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UN refugee chief: The world doesn't understand the extent of the refugee crisis - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres gestures during a news conference at the launch of the Global Humanitarian appeal for 2015 at the UN European headquarters in Geneva on December 8, 2014. (Reuters/Pierre Albouy)

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres gestures during a news conference at the launch of the Global Humanitarian appeal for 2015 at the UN European headquarters in Geneva on December 8, 2014. (Reuters/Pierre Albouy)

Davos, Asharq Al-Awsat—António Guterres has one of the toughest jobs in the world today. As the UN high commissioner for refugees he has a mandate to help relieve the suffering of the world’s displaced peoples, at a time when there are more of them than there have been for years.

Guterres has been in the post since 2005 and is now nearly at the end of his second five-year term. During his tenure the world has witnessed the worst refugee crisis in 20 years as a result of the Syrian conflict. “We have not seen a refugee outflow escalate at such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide,” Guterres said of the Syrian refugee crisis at a public briefing to the Security Council in July 2013.

Since then the numbers fleeing Syria have only climbed. There are currently 3.8 million Syrian refugees living in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt.

In December last year the UNHCR’s partner organization, the UN World Food Program, announced that it had been forced to suspend food aid to 1.7 million Syrian refugees as it no longer had any money left to continue the essential aid. The UNHCR has suffered from similar funding shortages; its funding requirements for 2014 totaled 3.7 billion US dollars, but it only received 2 billion dollars, falling short by nearly half. The organization’s funding woes have also continued into the new year, and it is currently recording a funding gap of 37 percent.

Asharq Al-Awsat caught up with Guterres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he was hoping to raise awareness among global leaders of the urgency to donate toward the organization’s appeal.

Asharq Al-Awsat: You have made several appeals to the world to look out for refugees all over the world, but especially Syrian refugees. How much of the financial appeal has been met, and how much of the resettlement appeal has been met?

António Guterres: As for the financial appeals, I would say that, as an average, around 50 percent of what was asked, more precisely 54 percent of 2014’s regional refugee appeal for Syrians [was met]. What does it mean? It essentially means that the needs are growing exponentially, and the budgets to support humanitarian action are growing much more slowly. As it is known, we have now, for the first time since the Second World War, more than 50 million people displaced by conflict in the world. But what is more staggering is the escalation of the last few years: in 2011, 14,000 people were forced to flee by conflict per day; in 2012, [it was] 23,000; in 2013 [it was] 32,000. And so the dramatic impact of the multiplication of new conflicts, the mega-crisis in Syria and beyond, and the old crises that never died—Afghanistan, the Palestinian–Israeli question, Somalia—create a volume of needs to address: the basic, the very basic, core protections and the life-saving assistance needs of people in the world.

Unfortunately the capacity of the international community to fund the response to those needs has very clearly been lagging behind, and the gaps are becoming appalling. Last year, the local [Middle East] program was forced to cut rations in several of their operations around the world, and all of the humanitarian actors are now under tremendous strain to be able to respond to the needs of the people.

Q: Is the problem a lack of the political will needed to meet these appeals? Is it a failure of the international community to support one another?

I think that the international community has not yet understood how dramatic the growth of humanitarian needs is. It is not only that, you get the impact of climate change, population growth in the world, and natural disasters that are becoming more and more dramatic and more frequent everywhere. The truth is that, first, if you look at development cooperation money, [you will find] it is about eight times [the size of] humanitarian aid, and if you look at what is today spent on humanitarian aid around the world—at least through known, multilateral channels or known international organizations—it is about 20 billion dollars. I don’t know of any medium-sized bank that has been bailed out that has not cost more than that, so I think that the world needs to change the way priorities are set, because we are seeing an enormous amount of suffering first of all, and, second, because humanitarian crises are just a symptom of something that is going dramatically wrong in today’s world.

The Syrian crisis, for example, is not only a humanitarian disaster, it has become a terrible threat for regional stability. Iraq has already been engulfed in the conflict, Lebanon is in an extremely fragile situation, and at the same time now [there is] a threat to global peace and security. You have fighters from all over the world there, people that can go back home and do the things we have witnessed [recently], or triggering violent actions anywhere in the world. So to respond to humanitarian needs is not only a question of solidarity, it should be a question of enlightened self-interest.

