Interview with António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

In this interview, António Guterres discusses a new publication, The State of the World’s Refugees: In Search of Solidarity, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on internal and cross-border displacement of people throughout the world. “I think that, unfortunately, we can sum up saying we are witnessing more people being forced to flee, within the borders of their own country or crossing those borders,” he says.

Mr. Guterres says there are complex reasons for this, such as conflict and persecution, and also new trends interacting with each other, such as population growth, urbanization, climate change, food insecurity, and water scarcity.

“We need more solidarity towards the refugees themselves. We need more solidarity towards the countries of the developing world that are hosting them, sometimes sharing their very meager resources with them,” he says.

“And my appeal, namely to the industrialized world, is to make that solidarity even more effective and to make sure that there is a new deal in burden responsibility sharing and that the developed world helps the developing world that today holds 80% of the world’s refugees.”

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, IPI’s Senior Adviser for External Relations.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Warren Hoge (WH): I’m here today in the Global Observatory with António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Based in Geneva, he is here in New York on the occasion of the release of the new UNHCR publication The State of the World’s Refugees: In Search of Solidarity. It has been produced by the Oxford University Press and is an up-to-date and highly accessible overview of key developments from 2006 to 2012, related to internal and cross-border displacement of people throughout the world.

Just a word about Mr. Guterres: He became the tenth UN High Commissioner for Refugees in June of 2005 and was re-elected by the UN General Assembly to a second five-year term in April of 2010. He was the prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002.

Mr. Guterres, welcome to the Global Observatory. Please tell us, first of all, what is the central message of this new UNHCR publication? What do its findings tell us about the state of the refugees in the world today?

António Guterres (AG): I think that unfortunately we can sum up saying we are witnessing more people being forced to flee, within the borders of their own country or crossing those borders. We see that there are more complex reasons that make them move, conflict and persecution in the center of course, related to our mandate, but also the combination of a certain number of trends: population growth, urbanization, climate change, food insecurity, water scarcity, all interacting with each other, all contributing to instability and conflict. Look at the impact of rising food prices in social instability in many of the countries of the Arab Spring. And all also forcing people to move.

So a growing phenomenon with more difficulties for the access to support them in the context in which insecurities prevailing in many areas and in which some borders are closing, namely in the industrialized world. And a need to enhance the effort of the international community to express more solidarity, especially with those countries in the developing world that are close to the crisis points and have kept their borders open to allow people to flee. It’s the case of Jordan or Lebanon or Turkey for Syria. It’s the case of Mauritania, Mali, and Burkina Faso for Mali.

We need more solidarity towards the refugees themselves. We need more solidarity towards the countries of the developing world that are hosting them, sometimes sharing their very meager resources with them.

WH: One of the numbers in the report, or one of the developments the report records, is the vast growth in the number of internally displaced people. As a matter of fact at one point I think somebody even said that it’s wrong to call UNHCR a refugee agency because it has to handle so many people who are not really refugees, but they are internally displaced people, people within their same borders still, and also stateless people. The numbers are awesome, 5.5 million at the start of 2005, 15 million now. Why is that happening? And what is the answer of how to deal with them since I don’t think your mandate really entitles you to go into these countries to treat people who are still within their own borders.

AG: Indeed. If you are a refugee, if you cross a border you are entitled to receive international protection according to international law. There is a very strong convention, the 51 Convention, on the rights of refugees. And UNHCR has a powerful mandate, in dialogue with countries, in order to make sure that protection is effectively granted to them. If you remain within the borders of your own country, and most of the displacement that takes place today and for simple reasons, it’s much easier for people to move from one place to another in the same country than to cross a border and to face a completely new world for them. And there are sometimes also restrictions to movement that do not allow people to go across the border. So it’s indeed a new trend.

More and more internally displaced people, we are witnessing. But they are under the protection of their own governments and sometimes, in countries that are so weak, I won’t say failed states, but fragile states, the governments have not the capacity to provide protection and assistance to them. And there are some other situations, especially when there is an active conflict, governments are party to the conflict and sometimes they’re not willing to grant protection to some of these internally displaced people.

And there is no international mandate, as you said, to any agency in order to exercise the same powers that we have in relation to refugees that cross borders. And it’s necessary to have a stronger commitment of the international community as a whole to make sure that states assume their responsibilities to protect their own citizens.

