#TFSummit18 – George Papandreou: “Migrants and refugees should be seen as the new Europeans”

For this year’s Techfugees Global Summit, we had the very great honor to welcome on stage the former Prime Minister of Greece (2009-2011), Councillor at the World Refugee Council, and Techfugees’ Board member George Papandreou* to open the conference.

We could not have dreamt of a better tone of speech to introduce this year’s Summit theme (Let’s tech the borders down – Breaking barriers and building bridges).

As a way to express our gratefulness and as many of you asked for it, we are posting the full script of the speech below, and encourage all of our readers to take a few minutes to watch the video of his talk and share it widely if it inspires you.

“First, I owe congratulations to all who have made Techfugees possible and made this event a crossroad for innovative thinking and real station of empathy, for human beings thinking about the plight of other human beings.

This concept may sound simple but I know the hard work so many have put in, the enthusiasm to make this happen. Let me thank you also coming from Greece on all many of you have done for refugees in my country.

But I also know, we know, that we live in a world where more and more these simple concepts of empathy, solidarity, working together, respecting diversity, are under attack.

At a younger age, I myself have seen both sides. I was a refugee in Sweden with my family. Actually, my father, grandfather even great-grandfather were refugees many times in their lives. One day I was attacked on the streets, by someone who shouted ‘get out of my country you black skull’. If you can believe it I had hair and it was dark hair. We were called black skulls.

On the other hand – I was so grateful to countries like Sweden that embraced us, supported us, fought with us in solidarity for democracy in Greece. I will never forget this.

Let me focus on this clash – as this will be the political challenge ahead of us, throughout the world.

Our societies are experiencing awe-inspiring changes. Some open opportunities such as technology, others loom dark such as climate change. Robotics and AI should make our lives easier, or they may make our lives super-controlled by big brothers, governments, corporations, and algorithms, or we, most human beings, could simply become irrelevant as Yuval Hariri has written in his recent book.

Those who own the robots will profit while we will be useless.

In our global economy, we have seen millions lifted from poverty. And actually we have the capacity as a human race, a capacity never seen before in human history, wealth, technical know-how, experience, – to eliminate poverty, illiteracy, contagious disease, and solve major challenges such as climate change. Techfugees knows this.

I believe in technology: Innovations for refugees include cash transfers technology, online lending platforms, crowd- mapping, crowdsourcing, apps for information- sharing, translations, new housing options, online education programs, MOOCs, more transparent distribution and use of humanitarian aid, id’s, integrating into new neighborhoods, machine learning, algorithms, AI, to improve responsiveness to the refugee crises or to find jobs when resettled, prevention or early warning for conflict and human rights violations, democratizing mapping as well as citizens’ journalism.

Do no harm: refugees are vulnerable: blockchain, biometrics, databases can be tracked or hacked, and often used for the opposite purpose by authoritarian regimes – such as in Myanmar where persecution is the goal.

I would like to appeal to our Techfugees to explore ways of making technologies both affordable and safe for use by forcibly displaced people, while also ensuring the highest standards of privacy and security in storing data.

Why aren’t we moving faster? One reason is that we are also witnessing the biggest concentration of wealth, and therefore power in the hands of a few. The 1% having more wealth than the bottom 50% of the global population.

This is impacting politics. Powerful lobbies, corporations larger and more powerful than countries, money and corruption, have captured politics, media, institutions. I’ve seen it. The Greek financial crisis was very much because of this.

At the same time, our institutions are still basically national yet the challenges are global. For example, tax havens. No one government can tackle this problem without cooperation. Yet we are losing precious resources that would otherwise be invested in education, welfare, research and fighting human suffering – such as the refugee issue!

The stats:

The UNHCR – displaced globally by conflict and persecution stood at 68.5 million at the end of 2017, the greatest number since World War II.

Increasing 30.6 million new internal displacements in 2017, with a total 40 million estimated to be internally displaced as a result of conflict and violence at the end of 2017.

The number of people facing acute hunger globally, due largely to conflict and instability, reached almost 74 million across eighteen countries in 2017.

The trend is clear: war and conflict are destroying more lives and livelihoods, pushing more people toward despair and driving more people – despite dangers that are often mortal – to try their chances elsewhere.

The increasing impact of climate change is adding to the scale and urgency of the challenge.

Meanwhile, refugees are woefully under-supported. Appeals for funding consistently fall well short of their goals.

More and more is being asked of the countries and communities that host refugees, themselves some of the poorest in the world.

The possibilities: In the EU – we could quite easily deal with the recent crisis: 1 million sounds large but a continent of around 600 mln can absorb this number. If we worked together if we all shared responsibilities as the New-York Declaration in 2016 states.

We could be politically innovative:

As Europe seeks to define its own identity why not think out of the box.

Migrants and refugees should be seen as the new Europeans. This is an opportunity to build a European consciousness beyond borders.

We should move both to integrate them but also give them the possibility to participate in building our union.

– a European passport should be the goal for all who settle in the EU (as well as efficient and humane identification procedures at the initial stages) – which would also give them the right to vote in European and local elections. Their voice need be heard and truly listened to.

– a European agency that disburses benefits and aid to those who reach our shores, not dependent on member states willingness or financial situation. For example, why not give refugees a European scholarship to train wherever in the EU – such as an Erasmus program for refugees.

