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As the UN Chief Goes to Washington, He Reiterates Plight of Refugees


UN Secretary-General António Guterres tried to shrug off questions from media in New York about the Trump administration’s plan to slash financing to the UN. Here, he speaks at a “Taza Koom” conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on the nation’s “brain drain” problem. VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/UN PHOTO

On International Refugee Day, António Guterres reiterated the plight of refugees and displaced people worldwide — a phenomenal 65.5 million people — in his first media briefing at United Nations headquarters in months. He let drop that he is traveling to Washington, D.C., from June 27-29 to lobby Congressional members on UN budget matters. The Trump administration has proposed drastic cuts to the UN, including to peacekeeping.

Guterres, the UN secretary-general since Jan. 1, has spoken to the press corps based at the UN, a mix of American and foreign media, only three times since coming on board. His office said that his trip to meet with members of US Congress would include House Speaker Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi, House minority leader; and Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Chris Coons (D-Delaware). He will also meet with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Guterres has no plans to see Trump.

Otherwise, Guterres spoke to the media mostly about the world’s refugee problem — as former head of the UN refugee agency for 10 years, it’s a subject he knows well — and touched on such burning topics as tensions in the Middle East over Qatar; North Korea and its nuclear-weapons launchings; “preventive diplomacy” in South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan and Syria; and Trump’s icy shoulder to the UN.

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Guterres’s long statement on refugees (and migrants) revealed little progress on remedying their conditions and prospects. The millions of people who have no permanent home has bred situations of chaos, anarchy and even hatred in many countries. It’s a problem that is not about to go away, the UN repeats constantly.

“It is impossible to be ten years as High Commissioner for Refugees, doing my best to try to help the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, without changing your life,” said Guterres, who is also a former prime minister of Portugal.

He listed five “appeals” to the international community, which in UN-speak means the 193 member nations, especially those with wealth:

• Those nations that are not doing so should “re-establish the integrity of the international protection for refugees regime,” or not refuse people seeking asylum and “deserving protection”;

• Find political solutions to conflicts rather than military paths;

• Increase humanitarian support to refugees, as funding remains at 50 percent levels;

• Show “more solidarity” in rich countries toward countries of first asylum in the global South (such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, taking in Syrians);

• Increase resettlement quotas of rich countries at least to the levels of two or three years ago.

Guterres won the job of leading the UN by a vote in the Security Council in October 2016. From the start of the selection process, he was the most popular candidate among the 13 people seeking the position. He relies on strong support — and guidance — in his role at the UN from Europe, particularly from France and Germany, as the US backs off demonstrably from the UN.

As Guterres has noted often, it is countries that border conflicts — notably Syria — absorbing refugees, while wealthy nations like America limit their intake and instead contribute money to resources to manage the crisis. (The US may nearly double the number of refugees entering the country to possibly more than 1,500 people, according to a news report in May.)

Guterres contrasted the environment in which he worked as UN refugee chief to now, saying: “The number of resettlement opportunities offered by developed countries for refugees living in camps and other dramatic situations in the developing world” has doubled since he ran the refugee agency, from 2005 t0 2015.

During that time, there was generally “a strong acceptance by Member States that refugee protection was something that was needed and had to be granted.”

But “the situation has considerably changed now.”

Taking questions from reporters on other news, Guterres said the UN was not directly involved in mediating the standoff in the Middle East regarding Qatar, allowing regional players to take it on instead. That stance also described how Guterres approaches North Korea, which he said he was letting the UN Security Council “move in its own way” in dealing with the country’s nuclear threats. (The Council is following an ad hoc plan of imposing more sanctions.)

Guterres cited progress in the UN on its “early” work garnering financial support to alleviate the famines in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen; the UN’s “extremely active” engagement in peace talks on Syria; and kick-starting peace talks in Cyprus after 50 years of resistance by the Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

As for current relations with the US, symbolized by Trump’s plan for drastic budget cuts to the UN, Guterres tried to shrug off the difficulties. He did admit that less money from the US to the world body “would create an unsolvable problem to the management of the UN, but the process is still in the Congress.”

He also defended himself from criticism that he was not standing up to the US, pointing, in one example, to his public expressions of disappointment of the US withdrawing from the Paris climate accord.

Still, he is learning to be more political: Guterres’s newly announced decision to name an American, Josette Sheeran, to be a special envoy for Haiti, sends a direct message to Congress and the White House. Sheeran formerly ran the UN World Food Program; did humanitarian work in Haiti as a US under secretary of state in 2006; and is now president of the Asia Society.

As the Haiti envoy, she will be responsible for raising hundreds of millions of dollars to stop the spread of cholera in Haiti, brought on by UN peacekeepers from Nepal, among other long-term goals.

An American in this post could mean more money from Congress and the Trump administration to help Haiti’s cholera crisis. So far, the US has shirked that responsibility.

This article was updated.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dulcie Leimbach

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland, The Hague and Cyprus). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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