Antonio Guterres, UNHCR

Interview with Antonio Guterres, High Commissioner, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR

Imagine that your organization didn’t exist and you were asked to invent it. What would you do? How would it be fundamentally different from what exists? What would be the differences regarding mandate, resources and objectives?

I am afraid it would be almost impossible to mobilize such a strong refugee protection foundation if it had to be invented today. Sadly, it often takes extreme tragedy to unite the world for the good of humanity. This is what happened after Europe’s most destructive war had left millions of people displaced – world leaders created the landmark Refugee Convention of 1951. Countries that signed it vowed to respect the right of individuals to seek asylum and refrain from returning refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be in danger. The recently created United Nations mandated UNHCR to protect and assist refugees and find durable solutions to their plight.

There are now more than 43 million people displaced by violence and persecution worldwide. More than 15 million of them are refugees, while the rest are displaced within their own countries. The nature of forced displacement has changed significantly over the past 60 years since the Refugee Convention was established. I would not want to change the Convention, or UNHCR’s mandate, but effective responses must be found to address issues such as mixed migration or human displacement as a result of climate change. As for resources, UNHCR depends to 99% on voluntary contributions, mainly from governments, but also from a growing number of private sector donors and individual supporters.

This absence of guaranteed funding puts us in a vulnerable position, and more financial predictability would certainly help our response, particularly in the forgotten crises that no longer attract media and donor attention. The needs of the people we care for around the globe are immense, and of course we would like to have more resources to be able to address them properly. Given the current global economic climate, I am deeply grateful for the high level of support we do continue to get – nearly 1.9 billion USD in voluntary donations in 2010, a record level that we may even end up exceeding again this year.

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(Photo © Eskinder Debede / UN)