Q: I wanted to ask you about the resettlement program for Syrians, and other refugees in the Middle East

We have estimated in our analysis of the Syrian refugee community that there are now 3.8 million Syrians registered in neighboring countries. There are many more Syrians [around the world], individually registered, asking for assistance. And we estimate in a survey we have done about vulnerability, vulnerabilities in the community, that one-tenth of these Syrians should have resettlement as the ideal solution. Of course, the [real] ideal solution is the possibility that they can go back home in safety and dignity when the problems are solved. But you have always had people that have suffered so much, members of the family killed, or victims of torture, that had such a traumatic impact of the conflict, that it would be difficult for them to go back home. And it is also obvious that if they have medical cases that are very complex that it will be difficult for the neighboring countries to address their needs. And so we estimated that around one-tenth of the Syrian population should have the opportunity to resettle.

Now, unfortunately we made an appeal for 130,000 [to be resettled] because we were thinking that realistically we would not be able to immediately reach that 10 percent, so we are now at around 100,000 opportunities offered until the end of 2016. But we are making a big effort in order to have more states offer both resettlement and humanitarian missions to get refugees out of danger in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and that can go to another country, and have the possibility to provide them with a better future. But we are also asking countries to enhance family reunification programs—for example, Switzerland has an important family reunification program—and to have a more flexible visa policy. Brazil and France, just to give you two examples, have facilitated the visa policy for Syrians. But unfortunately, if you look at Europe only two countries—Sweden and Germany—have up until now responded at the level that was necessary to meet the needs of the Syrian people.

Q: For many refugees from all over the world—Syrians, Iraqis, and of course others—the only way they feel they can get asylum is to risk everything and try to enter a country illegally. This is a fundamental flaw in our international system, that this is the way you get asylum. How can we deal with that? How can we cut out the traffickers and the smugglers, who are the only ones benefiting from the system?

This is a general problem, not only for Syrians, and what is clear is that there is no way to fight trafficking and smuggling, to fight irregular movements of people—I don’t like to use the word “illegal” movements of people, because the people are victims—there is no way to fight it effectively if you don’t provide opportunities for regular, legal movement of people, and that is why we are insisting for more borders to be opened to Syrians. Not just the borders of neighboring countries, but everywhere, from Europe to further afield, and also for countries to enhance their programs of resettlement, humanitarian missions, to have more flexible visa policies which allow people to travel legally to the countries where they seek safety, and to enhance family reunification programs that are very meaningful because you have a large Syrian community in the diaspora. So through family reunification you can have a very important tool, a very important instrument to provide protection to people.

So it is absolutely essential, both in relation to refugees but also in relation to the management of migration, to understand that the only way to fight illegal organizations is to provide legal opportunities for people. And this is not [something] new—if you remember when in the US alcohol was prohibited, the smugglers prospered. If there is free trade, smuggling disappears. So the only way to fight illegal activities is to allow normal, legal activities to take place.

Q: What is the status of the programs for Iraq, especially concerning Internally Displaced People (IDPs) following the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) attacks? There are concerns that because of the huge focus on Syria that Iraq has become one of those protracted refugee problems.

For the moment, as you rightly said, the Iraqi problem is essentially a problem of internal displacement, but internal displacement in very dramatic circumstances, especially for people in south-central Iraq. In Kurdistan it has been possible to find safer locations, and the assistance is easier to deliver. In Anbar, for instance, you know how difficult it is and how tragic the situation of the people is. But we have, as you rightly said, more than 100,000 new Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries, Turkey being the most important country of destination. And we are struggling to make the international community as a whole, and even those countries, understand that Iraqis need to be offered safety in the same conditions as Syrians, and we are in very intense dialogue with both neighboring countries and the international community to see how Iraqis can be better supported, because we feel exactly the risk that the Iraqi refugees will become the forgotten ones.

