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As refugee crises escalate, UN commissioner calls for ‘massive international solidarity’

April 11, 2014 at 10:27 PM EDT
War has upended the lives of millions in Syria and a never-ending humanitarian crisis. Aid groups attempt to meet basic needs of refugees and internally displaced Syrians but face a massive shortfall in finances. Judy Woodruff talks to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres about the need for increased political and financial commitments in Syria, as well as CAR and South Sudan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to those whose lives have been upended by war.

In Syria, more than 6.5 million are displaced inside the country, many without access to aid, and nearly two million more have fled to neighboring countries. In Central Africa, new humanitarian crises are emerging in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, all of this as aid groups struggle to deal with harsh and deadly conditions on the ground, as well as a massive shortfall in finances.

Earlier this afternoon, I spoke to Antonio Guterres. He’s the former prime minister of Portugal and the current United Nations high commissioner for refugees. I spoke to him about some of the most pressing issues his organization faces.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, thank you very much for joining us.

ANTONIO GUTERRES, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees: Pleasure to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have your hands full in so many parts of the world, but let’s start with Syria. Tell us what the main challenge there is now.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Well, the main challenge is, it’s a never-ending conflict.

We have now the largest displacement in the world for decades, 6.5 million people displaced inside the country, more than 2.6 million refugees coming into the neighboring countries. And, as you can imagine, it’s not only a terrible tragedy for the Syrians. It’s becoming an enormous threat to the stability of the region and a global threat to peace and security.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what is your agency able to do right now for these refugees?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Well, what we’re doing is essentially mobilizing our partners, 125 organizations, together with the governments, in order to try to give shelter, protection, water, food, and to put as many children in school as possible — but only one-third of the children refugees are at schools — and to provide health care to these people, knowing that whatever we do is not enough, knowing that these people have suffered so much, that they deserve from the international community a much stronger solidarity, a much stronger proof that we understand their needs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what more do you need right now for the Syrian refugees?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Well, I think, for the Syrian refugees, we need more support from humanitarian organizations, but also massive support to the host countries.

A country like Lebanon has one-forth of its population in Syria. The impact on the economy, on the society, on the educational systems is huge. The destabilizing impact in relation to the political life of the countries is also huge. So massive international solidarity is needed. And let’s be honest. The world has not been able to provide to these generous host countries the kind of support they deserve and they badly need at the present moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There was a U.N. resolution passed early this year to allow more aid into Syria. Has that made a difference?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: It has made some difference, but they are still far from being able to provide enough assistance to the people that either have been displaced by the conflict, or are trapped, besieged in some areas, and many of them living outside even worse than the refugees themselves, because not only do they not see their needs being addressed, but their insecurity is enormous.

We have displaced people inside Syria that have moved six, seven times, and the war is coming after them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as we know, Syria is bad enough, but there are also crises on the African continent, the Central African Republic, a crisis unfolding there, where you have Christian militia forces stopping and attacking Muslim civilians trying to leave. What is the latest information you have from there?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Well, it’s exactly that.

There was never a religious problem in the Central Africa Republic. This was artificially created by those that tried to manipulate the feelings of the people and the fears of the people, putting Christians against Muslims and Muslims against Christians. And that is horrible. And today what we’re witnessing is the risk of a religious cleansing of all the Muslims from the western part of the country.

And at the same time, the eastern part of the country that has a majority of Muslims has been completely abandoned by the state, and so a terrible humanitarian situation, in a country where the state has practically disappeared, and where it is absolutely essential to increase security, increasing quickly the number of military and police that are there from the African Union waiting for the U.N. force to come, and at the same time helping the Central African Republicans themselves to have a minimum of police, a minimum of judicial system, and some jails at work allow for all the criminals that are around to be prosecuted, to be condemned, if that is the Kay, and jailed, and not to go on creating anarchy and chaos all around the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, can money make a difference there?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Money is essential, but it’s more than money. It’s a strong political commitment to increase the security. And that requires more forces on the ground.

Without more forces on the ground, it will be impossible to prevent the kind of generalized violence that we are witnessing in the Central African Republic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then another part of the African content, South Sudan. I was looking today. You have more than 280,000 refugees there crossing the border into Uganda, into Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan just since September. This is a crisis affecting a number of countries.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Yes, and it is something that breaks our hearts.

I was recently in Nyal. It’s a small place inside South Sudan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you said you just came back from there.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: … controlled from — by the opposition, where I went with the World Food Program executive director.

And all of a sudden, two young men came to see me and said, we were you in 2005 in a refugee camp in Uganda. And at that time was when the comprehensive peace agreement was signed, and we were enthusiastic about going back. And they came back to South Sudan, and all of a sudden, they are displaced again.

We had half-a-million South Sudanese go back home full of hope, full of joy, wanting to rebuild their country. And now the truth is that the political leadership of the country, both government and opposition, has created a situation in which all these people are in a dramatic humanitarian situation with hunger, with all basic needs not being taken care, and because of the violence, forced to flee again into neighboring countries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is your message, High Commissioner Guterres, for Americans who are listening, others who are listening who think, I would like to help, this is such a big problem, what can I do, and does it make a difference? What do you say?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: I think that Americans have been extremely involved in South Sudan.

Many American volunteers have been working there and supporting the people. And that is, of course, something that we should praise. Support, financial support, humanitarian aid in South Sudan and in neighboring countries to help the refugees is also essential, but political commitments in order to force the parties to make peace.

And I think the countries of the region and those that have invested so much, like the U.S., in South Sudan need to do everything possible to make sure that this completely stupid war — there are no different programs — it’s just a struggle for power and for the control of the resources, the oil — that this completely stupid war is ended.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you look for contributions to the commission, to the refugee work you’re doing?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Well, of course we need — we badly need support.

African — all our African operations are dramatically underfunded because the attentions are very much on the Syria crisis.


ANTONIO GUTERRES: But it’s only support of UNHCR. It’s support to all NGOs, all U.N. agencies that are working both inside South Sudan and in the countries around.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s a massive undertaking.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And we thank you very much for talking about with us about it, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres.