A safe haven

António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, is the last port of call for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. In an exclusive interview, he tells Philanthropy Age why the global humanitarian system has reached its limits

Refugees are markers of conflict. When war, violence and persecution swells around the world, so too do their numbers. At last count, more than 51 million people worldwide had been forced to flee their homes, a chaotic mass of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people large enough to rival the population of South Africa.

This nomadic army grows by the second. In 2013, some 32,200 people abandoned their homes each day, crossing countries and borders in a frantic quest for sanctuary. Half were children. All were desperate.

“Peace is today dangerously in deficit,” António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says directly. “What we are seeing here are the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict.”

Guterres is closeted in a side room on the fringes of a UNHCR-backed conference in Sharjah, UAE. The event, headlined by Jordan’s Queen Rania, hopes to draw a spotlight to the mounting number of child refugees in the Middle East. Talk, inevitably, is dominated by Syria, a country that has become a byword for brutality and mayhem. A sustained three-year campaign of bloodshed has left more than 200,000 dead, and birthed more refugees than any other conflict of the past two decades. Its grim effects have reverberated across the region, spilling into Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, and show no signs of abating.

“This is now a war that everybody is losing; nobody here is winning,” he says, pausing to sip a coffee. “It has become the most dramatic humanitarian crisis of the last decade. It is not only a terrible threat for regional stability, but also a clear threat to global peace and security. It has to end.”

"While we are doing our best, we are doing what we can, it is very clear that what we are doing is not enough"

Guterres is concerned with the aftermath. As head of the United Nation’s refugee agency, his is the last port of call for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. The agency is a safety net, delivering protection and emergency aid to refugees and, increasingly, battling to preserve their right to seek asylum in the face of tightening border controls. Officially, 11.7 million people fall under UNHCR’s wing. In reality, millions more are on its books, ranging from those trapped miserably within conflict zones, to the scores of stateless people worldwide, ‘legal ghosts’ whose lack of a passport leaves them stranded on the margins of society.

Behind the data lie countless personal stories. From girl brides in Afghanistan, to villagers fleeing Islamic extremists in Nigeria, UNHCR’s wards increase every day. So much so, that the agency’s attention, staff and funds are pushed to breaking point. The numbers are frightening, and still rising.

“I think the multiplication of crises everywhere, and the mega-crisis in Syria, have made clear that the humanitarian community as it exists in the world today is no longer able to cope with the challenge,” Guterres says frankly. “While I believe honestly that we are doing our best, we are doing what we can, it is very clear that what we are doing is not enough.”

"We cannot keep picking up the pieces. This is a political question. There is no humanitarian answer"

Syria looms large in this picture. In just five years, the Arab state morphed from being the world’s second-largest refugee hosting country, to the second biggest producer of refugees; a stunning reversal. But the tenacity of old wars is also to blame. Simmering conflicts in Somalia, the Central African Republic and elsewhere have, for years, ensured a steady trickle of refugees, and made many more homeless within their own countries. Their persistence has consigned millions of refugees to long stints in limbo, stagnating in dusty camps and makeshift settlements, unable to return home. At the end of 2013, more than half of refugees worldwide had been in exile for five years or more. This, for UNHCR, is the rub. Not only is the agency providing full-blown emergency aid to fresh crises, it remains stretched thinly across dozens of competing situations that are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

“It is not so much a question of money, but that the needs are growing so much faster than the financial support,” explains Guterres. In 2011, he says, 14,000 people fled per day due to conflict or persecution. In 2013, it was over 30,000. The aid system, as it stands, is broken.

“Let me be clear. There is no way with traditional humanitarian funding mechanisms that we can match this dramatic increase,” he says. “We cannot keep picking up the pieces. The only solution is to prevent crises and to solve them. This is a political question. There is no humanitarian answer.”

Political will, however, is muted. Guterres has been vocal in his frustration at the apathy of global leaders, and has called openly for European governments to overhaul their policies towards refugees. In a caustic op-ed in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in July, Guterres noted Europe had given shelter to a “grand total” of 124,000 Syrians, less than 4 per cent of all those seeking asylum, and 1,000 times fewer than the cash-strapped Arab state of Lebanon. “Europe’s response to the crisis of a generation might be summed up in a single phrase,” he wrote. “Never was so little done by so many for so few.”

