UN refugee chief encouraged by Pope in the quest for just migration policies

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees speaks about the far-reaching refugee crises in DRC and South Sudan, two nations waiting to welcome Pope Francis, and about lessons learnt by Europe in dealing with Ukrainian refugees. He also describes the "moral booster" he received from Pope Francis whom he met in the Vatican on Monday morning.

By Linda Bordoni

Speaking to Vatican Radio immediately after a papal audience on Monday morning, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees commented on the Holy Father's upcoming apostolic journey to two African nations where millions of people have been forced to flee violence, and spoke of the need for a common and just legislative model to guarantee the respect of human dignity for all.

After having been received in audience by Pope Francis, Filippo Grandi said the Pope’s personal encouragement provided him with a much-needed energy recharge after a heart-breaking visit to Ukraine.

Listen to the full interview with Filippo Grandi

“As always,” a meeting with Pope Francis, Filippo Grandi said, “is immensely inspiring.” Especially for someone like himself, whose job entails dealing with so many desperate situations: “Desperate for people and desperate in political terms, because they seem to have no issue most of the time.”

“To spend a few minutes with the Holy Father recharges you and gives you new energy, as he recommended me to have: to face the challenges ahead, which are many all over the world!”

This meeting came on the heels of having spent six days in devastated Ukraine, Grandi added: “So I did need that moral booster.”

Grandi visits Saltivka in Kharkiv, Ukraine
Grandi visits Saltivka in Kharkiv, Ukraine

The voice of the Pope

The UN refugee chief expressed his firm belief that Pope Francis’ tireless appeal to welcome, protect, promote, and integrate our brothers and sisters on the move is “phenomenally important in so many ways, and beyond the Church, [...] globally.”

For example, he continued, the upcoming trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to South Sudan, which was discussed during the papal audience, provides the occasion to remind the world that “there are conflicts that are largely forgotten,” and that “when you have a huge crisis - a high profile crisis like Ukraine - that forgetfulness increases somehow.”

“So it's important that the Pope goes, at this time, to those areas where people suffer tremendously because of conflict, violence, especially violence against women.”

A South Sudanese refugee in refugee camp in White Nile State
A South Sudanese refugee in refugee camp in White Nile State

Humanitarian awareness

It is also important, Grandi said, “that he reminds the world that the consequences of these conflicts need to be dealt with. That means humanitarian responses need to be supported.”

“We struggle to raise funds for eastern Congo, one of the most beleaguered regions in the world.”

And then, he said, it is important that the Pope encourages peace efforts, “because very often they are not sufficiently supported internationally, and therefore they linger for years without much result, as we have seen, certainly in eastern Congo, and to an extent, on and off around the South Sudan conflict as well.”

As mentioned, both these countries pose significant challenges to humanitarian organizations that work with migrants and refugees because of the sheer number of people who are displaced and fleeing violence in both nations.


UNHCR operates together with other UN agencies, NGOs, and civil society groups in DRC and in South Sudan, notwithstanding the danger for officials and aid workers.

“These are among two of the most dangerous areas in the world,” Grandi said.

“I think, unfortunately, the South Sudan humanitarian operation has the highest death rate of humanitarian workers of any situation in the world.”

So, he continued,  “we look to this [papal] visit to highlight this important aspect.”

An internally displaced person at the UNHCR refugee camp in Bushagara, DRC
An internally displaced person at the UNHCR refugee camp in Bushagara, DRC

The vicious circle of violence and displacement

Another issue Grandi said he discussed with Pope Francis regards the vicious circle of violence and displacement.

“Forced displacement is not only a consequence of these conflicts, and of other conflicts as well, it becomes a factor.”

As we have seen with the recent tensions between Rwanda and Congo, he explained, “it becomes a factor that needs to be addressed.”

“People are victimized, are impacted in many different tragic ways.”

Learning the lesson

Grandi’s mandate and vision are much broader than tackling refugee issues in specific areas. UNHCR’s mission, international outreach, and presence mean having to deal with a lack of common policies and political diversity in an increasingly polarised and divided world.

Asked what his hopes are for the year to come, he reflected on the lessons garnered from the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Describing the situation in Ukraine as a terrible tragedy, the High Commissioner noted that the fact that such a huge number of Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed and offered shelter and assistance has led to comments by some regarding double standards and discrimination towards migrants and refugees from other regions.

“It is true, he said, that Ukrainians have been treated very well and that this is not the case, always, with other people from other nationalities.”

“But I try to see this from the positive side,” Grandi continued, noting that important lessons have been learnt: “Temporary protection, access of refugees to services, to the job market, freedom of movement.”

Refugee children from Ukraine in Hungary
Refugee children from Ukraine in Hungary

“All of this, far from being a complication for States has been an advantage, has made receiving refugees much more efficient and humane. And that's also because States in Europe in particular, have worked together.”

Reflecting on how it is inevitable that people will continue to migrate, Grandi said the response Europe has had for Ukraine has “created a model along lines that we've been advising governments to follow for many decades.”

On this theme, Grandi concluded, he discussed the Global Compact for Migration with the Pope and said they agreed it is “the way to go.”

“Working together so that receiving refugees remains respectful of who they are, whatever their eventual status.”

Because, he reiterated, that is not only humane, it is also effective.

“It's possible to be humane and effective. This is the lesson we've learned. And this, I hope, is a prospect for the future.”

IDPs and refugees lining up for lunch at the Nyakabande Holding area in Kisoro, Uganda
IDPs and refugees lining up for lunch at the Nyakabande Holding area in Kisoro, Uganda

Thank you for reading our article. You can keep up-to-date by subscribing to our daily newsletter. Just click here

30 January 2023, 16:47