E.g., 11/28/2023
E.g., 11/28/2023
Interview with Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Interview with Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Guterres headshot

António Guterres became the 10th UN High Commissioner for Refugees on June 15, 2005 (Photo: MPI).

António Guterres took office as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on June 15, 2005. He heads an agency with more than 6,000 staff in over 115 countries, serving 17 million refugees and displaced persons with a budget in excess of $1 billion.

In a career of more than 25 years of public service, Mr. Guterres served as Prime Minister of Portugal from 1996 to 2002. As Prime Minister, he led the drive for international intervention to halt the violence in East Timor following the Timorese vote for independence, and co-chaired the first EU-Africa summit. He founded the Portuguese Refugee Council in 1991.

On his first visit to Washington in his capacity as High Commissioner, after less than three weeks in office, he sat down for an interview with MPI Director Kathleen Newland and Migration Information Source Editor Kirin Kalia.

You have an extraordinary curriculum vitae, with more than 25 years of public service behind you, including six years as Prime Minister of Portugal—but others with more direct refugee experience were on the short list of candidates for High Commissioner for Refugees. What skills and qualities that you developed as a politician and prime minister put you in a position to do this job?

I have a lot of respect for all personalities who were on the short list prepared by the Secretary General. Any one of them could do the job as well as I can. I consider myself privileged. I have a wonderful family and education. I was engaged in politics at a revolutionary time, and then as democracy flourished in Portugal.

I have been very active in international political activity and always had a very strong interest in refugee problems. As a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I chaired the relevant Committee [on Demography, Migrations and Refugees]. I was also much involved with NGOs in Portugal.

You founded the Portuguese Refugee Council in 1991—what led to that?

Our priorities were fighting social exclusion of refugees and creating conditions for equal opportunity. The situation in Portugal made me particularly interested in migration and asylum seekers, and my responsibilities in the Portuguese Council of State included immigrant integration. Portugal has a long tradition of emigration, but it was not really prepared to absorb new communities. A lot had to be done, such as adopting legislation that was asylum-friendly. It was important to involve civil society in that effort.

Protection of refugees remains to many people a legal abstraction. How do you make it concrete?

Protection means the opportunity to fully enjoy your rights. Some of those are legal rights, like those associated with citizenship; others have to do with material conditions like shelter, food, and the education of children—which are the minimum requirements of a welfare society.

Protection needs to encompass a comprehensive approach, ensuring that refugees can exercise the full spectrum of their rights. We need to see providing material assistance as an instrument, not a value in itself. From UNHCR's perspective, that is the kind of assistance we are supposed to deliver.

On your fourth day as High Commissioner, you went to Uganda and visited a refugee camp. You spent the night of World Refugee Day in a tent, among UNHCR staff. Direct exposure to a refugee situation can be a searing experience. Can you tell us something about your first exposure, or the one that made the strongest impression on you?

Of course, I had very often seen refugee situations before the recent trip to Uganda. I suppose the one that made the greatest impression on me was visiting Somalia during the worst of the crisis in the early 1990s. It was really terrible to go to Mogadishu and see the destruction. The conditions in the refugee and IDP camps were appalling, and people were suffering terribly.

How did you come to decide that you wanted to spend the next chapter of your life working on refugee issues?

Quite central for me is the Biblical "parable of the talents" [Matthew 25]. Having been given great opportunities and privileges, I am obliged to make sure I use them in the best way so others can benefit from them. After a career in politics, I thought, "What would make sense, what would be a good way to use my energies?" I wanted to use them to the benefit of those who face the most dramatic challenge in today's world, and you cannot find people in more need than refugees.

One of the first things that you are bound to face at UNHCR is the difficult question of how to deliver services and protection to internally displaced persons (IDPs). For more than 20 years, a rather circular discussion has been going on about how to organize an adequate response. How do you anticipate that you will approach this issue?

