WRMC Chair Lloyd Axworthy IN CONVERSATION WITH Peace Magazine

Peace Magazine‘s Metta Spencer spoke with Lloyd Axworthy about his role as chair of the World Refugee & Migration Council. The following is an excerpt.

METTA SPENCER: Did I read that there are 80 million people who’ve had to flee?

LLOYD AXWORTHY: Actually, the latest numbers are 82 million. That’s the UN count, not including people who are internally displaced. These are people who have actually crossed borders. We are doing a lot of work right now in Central America because of conflicts and climate and corruption and gangs. The level of security is almost zero. People want to protect their families, whether they’re being threatened by a drought or by a 16-year-old drug king with an AK-47 or the police or the rampaging sorts of problems of poverty. A lot of people are on the move and it’s stressing the system out. The international system has been unable to keep pace.

SPENCER: And this is just the beginning. It’s going to get worse with global warming, right?

AXWORTHY: Sure. You can see the impacts already. I was reading this morning about the floods in Bangladesh. Close to a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar live on the river delta and on an island. Every time there’s a storm, they get flooded. And in the recent floods 70 to 80 refugees drowned. Life expectancy is not high in these camps as the climate becomes more severe. Then the COVID impact is that a lot of governments are closing their borders. They won’t accept resettlement anymore, because they don’t want to go through all the hurdles of quarantines. They seem unable to imagine a solution, so pressure is increasing. We have a narrative about ourselves as generous and responsible, but right now, close to 85% of all refugees are in countries neighboring them. So, the Syrian refugees are in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. The Rohingya refugees are in Bangladesh.

SPENCER: Bangladesh would be one of the poorest countries to have that responsibility.

AXWORTHY: That’s the point. At the council we push the idea of sharing responsibility. It is a basic principle, but it’s not being honored. The whole system is funded by donations. It’s like raising money for your kids’ spring prom. There are all kinds of pledging conferences and now the UN, for example, is only getting about 30 percent of what it needs to deal with the displacement of refugees and internally displaced persons [IDPs.] As a result, you’ve got refugees coming out of Sudan into Uganda and there isn’t enough money to feed them. Say there’s $500 million to feed, clothe, and help refugees sitting in Bangladesh on the river delta, the actual pledging does not even begin to match up. With the UN system of peacekeeping, fortunately every member state is assessed a certain amount, but when it comes to assistance for refugees and displaced persons, it’s all based upon generosity. The developed world is not very generous these days.

SPENCER: You and Allan Rock published an article in The Globe a few days ago. It seemed to apply primarily to people coming to the southern US border, mostly from Central America, but some from Venezuela and elsewhere in South America. They’re getting stopped there.

AXWORTHY: We start from a basic premise that goes back to the Action Report that we issued almost two years ago. Its key finding was that many institutions aren’t managing. Even the definition of a refugee goes back to the Second World War when large numbers of people were leaving the Soviet Union. The definition of a refugee in the 1947 Convention was: people fleeing political persecution. A protocol in the 1960s amended that slightly, but that doesn’t encompass even what we’ve talked about so far.

SPENCER: Right. Economic and climate causes.

AXWORTHY: Economics, climate, drugs, and family law. The Central American countries have a strong traditional system of remittances. Many want to get into the United States primarily to get money back to their family. More money is transferred through remittances than through foreign aid. Some of these countries depend upon that currency flow as part of their budget. We are trying to regulate that and give it some form of orderly status.

SPENCER: So how can you change the definition of a refugee to include some of these other categories of misery that impel people to leave their homes?

AXWORTHY: Metta, we’ve puzzled about that. Right now, Rosemary McCarney — one of our council members who is the former Ambassador to the UN in Geneva — is setting up a group dealing with climate and displacement, climate and refugees, and seeing the connections. I think a lot of people are very nervous about trying to change the definition because they’re afraid that if they open it up for debate, then it may become even more restricted than now. The UN is not functioning very well. The Russian and Chinese are basically trying to turn it back to the 19th century and under the Trump administration clearly the Americans were not very fond of the UN. There will have to be a major change to the convention. So we say: Let’s not spend too much time getting into the legalities of that, but let’s find other definitions that can apply.

