Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
Since the U.N. High Commission for Refugees was established more than six decades ago, the agency has helped tens of millions of people restart their lives after being displaced by conflict or natural disaster.
- Antonio Guterres UN High Commissioner for Refugees; former Prime Minister, Portugal (1995-2002)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn times of turmoil, peaceful people are often uprooted, forced to flee their homes, leave their communities behind and seek safety outside their home countries. The journey to safety can be full of danger -- boats capsize at sea, food is scarce, fighting can spill over borders. As conflicts continue in North Africa, humanitarian crises are mounting and the flood of refugees is creating tension in Europe. Since 1950, the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees has had the job of safeguarding the rights and well-being of refugees seeking asylum.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd joining us now in studio is Antonio Guterres. He became the 10th United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees in June 2005. A former Portuguese prime minister, Antonio Guterres was approved by the U.N. General Assembly for a second five-year term. It expires in 2015. Amb. Guterres, thank you so much for joining us.
AMB. ANTONIO GUTERRESPleasure to be here.
NNAMDIThe agency you had was supposed to exist for just three years after World War II. Fifty-nine years later, you came in at number 64 on a list of the world's most powerful people. Why is this agency still so vital?
GUTERRESBecause unfortunately we are witnessing more and more people being displaced against their will. Traditionally, of course, refugees are the ones that flee conflict or persecution. But when one looks at today's megatrends, you see population growth. We are now almost 7 billion and we will be 9 billion in 2015. Urbanization -- half of the world's population live in cities in 2015, 70 percent. Climate change. Climate change is really changing the world, and it's having a huge impact in many other aspects like food insecurity. One billion people are hungry today. Water scarcity, 1.5 billion people lack safe water in today's world.
GUTERRESAll these factors are combining with each other. And not only they are combining with each other with a world that is smaller and smaller, where there are physical limitations for growth for the first time in history, but they are driving more and more people to flee because of conflict, because of natural disasters, because of jolt, because life is no longer possible where they live. And, unfortunately, these are tragedy for which the world is not prepared. And what we are witnessing now is when people are in need of fleeing, when people are in need of protection, the most important thing is to keep borders open to accept them. And, unfortunately, we live in a world where there is a trend to keep more and more borders closed.
NNAMDIClosing borders. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Have you or a loved one lived as a refugee? You can share your experience with us at 800-433-8850, or you can go to our website kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. In a March interview, Mr. Ambassador, with the BBC, you said that without help, the situation in Libya could turn into a huge humanitarian disaster. Two months later, how would you describe the situation there now?
GUTERRESI do believe that in some areas of Libya, we are witnessing a humanitarian disaster. We have seen drama in Misurata with people trapped, not able to escape, with bombardments, people being killed. We have seen now recent developments in the border between Tunisia and Libya with, again, lots of people forced to flee the country. We don't know what's happening in several areas where there is no humanitarian access. So, indeed, I do believe that many -- we are witnessing a very dramatic situation. And let's not forget that 650,000 people left Libya, the majority of them migrant workers, coming from all parts of the world that were working in Libya
GUTERRESAnd together with the International Organization for Migration, we were very actively involved in helping them go home. But let's also not forget that some of those that fled Libya have no home to go back. Somalis, Eritreans, they have been refugees once, fleeing their countries because of conflict, because of political persecution. They went to Libya. Now, they are refugees again. And it is absolutely essential now that they are trapped in the countries of the region to open borders and to accept them. And I've been appealing for resettlement opportunities for these Eritreans, Somali and other refugees that were caught in the conflict in Libya.
NNAMDIThe U.N. pulled international staff out of Tripoli this weekend. Angry crowds targeted U.N. buildings after a NATO airstrike reportedly killed one of Moammar Gadhafi's sons and some grandchildren. It's impossible for your staff to help others if they themselves aren't safe. How do you protect your people?
GUTERRESThat is one of the most dramatic evolutions in the recent past. The humanitarian space has been shrinking. It has been shrinking for many reasons, because of enhanced insecurity. In many parts of the world today, you do no longer have a war between two parties. You have armies, national armies, international armies. You have rebel groups, political rebel groups. You have militias, ethnic militias, religious militias. And then, you have bandits. And all these sectors are acting in an unpredictable way, and insecurity is increasing and access is being more and more limited to the people we care for.
