Faced with ‘mega-crisis,’ UN warns of refugee suffering and security threats

For the first time since World War II, there are more than 51 million people worldwide who are refugees or displaced; more than a quarter have been driven from their homes by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner interviews the U.N High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, about the suffering and broad impacts of the Mideast refugee crisis.

Read the Full Transcript


    We take a closer look now at the world's surging refugee problem, which the United Nations point person on the issue calls a mega-crisis.

    He spoke to chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner earlier today.


    For nearly a decade, Antonio Guterres has overseen the U.N. High Commission for Refugees' far-flung operations around the world. Recently, his agency issued a staggering new report. There are now more than 51 million people worldwide who are refugees or displaced in their own lands, more than any time since World War II.

    The conflict in Syria, and now in Iraq, makes up more a quarter of that toll, as millions seek refuge in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Northern Iraq. Guterres is in Washington this week to spread the alarm.

    I spoke with him today at the UNHCR's Washington office.

    High Commissioner Guterres, thank you for having us.

    You have been at this job for nine years. Is this worst you have ever seen in terms of displacement?

    ANTONIO GUTERRES, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Undoubtedly. And I think things will get worse, before eventually they will start to get better.

    We are seeing a multiplication of new crises, a mega-crisis in Syria, old crises that go on and on and on, and all this reflects the lack of capacity of the international community to prevent conflicts and to timely solve them.


    Now, many respected research institutions and even President Obama said recently, if you look back over the decades, there are actually fewer armed conflicts in the world than there used to be and fewer people killed in armed conflicts. If that's the case, why are we seeing more displaced people?


    We are witnessing different forms of fighting.

    In the past, we had wars between two states or between a state and a rebel group. Now we have conflicts with a multiplicity of actors, national forces, international forces, ethnic militias, religious militias, rebel groups, bandits. Banditism has been benefiting from this chaos.

    Sometimes, is a bandit in the morning and member of a militia in the afternoon, which means that the impact on civilian populations is much larger than the impact of classical conflicts of the past.


    And they're also less controllable by political leaders then.


    Well, I think political leaders have this impression that they can trigger a conflict, because, as the international community today, we live in a world without a global governance system. But we also live in a world where power relations became unclear.

    So political leaders feel that there is an environment of impunity. And there is also an environment of unpredictability. And they think that they can trigger a war and go on with that war. Let's see what's happening in South Sudan. And then the humanitarians will come and clean the mess.

    The truth is that we no longer have the capacity to clean up the mess.


    Now, when you say the humanitarian structure can't deal with it, are you talking about both your own agency and NGO's and all these neighboring countries that all are involved in this?


    Look at Lebanon. One-third of the Lebanese population now is foreigner, Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees. Can you imagine the impact on the economy, on the society, schools, hospitals, infrastructure, water, electricity?

    Lebanese poor people competing for jobs with Syrians, and they're ready to work for whatever price. So salaries are going down, prices and rents going up, a huge impact. The same in Jordan, the same in the northern part of Iraq. There is no way the international community is supporting these countries as they need.


    Let's talk about Syria and Iraq. Winter is approaching — in fact, winter is here in some parts in — in the higher elevations. Your agency has said you're $58 million shortfall I think just to get through this — the end of this year.

    What are you going to do? I mean, how are you going to choose who to help? You can't help everyone.


    Well, we are moving money as much as we can from all kinds of savings everywhere to be able to increase our capacity locally.

    We are asking other partners to enhance their efforts. But, indeed, it's an enormously challenging situation. People think that, in the Middle East, it's warm, but it's not. In winter, some of these areas are very cold. They have negative temperatures, snow, floods. And people can suffer tremendously, because many of them have very precarious shelter.


    But will you have to essentially ration care?


    We are trying to avoid it at all costs.

    Last year, it was possible outside Syria, for the refugees outside Syria to avoid any casualty due to cold temperatures or bad weather. Inside Syria, unfortunately, the capacity to deliver is much more limited, even for security reasons.

    I hope we will be able to do the same this year, but now we have an additional problem in Iraq. And, as you know, most of the refugees are in Kurdistan. And in Kurdistan, you have also very, very low temperatures and a very harsh winter.


    Now, what is the impact of all of this, both on the refugees themselves and the wider world, if these funding needs aren't addressed, for starters?


    Well, first of all, that means an enormous amount of suffering for the people.

    But there is another dimension. I believe what we do is important for humanitarian reasons, but we are dealing with a world in which these crises are not only humanitarian crises. They are also threats to regional peace and stability. You have fighters from all over the world in the region. One day, they will go back. And we can imagine the risks that correspond to that.

    So, to support these populations and to support the local communities to avoid that people feel abandoned, frustrated, angry is absolutely essential also to help stabilize the area and to help avoid what could be the creation of an environment that would facilitate the life of those radical groups. And so that is why it's so important to bring development factors and to think out of the box on how to fund humanitarian emergencies in the world.


    And so if the answer is to think outside of the box, you have been traveling around to all these Western capitals, trying to raise this alarm, what more can the West do, other than write bigger checks?

    You say that nub of this is, you have got these conflicts that start. And once they start, they just rage on and on and on. Is there a role for the international community in resolving some of these?


    Yes. But, unfortunately, you see the Security Council paralyzed. And as the power relations are not clear, people feel sentiments of impunity and they go on doing what they are doing.

    We need an international community able to come together to forget about the differences, contradictions, the different perspectives, and to understand that in the wars of today, nobody is winning, everybody's losing.

    And I hope that the divisions that we are witnessing, sometimes the memory of the Cold War divisions, the Sunni-Shia divides, I think these are much less important than the threats that today are there and that are serious threats for everybody everywhere.


    High Commissioner Antonio Guterres, thank you so much.


    Thank you very much.

Listen to this Segment