Further complicating matters is the anti-immigrant sentiment riding high in the West at the moment. A wave of right-wing parties triumphed in the recent EU elections, raising fears of a pan-European backlash against migrants and asylum-seekers. For refugees, legal routes in are already few and falling, causing many to turn to criminal gangs of traffickers or undertake perilous sea crossings on rickety boats. At least 207,000 asylum seekers crossed the Mediterranean between January and November, three times the previous high of 70,000 in 2011, during the Libyan civil war. Some 3,419 people died in their attempts. Europe, argues Guterres, must realise it is faced not with a choice over whether refugees enter its borders, but rather how.

“It breaks my heart to see a Syrian family that has already suffered so much, to have lost their home and lost relatives, try to reach Europe and then drown in the Mediterranean,” he says. “We need more legal avenues. We’ve been pushing for more flexible visa regimes, more resettlement and humanitarian admission opportunities.”

Twenty-eight Western states, including Germany and Sweden, in December agreed to take in 100,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees over the coming months, under a resettlement deal brokered by UNHCR. The figure is well short of what many humanitarian actors had hoped for. “There is progress, but again, we need to see more,” Guterres adds.

For all their rhetoric, rich nations host a small fraction of the world’s refugees. Some 86 per cent live in developing economies, and 5.4 million in countries where average income is below $5,000 a year. The strain on already dilapidated infrastructure is immense.

“In Lebanon today, a quarter of the population is Syrian,” notes Guterres. “Schools are crowded, hospitals are crowded; there are problems with water supply and electricity. There are fewer jobs; prices and rents are going up. “But what is amazing is that with this huge pressure, with these many problems, there is still in these countries and communities an extraordinary generosity, and basic attitude of solidarity. It should be matched by the international community.”

"With every new crisis we get closer to the limits of how much we can do"

UNHCR runs almost entirely on contributions from states and private donors, with a small yearly injection from the UN. Over the last five years, its financial requirements have more than doubled, ballooning to $6.23bn for 2015 – its largest yet at the start of a year – to aid millions of refugees, displaced and stateless people. The agency’s annual pledging conference in December netted an initial $500m; about 25 per cent less than it received the previous year. While this will allow it to cover the most basic needs – water, shelter and healthcare – it leaves little cash for longer-term concerns, such as education. As conflicts rumble on into years, the issue of providing refugees with schools, training and a means to earn a living becomes more urgent.

“With every new crisis we get closer to the limits of how much we can do,” Guterres explains. “We are clearly no longer able to do enough.”

In December, a cash crunch saw the UN-backed World Food Programme suspend food aid to more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees. The cuts, a body blow for families facing a fourth winter of war, were reversed after an urgent appeal raised more than $80m, but illustrated the dilemma many aid agencies face.

“These people are not only suffering dramatically because of events in their country, but they now live in exile in very dramatic circumstances,” says Guterres. “It is far from what they need and what they deserve, but it is all we can offer.”

Still, UNHCR presses on. The agency in November unveiled a bold campaign to eradicate statelessness within a decade, tackling the plight of an estimated 10 million people worldwide with no legal identity, no passport, and few rights. A largely manmade problem, entire swathes of a population can become stateless overnight when boundaries are redrawn, or through persecution. More than 20 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, some 600,000 people still lack a nationality. UNHCR’s ‘I belong’ campaign calls on nations to take 10 actions to end statelessness, including stripping gender discrimination out of nationality laws, granting citizenship to ethnic minorities – such as the stateless Rohingya community in Burma – and allowing the birth of any child on its territory to be registered.

“Statelessness makes people feel like their very existence is a crime,” Guterres said at the campaign’s launch. “We cannot afford to fail this challenge.”

"I am neither optimist, nor pessimistic. I am just determined"

The constancy of forced migration in the modern world means UNHCR’s caseload is unlikely to lighten. Alongside refugee flows, displacement is increasingly driven by factors such as climate change, poverty, urbanisation and water scarcity. The debate over who qualifies for refugee status – and whether its definition should evolve – is gathering pace.

“We are challenged by the need to respond not only to refugees, but to migrants, displaced people; all kinds of people,” Guterres explains. “How can we address the gaps of protection that exist for those who don’t fit into the legal definition of a refugee? The truth is that more and more people are fleeing for reasons other than conflict or persecution. We are extremely supportive [of a change].”

Guterres took the role of High Commissioner in 2005, almost a decade ago. In that time, he has seen the number of displaced people around the world ricochet to record heights, and, in tours of overflowing refugee camps, seen first-hand examples of mankind at its best and its worst. Is he optimistic for the future? “I am neither optimist, nor pessimistic,” he shrugs. ‘I am just determined.”