Dateline speaks with the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
Wednesday, May 9, 2007 - 21:30

Dateline speaks with the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.

The former Prime Minister of Portugal currently has the responsibility for the Iraqis fleeing the conflict in their battered homeland into neighbouring Jordan.

"When you have 2 million people outside the country, and 1.9 million people inside the country that had been displaced, it is of course a very serious problem", he says.



GEORGE NEGUS: Mr Guterres, thank you very much for speaking to us and giving us your time. I've heard the situation in Iraq, where refugees are concerned, described as the hidden face of that war in Iraq. We hear of people leaving the country daily, we hear of people being displaced in their own country, we've just seen a report of people fleeing across the border to Jordan. How bad is the situation? How many people are leaving Iraq every day? Do we know?

ANTONIO GUTERRES, UN HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES: When you have 2 million people outside the country, and 1.9 million people inside the country that had been displaced, it is of course a very serious problem. The numbers change depending on situation. At the beginning of the year we had a 40-50,000 people displaced from their homes every month. I have no figures in relation to the last month but the only thing I can tell is that it is still a serious problem and it needs the expression of international solidarity, with the Iraqis themselves, but especially now with the countries that are making a huge effort in a very generous way to support them, namely Syria and Jordan, but also some other neighbours.

GEORGE NEGUS: It would appear that the situation is getting worse. You called a special meeting recently to see if you could raise the level of sensitivity to this issue among countries around the world. Did you get anywhere?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: I think that the conference we had in a Geneva was a very important moment of awareness for the international community in relation to this problem. Indeed, as you said, what we have is the attentions of the world focused on the military situation, on the casualties every day in Baghdad, or in other parts of the country, or the political developments. But very little information or concern about the dramatic humanitarian problems created and especially about the problems of people displaced. Now I believe that there is a clear conscience in the international community, both in the dimension of the problem and also of the need to fully engage in support to the countries that are hosting in such large numbers, Iraqi refugees, and paying a heavy price in their education and health systems, in their economy, in their society and even in their security concerns. This international solidarity is now more necessary than ever.

GEORGE NEGUS: You have said actually that the best solution is a political one and that these humanitarian crisis always have political solutions, but a political solution in Iraq, looks a long way away, so we are looking at a problem that is going to get a lot worse before it gets better

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Well it might get worse before it gets better but it is absolutely essential that it gets better and that a political solution is found. There is never a humanitarian solution for a humanitarian crisis. The solutions for the humanitarian crisis are always political ones. If one looks at Syria, for example, or Jordan, you see Shi'ia, Sunnis, Christians - all kinds of Iraqis living together in relative harmony. If they do that abroad, there is no reason for them not to be able to do that in Iraq. I think that a very determined policy of national reconciliation is now necessary and I hope that once implemented it will produce results.

GEORGE NEGUS: Our country, Australia, is in the coalition of the willing. Over the past three or four years of the conflict it would appear that we have been taking 1,500 refugees from Iraq a year. Do you think Australia is shouldering its responsibilities enough? Do you think we should be taking more than that number?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Resettlement of course is important and it is important for very the vulnerable situations, For instance, people who have been tortured, and many members of the family have been killed, belong to groups that have been particularly targeted and that will never return, even in the future, as the good solution for them. Resettlement is only a limited answer. The crucial answer is to create this whole situation for voluntary return in safety and dignity to be possible and that is our main priority is to contribute, for that to finally become a reality. In between, of course the possibility to increase Resettlement of cultures in different countries of the world is relevant and I have to say that when you look at the global resettlement programme, Australia has been one of the most generous countries in relation to a settlement opportunities offered world wide.

GEORGE NEGUS: But should we be taking more?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Well, if possible, it would be very much welcomed, whatever much effort would be made in that direction. But as I said, if you look at all the countries in the world, Australia is clearly the group that has always in a consistent way accepted more of the resettle refugees from around the world.

GEORGE NEGUS: Mr Guterres, if I could run a particular case past you, we have just heard of a story of one man, an Iraqi, who has been tortured to within an inch of his life and kidnapped and his family was forced to pay a ransom for his return and now the family is living on handouts in Jordan. He's been refused access to this country, Australia, for the second time. What do you think these people who have to go through to be regarded as genuine refugees?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Well, you know, we have been advocating, very clearly, for them to be recognised as refugees. The problem is the most of the Syrians and Jordanians consider them as guests all visitors in their countries, according to the Arab tradition of hospitality. What we have been insisting is very clearly is that independently of the name given to the people the rights of the refugees are respected in that context. And I believe that we have to recognise that, broadly, the protection of these people has been guaranteed. No people have been sent back against their will to Iraq and the effort made, namely by Syria and Jordan needs to be recognised as a very generous one and needs to be supported by the international community. I think the worst thing would be for the international community not to help these countries face this problem and then to blame them if anything does not go well.

GEORGE NEGUS: What about the situation with the Palestinians? You describe them as effectively trapped with nowhere to go? What will happen to the Palestinians left in the camps on the Syrian border? They are also in a particular situation.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: But the worse situation is for the Palestinians in Bagdad, we have about 15,000 there. 600 have been killed recently. They have been targeted. Some militias consider them to be linked to the previous regime and some men, women and children had been victimised in such a way that is totally unexceptable and creates an extremely, extremely insecure situation - a dramatic situation. And it is true, we have not been able to find any solution for them. Some of them are stranded on the borders, there we can assist them, there I think their security situation is better, but of course they live in very, very negative conditions in relation to their livelihoods and to their rights.

GEORGE NEGUS: Mr Guterres, we can't have you there without asking you a question about something that is happening locally at the moment. As a former prime minister of Portugal and East Timor of course being a former Portuguese colony, as we speak, the East Timorese are voting for their new president. Do you give a passing thought to East Timor these days, do you think it matters who the president will be? Do you have a preference?

ANTONIO GUTERRES : As a matter of fact, in my present capacity I cannot have been any political involvement in any country of the world not even mine. The only thing that I can say is that one of the most important causes in my political life has been the cause of the East Timorese people and I strongly hope that whoever is elected, whatever happens, that democracy will be stringent and East Timor will find peace and stability and progress for its population.

GEORGE NEGUS: What do you think about Australia's role in this, because you had to deal with Australia when you were prime minister of Portugal, do you think Australia is been the honest broker that likes to see itself as being in East Timor?

ANTONIO GUTERRES: I think Australia is an extremely relevant partner and a key instrument for the stability, the progress and the support of the East Timorese. I do believe that the international community cannot act based on a rivalries or things of that sort. We need to all work together to help this small country to be able to face such problems and to face its future with hope and with success.

GEORGE NEGUS: Thanks very much for your time and all the best with this immense problem of the world's refugees. Thanks for giving us your time.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Thanks very much.

GEORGE NEGUS: Antonio Guterres and these UNHCR figures show that while Australia has taken an average of 1,367 Iraqis over the four years since the invasion, in the same period, the US has taken 192 a year.