On the eve of the World Refugee Day, the office of the UNHCR has released an interview with Antonio Guterres, UN high commissioner for refugees. Excerpts:
In 2010 there were 15.4 million refugees and estimated 43 million displaced. What is causing this level of forced displacement to remain so high?
In today’s world we have more and more crises multiplying. Look at the recent months, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and now Syria, Yemen, Sudan, a big worry for the near future. And at the same time old conflicts tend not to die, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, even Iraq. They go on and on, creating displacement or not allowing people to go back.
So how could these numbers be brought down?
I think the most important thing is prevention. And unfortunately prevention is what the international community has not been able to do very effectively in the recent past. To avoid conflicts and create conditions for conflicts to be solved as quickly as possible is I think the most important. There is never a humanitarian solution for humanitarian problems; the real solution is always political.
Are the main causes of displacement changing?
We are witnessing more and more people that are forced to move not because of conflict or persecution, as they are protected by the 51 [refugee] convention, but because of an interconnection of different megatrends. Climate change, population growth, water scarcity, urbanization, food insecurity are becoming as I said more and more interlinked and are causing more and more people to be forced to abandon their natural habitats.
What about the situation in industrialized countries where we are seeing in some cases anti-refugee sentiments? Does this worry you?
Of course it is very worrying. We are seeing a multiplication of situations in which we have either populist politicians or irresponsible media that use fear to create in public opinions a reaction against foreigners in general, migrants and refugees. And not only is this very worrying but it is absurd. Four-fifths of the world’s refugees live in the developing world. If there is a burden – I don’t like to speak about burden, I like to speak [about] the exercise of a responsibility – but if there is a responsibility it really falls over the shoulders of the countries of the developing world. If you take individual asylum claims, 850,000 last year, the biggest country that received those asylum claims was South Africa. More than three times what has been received in countries like the United States or France. So indeed it is the developing world that is giving a stronger contribution to refugee protection and this should be recognised in the developed world with more opportunities for resettlement of people that have special needs of protection, but also with stronger support for those countries that are making huge sacrifices towards refugees and to grant them the protection they need. Look at Pakistan for Afghans, look at Kenya for Somalis, look at Tunisia for Libyans. They need the world’s support and that support must be given.
With refugees, fewer were able to voluntarily repatriate last year than at any time since 1990. Is the reality that today for a refugee they are likely to stay in that situation in exile for a long time?
That is indeed one of our biggest concerns. 7.2 million refugees have been refugees for more than five years. And indeed for many of them hope does not seem to be available. In the last decade, every year, as an average we helped about 1 million people to go back home in safety and dignity. Because of the fact that conflicts are becoming more and more resilient, in 2009 we only helped less than a quarter of a million and last year less than 200,000. Indeed we are finding it more and more difficult to help people go back home in safety and dignity and this is probably the biggest difficulty we are facing in our present work.
Where do you see the answers lying?
Again making sure that peace prevails and also supporting host countries to guarantee people conditions for integration in their societies whenever that is possible, and offering more opportunities for resettlement in the developed world.