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'The World Has Changed': UN High Commissioner On Refugee Crisis


For the past 10 years, the man assigned to coordinate the world's refugee efforts was Antonio Guterres. He is the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, also a former prime minister of Portugal. Now he is preparing to step down from his U.N. post and thinking of how much the refugee problem has grown.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Ten years ago, the number of refugees was decreasing year after year. We were helping about 1 million people every year to go back home in safety and dignity after conflicts had ended. Now we have the highest number of displaced people since the Second World War, 60 million people displaced by conflict in the world. And what is amazing is the staggering escalation of displacement by conflict in the last few years. In 2010, every single day, 11,000 people were displaced by conflicts and last year, 42,500 per day, which means in five years, the number of newly displaced people by conflict multiplied by four. And at the same time, the old crisis do not seem to die. I spoke about Afghanistan, but we could say the same about Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo. The world has lost a lot of its capacity to prevent conflicts and to timely solve them, and the humanitarian consequences of that are catastrophic.

INSKEEP: The problem with solving conflict seems to be key here. You noted one example, Afghanistan, and noted that a decade ago, when you started work, Afghanistan might have seemed that it was getting its act together. A decade later, the war there continues, and we keep finding out that there Afghans among the many refugees fleeing from Asia into Europe right now.

GUTERRES: Yes, in the last few weeks, 30 percent of the people crossing into Greece were Afghans. The large majority of the refugees today are in a protected refugee situation, waiting sometimes for decades for a solution for their plight. And this is a source of desperation that is also forcing more and more people to move onwards. You look at the Syria conflict. In the first years, people in Jordan, in Lebanon, in Turkey, would think, well, let's stay close to home because peace will come, and there will be a chance to go back and rebuild our houses, rebuild our lives. Now more and more people lose hope. They just decide to move on. Altogether, in a more dangerous world, we are facing not only a global humanitarian disaster but a severe (unintelligible) for global peace and security.

INSKEEP: Long-running conflicts are nothing new, of course. You could think about India, Pakistan, Israelis and Palestinians, the Lebanese civil war - we could go on - but it sounds like you think something has gotten worse. Something is broken in the international system more recently.

GUTERRES: We live in a world now where people that start conflicts or terrorize their own populations and believe that they can get out of it without any problem. So obviously, with power relations that are less clear, the rules of the game become also less clear, and things just happen in a way nobody predicts.

INSKEEP: Is it the fault of the United States that the...

GUTERRES: It's not the United States. It's just the world has changed. But we still need the U.S. with a leading role in addressing the complexity of this new situation. In the case of Syria, it is obvious. It is by joining the Russians, the Saudis, the Turks, Iranians together with U.S. and making people understand that today, the conflict became so terrible the dangers for everybody that even if there are differences of interest, there is a common interest in putting an end to this conflict.

INSKEEP: Do so many conflicts that are now so hard to end mean that refugee flows will continue at this dramatic rate and that the world will be permanently changed in some way?

GUTERRES: Yes, it is true, and it is obvious that the world is not prepared. Look at Europe. The flow into Europe is, of course, a meaningful one. Seven hundred thousand people came by sea to Europe in 2015, but the population of the European Union is 550 million.

INSKEEP: In other words, you think Europe ought to be able to handle that.

GUTERRES: Now this is manageable, provided it is managed. The chaotic months that we had in Europe have really demonstrated how much we need to work together to create the conditions for refugee crisis to be handled in an effective and humane way.

INSKEEP: Antonio Guterres is the United Nations high commissioner refugees for some weeks more. Thanks very much.

GUTERRES: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.