GUTERRESAnd then, sometimes, access is limited by governments. Governments are, in human rights dimension, not necessarily part of the solution. They sometimes are part of the problem. And on the other way, it is essential to preserve the autonomy of the humanitarian space. You have just described a situation, which there was a bombardment made by military force. Because of that, someone was killed. Because of that killing, there were reactions against the U.N. and the humanitarian actors.
GUTERRESIt is one reason more to work in a way that humanitarian work based on the principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence is preserved in its autonomy, and that we are very careful never to mix the political dimension and the military dimension of the intervention of the international community with the presence of humanitarian actors.
NNAMDIBut you have to deal with the consequences of the political and the military. We've seen a revolutionary domino effect across the Middle East and North Africa this spring. How has that affected people in need of help?
GUTERRESWe are witnessing positive things. Let's look at Egypt, let's look at Tunisia, the Lotus Revolution and the Jasmine Revolution. I'm a Portuguese, we had the Carnation Revolution in the '70s, and we became a democracy. We were a dictatorship, a colonial regime, but we became a democracy. And my appeal in this situation, and we are now having much more conditions for refugee protection inside Tunisia and inside Egypt than in the past dictatorships, my appeal to the international community is to make sure that these two countries have enough international solidarity for these two democratic revolutions to be successful.
GUTERRESIt is essential to preserve the chances of a true democracy in Egypt, of a true democracy in Tunisia, and for that these countries need a lot of help now. Their economies are in difficulties. Tourism has dramatically decreased. They're having dramatic impact of the Libyan crisis. The 1 million Egyptian workers in Libya, you can imagine how difficult it is to integrate them now in the Egyptian society with the levels of unemployment that exist. And so, international solidarity is absolutely crucial. The Portuguese revolution was successful, to a large extent, because of international solidarity. What I wanted from my country, I would like to see now for Tunisia and to -- and to -- and for Egypt.
GUTERRESAnd let's be honest. I'm not seeing enough support. And when one looks at the debate in Europe, we see that debate much less centered on supporting these two democracies, these two young democracies, and much more debate on how to close European borders to people crossing the Mediterranean. And my appeal is -- namely for European countries, for countries in North America -- to understand how important it is for the fulfillment of democratic ideals, for peace and security in the region to support the Lotus Revolution and the Jasmine Revolution at the present time.
NNAMDIGlad you're raising that issue. Our guest is the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, 10th United Nations high commissioner for refugees. He's a former Portuguese prime minister, and he mentioned what happened in Portugal. You should know that Amb. Guterres was prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002, where his accomplishments included full employment, poverty alleviated by a minimum guaranteed income, lower taxes, membership of the euro, over half a million new homeowners, nursery schooling for all.
NNAMDIHowever, one of the major criticisms against you is that you are much too involved in international affairs, which is what you are proceeding and continuing to do right now. Let's talk about Lampedusa. The tiny Italian island, with a population of about 5,000, has been overwhelmed by over 27,000 migrants seeking asylum. European Union countries may restrict movement within EU nations as a result. Money is tight for many countries right now. Is that why they are closing borders? Is that why they're refusing to take in refugees? What can you do about that?
GUTERRESWell, first of all, it's important to recognize that we have two different situations. We have the situation of migrant workers. Tunisians are not refugees. Tunisians are not fleeing persecution. Tunisians are just moving into Europe because they want a better life. And it's a very legitimate concern. 1.5 million Portuguese left Portugal in the '60s and the '70s, and many of them are now proudly working in the West or in Canada or in France or in Germany and contributing to their economies.
GUTERRESMigration is a positive thing. But then there are people fleeing because they have nowhere to go -- victims of political persecution, victims of conflict. And for those, they have the right for borders to be open to them. And countries have the obligation to receive them and to protect them. And it is true that for those fleeing Libya at the present moment, there is a commitment of the European Union to receive these people and to protect them. In relation to the migration problem of Tunisia, I think it's important to have also a positive attitude.
GUTERRESI think it's important to recognize that migration -- an adequate migration management can support Tunisia in the present circumstances. The numbers are not so big. And I hope that there will be an enlightened self-interest in Europe and not a, I would say, a populist- or a fear-driven attitude. And enlightened self-interest in Europe -- fertility indexes in Europe are 1.3 to 1.5 in the majority of the countries. Europe needs migration. It needs migration to survive as a society, for the dynamism of that society, for the economy.