We’re having debates around the world about vaccination passports. If you go back to the First World War, when there were large numbers of displaced persons, they were given what they call the Nansen Passport. Nansen was a Norwegian that worked for the League of Nations. That simply meant that you could cross borders and have access to healthcare and education without necessarily having to be a citizen or even landed. That created a degree of flexibility and took the pressure off large movements of people. It meant that you weren’t necessarily having to calculate this as part of your immigration numbers. It was just giving people certain basic rights when they’ve been displaced. In the article that Allan and I did, we said that the ancient right of sanctuary goes back to early Biblical times. It’s one of the oldest human rights in the history of humankind. We don’t treat it that way anymore. It’s becoming commercialized or militarized or politicized.

SPENCER: I had a conversation with people in what was Garry Davis’s organization, the World Government of World Citizens, and they issue world passports. It’s surprising how many times people have actually been able to use them as refugees to get into a country that would legally not accept them. They see this thing that looks like a passport so they let them in.

AXWORTHY: It’s a world passport?

SPENCER: Yes. It’s the same idea as the Nansen Passport, isn’t it? You just hope that nobody looks too seriously at its provenance.

AXWORTHY: In the Nansen case, it had legal standing, though it didn’t necessarily have a pathway to becoming a citizen in that country. You were there because you were escaping or that you were trying to promote security for yourself and/or your family. It meant that people had certain rights and just because they crossed a border, they shouldn’t be losing those rights which, in fact, they do. We partner with a group called GIRWL, which is a sort of international networking of refugee women to share their experiences and talk about their concerns. We’ve sponsored a couple of platforms for them so that they can provide dialogues on issues. And what they’re reporting on, for example, is that with the epidemic they are no longer last in the queue because they’re no longer even in the queue. They are stateless. In most countries, they are not given some kind of recognition or civil rights. So, when it comes to distribution of health equipment and vaccines, they’re not in the queue nor even considered.

SPENCER: Are these young women who are fleeing because they’re afraid of being sexually assaulted, forced into marriage, or something?

AXWORTHY: Often they’re with families and many of them have lost their husbands or their siblings or parents. One of the problems of displacement is that they’re never sure where they’re going to end up. So, whether you’re escaping from Libya to Italy, for example, one out of ten who are on these routes, rafts, and boats drown. There were 1,000 drownings just last year of refugees coming out of Libya. Because we go back to Thomas Hobbes and the Leviathan state, once you establish a certain authority of the state, the prize is to be a citizen. You’ve got some standing. You may be very low on the rung, but at least you have got certain basic rights. But if you are a refugee or displaced person, you have to be given that right. As a result, a lot of countries are cutting back and restricting. We’ve seen the kind of deplorable things that Donald Trump and his crowd did in the United States, separating children from their parents. That was really medieval. Now we’re facing the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. The Taliban are running wild, targeting particularly young girls who have been going to school or those that have worked for the United Nations. The issue in Canada is how to bring interpreters and translators who worked with the Canadian forces? That’s a very important category, but they’re not the only people who have been targeted by the Taliban.

SPENCER: If all the people who are really in danger were counted, how many are there? Are we talking 100,000 people?

AXWORTHY: Or more. Look at what happened in Indochina when the Americans pulled out of Vietnam. Do you remember the massive number of people leaving in small sampans and boats? I was immigration minister for Canada at the time. We were involved in a good collaborative international effort. People were fleeing because they knew that if they were in any way associated with the Americans or the French or the white colonists, they were going to be imprisoned or maybe executed or killed. They certainly would not be given any privileges to make a living or go to school. We’re in danger of seeing that happen in Afghanistan now.

SPENCER: How many boat people were there?

AXWORTHY: I think it was 300,000 or 400,000.

SPENCER: So, we might be looking at numbers like that now?

AXWORTHY: Well, Pakistan, the closest neighbor, has said they’re going to close the borders because they already have over a million Afghan refugees. They say they cannot take more. Many neighboring countries don’t have the resources or public support for an open border.

