The Forgotten Lives of Refugees

Christopher Dickey talks to António Guterres, the United Nations’ high commissioner for refugees, about the world’s desperate, dispirited and displaced.

Tony Karumba, AFP / Getty Images

The little girl with a blind eye and a baby in her arms looked at the camera with that expression of mixed expectation and resignation that comes quickly to refugees, especially refugee children. They have been blown about by the winds of disaster for so many long months and years in their short lives, they know so well that so many horrible things can happen, that they almost do not dare to hope. But they are children, so, still, they do.

It’s been more than three decades since this girl looked into the lens of my camera in a makeshift camp in Honduras. We were just across the border from the ferocious little guerrilla war that was raging in those days in the mountains of her home country, El Salvador, and she was one of the first refugees I ever met. I took the picture, and didn’t know what to say, and looked away. But I have seen that expression countless times since in Central America, in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, in Africa and in the Balkans.

Back in 1980, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, somewhat selectively, counted 10 million people displaced by conflict or persecution. Since then, the definition of refugees and displaced people, and their number, has expanded to include some 40 million. In 2011, as a result of crises in Ivory Coast, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and other countries, 4.3 million people were displaced. Of the total worldwide, about half get little or no international protection.

At least 7 million who fled to foreign countries have been refugees for more than five years, living in a state of permanent impermanence. Many who were refugee children have had their own children, and in some cases grandchildren, and on through the generations: all refugees. A single sprawling camp for Somalis in the remote Kenyan desert now has a population of 500,000, which is roughly the same as the city of Tucson, Ariz. Nearly 5 million Palestinians, who have a separate U.N. agency devoted to their needs, are in a class of displacement and hopelessness all their own.

As those who care commemorate World Refugee Day on June 20, such dispiriting numbers will be repeated many times. But, you know, not that many people do care—which may be one reason that in an exclusive interview António Guterres, 62, speaks softly, affably, but in language that has a sharp edge of frustration. As the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, he’s the person whose Geneva-based agency takes the lead in finding ways to help these masses of people who are out of place, out of luck, and often lacking every single human necessity, not the least of which is dignity.

UNHCR staffers are deployed in almost every godforsaken corner of the global map. But when it comes to international attention, “many of the crises are totally forgotten,” Guterres said recently as we sat in a Manhattan skyscraper overlooking the United Nations building and the East River. “Nobody discusses what’s happening today in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If there is a place where rapes, for instance, are a dramatic, daily event it is in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is unimaginable the level of suffering women can endure in that part of the world. But it has gone off the radar of the global media and international debates.”

Climate change, drought, and other natural disasters are also forcing millions of people out of their homes and off their lands, says Guterres. They are not fleeing dramatic scenes of battle, but they are just as deracinated as if they were. The difference is that no international convention offers them the same modicum of protection afforded to those who are running away from war or political persecution. Millions essentially fall through the cracks, or what Guterres calls “a growing protection gap in today’s world.” Various countries are conferring about how to solve that problem. And conferring. And conferring some more.

After awhile it felt awkward to sit in a skyscraper, sipping decaf and tea just like those international diplomats and bureaucrats, chatting about the fate of so many men, women, and children—especially children—existing on the edge of survival. In the vast sweltering camps of Kenya, said Guterres, “these people live without any perspective of hope; it’s a level of intense suffering that is difficult to feel when you are sitting around an air-conditioned room.”

Predictably, the crises that demand the most attention are the ones that have—or may soon have—immediate political, security, or economic consequences for their regions and beyond. The burgeoning civil war in Syria is one; the fight for control of the oil-rich border area between Sudan and recently independent South Sudan is another.

Yet even the most dangerous conflicts—for the refugees, and for the West—slip out of public view after a few days or weeks of headlines.

In Mali, government authority has broken down. Roughly half the country has seceded, and several radical groups allied with al Qaeda or sympathetic to it, but with their own agendas, are exploiting the chaos to train and organize their cadres. More than 300,000 people have fled across frontiers into neighboring countries, or to different corners of Mali itself, where food is increasingly hard to come by. Unless there is some political solution to the crisis and effective aid is sent to the region, says Guterres, we could witness the creation of “a whole area of insecurity from Libya to Nigeria, from Mauretania to Somalia.”

As a practical matter, it might seem obvious that the massive exodus of people from conflict areas in the world’s southern regions will affect the people in the north, not least in the form of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. The world is not so big anymore. So addressing the problems that provoke mass migrations ought to be “a question of enlightened self interest for the countries of Europe and North America,” says Guterres. But in his opinion much of the discussion of these issues is barely rational.

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“I think there is in Europe a schizophrenic debate about migration,” says Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal. The European population is shrinking. The continent needs immigrants to keep functioning. “That need should be recognized and should be managed,” says Guterres. “If you ignore a problem or deny a problem you don’t manage it, and then of course you create an excellent business opportunity for smugglers and for traffickers.” When you try to ignore the issue, you also fail to take the measures necessary to integrate the immigrants. But the trend of late has been in the opposite direction, toward “populism that exploits fears and easy emotions,” says Guterres.

All the while, the pattern of refugee flows, even in less developed countries, is evolving. The UNHCR sees “encampment as a last resort,” says Guterres. Whether people are on the move in their own countries or across borders, they gravitate toward big cities. “People prefer to live even in very poor areas of the cities of the developing world rather than refugee camps,” says Guterres. “So that is the future, and I believe it’s better. Even if it is very challenging to live in the slums of a big megalopolis in the south, a refugee camp offers even less of a spectrum of opportunities.”

If there is one faint hope for major improvements in the lives of refugees at present, it lies in communications technologies. Even in the camps, cellphones now allow people not only to communicate but also to obtain microcredit loans and build small businesses. The powerless can be empowered as never before, but, of course, their starting point is almost zero.

Wars do end, and sometimes refugees really do go home. It would be nice to think that little girl in the Honduran camp has found a partner and built a family of her own back in El Salvador. But new wars erupt. And right now, worldwide, the future seems bleak because, quite frankly, it is: tens of millions of people are on the move, many of them forgotten, many of them resented and even despised by people in the countries where they land; the slums of the megacities in the south, and eventually the north, are filling with the displaced, the desperate, and the discontented.

In years to come, “I hope we will be able to do better than we are doing now,” says Guterres as we wrap up the interview, “but I don’t think the problem will diminish.” The children will keep looking at us with that expression of expectation and resignation. Many of them will continue to try to hope. And many of us will look away.