WH: So should that convention be reopened and changed?

AG: I don’t think that we should change the 51 Convention. To be honest, the 51 Convention is a very good one, like the human rights instruments that were created after the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I’m convinced that if those things were to be drafted today they would be worse than what they were at the time. So I’m not seeking any change in the Convention. What I believe is important is for the international community to come together and to look into the gaps in protection that exist in the different legal regimes in relation to the new challenges and the new trends of forced displacement. And to see how enhanced international cooperation can address those gaps.

WH: I want to ask you about a couple of things that you spoke about in a public meeting here at IPI. The first of them is you spoke rather feelingly about the dilemma of Jordan and why you felt Jordan deserved increased international attention. Could you explain that for me?

AG: Jordan is a country that is in a very complex geostrategic position as it is recognized by everybody. And Jordan has received a very large number of Palestinian refugees, a very large number of Iraqi refugees, and now a meaningful number of Syrian refugees. And you can imagine the impact that this has on the economy and the society, and even the security of a country like Jordan. And I think Jordan is entitled to receive the same solidarity from the international community that Jordan has always shown to those that crossed its borders seeking protection and assistance.

And the Jordanians have been extremely generous. I’ve seen so many Jordanian families that have received refugees and shared their own resources with them. And I think this generosity, this openness needs to be matched by the international community.

WH: You also said that you think too little public attention is being paid to the situation in Mali and then you described what that situation was and what the consequences could be. Could you replay that for us please?

AG: I think that Mali is not isolated. You need to see Mali in the context of a region, the Sahel, in which we now have a dramatic food security problem and a massive involvement of the international community trying to address it, but in which you have a group of states that is composed of countries that have limited capacities, especially in the security that I mentioned. And when one sees how inside Mali you have fighters that came from Libya with weapons that came from Libya. You have fighters that came from Nigeria. You have Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. You have different kinds of groups operating in the same area. It’s said that there are fighters from Afghanistan and from Somalia.

I think if there is not a very strong commitment of the international community in trying to address the root causes of this problem, in trying to solve the political problem in Mali and in trying to help this region cope with all these challenges, I think that there is a risk of a generalized insecurity situation from Libya to Nigeria, from Mauritania to Somalia and that represents in my opinion a threat to global peace and security not only in Africa, but also namely the European continent.

WH: There is a situation these days where people who once would have gone to camps are now actually going into cities and getting lost in the cities. That would appear to be a positive development and it may be for the people who otherwise would have been stuck in a camp. But it also brings with it problems for your agency, doesn’t it?

AG: Yes, it’s much more difficult to assist people if they are lost in an urban context than to assist them in a refugee camp. But life in a refugee camp is always artificial. It’s very difficult to have a dignified life in a refugee camp, especially if you are not allowed to work, if you cannot really be self reliant. And so I think urbanization, first, is irreversible. Second, I believe it’s a positive trend, but it requires a different approach.

You need to work together with many other actors, local authorities, national authorities, development actors, humanitarian agencies of different sorts, with civil society, in order to address not the needs of each refugee alone, but the needs of a community where they live and in which other poor exist, other vulnerable people exist. And a comprehensive approach is required if we want to guarantee the levels of protection and assistance that refugees are entitled to have.

WH: Finally, there’s a lot of disheartening information in this report, inevitably, but you do say there is a positive side. You seem to center on this word, ‘solidarity.’ Can you just explain that and why that’s the hope of your agency right now?

AG: When we see the civil society in so many countries, sometimes in difficult debates against trends of xenophobia, trends of even racism, security concerns that become overwhelming and undermine the capacity to have adequate asylum policies, when we see how civil societies are reacting, how people are engaged in this cause, when you see also countries in the global south that open their borders, open their hearts to people fleeing their neighbour, as it was the case in Africa, Liberia, Ghana with Cote d’Ivoire, or Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti with Somalis. Or now Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey with Syrians, I think that there is a lot of commitment to refugee protection and a lot of solidarity already there in the world.

And my appeal, namely to the industrialized world, is to make that solidarity even more effective and to make sure that there is a new deal in burden responsibility sharing and that the developed world helps the developing world that today holds 80% of the world’s refugees.

WH: António Guterres, always a pleasure to have you at IPI. And thank you so much for visiting us in the Global Observatory.

AG: Thank you very much.



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