Q: What about the concerns that there is rising xenophobia in Europe and in other parts of the Western world that traditionally resettle refugees? What is your message to these countries, and are you doing anything to counter this?

First of all, xenophobia is a problem that unfortunately is everywhere. It is particularly dramatic for us when it also has a negative impact on those that are seeking safety, those that are fleeing because they have no alternatives, and so for them to be victims of xenophobia and racism is to be double victims, of the conflict or the persecution, and then victims of discrimination in the societies where they are seeking protection.

We are very concerned with the development of demonstrations of xenophobia and racism—Islamophobia too—in Europe, [and] we are very much engaged permanently in a very strong campaign against those feelings. If Europe should be proud of something, Europe should be proud of the values of the Enlightenment, which is probably the best contribution Europe has given to international civilization, and the values of the Enlightenment are related to tolerance, and to the acceptance of the ‘other,’ and what we are now witnessing in some European countries is tolerance being forgotten.

This is irrational behavior, because the truth is . . . with fertility indexes of 1.3 or 1.4 in some countries, Europe needs migration, so it is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution. My mother is 91 years old, she has several people that are assisting her apart from our family, and whenever I visit her in Lisbon I have never seen a Portuguese [person] assisting her, and Portugal is not a rich country, it is a country with high unemployment. Even in Portugal, migration is absolutely essential to take care of elderly people. The same applies everywhere, so it is absolutely essential to convince the mainstream political parties and political leaders in Europe that they should not be afraid of these extremist, xenophobic populist movements, and that the values of the Enlightenment need to be stressed as key to preserving European and global civilization. And what is true for Europe is true for other parts of the world in which we see refugees being victimized. For instance, Somalian refugees are victims of xenophobia in so many parts of the world, and this is for us a permanent concern and we try to do everything we can. And the civil societies, fortunately, have a lot of dynamism in fighting xenophobia, and we do everything we can to support them on that.

Q: What is the importance of another Kuwait conference on aid for Syria, especially when previous appeals have not been met?

Well, first of all the first two Kuwait conferences were essential. The appeals were not entirely met, but a lot of support was mobilized through the Kuwait conferences. We are extremely grateful to the Emir of Kuwait and to Kuwait for its leadership in congregating the international community’s support for Syrian refugees and to support its neighboring countries. This latest Kuwait conference is particularly important because it is centered not just on the Syrian refugees but also on the host communities, on the Jordanians, the Lebanese, others that are suffering also in their daily lives from the impact of this huge increase in population that these countries have had. Difficulties finding jobs, prices that go up, salaries that go down, and so the resilience of those communities needs the same kind of support as the humanitarian needs of the refugees themselves.

So, we are very grateful that the Kuwait conference will once again create an opportunity for many countries to express their solidarity, and the truth is that most of the pledges at the first two Kuwait conferences were indeed fulfilled, the overwhelming majority were fulfilled. The problem is that everything gained so far is not enough when we look at the dramatic needs that we have on the table. As I said, last year the regional refugee response plan was funded at 54 percent, which means that half of the refugees’ basic needs were not met.

Q: What do you say to refugees and those people who want to help but feel like there’s no hope and the situation is out of their control?

It’s very simple. We have no humanitarian solution to these problems. Everything is political. What people must do is put all possible pressure on political leaderships in countries to make sure that they come together, especially those that are relevant to each crisis, to create the conditions for peace to be re-established. If you look at the situation in Syria, the Syrians are fighting, it’s true, but they would not be able to go on fighting without external support, in arms and money, both to the government and to the opposition. So it is time for those countries that have an influence with the parties to the conflict, the United States, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and several others, for these countries to understand that nobody is winning this war. This is a war in which everybody is losing, that it is becoming a threat to all societies in the region and around the world, and so that it would be important to put aside differences and contradictions and to come together and create the conditions to put an end to this nonsense.

Q: Perhaps a security threat more than a humanitarian one may unite people more?

Sometimes it’s easier to make people understand their own fundamental interests than to make them express their solidarity. In this situation, both point in the same direction. We need to stop the Syrian conflict, to stop the suffering of the Syrian people, but also to stop these major threats to global peace and security.