At its core, the world is not facing a refugee crisis so much as a crisis of leadership—a deficit of vision, humanity, and solidarity. And a surfeit of indifference, cynicism, and greed.

Failing to summon humane and collective responses to the broadening challenge of forced displacement will have moral, economic and strategic consequences.

Why this failure?

The narratives: I would, however, like to conclude with an appeal to our tech community.

Tech has moved the world. But if we want the world to move in the right direction we need a new politics, promote these values, as well as new narratives – even around refugees.

As we face huge challenges I see three modes of response:

One I call the suicide mode: nothing can change through politics, things will solve themselves, things are not so bad, or even if they are I can’t do much, I’ll just resign to my corner or cocoon.

The second I call the assassination mode: some call it populism – I think it’s worse. We don’t look at the real problems, if we are losing jobs it is not that education costs too much for families, if we don’t have good healthcare services it is not that the big pharma corporations are making huge profits at our expense, if we don’t have public investment it is not that there is huge inequality, if we have extreme weather, it is not climate change or the oil industry, if we have refugees it is not because of the repeated invasions in Iraq, Afganistan or Libya, blame the Chinese, blame the Hondurans who are part of ISIS, blame the Latinos who are mobsters and rapists, blame the scientists who are lying about the climate, blame the enemy of the nation – like CNN, or Hillary, or Barack, bomb them, wipe them out. This is the assassination mode. And it is real!

And the refugees are one of the victims – but we all victims of this rhetoric in the end as we will be the ‘other’ if we do not go along with this authoritarian narrative. if we do not fit into what they think is the proper identity.

Then there is a third mode:

I call it the giving birth mode. Birth may be a natural phenomenon. But let us think of it in societal terms. As society changes it has its pains, its expectations, its surprises. As with the newborn, giving birth is a collective, a communal event, one of creation, learning, we need to nurture the new, growing up with risks and mistakes we forgive, we continue to love and have companionship. Birth is painful and yet it is a happy event.

A refugee is a person who wants to be re-born. A new life, a new start.

At the same time, a refugee is a change maker. By definition, a refugee is leaving because she cannot survive in her country. He, she wants change.

In their new environment refugees have at least two identities. They compare, they have to evaluate, what I cherish from my tradition and bring to my new home, what I learn from my new country. Maybe that is why they have much in common with millennials, who travel physically virtually always moving from one to another world.

Refugees may be in extreme situations but they actually highlight deficiencies in host societies. If there are long lines for the hospital in Lesvos, because of bad management, it is not the refugees’ fault, we need to innovate our health services for all.

And technology can help if there is a will. If there is trafficking and corruption in our bureaucracies, the refugee issue may highlight it but it is a wider issue that affects us all. In fact, refugees have more common interests with the disadvantaged or average citizens in our societies than those who want to represent them through populism.

So a different narrative would be to see refugees as an opportunity, an ally in changing our societies for the better. In learning from each other. In being part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Investing in refugees has one more very important aspect:

Talking to Yama yesterday from Afghanistan we had a common experience. He goes back from the Netherlands to his village to make change. He knows things can be better. He sees it daily in Eindhoven. He is a change agent for his country. I did the same as many other greek refugees. We returned confident that Greece can change.

What better investment if the developed countries invest in refugees as the future architects and engineers, of Libya, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, wherever, so that they can build a better, more just, more tolerant and diverse, more transparent society when the conflicts are over.

I know the tech community often does not like politics. I understand. But the Ancient Greek concept of politics was our belief that we can actually take our fate into our hands, change it for the better, collectively, democratically. That is the kind of politics we need to revive.

I’m not asking you to vote for one or another party. I am asking you to be active. Don’t be absent as in the Brexit vote. I know you are. As we approach very crucial elections – such as in the EU in 8 months. And in the US or elsewhere.

There are those who espouse the rhetoric of hate and xenophobia. We must isolate them yet embrace those who they are trying to convince. We must support those who believe in diversity, critical thinking, free press, collective wisdom, justice and equality, sustainable societies.

And believe me, don’t look for saviors quick-fix solutions aren’t always possible. It is about the community as Mike said. People are the solution. And Techfugees has proven – it has the spirit and the tech capacity to spread a message of humanism and hope around the world.

I wish you all best of success.

Thank you.”


*George A. Papandreou is former Prime Minister of Greece (2009-2011).

Currently, he is:

  • the President of the Socialist International (since 2006) the largest global organization of progressive political parties,
  • President of the Movement of Democratic Socialists in Greece,
  • Councilor at the World Refugee Council,
  • Vice President of the Foundation for Olympic Truce,
  • Member of the Global Leadership Council of Sustainable Development Solutions Network – A Global Initiative for the United Nations,
  • Member of the Global Leadership Council of the humanitarian organization Mercy Corps,
  • Commissioner of the Global Commission on Drug Policy,
  • Member of Club de Madrid.

He was Leader of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement from 2004 until 2012. As Foreign Minister from 1999–2004, he was widely praised for his diplomatic bridge building. He successfully negotiated better relations with former rival Turkey. As Education Minister from 1994-1996, George Papandreou founded Open University in Greece, an innovative national effort to facilitate undergraduate and graduate distance learning. He was named as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2010 for “making the best of Greece’s worst year.” He completed his university studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts and graduate studies at the London School of Economics.


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