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U.N. High Commissioner Speaks On Global Refugee Outlook

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The refugee situation across the world is quickly changing and growing, reaching nearly 80 million at last count, which is almost double what it was a few years earlier. Some migrants, known as climate refugees, have to flee from droughts, rising sea levels and floods. Meanwhile, violence and a relentless pandemic have forced others from their homes to seek asylum, and receiving countries are left to manage this influx of humanity. Joining us now is the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.

Welcome.

FILIPPO GRANDI: Thank you very much for having me.

CHANG: Thank you for being with us. Well, you know, we've seen many examples of reactive approaches to migration surges. You know, people arrive. Countries then scramble to gather a response. But you have made calls for more proactive planning. Can you just describe for us what could that look like?

GRANDI: I think that we need to do two things. One, reinstate a sense in the world that solutions are possible. And the best possible solution is to address the root causes, be they climatic or be they political conflict - right? - because most of the people that move want to go back home, contrary to the perception that they all want to go to the rich countries - right? - to the U.S. or to Europe. No, most of the displaced people want to go back home. But to do that, you need to recreate conditions for them to be safe back in their homes. Meanwhile, since this is increasingly complex and difficult, you have to make sure that the humanitarian assistance very quickly is supported by longer-term approaches.

CHANG: I want to turn to the U.S.' role in all of this. I'm curious. How has President Biden's recommitment to refugee issues been felt around the world, you think? Has it been felt?

GRANDI: The previous administration had made the decision, which we had disagreed with, to reduce resettlement to the United States to very low figures. We're now working with this administration to restore a larger - an even larger than before - resettlement program. I recall that resettlement is what allows vulnerable refugees that are in countries - already countries of refuge, countries of asylum, to move to safer situations like the United States. And then if I may flag a third aspect - renewed interest in addressing the root causes of movements of population towards the southern border and at the same time reforming the way the U.S. manages arrivals in the country as its own asylum system. These are all welcome processes. They will take time, but we're working closely with the administration on that.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about that because even though you believe the Biden administration has been supportive, when you heard Vice President Harris tell Guatemalans, do not come to the U.S., as she did yesterday - do not come, even those seeking asylum - do you think that that is the right approach?

GRANDI: Well, I would say that the right approach is to say - I can't speak for the vice president. She's speaking for the administration. But what I would emphasize is that the U.S. has the intention to invest more strategically, more seriously, more substantively resources into addressing the causes that oblige people to flee. And, you know, for these people, flight, including to the U.S., might be the only choice. So whilst those issues also need to be addressed with governments in the region and I welcome the U.S. efforts to do that, we need to maintain asylum options open in the region - not just in the U.S.; in Mexico, in Guatemala, in Costa Rica, in other countries - with U.S. help but also in the U.S. itself. And the U.S. needs to improve the way it manages its own asylum system, which is not very functional at the moment.

CHANG: Let's turn to Afghanistan. How would you characterize this administration's response?

GRANDI: We've been talking in the last few years about bringing people back to Afghanistan, offering opportunities to return from Pakistan, from Iran, from other countries. Now we're talking again of contingency planning for further displacement. This is very depressing.

CHANG: And how much faith do you have in the U.S.' contingency planning as U.S. troops are leaving the country?

GRANDI: That - we have support and encouragement to do that. And that is good. So I hope that at least if we do have a humanitarian emergency, we will have the right resources to respond to it. But may I say, that's a bit of a little consolation. We shouldn't be talking about new displacement. We should be talking about solutions for that country after 20 years of massive investments.

Unfortunately, you know, I'm used to that. We're used to that. So we will play ball. We will step up contingency planning. We will negotiate with neighboring countries to keep their borders open if, God forbid, people are fleeing once again. You know, Afghans have been fleeing for more than 40 years. You know, it should be time to put an end to that, but unfortunately, we're not yet there.

CHANG: Filippo Grandi is the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

GRANDI: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG STAR SONG, "BALLAD OF EL GOODO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.