GUTERRESSometimes in the difficult economic period, people tend to forget that. But let's not forget the big picture. Europe needs migration. And I hope that there will be an enlightened attitude, and I hope that the European borders will not be closed to those that will seek European protection in the near future.
NNAMDIThere's the Schengen agreement that was reached in Schengen, Luxembourg, in 1985, which allows travel without a passport, within a block of 25 European nations. That hasn't been altered since it went into effect in 1985. But the president of the European Commission has agreed to consider the temporary reintroduction of checks at the internal borders in those countries in case of so-called migration emergencies. Member states, interior ministers will be meeting next week on the 12th for an emergency session to discuss the EU's response to migration from North Africa. What are you hoping will prevail in that meeting?
GUTERRESI think that common sense needs to prevail. I don't think there is a major threat to Europe at the present moment. Schengen is a very important instrument for European prosperity, for the well-being of the Europeans. I recognize that in some extreme situations, there might be a justification to reintroduce some border controls. It happened because of security concerns in some moments. But to lose this extremely important development that Schengen meant and to panic when not even a small movement are taking place, I don't think it would make sense.
NNAMDIBack to Africa, an already tense Ivory Coast erupted in November when President Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power after losing an election. You've called the situation there one of the most dramatic displacement crisis in the world. Have things improved since Gbagbo was arrested last month?
GUTERRESWell, at least things are not worsening in the same dramatic way that we were witnessing during the civil war. But we still have about 1 million people displaced in the Abidjan area. We still have about 150,000 people displaced in the west of the country, and more than 150,000 refugees that fled mainly to Liberia. And it's also very important for the international community to recognize what Liberians have done. Like Tunisians and like Egyptians in relation to Libya, Liberians open their borders.
GUTERRESThey open their homes. They open their hearts. I was in a village in Nimba County, close to the border with Cote d'lvoire. And I saw that the people of that village shared with the refugees not only, I mean, what they had, but even what they did not have. They were sharing the seeds of the next harvest of rice. And this demonstrates their extreme generosity. And I think it's very important again -- Liberia emerged from conflict. Liberia is witnessing a fantastic evolution towards a consolidated democracy.
GUTERRESIt's very important that international solidarity is expressed not only to the victims of the conflict, but also to those populations that are being so generous helping them. And in this world, with so many -- where so many borders are closed, it's important to underline those generous attitudes of the Liberian people.
NNAMDITalk about some...
GUTERRESPoverty and generosity are not necessarily proportional. Richness and generosity. We see sometimes the poor being the most generous people.
NNAMDITalk about some of the areas in dire straits right now that might be slipping under the radar screen. Today, when we read about Somalia, it mostly has to do with piracy, and we tend to forget the refugee situation there or, for that matter, in the Republic of the Congo.
GUTERRESWell, indeed Somalia is a humanitarian disaster out of proportion with anything we can imagine. 1.5 million people displaced inside Somalia. 700,000 refugees outside the country. Levels of suffering. Number of killings. People being raped. I mean, it's a tragedy out of proportion. And, indeed, what sometimes is shocking is to see that most of the attention is driven by piracy or by terrorism and not to be aware of this humanitarian dimension. And let's also be honest.
GUTERRESThe way to fight -- if you want to fight piracy, for instance, it's not putting big fleets on the sea. It's indeed developing the areas, namely in Puntland, where there is relative security, where piracy is prevailing and where an adequate international solidarity in the economic development could be the best tool not only to fight piracy, but also to limit the prospects of extremist groups like Shabaab.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid...
GUTERRESAnd DRC is another tragedy, especially Eastern DRC, where we have seen dramatic violations of human rights because of the levels of fighting, because of the behavior, the awful behavior of the different forces that operate there.
NNAMDII guess therefore it is a good thing that Antonio Guterres has been approved by the U.N. General Assembly for a second five-year term, which expires in 2015. Hopefully, we can see some improvement in the condition of refugees around the world by that time. Antonio Guterres became the 10th United Nations high commissioner for refugees in June 2005. He's a former prime minister of Portugal. Amb. Guterres, thank you so much for joining us.
GUTERRESThank you very much. It was a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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