On World Refugee Day, the United Nations' refugee agency is reporting that the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes grew to more than 50 million — a level unseen since World War II. Over half of those who have been displaced are children. For more on the rise, Robert Siegel speaks with Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
What's happening in Pakistan is part of a larger trend, documented in a new report that's out today. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, found that in 2013, the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes grew to more than 50 million. That's a number not seen since World War II. And half of the displaced people are children. To talk more about the report, we're joined now by Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. We've reached him in Beirut. Welcome to the program.
ANTONIO GUTERRES: It's a pleasure to be here.
SIEGEL: And your report finds that the increase in 2013 was largely driven by the war in Syria. What are you seeing there?
GUTERRES: Well, first of all, Syria has given largest contribution to the number of new refugees. Last year we had 2.5 million new refugees, which is also the highest number since the Rwanda genocide, and the reason for that was Syria. The conflict in Syria is producing an outflow of refugees that represents for Lebanon, where I'm staying at the present moment, a dramatic impact. Can you imagine, one fourth of the population of Lebanon is, today, Syrian? The impact on the economy, on the society, on the infrastructure is gigantic. And let's be honest. The solidarity of the international community with refugee housing countries has not been enough to help them support this very difficult challenge. At the same time, the Syrian conflict is not only a tragic humanitarian conflict, it's also a threat to regional stability. The spillover into Iraq is clear, and at the same time, it's becoming a threat to global peace and security. There are fighters in Syria from all over the world, and one day they will go back home
SIEGEL: Mr. Guterres, I wonder if you could break down this 51 million figure of people who have been forcibly displaced, which, as you say, is the most since the end of World War II. It's true that the world's population was less than half of what it is today, but who are these 51 million people? They're people who have fled a country - people who are internally displaced within a country. How do you distinguish among them?
GUTERRES: I would say two thirds, essentially, are internally displaced people. One third are refugees, and about 1.2 million are asylum-seekers - people that individually came to a country and requested asylum. The most dramatic of these situations for me is of the internally displaced. Those other refugees at least found a country that is ready to protect them - Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Northern Iraq.
They have received the Syrian refugees, and at least here they are safe. But those Assad internally displaced - they are within the borders of their own country. They are under the authority of their own government, and in many situations their government is part of their problem.
SIEGEL: If we were to look at the stretch of what is often called Southwest Asia - let's say from - well, from Afghanistan and Pakistan through Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan - what share of these 51 million are we talking about in that piece of the world alone?
GUTERRES: Two thirds of the world refugees are Muslim. Of course, they correspond not only to that area but also to the Somalis, Malians, and a few other groups of refugees in Africa. But that shows how much this part of the world is relevant from the point of view of displacement.
SIEGEL: If most of the people we're talking about - most of those forcibly displaced - are actually within their own country but away from home, is it easy for the U.N. to operate and to work with people when the nominal host government is, in effect, admitting you into what could be seen as their domestic concern?
GUTERRES: Well, I think that it depends, again, on the different countries we are talking about. There are countries where governments do not allow us to have access to many of their internally displaced, or countries in which the conflict itself and the insecurity is such that access is not possible. And so it's more and more unpredictable - the security situation. Some of the actors of this conflict simply do not respect humanitarian people. They even consider them to be legitimate targets, and so the capacity to provide assistance and protection to the victims of displacement is severely hindered by the problems of access.
SIEGEL: Mr. Guterres, the long and the short of what I hear you saying is that while the UNHCR deals with what we in the news media commonly refer to as humanitarian crises, the crises here are political, military, security crises - wars - unconventional wars that go on and continue to displace people.
GUTERRES: It's absolutely true. There is no humanitarian solution for humanitarian problems. We do everything we can to mitigate the suffering of people, but the solution for their plight is political. And it's high time for the international community to interrupt this dramatic multiplication of conflicts.
SIEGEL: Mr. Guterres, thanks for talking with us today.
GUTERRES: It was a pleasure.
SIEGEL: That's Antonio Guterres, who's the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. He spoke to us from Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.