I think we need to confront the needs of IDPs directly, and not only in a way that is concurrent with UNHCR's mandate for refugees. There are clearly gaps in the international community's abilities and mandates to provide protection and support for IDPs. I don't believe we at UNHCR can stay away from the problem. But we don't have the capacity to solve it alone.

We need to be engaged in good faith with other UN agencies, with donors, and with NGOs in order for our office to be able to play a global role with IDPs. We need to agree on a clear division of labor among agencies. It is important to follow a consistent approach through these very difficult situations. It must be consistent with a vision for protecting not just refugees but persons displaced in their own countries.

The spontaneous arrival of asylum seekers is a politically charged issue in a great many countries today. Some of those governments that have mounted the greatest challenges to the idea of territorial asylum are UNHCR's major donors. You have a great deal of experience in European politics, as Prime Minister and as a member of the European Council. Do you expect challenges to asylum to be a continuing theme of your tenure?

Unfortunately, yes. There is a huge misperception in public opinion about asylum, on two levels. At one level, there is confusion about the relationship between asylum and security questions. At another level, people do not distinguish between refugees and voluntary migrants.

It is my deep belief that mixing asylum and refugees into the security debate is a big mistake. States are concerned with fighting terrorism and ensuring security. That can and should be entirely compatible with fair procedures for asylum. If you are a terrorist, the worst way to enter a country is through the asylum door—you will be registered, fingerprinted, photographed, and connected to public service agencies.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres with MPI Director Kathleen Newland and Migration Information Source Editor Kirin Kalia.

I do believe it's important to face the populist approach that makes asylum seekers out to be some kind of threat; important to cooperate with NGOs and other leaders to clarify the situation of people who are in need of refuge. I think we can deliver a strong, unambiguous message about the asylum-security nexus.

The asylum-migration nexus is a more difficult set of perceptions to address. People leave their home countries for two kinds of reasons. One, they leave in search of better conditions; two, they leave because they are persecuted, threatened, or because of war. One is voluntary and one is involuntary. One group must have permission to enter another country legally, while the other has a right to seek asylum. The public needs to understand the difference.

I recognize that in many countries, there is a close connection between asylum and other kinds of migration, with both voluntary and involuntary migrants moving through the same channels and often even in the same vessels. It is difficult to clarify the different obligations states have to migrants and refugees.

Governments need to work honestly with NGOs and civil society to make the public understand that we must take care of protection needs even when we adopt a border-control policy designed to limit unauthorized migrant flows. UNHCR is there to help governments fulfill their obligations to protect refugees and to help the authorities distinguish between refugees and migrants who are not in need of international protection.

With good will and a humane perspective, we can preserve the institution of asylum in modern times.

Democratic governments respond to public opinion, and public opinion is often seen as opposed to migrants and refugees. What role does public education play in UNHCR's work?

I believe we have a lot of improvements to make in that role. Technology has changed things dramatically. But we are still old-fashioned at UNHCR. We need a bigger capacity to interact with public opinion—directly and through the media—elected representatives, and NGOs.

Governments should not simply react to public opinion. They need to provide leadership and promote values in an active way. The debate about asylum is a debate about the values of a society. Asylum is a way of helping people in need and protecting those who are unjustly persecuted.

I would go further and say that asylum is one of the fundamental institutions of democracy, because it helps to preserve people's freedom of religion, thought, and association. So if we want to protect the values of democracy, we must defend the right to seek asylum.

How do you convince the media to pay more attention to asylum and refugee issues?

In my political experience, what really is news is not when a dog bites a person, but when a person bites a dog. The media look for what is sensational, and may overlook the rest.

Take the situation of Sudanese refugees in Northwest Uganda, for example. They are not in camps, they are in settlements. They farm land, their children have access to schools, they have medical support. This is not news. But we must keep telling the story of refugees even when it is not sensational.

Our duty is to go on insisting, to be patient, and, in the end, the values we fight for will be realized by the people even if they are not as attractive to the media as a scandal.