WASHINGTON (CNS) — When Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal, became the 10th UN high commissioner for refugees in 2005, the world was a different place.
Back then, he said, his agency — charged with protecting and resettling the world’s refugees — was helping about 1 million people return to their homes each year, while the annual number of global refugees was decreasing. There was even speculation, he said, about the need for the agency.
“Now, unfortunately, things have changed quite dramatically,” he told participants at an Immigration Law and Policy Conference Oct. 29 at the Georgetown University Law Center.
He illustrated the shift with a list of numbers including the overall figure that there were nearly 60 million refugees worldwide in 2014.
But what is even more dramatic, he said, is the “staggering escalation of displacement by conflict in the past few years.” In 2011, 14,000 people were forced to flee their homes each day. This figure rose to 23,000 in 2012, 32,000 in 2013 and 42,500 in 2014.
The numbers are astounding enough, but as Guterres added, the conflicts these people are fleeing are not ending so they have no homes to go back to.
And although his term ends at the end of the year, he said if he were to predict what the refugee situation will be like 10 years from now, it does not look good. “Unless something substantial changes in the perception of what needs to be done, things will get worse before they start to get better.”
Guterres was a keynote speaker at the conference sponsored by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, the Migration Policy Institute and Georgetown University Law Center.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, formed in 1950, is about the size of a small town with more than 9,300 people working in 123 countries to help and protect millions of refugees, those who are internally displaced and those trying to return to their homelands.
Guterres hopes that more countries, the United States in particular, will step up and offer to take in more refugees.
When asked by a reporter what that figure should be, he said he wouldn’t “fix a target” but said the U.S. should take in “as much as possible” and added that U.S. leadership in this area would have “an enormous impact” on other parts of the world, particularly Europe where there is a “battle of values” about the current refugee crisis. U.S. involvement also would be an important symbol of solidarity with other countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon that have recently taken in the bulk of refugees.
Guterres, who met with Pope Francis in 2013 about the plight of today’s refugees, especially those from war-torn Syria, told Catholic News Service that although there is a legal obligation to help and protect those forced to flee their homes — often at great expense and under dangerous conditions — there also is a moral obligation to help them.
He said it is “vital to keep the European borders open” and to find legal avenues for the refugees to find safe passage and eventually be resettled, which he praised as a “fantastic instrument” that completely changes people’s lives.
The argument that terrorists might be among the throngs of refugees seeking resettlement doesn’t sit well with Guterres, who said there are more obvious, faster and much cheaper ways terrorists could enter other countries than taking part in an 18-month screening process to be resettled.
Added to his current hefty to-do list, the UN leader would like to see a more reasoned discussion about the refugee crisis, especially in Europe, where he said the debate has been “hijacked” by anxieties and xenophobia.
Copyright ©2015 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.