'People were more concerned with the developed world than the refugees'

The last decade has born witness to a “progressive aggravation” of displacement around the world. Yet it was only when refugees began crowding at Europe’s doorstep that the West sat up and took notice, rued António Guterres, the outgoing head of the UN’s refugee agency

After 10 years as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Guterres used his farewell interview to highlight the desperate situation of those fleeing conflict and persecution, and to make a final plea for a global solution.

“For the first time refugees came in big numbers to the global north, to rich countries,” said Guterres. “People were more concerned with the developed world than the refugees themselves. But this also creates an opportunity that the refugee question is at the centre of international debate. We need to see how we can mobilise the international community in order to be able to provide not only adequate humanitarian aid for displaced populations, but also to support the countries hosting them: Lebanon, Jordan.”

In 2005, when Guterres first took office, the agency was hoping to safely return 1 million people back home each year. In 2015, that figure was just 24,000, said Guterres. Global displacement is now at an historic high and still rising, affecting close to 60 million people, and spurred by conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.

The former UNHCR chief was especially bleak on the prospects for Syria’s people, a country where “hope has been slowly disappearing”. In December 2015, Guterres warned even more starkly of the country’s demise if nothing is done. “If the conflict does not end quickly, this might be the end of Syria as we know it – and the same is true for Iraq,” Guterres said in an address to the UN Security Council in New York.

The Syrian conflict has displaced nearly 11 million people, forcing 4.4 million refugees into neighboring countries. Some nine out of 10 Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan live below the poverty line, according to a UNHCR and World Bank report.

As he leaves his post, the former UNHCR chief’s parting shot was a call for more funding for the UN’s refugee agency – whose $4.3bn regional plan for Syria in 2015 is only 58 per cent funded – for more coordination between aid agencies; and, most urgently, a “surge in diplomacy for peace”.

Click here to read our exclusive interview with António Guterres