Angela Merkel wins UN award for protecting refugees at height of Syria crisis

Angela Merkel, the former Federal Chancellor of Germany, has been awarded the UNHCR’s Nansen award for her “leadership, courage and compassion” in welcoming over 1 million refugees to Germany. (Keystone/DPA/Michael Kappeler)

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been given the UN refugee agency’s highest award for her efforts to welcome refugees into Germany during her tenure.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Tuesday that Merkel had been selected as the latest recipient of the Nansen Refugee Award for her efforts to welcome more than 1.2 million refugees and asylum seekers into Germany between 2015 and 2016, at the height of the conflict in Syria and amid deadly violence in countries around the world.

Addressing reporters in Geneva, Matthew Saltmarsh, spokesperson for UNHCR, said the former chancellor “helped to highlight the plight of refugees globally”.

The selection committee hailed Merkel’s “leadership, courage and compassion in ensuring the protection of hundreds of thousands of desperate people” as well as her efforts to find “viable long-term solutions” for those seeking safety.

Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, praised the determination of Germany’s first female chancellor to protect asylum-seekers and to stand up for human rights, humanitarian principles and international law.

“By helping more than a million refugees to survive and rebuild, Angela Merkel displayed great moral and political courage,” Grandi said in a statement.

“It was true leadership, appealing to our common humanity, standing firm against those who preached fear and discrimination. She showed what can be achieved when politicians take the right course of action and work to find solutions to the world’s challenges rather than simply shift responsibility to others.”

While some European countries were closing their borders to refugees and asylum seekers, Merkel urged her fellow Germans to reject divisive nationalism and be “compassionate and open-minded” to taking in people fleeing violence.

Speaking at the time, the then chancellor said it was a situation “which put our European values to the test as seldom before. It was no more and no less than a humanitarian imperative.”

The selection committee highlighted that, as well as protecting people forced to flee war, the chancellor of 16 years was the driving force behind Germany’s collective efforts to receive them and help them integrate into society through education and training programmes.

“Angela Merkel led a whole of society response to the refugee and asylum seekers situation in Germany,” Saltmarsh told a Geneva press briefing.

He added Merkel “was very important in ensuring Germany’s growing role as a substantive, reliable and active humanitarian partner, especially in refugee operations around the world.”

The Nansen Refugee Award was created in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian scientist, explorer and first high commissioner for refugees for the League of Nations – the predecessor to the UN.

It honours individuals, groups or organisations that go “above and beyond the call of duty” to protect refugees, other displaced and stateless people, according to the UNHCR.

More than 60 laureates have received the award since it was founded. Last year’s winner was the Jeel Albena Association for Humanitarian Development in Yemen for its support for displaced Yemenis.

The award included a $150,000 prize. Merkel is expected to travel to Geneva next Monday to receive the award, UNHCR said.

Four regional winners were also announced on Tuesday. The Mbera Fire Brigade, an all-volunteer refugee firefighting group in Mauritania, received the award for their Africa region, while former midwife Vicenta González was honoured for nearly 50 years of service to displaced and vulnerable people in Costa Rica.

The winner for Asia and the Pacific region was Meikswe Myanmar, a humanitarian organisation that assists communities in need, including internally displaced people. And in the Middle East and North Africa, Dr. Nagham Hasan, an Iraqi gynaecologist, was recognised for his work providing medical and psychosocial care to Yazidi girls and women who have survived persecution, enslavement and gender-based violence.

All four regional winners are expected to attend the award ceremony alongside Merkel next week.