On 15 June 2017, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, a conference was held on “The human face of migration: Historical perspectives, testimonies and policy considerations.”

The Conference was held by UNESCO at United Nations University (UNU), and the keynote opening speakers were the Rector of the University, David Malone, the UNU representative to UNESCO, Daniel Rondeau, and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Marianna V. Vardinoyannis. The conference was part of the broader framework for developing a global agreement on migration, which is provided for by the New York Declaration on refugees and migrants (UN General Assembly, September 2016).

Opening the Conference proceedings, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, highlighted that the conference was linked to the “Welcoming Cities for Refugees” programme, an initiative of UNESCO, the European Coalition of Cities against Racism (ECCAR), and the Marianna V. Vardinoyannis Foundation, which was launched about a year ago and was established in November 2016, during the two-day Athens Meeting, which was held under the auspices of the President of the Republic, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, and which Mrs. Bokova herself participated in. “We are acting,” Mrs. Bokova said, “to support receiving societies and new ways we can live together, especially in cities. This was the spirit of our ‘Welcoming Cities for Refugees’ initiative, and this is our aim here at UNESCO. Allow me to once again welcome and express my profound respect for Marianna Vardinoyannis, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, who is participating with us in this Conference, the aim of which is to light the way for and promote the development of migration policies with human dignity at the centre of their actions.”

Taking the floor, Mrs. Vardinoyannis conveyed to the Conference our country’s experience of the refugee issue, saying: “My homeland, Greece, due to its geographical location, is one of the main gateways for refugees into Europe. Since 2015, we have witnessed the heroic efforts made by our islanders to save thousands of refugees reaching our shores under the most difficult conditions, as well as the superhuman efforts made by local authorities, non-governmental organisations – including those of our foundation, via the “We Care” Programme for the provision of medical care for child refugees – and local communities to provide shelter, food, clothing and medical care. One of the most salient examples is Lesbos, where some 500,000 refugees have arrived, in boats, from Turkey, on their way to Europe. Many reached their destination, while many others were forced, when the borders were closed, to remain in Greece, which was called upon to deal with this humanitarian crisis, despite its own economic crisis and the austerity measures imposed on the Greek people. This and many other examples render it imperative that we adopt policies for the inclusion of refugees in the social fabric of cities; policies that, on the one hand, will respect refugees’ human rights and, on the other, will not disrupt the day-to-day lives of the residents of the host cities. Today, in view of the global movement of populations, the sustainability of our cities and nations depends on the protection of human rights and the values of justice, equality and inclusion, as well as on our actions, which are inspired by a sense of compassion and solidarity. Because, unfortunately, there are many testimonies to the adverse working conditions of the refugees, the discrimination against them, and xenophobia. For example, women migrants often face three kinds of discrimination: as women, as unprotected workers, and as migrants.”

Later in her speech, Mrs. Vardinoyannis focused on the presentation of the “Welcoming Cities for Refugees” programme: “This programme is aimed at better understanding of the facts and difficulties of the refugee issue, and at enabling local authorities to better manage the parameters associated with reception and inclusion of refugees. We put special emphasis on the role receiving cities are called upon to play, as 80% of refugees settle in urban centres. To date, within the framework of our Programme, we have drawn up a study that includes useful ideas and practices for managing the issues associated with receiving and hosting refugees and migrants, like housing, nutrition, education, finding jobs. At this time, we are at the stage of preparing a handbook, a practical guide, that will provide the local administrations of refugee-reception cities and other involved organisations with the necessary data, new knowledge, advice and tools – all based on human rights and with particular sensitivity to the delicate issues associated with women and children – to facilitate them in their work, so that they can carry it out more easily and effectively.”

Mrs. Vardinoyannis’ remarks were followed by speeches from experts, including distinguished university professors, scientists, doctors, sociologists, and government and civil society representatives, who noted, among other things, that the migration and refugee issue has taken on huge proportions globally. According to the 2015 International migration report, the number of migrants throughout the world reached 244 million, including 20 million refugees; that is, people who did not choose to migrate, but were forced to do so. These numbers alone are terrifying and show the great challenges posed today by the inclusion of refugees and migrants into the receiving societies of the cities they arrive in.

The need to promote the implementation of appropriate policies on a local, national and global scale necessitates a deeper understanding of the repercussions of human mobility, and the testimony of the migrants themselves reveals at first hand the human face of this global phenomenon, thus contributing to the combating of entrenched prejudices and stereotypes.

Understanding of the conditions that force people to migrate is one of the vital parameters in dealing with the refugee and migration issue, and it can be achieved through a careful analysis of the issue’s history and development. This knowledge, in combination with the experiences and lessons we can draw from the many and diverse organisations involved in this issue, makes is possible for us to develop policies that respect the human rights of all migrants and refugees, regardless of gender, identity or status.