His job is to find solutions for millions around the world who’ve been forced to leave their homes. How does his organisation cope with those forced to flee war zones such as the one here in Congo? Not to mention millions more people threatened by climate change?
António Guterres is head of the UN’s refugee agency. euronews has been asking him about one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. euronews: High Commissioner, last year the number of refugees returning home fell 17%. How do you analyse this situation? António Guterres: This refers to political refugees, people that have fled their countries for reasons normally of conflict. What we witnessed last year was that many conflicts, that we hoped would be solved or at least reduced, weren’t. (The number of people returning home) last year slowed down – because violence is on the rise again in Afghanistan, Eastern Congo is still very unstable, in Southern Sudan we have witnessed some ethnic conflicts. The idea that people just want to go to rich countries is not true: the large majority of refugees want to go back home as soon as minimum conditions are met. But last year, unfortunately, even if we helped 600,000 to go back home worldwide, that corresponds to the lowest number in ten years. euronews: This summer you asked for millions of euros to support your operation in Pakistan. You accused the international community of being more preoccupied with banks than the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Can the world afford to ignore the crisis in Pakistan? António Guterres: Well, the world is not ignoring the crisis in Pakistan, and I must say that our operation in itself is very strongly supported by the international community. But let’s be frank, when trillions could be mobilised so quickly to rescue banks it would not be very difficult to mobilise billions – we are speaking of a completely diferent scale – to address in a more effective way the dramatic humanitarian challenges we still face. euronews: There are a number of islands at risk, including the Maldives and islands in the Pacific. What are the challenges ahead? António Guterres: Climate change is a global accelerator of the factors that cause forced displacement. One of the most dramatic ones – even if is not the one I would say has a impact on the largest number of people – is the fact that some island states might even disappear. So that creates a problem of statelessness, and of course, in our mandate we do everything we can to make sure that everybody has the right to have a nationality. But those situations go beyond that. There is the right to preserve the identity of that nation, and that is something that is not solved. That is something that the international community needs to think about: how are we going to find for these communities a solution that goes beyond just giving people another nationality, but preserves their identity and future? euronews: In Copenhagen the main focus will be on cutting emissions. Do you think this focus is correct? António Guterres: Cutting emissions is very important, but that is not enough. Even today, climate change is having an impact, mainly in the most vulnerable countries. Many poor countries with very fragile societies will be the ones that will have a more dramatic impact, they are having already a more dramatic impact from climate change. And so, as important as mitigation is adaptation, as important as reducing emissions is to make sure that we give those countries enough support for them to able to organise themselves to resist the impact of climate change. This is something that is needed now, and unfortunately, there has not been enough attention to that. euronews: What Europe can do in that case? António Guterres: I think Europe has been clearly a frontrunner in assuming responsibilities. I hope that Europe can also be a very important driver of the need for a comprehensive negotiation. euronews: Everyone is saying that Copehagen will be a failure. What is our message to the world leaders on behalf of refugees and displaced people? António Guterres: The message is clear: if a full agreement is not yet possible, at least world leaders should commit themselves very strongly from the political point of view in order to make sure in the months to come that agreement is reached. Without it we would all be facing disaster and nobody would forgive us. euronews: It is clear that Mediterranean countries are facing a huge challenge from illegal immigrants. How would you characterise the European approach to this situation and do you have any recommendations to improve the situation? António Guterres: We need to make sure that in Europe we have coherence, consistency in the way that different asylum policies are coordinated. And, at the same time, to allow an effective burden sharing, because, the pressure on Malta or Greece is higher than the pressure on Portugal, for instance, at the moment. And so we need to make sure that we have a coherent approach to refugee protection that is similar in the different countries in Europe – but (also) an effective solidarity and burden sharing, helping those countries that face the first impact. It is also essential that Europe remains a continent of asylum, that Europe guarantees access to European territory for those in need of protection. Countries have the right to define their own migration policies, but in the exercise of that right countries must make sure that those in need of protection are granted protection. And the cornerstone of refugee protection is the so-called principle of “non refoulement”: no-one can be sent back to her or his country when the risk of prosecution is still there. euronews: What is the biggest crisis your organisation is facing today? António Guterres: The biggest crisis, in my opinion, is in the minds of people. It’s the fact that in today’s world we are seeing a huge threat to the values of tolerance, that are absolutely essential to protect refugees, to treat migrants in a humane way, to respect foreigners, to respect those that are different. We are seeing intolerance growing, we are seeing racism and xenophobia develop even in the developed societies, and this is creating a very negative environment for refugee protection. So more important than the crisis in some areas of the world, or the specific problems that we face here or there, are the walls that are being built in our minds.