I spoke this morning with António Guterres, the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees (and a former prime minister of Portugal). Guterres took up his post in June 2005 and he told me that the current combination of humanitarian crises is the most disturbing he's seen in that time and is taxing the international community's ability to respond.
UNHCR has been paying particular attention to Syria, and Guterres reported figures of about 25,000 refugees to both Turkey and Lebanon and an additional, even larger population in Jordan. Other UN officials have estimated that nearly half a million people have been displaced by the conflict, many within Syria's borders. Guterres highlighted Turkey's extensive operation to respond to the inflow:
Turkey has assumed by itself the responsibility to to grant protection. They have legally defined Syrians crossing the border as entitled to receive temporary protection...They have created camps and have provided together with the Turkish Red Crescent assistance to those camps.They have asked for some support, which we have provided, and they have made an appeal to the international community to help Turkey with the challenge and we have fully supported also that appeal and hope the international community will respond.
Guterres also described cooperation with national and local authorities in Lebanon and Jordan to register refugees and coordinate assistance. Inside Syria, UNHCR has maintained a working relationship with the Syrian government, primarily to administer the very large operation to support about 100,000 Iraqi refugees in the country. To this point, Guterres reported, that operation has been largely unaffected by the violence. Most Iraqi refugees are clustered in Damascus and Aleppo, cities that have been less affected by the violence. The instability may be inducing some Iraqi refugees to return however. "We believe that a meaningful number have gone back to Iraq because of the difficulties they face." Inside Syria, Guterres suggested, UNHCR personnel have limited ability to respond to displacement caused by the civil strife:
Our priority and our mandate is in relation to the Iraqi refugee population. We have been giving some support to the Syrian Red Crescent in relation to their activities to support local Syrian populations.
For Guterres, the Syria turbulence combines worryingly with two other situations. "We've never had during my seven years a situation like the one we face today, with three acute displacement crises at the same time: Syria, Sudan/South Sudan, and Mali." He cites the arrival of heavy weapons from Libya and the presence of radical Islamist fighters as key factors producing large-scale displacement across the region. "We face the risk of a global problem coming from Libya into Nigeria, from Mauritania to Somalia, where states are extemely weak in relation to their capacity to fight very heavily armed groups..."
Guterres notes that while the international media has covered Syria extensively, and has paid some attention to Sudan, there is very little focus on Mali and the broader instability in that region. And in terms of funding, the high commissioner argues that all of the agency's Africa operations are struggling:
We have a dramatic lack of funding in Africa. All our African operations are underfunded. We have been using as much as we can un-earmarked sources that we have, especially those that we managed to free through our internal reform process and reductions in our Geneva headquarters...But in Africa we are becoming completely overstretched and the capacity to deliver according to the needs of people is now severely limited.
David Bosco reports on the new world order for The Multilateralist.