Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the presentation of the Roland Berger Human Dignity Award

29.04.2015 - Speech


Roland Berger,

Ladies and gentlemen!

The ups and downs of public attention are not something we can easily predict. The constant flow of reports on ISIS, Boko Haram, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Russia/Ukraine, interrupted by news of a plane crash in the French Alps and natural disasters in North America and Nepal, gives us barely time to catch our breath. Then the lowest point so far of the seemingly endless tragedy in the Mediterranean:

the drowning of almost 1000 people in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya just a few days ago. We can hardly imagine the desperation that drives people onto overloaded, totally inadequate boats. The thought of those terrible minutes of the accident, of the hopeless struggle to survive in the open seas, is unbearable.

The full extent of the global problem of flight and forced displacement seems to be caught in this single, appalling moment. And it reflects not only the humanitarian dimension of the tragedy, but also the sheer number of unresolvable conflicts and emergencies which drive people from Africa and the Middle East in the direction of Europe – and the sheer powerlessness on our part to actually overcome this problem and above all the causes behind it, the reasons why people are compelled to flee their homes.

And when public debate then flares up, we can observe many reactions:

Many are uncomprehending, lost for words – simply angry.

Others want to find someone to blame, and criticise the failures of politicians.

Still others want a quick‑fix solution to the problem.

I can understand all three of these sentiments.

And let me say to you quite frankly: I've had all these reactions myself.

But I think we are all aware here that none of these responses really gets us anywhere. Amid the vagaries of political moods and news alerts we will never be able to gain control of the whole situation! And the one right, quick‑fix solution simply doesn’t exist. And we don’t have the time or the patience for complex answers. Apart from which, the backdrops for the next wave of attention are already visible on the horizon.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, images and news reports are information and as such they are essential, but political attention is affected by the prevailing climate.

Yet we cannot allow human dignity to be subject to the whims of the current mood.

Dear prizewinners, that is why what you have achieved is so very worthwhile – not driven by the cycle of political attention and the spotlights, but through tireless, consistent work over many years!

Dear prizewinners, you know that each refugee has their own, often painful story to tell: of the loss of their home, of the family they have left behind, of the friends to whom they had to say goodbye, often of violence and persecution.

You listen to these stories, you know these fates from your day-to-day work. For you go directly to those in need. You visit the people arriving in Europe on refugee boats. You look after refugees in North Africa who have endured terrible suffering.


You, Katrine Camilleri, once movingly described how impressed you are by the determination and hope shown by the refugees who embark on the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.

Yet courage and determination are also the hallmarks of your own work! You and your colleagues from the Jesuit Refugee Service support refugees who arrive in Malta by boat and provide them with legal assistance. You have thus advised and supported hundreds of refugees over the past years. You have not allowed cowardly attacks on your organisation to stop you, but have bravely continued your work. I congratulate you most sincerely on this award!


The Eritrean‑Italian human rights activist Alganesh Fessaha also goes directly to those in need. You, Ms Fessaha, have travelled regularly to Sinai to free African refugees from the clutches of human traffickers. Human rights organisations paint a shocking picture of human trafficking on the Egyptian peninsula, of the cruel torture of refugees to extort ransom money from their families.

For many years you, Ms Fessaha, have travelled around the world to raise awareness of the plight of these refugees. You help make their voice heard. Thank you for your commitment, which brings hope to these people!


The third organisation we are honouring today works to prevent people from becoming refugees in the first place. The Petite Flamme project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo enables hundreds of children from Kinshasa's slums to attend school.

Founded by the Fokolar Christian movement led by theologian Monika-Maria Wolff, this school project began around 20 years ago, initially with 25 children in a looted school building. Today, Petite Flamme runs schools for 2200 children in the poor districts of Kinshasa and surrounding areas. Their work gives these children access to the asset which offers them the greatest opportunities: education. They give them hope for a better future – at home, in their own country!

Ms Diambu, Ms Wolff, Mr Bess,

Many congratulations on this award!


Ladies and gentlemen,

All three prizewinners work to promote human dignity in the true sense of the word, and that is why they fully deserve this award.

Yet you people, who are so well acquainted with the plights of the refugees, also have the right to turn towards Berlin and Brussels and to ask what the politicians are doing.

Are they only driven by the outcry from the media which follows a disaster? And then they just hold crisis meetings without really offering any answers?

Yes, the tragedy of the weekend before last is indeed not the first of its kind, but the unhappy culmination of a series of accidents in the Mediterranean which have already claimed far too many lives.

We don't have to discuss the fact that we need to do more to save people from drowning – much, much more. We owe that to ourselves and our European values, if we want to retain our credibility. But the truth of the matter is that there are no simple answers to the whole worldwide refugee crisis – not before and not after the boat disaster. For because conflicts and emergencies in the Middle East and Africa are currently coming thick and fast, the problem often grows faster than our capacity to respond.

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to cite just one statistic in my address here this evening: 11 million!

That is the number of people who have lost their homes through the conflict in one single country, in Syria. One stark figure which gives us only an inkling of the entire scale of flight and displacement, and which also shows that in the long run we can only overcome this problem if we tackle the root causes of refugee flows!

A figure that shows that, important as it is for us to take in people in dire need in Germany and Europe, the real answer, which is what the refugees themselves long for, can only be found in a safer homeland, which once again offers people protection, employment and a future!

That is the goal of my work as Foreign Minister!

Unfortunately I know many of these trouble spots all too well from my first term of office, and peace has still not come to many of them.

However, and because we are aware of the plight of the refugees, we cannot relax our efforts and our many concrete initiatives to find political solutions for these crisis‑ridden regions of the world –

whether in Libya, where Gaddafi's brutal regime has been replaced by total chaos and the collapse of any form of state order,

or in Syria and its neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan, which threaten to collapse under the enormous pressure of refugees.

Or our so‑called transformation partnerships in North Africa, which give young people in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria the chance to build prospects for a life in their own home country.

Or the fair distribution of refugees in Europe.

Each one of these initiatives could fill an evening's lecture – but to sum up, none of them will be rewarded with rapid success!

We cannot reverse what has happened in Libya. There a new order must be established, and sometimes I would like to see a bit more respect for those people who have committed themselves to this task.

That is why to conclude, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to mention two specific characteristics I admire in you, our prizewinners, and in all those who devote their time to working with refugees – qualities which should serve as models for those of us who bear responsibility in politics.

The first is persistence. The awareness that not sporadic excitement but patience is what is needed.

The second is, despite all realism about the magnitude of the challenge, despite all humility in view of our limited resources, the tireless will to improve circumstances, step by step, case by case, along the lines of the great man Willy Brandt, who was himself tireless: “You have to take the world as you find it – but you mustn’t leave it that way.” Thank you very much.

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