SPENCER: This has to be the time for re-thinking how to handle things on a mass scale. Even five years from now there could be famine because of global warming. The numbers will dwarf the current numbers. If we don’t have a plan by then, it’s going to be a hundred times worse. But where you are going to get the leadership for any kind of global initiative of that scale? Such a mindset would go in the opposite direction from these nationalistic people. Biden is a decent man, but his margin of political power is thin. He’s not sitting pretty on mass support. He could lose in the midterm congressional election, so he can’t do anything as bold as we need.

AXWORTHY: One of the big problems Biden’s facing is that the right wing are using the migration on the southern border as a club, saying: “Look at all these people coming here.” They’re kind of fueling American xenophobia. We’re calling for a regional approach to migration — a shared responsibility — with Canada, the United States, Mexico, the Central American countries, the United Nations actually working together. The first humanitarian requirements are the hundreds of thousands at the border without property security, safety, food, and education. What happens to these kids who are sitting in camps for two, three, or four years and are uneducated? Young, uneducated people are drawn into crime and drugs. Our proposal is to help the Biden administration by saying “We’re all in this together, we’re going to share responsibility, we’re going to look at resettlement, and we’re going to provide.”

Canada has a well-organized immigration system. I was Immigration Minister in the early 1980s under Pierre Trudeau. The immigration laws have been overhauled, allowing for discretion to make policies. To retain public support for immigration, we must not have large numbers of people massing at the borders, so the Canadian system does most of our vetting and choosing in the countries of origin. As a result, there’s lots of line-ups sometimes in some of the capitals of these countries, but you can have access to information there rather than having to fill out forms 3,000 miles away. That could be used in Central America.

SPENCER: Have you talked to Kamala Harris about this? She’s in charge of that problem.

AXWORTHY: Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State, is a member of this task force and she clearly has her connections. We’ve had good conversations with the minister of immigration, Marco Mendocino, and the minister of international development, Karina Gould.

SPENCER: We did an article about a year ago about the children crossing, not just the US border, but globally as a whole. Many refugees are underage — like 10 years old — travelling across the border with no adults. Is there any organization that takes care of these kids?

AXWORTHY: UNICEF and the UNHCR have the situation on their radar, but they are underfunded. Also, a number of NGOs — Care Canada, the Norwegian Red Cross. Churches are probably the most important lifeline for a lot of these kids. They have special schools and sanctuaries. You put your finger on the fundamental issue — to look at the reasons for so many children being abandoned and on the refugee trail. We are recommending this as part of the task force on the Americas. I’m an optimist. I have seen that you can actually make changes. As you know, when I was the foreign minister, we did the Landmines Treaty, which has saved a lot of lives. It had been impossible under the old system but we went outside the system. We worked with civil society. Many governments say: “We’ll listen to NGOs.” With the Landmine Treaty, we weren’t listening, we were partnering. That was a big, big difference. If you are working in an integrated and connected way, the chance of innovating is higher.

And it wasn’t just the Landmine Treaty. We used the same formula for the International Criminal Court, and for the protocol on child soldiers. It does take leadership, which is not present now, I think, because of COVID. Everybody is hunkering down and being concerned about their own population. One tragedy of our global system is that vaccines have been monopolized by wealthy countries, like our own. It’s also stupid, because large numbers of people in poorer countries are not being vaccinated and they’re going to be carriers of the virus, which will mutate. How many more mutations can you cope with? We’re sitting on large supplies of vaccines on the shelf. Or if they go to a country through the international agreement called COVAX, how do you deliver it? How do you get the jabs in the arms? Where’s the health personnel? Where are the public health systems? No man is an island.

SPENCER: Right. And the response has promoted “our country first” nationalism. You have to close the borders, but then that’s just one more sign of this nationalistic mentality rather than looking for global solutions.

AXWORTHY: That’s right.

SPENCER: I wish the Secretary General of the UN could take bold steps, but that’s not in the cards. What are the other options? Biden lacks the political capital for that kind of thing. I don’t know how much support he would get.

