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Refugee commissioner urges asylum cooperation

By Samuel Jaberg in Basel

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The number of refugees, like these Somalians on their way to Kenya, rose dramatically last year (Keystone)

The number of refugees, like these Somalians on their way to Kenya, rose dramatically last year


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says Switzerland has a key role to play in supporting the tide of refugees sweeping the globe.

Antonio Guterres tells swissinfo.ch Switzerland and Europe as a whole should welcome and help displaced people.

Speaking at a Swiss humanitarian aid event on Friday, Guterres said the growing number of crises and conflicts around the world has heightened the refugee problem. The situation showed no signs of abating in the years to come.

In the past 60 years the number of refugees has leapt from 2.1 million to 44 million. Guterres has witnessed the situation first-hand in the Horn of Africa, Ivory Coast and Mali in recent months.

swissinfo.ch: What do you think of Europe’s response to the influx of refugees from Arab Spring nations?

Antonio Guterres: The Arab Spring is not only a question of refugees. It is first and foremost an unprecedented transformation and an opportunity for an alternative democracy to develop in authoritarian countries. Europe and the West should support these countries, be it Tunisia or Egypt, and hopefully Libya soon, so that democratic regimes can stabilise and consolidate.

At the same time, Europe needs to assume its responsibilities. While it is necessary to strengthen the capacities for welcoming and protecting refugees in southern coastal Mediterranean countries, Europe should equally remain a continent of asylum.

Don’t forget that 80 per cent of refugees are housed in developing countries. Less than two per cent of the 900,000 people who fled Libya have sought asylum in Europe. It’s mainly neighbouring countries that have welcomed them, displaying extraordinary solidarity.

swissinfo.ch: What can the UNHCR do for Syria now?

A.G.: We support more than 40,000 Syrians who fled their country for Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Through the Syrian Red Crescent Society we have also run a big support operation for Iraqis in Syria. Because Syria has always been a very generous country in welcoming refugees.

But we are equally concerned about the other crises we are currently facing: Mali, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan still, to name but a few. The number of refugees in the developing world increased dramatically last year.

And while these new crises are multiplying, the old ones don’t go away. The situation is still not stable in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Forced migration is affecting more people, for longer periods. And the fact that conflicts drag on seriously limits chances of people returning home. Seven million refugees left their countries over five years ago. The solution to these humanitarian crises is political and the UNHCR unfortunately is powerless in this regard.

swissinfo.ch: What are your other concerns?

A.G.: In a bipolar or unipolar world, the rules were relatively clear. Today, unpredictability is the norm and the difficulty of predicting crises is the most complex aspect to handle. We live in a dangerous world and one which has seen crises multiply. Migration often combines with other factors such as climate change, demographic growth, food insecurity and water scarcity.

Added to the complexity of conflict areas is the challenge of the squeeze on humanitarian resources. Different parties occupy conflict zones and many of them do not respect humanitarian principles. Humanitarian personnel are increasingly subject to threats, intimidation, abductions and killings.

swissinfo.ch: How can we deal with this growing number of crises?

A.G.: We need more finances but also more commitment by states for development aid. Unfortunately the international community is less capable of predicting how to react to crises. Prevention methods should be strengthened and developed countries should show their determination to stabilise the situation of displaced people.

swissinfo.ch: What should Switzerland do?

A.G.: Switzerland is not only one of the major contributors to the UNHCR it is also present on the ground. In light of its tradition and history, Switzerland has a very important role to play in protecting refugees, particularly when it comes to efforts promoting respect for humanitarian access.

Faced with the limitations and difficulties that we encounter in certain regions, Switzerland needs to continue to advocate the basic principles for the protection of refugees. Humanitarian action should not be an external political tool but should guarantee real impartiality. In this sense Switzerland’s humanitarian voice is more important than ever.

I would like to stress that the cooperation between the UNHCR and Switzerland is exemplary. We hope that Switzerland will increase its support for our activities on the ground, everywhere in the world, but especially in the countries neighbouring those that are currently experiencing a major crisis.

swissinfo.ch: At home, Switzerland’s asylum politics is regularly the subject of debate. What would be your message to the Swiss government?

A.G.: Switzerland should continue its tradition of welcoming refugees and remain a cornerstone of the international protection system. Switzerland has a solid asylum system but there are obviously aspects that we would like to see develop.

Responsibility should be shared, and developed countries should put in place effective asylum systems that guarantee the protection of all those who need help. Globally, there isn’t yet a real European asylum regime. If an Afghan seeks asylum in Europe, the chances of offering him protection range between eight and 91 per cent, depending on the state where he made his request. The UNHCR does not dispute the need for states to control their borders. But management of borders should take into consideration requirements for the protection [of people].

Asylum requests

Asylum applications in the industrialised world increased by 20% in 2011. A total of 441,000 requests were recorded in 44 countries.

Requests soared by 87% in the eight southern European countries largely as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Most asylum requests were handed in to the US authorities (74,000 applications), ahead of France with 51,900 requests.

Switzerland recorded 19,400 asylum requests in 2011, putting it among the top nine nations.


There were about 43.7 million displaced people worldwide at the end of 2010, according to the UN refugee agency.

80% of them came from developing countries.

About 15.4 million fled to another country.

Around 27 million are internally displaced persons.

An estimated 850,000 people – one in five from sub-Saharan Africa - were registered as asylum seekers.

Minors account for more than half of all the refugees.

The largest group of refugees comes from Afghanistan (about three million); most of them left their country several years ago.

There were about 1.6 million refugees in Europe in 2010, down 40,700 from the previous year.

Asia recorded about four million refugees, while Africa had about 2.1 million and the Middle East/North Africa  accounted for nearly seven million.

In North and South America there were about 800,000 refugees in 2010.

The Geneva-based UNHCR has a staff of nearly 7,700 around the world. Its budget for 2012 is $3.59 billion (SFr3.3 billion) – twice as much as 2007.

Antonio Guterres

Born in 1949 in Lisbon, Guterres studied physics and electrical engineering before he joined the Socialist Party of Portugal in 1972 to pursue a political career.

He served as prime minister between 1995 and 2002 and was the front-runner for the 2006 presidential campaign.

In 2005 he was named UN High Commissioner for Refugees, succeeding Ruud Lubbers.

(Translated from French by Jessica Dacey), swissinfo.ch



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