- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Syria and Jordan are paying a high price, socially and economically, for the generosity with which they have hosted Iraqi refugees, the largest urban refugee caseload in history, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a recent interview. The former Portuguese prime minister also spoke to The Washington Times at length on the refugee crises witnessed in Africa and Latin America and the looming threat of displacement caused by food shortage. Excerpts from the interview:

QUESTION: Rising food prices are putting pressure on weak states and will likely prompt some degree of global displacement. How severe is this problem?

ANSWER: It is extremely severe. We’re witnessing a structural change in world food markets, and the problem needs to be addressed as such. We work with the World Food Program, and I can only appeal to the international community to be supportive. This isn’t simply a humanitarian problem but a political one, especially for young democracies and countries emerging from conflict. The international community needs a strategy to deal with questions of trade, technology and market incentives to boost food production and make prices more affordable.

Q: Where do you expect to see the biggest food-related threats in the short term?

A: The urban poor and displaced are most directly affected, as are countries that are net importers of food. Africa is particularly vulnerable, but I’m starting to see impacts in Asian countries dependent on rice imports.

Q: Looking to Africa, where will the biggest refugee problems be concentrated over the next few years?

A: Darfur is a problem — one involving Sudan, Chad and Central African Republic. There are also concerns in the Horn of Africa, in Somalia. We have now, for example, Somali refugees in Kenya, Djibouti and Yemen. There are concerns over the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes region in general. In the [Congo], for example, where people are still dying because of conflict, disease and famine, we have one tsunami every six months. That gives an idea of the dimension of the problem.

Q: Over half of Iraq’s refugees live in Syria and Jordan under deteriorating humanitarian conditions. What is your agency doing?

A: Socially and economically, Syria and Jordan are paying a high price for the generosity with which they have hosted these Iraqis. We’re dealing with the largest urban refugee caseload in history, trying to detect vulnerable families and provide assistance beyond what Jordan and Syria are providing. We’re also promoting resettlements. Last year, we referred 20,000 Iraqis for resettlement around the world. We’re also asking the Iraqi government to provide more support to Iraqis living in [other] countries and to solve problems at home to allow for safe and dignified returns. We’re the only agency to have a permanent representative in Iraq, and we want to work closely with the government on these issues.

Q: The International Rescue Committee (IRC) says $2 billion is needed annually to maintain displaced Iraqis until they return home. In January, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees appealed for $261 million to help internally displaced Iraqis as well as those other countries. What is your opinion of the IRC’s projection of $2 billion?

A: Those projections relate also to the impact refugees are having in the Syrian and Jordanian economies. We made an appeal for $261 million because we are realistic about the possibility of financing. We also want to make sure money we spend is well spent, not being able to meet all needs but at least reach people in more dramatic circumstances.

Q: What is the status of fundraising and how do you rank the relative responsibility of the United States versus European and Gulf Arab states in contributing to the fund?

A: We’ve received about half of the money we asked for, and by far, the largest contribution has been from the U.S.

Q: At least 2 million Colombians have been displaced by violence in the past five years alone, with many crossing into Ecuador. What is your assessment of this problem?

A: There is a huge displacement problem inside Colombia and outside, one that impacts surrounding countries. It is important to recognize that Colombia is a functioning state and that it is responding to the crisis. The Constitutional Court, for example, has ruled that the situation of the internally displaced is unconstitutional. So the government has put together a meaningful budget, and there’s a large effort by the state and civil society to cope with the problem. We must also express our appreciation to Ecuador, which has been regularizing the situation of all Colombians in Ecuador and doing its best to allow these refugees to fully enjoy human rights.

Q: What are the top three challenges for the next five or so years?

A: Africa will remain a major challenge. Another problem is that the impacts of climate change and the problems of poverty will combine. There is also the problem with the asylum-migration nexus — that is, how to ensure that in the complex flows of populations around the world we detect those who are indeed in need of asylum, such as women and children who are victims of trafficking. The third challenge is how to deal with new patterns of forced displacement, not just that caused by conflict but by extreme poverty and drought for example. This is a challenge not only for us but for the entire global community.

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