UN issues unprecedented declaration on refugee crisis

An estimated 65 million people worldwide are considered refugees and migrants. On Monday, the United Nations General Assembly's began its first summit on the growing global issue. The session yielded an unprecedented declaration of commitment to organization and cooperation in supporting refugees. William Brangham interviews Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, about its importance.

Read the Full Transcript


    But first: At the United Nations General Assembly today, a first-of-its kind summit on refugees and migrants was held, led by the secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon.

    Tomorrow, President Obama will lead a second meeting on the crisis.

    William Brangham has more.


    An estimated 65 million people worldwide are now considered refugees and migrants. That's an increase of five million people over last year alone, making this the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

    To discuss the plight of these people, and the current global response, I'm joined now by Filippo Grandi. He's the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

    Mr. High Commissioner, thank you very much for being here.

    I understand today you reached a big agreement at the United Nations. Can you tell us a little bit about what was agreed to?

    FILIPPO GRANDI, UN High Commissioner for Refugees: Yes.

    The General Assembly, meaning all the states in the world, have issued a declaration which actually will be known as the New York Declaration, committing themselves to protecting, assisting refugees, but also finding new ways the organize better the response to refugee crisis.

    And, you know, for a long time, we have struggled with the resources. We have been able to give the basics to refugees, like blankets, medicine, some food, but what refugees want also is a future, is education, is jobs. And it is an effort to try to expand our support to them that this declaration will help us carry out.


    Obviously, a global agreement of this kind is important, but this agreement is not binding on any of the nations that put their name on the line. So, how confident are you that this will really have a meaningful impact?


    Well, first of all, it's the first time in history that the General Assembly issues such a declaration, so there is a lot of political weight behind that.

    And then I think that, also, everybody has realized — especially when refugees in the last couple of years started arriving in Europe, started moving on from places where they have arrived first, I think there is a realization this is not a problem of one or another country. This is a global problem.

    Just like — think of epidemics or think of climate change. I think there is a growing realization that these are global issues, global problems that affect the whole of humanity, and only working together we can address the root causes, we can address what pushes people to move on.

    So I think that there is a necessity and not just a moral commitment to do that.


    I want to ask you a little bit about some of the headwinds that are facing the U.N. and all the nations who are grappling with this.

    We saw in Germany a very big welcome mat thrown out, and now we have seen the rise of a far-right nationalistic party in response. Here in the U.S., we have also seen a very strong anti-immigrant sentiment, driven mostly out of fears of terrorism.

    I'm curious. When you're talking to leaders of world nations, what do you tell them about those sentiments? How do we counter those, and where do those feelings lead?


    I think there are always two sentiments in every society. There is solidarity. And we have seen it very much in Europe when refugees arrive.

    But there is also a feeling of apprehension and rejection. And what people are, I think, worried about is when they see that the response to these flows is not orderly, is not organized, is not structured.

    This is why this declaration also invites everybody, all the states, together with the United Nations organization, to work on these responses, to make them more predictable, more cooperative. If Europe had reacted in that manner back last year, when people started arriving in large numbers, I'm persuaded that there wouldn't have been such a negative reaction growing with the passage of time, that people would have accepted that it was important, necessary, principled, but also possible to receive refugees, to give them asylum, people fleeing from war and persecution.

    But we need to organize that response better. And this is what — this is the value of this declaration. It will help us work towards that organization. It will give us the resources hopefully to do that.


    The issue of resettlement is obviously a crucial one, finding a more permanent home for these people, so they're not living in camps in perpetuity.

    But the agreement today that was — the original draft of that agreement asks for a 10 percent annual rate of resettlement of the refugees, but that was scrapped because of resistance from many of the donor nations.

    So, if 10 percent per year resettlement is considered too much, what does that tell you about the future?


    This is a United Nations document.

    To issue this document, member states have to agree, all of them, 193. This is very difficult. So, there couldn't be an agreement on a percentage of refugees to be resettled.

    But resettlement as a key solution, especially for the most vulnerable people, is in the declaration as one of the things that we need to work on. So, the declaration is the preamble to a global compact that we hope we will be able to issue in two years' time.

    And during this time, we will work. We will work on these concrete commitments. I don't know if we will come up with a figure, but I think that what we must do is increase the present very low percentage. We are talking about 10 percent. Right now, it's less than 1 percent of the refugees that are resettled. So we need to improve on that.


    Just very quickly, I'm curious about the financial status of your organization.

    We saw requests go out last year for $20 billion, and only half of that was returned. How able are you financially to deal with this crisis going forward this year and into the years into the future?


    This has been a chronic problem for us humanitarian organizations.

    UNHCR, my organization, has a budget of $7 billion, in fact, annually, and we receive about 50, 55 percent of this money. Once again, this is another important element of what was decided in New York today.

    It was decided that the response to refugee flows shouldn't simply be humanitarian, should involve big development actors, like the World Bank, who made very strong commitments today. And that will bring new, fresh resources, different resources to the table. And I hope that that will also be a big progress.


    All right, Filippo Grandi, U.N. high commissioner for refugees, thanks very much for being here.


    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment