Would Syria safe zones stop refugees from boarding boats to Europe?

While the UN Refugee Agency is urging the European Union to adopt an emergency action plan on the intensifying migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has sent a letter to President Obama on the possibility of setting up safe zones for refugees in Syria. Judy Woodruff talks to António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

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    And joining me now is United Nations' high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres. He's in Washington meeting with State Department officials and members of Congress.

    Commissioner Guterres, thank you for joining us again to talk about this.

    How would you describe right now the scale of this migrant boat crisis facing Europe and the world?

    ANTONIO GUTERRES, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Well, I think it is a tragedy within a tragedy.

    We are seeing the dramatic evolution in Syria and Iraq. We are seeing a conflict that is causing the largest displacement since the Second World War. We have now four million Syrian refugees, more than 2.5 million people displaced inside Iraq, more than seven million people displaced inside Syria.

    And even those that live in the neighboring countries live in appallingly difficult conditions. And so we see more and more Syrians trying to come to Europe. And it really breaks my heart to see families that have lost their homes, lost members of the family, and have to risk their lives again in unseaworthy boats, under the control of terrible violators of human rights, smugglers and traffickers, and finally perish because there is not an effective rescue-at-sea operation in central Mediterranean.

    And that's why we have been asking that Europe will have to assume the responsibility. To us, it was the case last year with Mare Nostrum to have an effective rescue-at-sea operation in central Mediterranean, to at least be able to respond in an efficient way to the needs of these desperate people.


    Well, how much of the responsibility does lie with the European Union? Because, as you just noted, last year, the Italians had a very robust search-and-rescue operation under way. Now that has been scaled back to something much smaller by the E.U.


    Unfortunately, many people in Europe were saying that the Italian Mare Nostrum was becoming a pull factor, was attracting people to cross.

    And the truth is that without Mare Nostrum, without an effective mechanism of rescue at sea, more people are coming in 2015 than in 2014, which shows that overwhelming majority of these people is not crossing out of hope or because they want a better life. They're crossing out of despair.

    And so it is not because you don't have a mechanism, an effective mechanism to rescue them that they will stop on the other side. Unfortunately, we're having more people crossing and more people dying, and that is why it is so important to reestablish a robust mechanism of rescue at sea and then put up all the other measures that are necessary, crack down on smugglers and traffickers, promote more legal avenues to come legally into Europe, and address the root causes that force people to move in countries of origin, and creating better protection conditions in countries of transit, namely, Northern Africa, knowing that, for the moment, Libya, with a chaotic situation that Libya faces, will not be a partner for an effective operation of combined action to reduce this drama.


    Well, I know there is this emergency meeting coming this Thursday. Do you expect the European countries to agree to do what you are asking?


    Well, we hope so.

    We have to recognize that several European countries are doing a very good job. They are showing an enormous effort, receiving Syrians, and giving them excellent conditions. It's the case of Germany. It's the case of Sweden.

    And what we believe is that Europe needs to assume that responsibility collectively and to properly receive people, to see those that are in need protection, those that are economic migrants that only seek a better life, and, of course, they need to be respected, but they have a different set of rights, and guarantee a fair share of distribution within the European continent in order to be able to be much more generous in the European attitude towards refugees crossing the Mediterranean at the present moment.


    You started out by describing it as a crisis of — one refugee crisis in the middle of another refugee crisis, of course referring to Syria.

    We just learned in the last hour that a group of bipartisan United States senators have sent a letter to President Obama asking him to work with U.S. allies to create safe zones inside Syria for displaced people and to create a way for humanitarian aid to get in.

    Is this the kind of thing that would be helpful for Syria's humanitarian — Syria's refugee crisis?


    I think that to have corridors for humanitarian aid is a very positive thing.

    And we are doing a lot of humanitarian aid cross-border and cross-line inside Syria. And to create conditions for it to be much more developed would, in my opinion, be extremely important. To conceive the idea of a safe zone inside Syria to keep the refugees there, our experience in the past is not a positive one.

    Remember the safe zone in Srebrenica in Bosnia and the tragedy that has created, because how — who would guarantee the safety of that zone in the middle of a civil war with the characteristics of the Syrian civil war at the present moment? So, I think it's very important to create more conditions for humanitarian aid to be distributed inside Syria.

    And more than that, what would be very important is to bring together those countries that have an influence in the parties of the conflict to understand that this is a war in which nobody is losing, everybody — nobody is winning, everybody is losing, and that there is now a threat not only to regional stability — let's see what has happened in Iraq — but also to global peace and security and the terrorist threat for the whole world.

    So it's high time for those countries that have an influence on the parties in the conflict to forget their differences, to forget their contradictions and to come together and put an end to this nonsense.


    Just quickly, you have been meeting on Capitol Hill with members of Congress. You had asked the United States to accept just a few thousands Syrian refugees. There has been pushback from, as we mentioned, some committee chairs, who were saying, how does the United States know they won't be terrorists? What is your answer to that?


    Well, the United States has the largest resettlement program in the world. We resettle in UNHCR about 100,000 refugees per year.

    And about 70,000 come into the United States. And they come from all over the world and from many areas where you have conflicts very similar to the Syrian one. And there are security checks that are implemented, both from our side and from the side of the American administration and other countries, Canada, Australia, other European cries, to guarantee that those that come are really people in need of protection.

    We are not here to give shelter to terrorists. We are here to give shelter to those that are the first victims of terrorism. And the first victims of terrorism today are the Syrians themselves.


    Antonio Guterres, the U.N. commissioner for refugees, we thank you very much for joining us.


    Thank you.

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