António Guterres, UNHCR
POV: Are there other countries, in addition to Sierra Leone, where large numbers of refugees are returning home?
António Guterres: Afghanistan continues to represent our single largest return operation. Since the fall of the Taliban, more than 4.5 million Afghans have returned home, and that movement continues, though in much-reduced numbers. In Liberia, which neighbors Sierra Leone, returns have passed the 100,000 mark. In 2006, around 1.4 million people in Africa returned home as a result of the gradual consolidation of peace processes in countries such as Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Southern Sudan.
POV: What are the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugee’s (UNHCR) areas of concern at the moment?
Guterres: In Sri Lanka, where the peace process has again broken down, some 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes. UNHCR has been involved with assisting and protecting internally displaced people in the northern part of the country since 1990. Given the office’s extensive experience with internal displacement in Sri Lanka, it is now leading a broad-based response by a range of international agencies.
Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya
History has also shown signs of repeating itself thousands of miles away in Somalia, where a 15-year-old conflict re-ignited during the course of 2006. Thousands of Somalis spilled across the border into Kenya, where some 160,000 Somali refugees have been living in camps since the beginning of the 1990s. We’re also seeing a worrying increase in the number of people, mostly Somalis and Ethiopians, who are making the perilous journey from the Horn of Africa across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. In 2006, at least 330 people died and another 300 were reported missing, often at the hands of ruthless smugglers. So far this year, more than 5,600 people have landed on the Yemeni coast, and at least 200 people have died.
POV: After viewing films like “Lost Boys of Sudan,” “Rain in a Dry Land” and “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars” viewers often want to know what they can do to help.
Guterres: UNHCR is almost entirely funded by donations. Most of these come from governments, but we are increasingly relying on individual and corporate donations. For instance, in January of this year we had to issue an emergency appeal to fund our operations to assist Iraqi refugees. For those who want to contribute financially, I would ask them to visit unhcr.org/give or call 1-800-770-1100. But there are also other ways people can help. By becoming better informed on refugee issues an individual can then get involved in refugee causes, by writing to policy makers for instance. Information on all of UNHCR’s program can be found at our website at www.unhcr.org.
António Guterres is the United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees. The UN General Assembly established the UNHCR in 1950 to deal with refugees and displaced people in the aftermath of World War II. The office of the UNHCR has won two Nobel Peace Prizes for its work with refugees around the world. Currently operating in 115 countries with a professional staff of 6000, the UNHCR has provided assistance to over 50 million refugees in its history.