New U.N. Official Seeking to Help Refugees

Antonio Guterres, the new U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, talks about some of the challenges facing the United Nations, and his priorities as head of the refugee agency. Guterres is a former prime minister of Portugal.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The number of refugees around the world now stands at 11 1/2 million according to a study published today by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. More than half of those refugees have lived in camps or settlements for more than five years, many for decades. It's a chronic problem says Lavinia Limon, president of the US Committee.

Ms. LAVINIA LIMON (President, US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants): We've become quite expert at responding to crisis. What we haven't become expert in is actually allowing these people to resume their lives while they're in exile.

MONTAGNE: Joining us from Geneva is the new UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres. He is the former prime minister of Portugal.

And, Mr. Guterres, today's your first day on the job at the UNHCR. What are your top priorities?

Mr. ANTONIO GUTERRES (UN High Commissioner for Refugees): My priorities now are implementation, implementation, implementation. The office has been facing enormous challenges in the past few years. There is a changing environment related to the international situation as a whole and to refugees in particular, but we need to make sure that all these changes translate themselves into a better work with refugees, because the refugees and other people of concern are our ...(unintelligible).

MONTAGNE: There has been criticism of the United Nations lately when it comes to refugees and a range of issues from documented abuse in refugee camps by UN personnel to what's been called refugee warehousing policies; that is to say, refugees staying in camps for decades. Is reform of some kind on the agenda?

Mr. GUTERRES: Yes, there is s very important movement of reform in the United Nations that has been leaded by the secretary-general and we, UNHCR, want to be part of that process. One of the areas of implementation that is more important for us is to make sure that we can develop on the ground every doable solution that can be available, both local integration with the support of the local governments and the local societies to return whenever possible to their countries of origin but supporting them in community development to make sure that that return is sustainable and more and more relying on resettlement, and that is one of the priorities we are establishing now, the possibility for refugees to voluntarily resettle in other countries which can provide them the conditions to rebuild their lives with dignity.

MONTAGNE: You are headed, as I understand it, to Uganda...

Mr. GUTERRES: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...this coming weekend. You have said that is a forgotten refugee situation not paid attention to by the world.

Mr. GUTERRES: Yes, it's true that in Uganda, you have all kinds of problems related to refugees. You have people from Congo and Sudan. Some of the people from Sudan are now preparing to go back to southern Sudan, providing--and I hope the security situation will clearly improve and the peace agreements will be respected. And in Uganda, a lot of effort has been made by the authorities and by us to try to solve all these different problems that in a certain way are a mirror of all kinds of situations we face when we deal with refugee populations.

MONTAGNE: In your capacity as the High Commissioner for Refugees, what would you like to see wealthy countries like the US do?

Mr. GUTERRES: I think it's very important, first of all, that they match the security concerns that are absolutely essential to be kept with a generous attitude, granting asylum and at the same time that they support all the actions that the international community's doing to protect refugees and other displaced persons and to a system in creating the conditions for a desirable solution for their lives in dignity and citizenship.

MONTAGNE: Antonio Guterres is the new UN High Commissioner for Refugees speaking to us from Geneva. Thanks very much.

Mr. GUTERRES: Thank you very much.

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