Interview with António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Photo: UNHCR/Jean-Marc Ferré

24 June 2014 – Former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres was elected by the General Assembly to become the 10th United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in June 2005. Mr. Guterres, now in his second five-year term, has been leading the UN agency tasked with coordinating international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide.

UNHCR, as the agency is known, aims to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees worldwide. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country. It also has a mandate to help stateless people. In more than six decades, the agency has helped tens of millions of people restart their lives.

The UN News Centre spoke to Mr. Guterres on the occasion of World Refugee Day, observed annually on 20 June, about some of today’s major crises, the biggest hurdles for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the challenges facing the agency.

UN News Centre: How is UNHCR handling the large displacement resulting from the current crisis in Iraq?

António Guterres: We immediately started by supporting the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in northern Iraq, providing tents, blankets and other relief items for the first response for the people that were coming. Humanitarian agencies all over the world are under enormous stress. The resources available and the financial support we get are simply insufficient to be able to respond to such dramatic needs of people who are suffering so much.Now, with our other UN colleagues and NGOs, [we are] working with the KRG in a more organised way in reception centres, in the camps that are being established, and supporting families all over the region. We are doing our best so they get the assistance they are entitled to and that the necessary protection mechanisms are put in place. Of course, the situation is more complex in and around Baghdad, where there is an environment of high insecurity. But we have kept a small team in Baghdad in order to be able to do everything we can to support the people that are suffering so much.

UN News Centre: What is the biggest challenge at the moment?

António Guterres: I think the big challenge is the fighting itself. We are facing an enormous risk in Iraq for the stability of the country and obviously there is no humanitarian solution for this problem; the solution is always political. We humanitarians can do no more than to support people in distress. What we need is to stop the dramatic situations that are now proliferating all over the world.

UN News Centre: The Secretary-General said this is one of the worst years for forced displacement. Do you agree?

UN News Centre: What should be done to help the countries neighbouring Syria to handle the influx of refugees?

António Guterres and Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie talk with asylum-seekers on the Italian island of Lampedusa (June 2011). Photo: UNHCR/J. Tanner

António Guterres: Yes, it’s absolutely true. We already had the situations in the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, and the Syria crisis is going on and on and on. We have, even if it’s not yet a very dramatic humanitarian problem, but still a serious political and security problem in Ukraine, and now Iraq. Other crises are looming, in Nigeria with Boko Haram, many other problems and of course all this is putting the humanitarian agencies all over the world under enormous stress. The resources available and the financial support we get are simply insufficient to be able to respond to such dramatic needs of people who are suffering so much.

António Guterres: I think it’s absolutely essential that the international community shows more solidarity with refugee-hosting countries. Eighty-six per cent of refugees in the world live in developing countries and the truth is that many of these host countries that have so generously opened their borders, often more generously than the developed countries, are not receiving the adequate solidarity from the international community. This means financial solidarity, solidarity to the host communities, to the villages and cities that share everything with the refugees, but also solidarity in burden-sharing with enhanced numbers of resettled refugees that should move from these countries to developed countries where they might be able to have a much better life.

António Guterres meets with a widow and her children from Aleppo, Syria, during a visit to Za’atri refugee camp in the north of Jordan (March 2013). Photo: UNHCR/Jared J. Kohler

It is high time for the international community to show to those that have opened their borders, be it around South Sudan – like Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan or Kenya – around Central African Republic – like Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo or Chad – or around Syria – like Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey. The international community must show these countries a much stronger solidarity and an attitude of true burden-sharing.

UN News Centre: Is there progress on the issue of resettlement in developed countries?

António Guterres: We have a very important programme of resettlement. Last year, 93,000 refugees were admitted in resettlement countries, most of them in the developed world. The biggest programmes are the USA, Canada and Australia, also several European and Latin American countries. But this is just a drop in the ocean. The number of new refugees last year was the highest since the beginning of the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago. We have 16.5 million refugees, more than 50 million people displaced by conflict and persecution inside or outside the borders of their countries. And so resettlement is very important for the people that benefit from it. They can have a much better life. It is also a symbol of solidarity that should be promoted but it is always a drop in the ocean in terms of the needs.

UN News Centre: What are the main challenges for the refugees and IDPs from Central African Republic?

Excerpts of interview with António Guterres. Credit: UN News Centre/Web TV

António Guterres: The main challenge is to find a political solution. The Central African Republic is a country where the State has practically disappeared. There is widespread insecurity and it is absolutely essential to increase the number of international forces, both military and police, to guarantee security. It’s necessary to build an embryo of a State, namely in order to be able to arrest criminals, put them on trial and in jail. At the same time, a process of mediation must be launched in all the areas where communities confront each other. There never was a religious problem in Central African Republic. Unfortunately, irresponsible politicians have triggered it. Now everything must be done to bring the society together again and create conditions for Central African Republic to able to stop the divisions and after some time to reconcile and to rebuild the State.

UN News Centre: In light of the tragedies that have occurred in the Mediterranean around Lampedusa, and the deficiencies in the European asylum system, what can you say of Europe’s response to refugee crises?

António Guterres: I think that there are things that need to be recognised. Operation “Mare Nostrum” by the Italian coastguard is a remarkable operation that has rescued several thousands of lives and that is a fantastic contribution to the protection of people in distress. It’s also true that namely in relation to the Syrian crisis, countries like Sweden and Germany, for instance, have exhibited remarkable examples of solidarity. But the European asylum system is dysfunctional, different from country to country… Some countries do not provide adequate levels of protection and this dysfunction is of course something that makes it difficult for some of the people in need of protection to be able to reach Europe. I think there is something fundamentally wrong when people need to put themselves in the hands of smugglers and traffickers and risk their lives perishing in the Mediterranean just to have access to a territory where they want to seek asylum.

UN News Centre: What are the main challenges facing UNHCR?

António Guterres meets a displaced Congolese family during his visit of camps in North Kivu province (December 2007). Photo: UNHCR/D. Nthengwe

António Guterres: Our main challenge is to have the capacity to respond to so many crises at the same time. We have a multiplication of new crises and at the same time old crises seem never to die. The world has shown very limited capacity to prevent wars and to solve conflicts in a timely manner. We live in a world where there is not only a lack of global governance, much less a democratic one, but where power relations have become unclear. Therefore impunity and unpredictability have become the name of the game and that is generating a number of situations of conflict that are forcing many people to flee, some crossing borders, some within the borders of their own countries, and this is putting an enormous stress not only on UNHCR but on all humanitarian organisations that try to respond.

It is absolutely essential that the international community mobilises the financial resources to allow us to do what we need to do but, at the same time, that the international community comes together to overcome contradictions and create the conditions to put a stop to this never-ending series of conflicts.

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