Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Notes from U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres

The following are notes from U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, briefing with NGO members of InterAction and Refugee Council USA on Wednesday, October 28, 2015:

The High Commissioner spoke candidly and openly on his perspective of the Syria situation, refugee flows to Europe, U.S. resettlement, changes to the humanitarian system.


 The High Commissioner began by expressing regret for the difficulty that UNHCR has had in dealing with the
increased number of refugees globally and segued into its presently tight fiscal situation. He highlighted how the organization has had to decrease its budget by 10% through internal shuffling, while trying not to compromise protection and services to refugees. He said that by the end of the year, the UNHCR will have fewer dollars than they did at the end of 2015 and yet are required to provide for growing numbers of those in need. For example, last week he authorized the building of 17 new refugee camps in Africa, an endeavor there is no earmarked funding for.

 He stated that the most vulnerable among the Syrian refugees in Europe were not those who were currently coming from Syria –because these people have the means and the health to do so. He said that the most vulnerable were those we were still inside Syria and in the surrounding countries within the region. If this were an organized resettlement operation, he said that these people (those arriving to Europe) would not be the first priority.

 The High Commissioner cited increased violence in Syria, worsening conditions in neighboring countries, and the cut to the World Food Program as causes for the increased flow of refugees. Couple this with social media giving individuals information about pathways to Europe, he said, and it created a moment where a lot of people had hope to get to Germany.

 The High Commissioner described Europe as a divided continent with a spectrum of opinions towards refugees. The spectrum ranges from Germany to the Netherlands to Hungary. At the center of this division is Greece, a country with complicated relations with the rest of Europe. The High Commissioner frankly stated that Greeks have said they will resettle 500000 refugees but have asked for the help of the UN since they do not trust their government to do so.

 The High Commissioner not surprised that refugees were moving on from EU’s border countries as there “is nothing there”: There is no capacity to protect, no reception for people, and no information being provided by governments to neighboring states so that they, in turn, may better prepare for those coming their way, e.g. Greece is not providing any data on asylum seeker movements to to Macedonia.

 He said that it was the smugglers who are the ones who have taken command of the refugee flow into Europe.

 The HC commented on the partisan nature of refugee resettlement in the U.S. He noted the “Jihad pipeline” rhetoric of right wing politicians at the moment and joked that if the thousands of Syrians coming to the EU every day are terrorists than they must be really bad at it, because no bombs are going off!

Going forward

 The HC stated that for the first time there is a total awareness of the crisis, which he said has been picked up by Populists and certain media outlets to create an environment of fear and to trigger rejection. He stated that it was imperative for politicians to find a solution to these problems by forming a coalition to coordinate an offensive position. He said that those with a humanitarian perspective, “the good side”, are less effective at propaganda than our opposition.

He called for the humanitarian community to organize and mobilize itself better in order to rein in the current chaotic situation. Otherwise, he said, we may see a closure of asylum space.

 He called for a true system to be put in place to facilitate refugee movement this winter. If this doesn’t happen, less people will move over the winter, resulting in a truly overwhelming “explosion” next year in terms of numbers. This can be done by allowing people to work and go to school in the countries of first asylum (which will disincentive movement), partnering with Turkey to manage the flow, and establishing legal avenues (e.g. family reunion, resettlement, and private sponsorship).