AXWORTHY: I think your analysis is right. And I think that’s part of the issue. The UN has been stalemating because of opposition, particularly from the Chinese and the Russians, to international cooperation. To them, it’s all a zero-sum game. They say: “We have a better system, look how we can do things.” Well, we’re learning how they can do things when it comes to epidemics and floods. And they’re not so good. But to go back to your point, I think that I agree. I don’t think the Secretary General provides much leadership. He’s not approaching that of Kofi Annan.

SPENCER: Aside from his personal qualities, does the office carry the clout that it should? At this point in history, all of the major problems that we face just to survive as a species have to be addressed as a species and as a global community, yet at this moment people are looking inward and becoming tribalistic and nationalistic. I don’t get it.

AXWORTHY: We’re paying the price for some bad decisions. And all kinds of right-wing social media can come together now, which really poisons people. Look at people’s reactions to vaccines and masks. Sheer insanity. The ability to connect has a lot of big plusses to it, but it also has some big negatives. The combination of having that technology to use and the mushrooming of hothouse-flower billionaires who are all going to space.

SPENCER: I wish we could revive a spirit of globalism, as opposed to nationalism. By the way, let me throw you a curveball. Yesterday, on the talk show a guest said that while you were foreign minister, China was able to change the way human rights issues were handled. Rather than using so-called “megaphone diplomacy,” China insists that such conflicts as the current one over this Meng Wanzhou woman or these two Michaels should be handled bilaterally, behind closed doors, in “quiet diplomacy,” and without public kerfuffle. He said that you went along with that change. Instead of being the kind of problem to be dealt with in public at the UN, it is done bilaterally now, say between China and Canada. You had allowed China to change the terms of relationships about human rights. Does that make any sense to you?

AXWORTHY: No. In fact, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Our approach said, “Look, there’s a lot of people that we don’t like, or are adversarial, but you do have to talk to them.” During the Cold War, we had to talk to the Soviets, and we have to talk to the Russians now about the Arctic. When it came to China, the Prime Minister would bring along a large delegation: “Team Canada.” I was working on the other track, because we agreed that engaging actively on the economic front could open up possibilities on the human rights front. That was my portfolio. The one thing that we did do in negotiation with the Chinese government was to establish a very clear set of agreements and protocols on dual citizenship for around 200,000 Canadians of Hong Kong heritage. We negotiated an agreement that China would honor their rights. Well, in this last year they haven’t done that. The two Michaels case has filled the room and we haven’t been able to do effective diplomacy with China itself. So, rather than allowing China to change the rules, we changed the rules to provide protection for our own Canadians, which the present government should be doing as well.

SPENCER: We were talking yesterday about what to do about China, which most of us consider ominous.

AXWORTHY: You have to do it in company with others, balancing containment against engagement. Somewhere in between is where you maintain your flexibility or your capacity to move one way or the other. Containment means to take them on. For example, there needs to be a much stronger effort at the United Nations to counter the influence of the Chinese. Not only around the Security Council table. They are taking over the agencies of the UN and resetting their mandates to be government-to-government, as opposed to supporting civil society groups and NGOs. The Chinese are placing people in various UN agencies — the World Health Organization, UNICEF, etc. — where they can instill the Xi Jinping’s view, which is “might makes right” and “the bigger the stronger.” We should counter that, but we feel handcuffed by the stalemate and our inability to free the two Michaels.

I was a signatory to a letter from a number of former diplomats and ministers to the Prime Minister saying: “Look, there’s nothing wrong in negotiating. There’s nothing wrong even doing quiet diplomacy.” As foreign minister I dealt with cases where Canadians had been kidnapped. You do it. You don’t go to the headlines. I think the case of the two Michaels was a setup by the Trump administration, but he’s no longer there.

Metta, how to come to grips with China these days is a huge issue, because of the economics at stake, and increasingly it’s also environmental. They still have 1,000 coal-generated power plants and they’re now the largest emitter of CO2 in the world. If we don’t get China on board — which is not easy to do, because they use the green argument to basically go in and take control and many of smaller countries’ economies in Asia and Africa, even in the Americas. They get control of resources, minerals, trees, things of that kind — and particularly fossil fuels. They still are the largest user of fossil fuels. I’m not sure that we can achieve that kind of balanced approach with China. I’m always looking for those balances between two ends of the stick. We’re handicapped now, not being able to do that.

