Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says India, which has opened its doors for refugees and asylum seekers has set an example for other countries to emulate. The former Prime Minister of Portugal who was in India recently, attended the fourth round of open-ended bilateral consultations in New Delhi and deliberated on the current policies and activities of UNHCR in several regions of the world as well as on South Asia-specific situations.
Q How does UNHCR view the situation of refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless persons and the displaced in India? What are your expectations from the Government of India?
AG: India with its history, culture, traditions, is today an example of generosity in the way it has opened its borders to all people who have come looking for safety and sanctuary. There are Tibetans, Afghans, Myanmarese in India and it has maintained an open door policy for all. India has a generous approach in relationship to all people and a proof of that is the granting of long term visas and work permits to refugees. We consider India a more reliable partner in the world to guarantee that people who need help will find a place. And more importantly at a time when there are so many closed borders in the world, and many people have been refused protection, India has been generous.
Q Can you tell us about the meeting that you had with government officials here and what was the outcome of those talks?
AG: We have had several meetings with top government officials, including the Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid and the Foreign Secretary. These were discussions, which are part of the bilateral consultations that take place every year. For us, it is important to have India’s contribution in finding ways along with the international community to improve protection of the people around the world.
We also used the occasion to not only discuss global refugee problems, but to also discuss regional crises, which are more relevant in today’s world, like the Syrian crisis or in countries that are closer to the Indian borders like Myanmar and Afghanistan. At the same time we have discussed how we [UNHCR] can be more useful [to the Indian government] in relation to the preparation or intensification of voluntary repatriation of refugees to their countries of origin.
The number of people going back to Sri Lanka has decreased substantially in the recent past. We need to look into what are the obstacles and how the two governments of India and Sri Lanka, working together can improve the conditions and create opportunities for the voluntary repatriation of the people. Voluntary is the key word here.
Q In your estimation is the Government of Sri Lanka doing enough to help the displaced people; are you satisfied with what it has done so far?
AG: More needs to be done by the governments of the country of origin, to create conditions for people to feel comfortable about considering the possibility of returning. It has to do with the living conditions, work, education, health, property and security; these are all key questions that need to be addressed for the voluntary repatriation of the people. It is very important that the governments of the country of origin do everything possible to re-establish the confidence of people. And I hope it will be also possible in the near future to intensify the voluntary repatriation of the Tamils into Sri Lanka.
The UNHCR has been running several welfare programmes to support the people that returned and the internally displaced people of Sri Lanka. We are already cooperating with India and ready to intensify our programme in order offer our contribution to the successful operation of people going back to their homes whenever possible with safety and dignity.
Q Could you update us on the situation of the Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar and a sense of the talks that have taken place, and are likely to take place in the future, with the governments of Myanmar, Bangladesh and India on the issue of the Rohingyas?
AG: It is a very serious question and it is very important that effective reconciliation between the communities is promoted inside Myanmar. It is important that the problems of citizenship are solved and the countries of the region follow the example of India that has opened its borders to the Rohingyas and granted them the same status as it has to the other refugees.
It is key to create conditions for effective reconciliation of different communities and to address the citizenship problems in order to ensure everybody enjoys the basic rights that people are entitled to enjoy. The revolution in Myanmar has given us hope, and many refugees of different minorities who are considered to be part of the Myanmarese State will be able to repatriate in the future. So, we are working with the government of Thailand to support the potential return in the future of refugees from the South. And there is a meaningful number of Chin refugees, we discussed the possibility of their future.
There has been resettlement of Myanmarese in Thailand, Australia, Canada and United States. But resettlement will never solve a refugee problem. It is essential that a political solution is found for their plight to end. In the case of Myanmar, we witness with satisfaction that the ceasefire agreements were made with the different rebel groups; we also hope the Rohingya problem that is of a different nature will also be faced positively by the Myanmarese authorities.
Q: Afghan refugees continue to arrive in India and there has been large scale displacement of people. Can you give us an update on what UNHCR is doing in Afghanistan?
AG: We have engaged actively with the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran and a solution strategy for the Afghan refugees was agreed to between the three governments and the UNHRC was presented to the international community and was approved in Geneva recently.
We hope now, there will be able to support from the same international community in order to make this strategy become a reality. The strategy is based on attracting reintegration in 48 areas in Afghanistan that were found sufficiently conducive for the return of people. But it requires a lot of support in infrastructure and education, health and conditions for sustaining livelihoods. We are also hoping that there is support from the international community for Pakistan and Iran, and we hope this strategy will mobilise solidarity of the international community to contribute not only to the improvement of the living conditions of the Afghans but also to the broad solution for the problems of the country.
India is already running the biggest cooperation programme in Afghanistan. Indian involvement is an important factor in trying to create conditions for the country [Afghanistan] to have a sustainable development. Indian programme is the largest programme, and as a government has it own people and its own country to run, nobody can ask India to do more. What is important is that its example is followed by the international community.
Q: What is the situation in Syria and the status of UNHCR's humanitarian operations there?
AG: Unfortunately there has been a multiplication of new crises in Mali, Congo, Sudan and Syria along with the existing crisis in Afghanistan and Somalia that never seem to die. There is a dramatic situation in the world, with huge consequences and more and more people are being displaced.
But of all the crises in the world right now, Syria is indeed with one that worries us more, because of the extremely fragile situation prevailing in the country; it is extremely violent with dramatic consequences and the living conditions are deteriorating. Because of the terrible humanitarian situation we have now more than 500,00 Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries registered with the UNHCR not to mention the many others who have left the country and have other resources or support and do not need the UNHCR’s assistance.
To add to this, there is fragility of political situation in Lebanon, the fact that Iraq is still emerging from a very complex situation, the economic difficulties of Jordan and the Kurdish problem in the region. All these give us a clear idea of the enormous danger that the Syrian crisis presents to the global peace and serenity. It has helped that the neighbouring countries kept their borders open for the Syrian refugees. But the problem is the absence of the political solution that is driving the situation into a dramatic suffering of the populations involved. The international community has not shown the capacity to address the political problems and find a solution that might be able to stop this terrible violence.
Q: Are you satisfied with the mandate, operations and funding of UNHCR?
AG: We are overstretched, both financially and in relation to human capacity to respond to all the crises everywhere. We are grateful to the fact that the donor community has been providing us with meaningful resources and even increasing it in proportion to the last year, but even then there has been a multiplication of the new crises and the need to go on supporting. We are never satisfied with what we do. And unfortunately the problems of the people we care for are so big, that even if we were perfect, it would still not be enough. We are far from being perfect.
What we are witnessing in today’s world is the combination of two factors, the unpredictability of political crisis and the emergence of conflict. We never had a global governance system, but in the past few years our power relations also became unclear, so things tend to happen without anybody being able to control them.