugees, who now have suffered the longest period of displacement in the agency’s history, the Iraqis, Yemenis, Afghanis and Libyans, they are a big hub of crisis, but there are also conflicts in Africa, South and Central America, and across Asia. But there are glimpses of positive things happening as well, for example, in Myanmar recently, we saw the return of refugees who had been sheltering in neighbouring Thailand, some for many, many years, which gives us reason to be optimistic.”

The UNHCR is also very active in Africa, where internal conflicts and strife are causing a flood of refugees to leave countries like the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a situation which, Mr. Grandi said, “is being watched very carefully as the states experience on and off crises, and it is quite fragile at the moment.”

The High Commissioner continued, “South Sudan is another place where atrocities are compounded by food and water insecurity, adding to distress and causing over one million people to go to neighbouring countries. In the Lake Chad Basin states, the activities of Boko Haram have caused millions of refugees to flee, but now, while the issue of Boko Haram is shrinking from a military perspective, we are facing increasing food shortages throughout the region.

Mr. Grandi was pleased to point out that many of the neighbouring countries receiving refugees are very welcoming, despite the fact that they are what is known as ‘developing nations’ as opposed to developed or newly industrialised countries.

Speaking about the aid given by the UAE and other GCC states, the High Commissioner emphasised that there are a lot of funds raised, not only from state players, but also from individuals and foundations dedicated to helping those in need. “This aid is applied globally, and is greatly boosted by the help of our UNHCR Eminent Advocates, like H.H. Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, wife of the Ruler of Sharjah, whose activities are outstanding as she travels the world helping to get donations for us. She is now joined by Indonesian philanthropist, Dato Sri Tahir, and Turkish-born entrepreneur, Hamdi Ulukaya, making up our three Eminent Advocates. Their work in encouraging others to actively participate in our causes is vital to the agency.”

Mr Grandi also praised the UAE for its help to Syrian refugees in Jordan, saying that its contributions in setting up the camps, organising medical aid and schooling, is making a terrific difference to the people there, especially when it comes to food and water security. “This aid is invaluable, and we are very grateful to the UAE government for its commitment to continuing support to the camps.”

When asked about his near-30 years’ experience with the United Nations, Grandi said that he was saddened by the longevity of many of the problems faced by the agency, specifically mentioning the plight of Palestinians, Somalis, and Lebanon, where it is estimated that 25 percent of the population are refugees. But, he said, he still holds out hope, and there are signs of improvement in other regions. “There has been significant progress in Colombia recently, as the government and FARC rebels are showing goodwill in their efforts to restore peace after decades of internal struggles which caused over 7.5 million people to seek refuge in other countries.”

However, the situation in South and Central America is now exacerbated by criminal gangs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala acting as ‘rogue governments’. “These gangs are dealing in drugs, indulging in kidnappings, using rape as a weapon, and causing many to leave their homes, not only to become internally displaced, but also to find security in other countries, even perhaps finding their way to the United States of America, although that situation may change soon,” he said.

In Europe, the refugee issue is changing, as the High Commissioner explained, “In 2015, the refugees were mainly Syrians, upwards of one million in that year alone, but as their routes to safety have been blocked, we are now seeing that most refugees are coming from Libya, and unfortunately, the number who are dying during the journey is on the rise – we have just reached the terrible record of over 4,600 deaths at sea in one year, mostly caused by unsafe boats and unscrupulous shippers.”

In closing, the High Commissioner expressed optimism and thanked the people of the UAE, and the world, for not giving in to ‘donor fatigue’ and maintaining their generosity. “Thanks to improved communications, like the Internet and social media, we can reach more people in our fight against prolonged suffering; we can look at bigger resources in compensation, and hopefully find a way to mitigate the problems facing the 60 million people of concern around the world, the refugees, asylum-seekers, and the internally displaced.”