SPENCER: Talk a bit about that little blue booklet that was on the World Refugee Council website. It is going to take a lot of clout to make those proposals happen. I just would love to think that Canada could contribute to that in some way.

AXWORTHY: Well, we have opportunities. We still have a good reputation. One thing in that report — the Action Report that we tabled — was the whole idea of taking frozen assets and repossessing them. The World Bank estimates annually about $20 billion at a minimum becomes sanctioned and frozen and are sitting in bags and piggy banks around the world by the despots, the war lords, the kleptocrats. We proposed that Canada ask the federal court to examine where there are frozen assets in our banks or other financial systems and repossess them or redirect them back to the people who have been victimized by those despots, warlords, and kleptocrats.

Refugees are a good example. We’re totally underfunded, and partly because of corruption, governments can’t manage them. So, suppose you find a little treasure that Gaddafi left in a Canadian bank. A lot of the housing money on the West Coast is basically laundered money coming in. We felt that this would be a decisive way, first of deterring these kind of clowns in government who basically robbed their own people. And, second, it would be revenue to put back into their national system. So, Senator Ratna Omidvar brought a special resolution into the Senate last year that encompasses that particular idea. She’s another member of our council. We were hoping to get it on the order paper now, but I guess with the election coming up that will be put off. We are working to see if political parties will have this in their election campaigns to do something about redistributing frozen assets.

Now, if we were working through the UN, we could not have done that, because there would be vetoes. The problem with trying to do major initiatives at the UN is that everything goes down to the lowest common denominator and in the Security Council you get the veto power. But there are ways to work in a totally new universe where you can put different networks together. If copied by several other countries, the measure I just described would have a major impact on properly funding humanitarian needs and also deter the people who are putting other peoples’ money in their piggy bank.

SPENCER: That’s a brilliant idea. But suppose later they come back to reclaim it. For example, the US holds or was holding a lot of Iranian funds, but as part of a negotiated deal, they gave some of it back. If later they unfreeze the frozen assets, it would be all gone. How do you make sure you’re talking about assets that are really proper to confiscate completely?

AXWORTHY: That’s why the judgment or the adjudication that we propose should be through our federal court system. It would be in a financial vault somewhere, but they’d determine if there’s a reason for keeping it frozen. And whom should it go to if it’s unfrozen? You don’t want to go back to the nieces and nephews of the dictator.

SPENCER: Okay, what about using the Ottawa Process that you developed for landmines? Hold a get-together of like-minded states, with the support of various civil society organizations, and say: “Let’s form an agreement that we’ll all generally do this?” I don’t know if you could call it a treaty.

AXWORTHY: You could. What we did in the Ottawa process wasn’t rocket science. We simply said that: “Someone has to be a champion; some government has to take the lead.” And as you recall, this coming fall will be the 25th year from the time I stood up at a conference in Ottawa on landmines and said: “This is going nowhere, but I’m inviting you all to come back and sign a treaty a year from now.” And as you probably remember, everyone thought I was crazy. But it worked.

SPENCER: Maybe we need a social movement to promote your Action Plan. Just waiting for somebody else to do it is no fun. What you’re doing is important, so let’s get behind you and push.

AXWORTHY: Thank you. I appreciate that very much, Metta. Thank you.

SPENCER: It’s been a delight talking to you again.


  • The Honourable Lloyd Axworthy is the chair of the World Refugee Council and one of Canada’s leading voices on global migration and refugee protection. After a 27-year political career, where he served as Canada’s minister of Foreign Affairs and minister of Employment and Immigration, among other postings, Mr. Axworthy has continued to work extensively on human security, refugee protection and human rights in Canada and abroad. He was presented with the Pearson Peace Medal by the Governor General of Canada in May 2017. In his term as president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, Mr. Axworthy initiated innovative programs for migrant and aboriginal youth communities, and has also done a great deal of work on refugee reform as a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow at Germany’s Robert Bosch Academy.