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Making the most of human mobility, by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and William Lacy Swing, Director General, International Organization for Migration

Statements by High Commissioner, April 2010

Human mobility ranks alongside population growth, urbanization, climate change and resource scarcity as one of humankind's megatrends. It is also, and always has been, one of the ways that people in difficulty seek to improve their lives.

International migration which already stands at well over 200 million people is likely to increase substantially over the coming years. Throughout the globe, people are being pushed and pulled by events and forces that are largely beyond their control.

Natural disasters, for example, are growing in frequency and intensity. Meanwhile, the nature of conflict is changing. Civilians are increasingly being targeted for attack, often by unruly armed groups and militia forces whose primary objective is to displace people and seize their possessions and land.

An instinctive reaction to migration, particularly when economic times are lean, is to try to block or end it. Rich states formulate policies to make arrival harder while the unscrupulous use anti-foreigner sentiment to stir discontent or win votes. In developing countries, which host four-fifths of the world's refugees and migrants, sympathy gives way to fatigue and resentment against refugees and migrants grows.

For IOM and UNHCR, the organizations we lead, both of which are approaching their 60th anniversaries, the interaction of the megatrends and the evolving nature of conflict and displacement is blurring the traditional distinctions between refugees and migrants and accentuating the importance of our working together in response.

Migrants and refugees are using the same routes and means of transportation to reach the same destinations. Largely because of tighter border controls, people on the move often find themselves in the exploitative hands of human smugglers and traffickers, entering countries without passports or visas and often placing a heavy burden on asylum determination and immigration procedures.

According to international law, everyone is entitled to exercise their fundamental human rights. Refugees, asylum seekers and irregular migrants are no exception to that rule. In reality, however, the rights of migrants and refugees are often violated.

In places throughout the world, they are subjected to arbitrary and discriminatory treatment by the authorities and other members of society. In some of the world's most prosperous states, women and children who have arrived in a country without the required papers can be held in detention for weeks or months on end.

Even the most fundamental human rights principle that people should not be returned to a country where their life or liberty is at risk is being tested. A recent rash of involuntary returns in regions across the globe testifies to the vulnerability of even long-established legal norms.

States have every right to control their borders and to safeguard the security of their nationals. But they also have a responsibility to craft constructive responses to the challenges posed by the growing mobility of the world's population.

On one hand, there is a need to ensure that people can move by choice rather than by necessity, and that they have safe, orderly and lawful migratory channels available to them. When this is achieved, the contribution that migrants and refugees make to the global development process is maximized.

On the other hand, it is essential for states to ensure that victims of persecution are effectively protected when they flee their countries. Millions of people throughout the world owe their lives to the fact that they were able to become refugees.

Meeting these twin challenges is key. We must not allow political opportunism and xenophobic sentiments to prevent people like Albert Einstein and Marlene Dietrich from finding the sanctuary they need. We must not allow the rich contributions of refugees and migrants to be obscured.

In a globalized, interconnected and insecure world, people will become increasingly mobile. Our response should not be governed by fear and rejection. Instead, a determined effort is required to protect the interests and rights of all.

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The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.

Victims of Conflict in Nigeria Find Safety in Cameroon Camp

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visited Cameroon in late March to put a spotlight on the situation there of tens of thousands of refugees from Nigeria. These people have escaped mounting violence by insurgents in the north-east of their country. Among the places that Guterres visited during his March 24-25 visit is the Minawao Refugee Camp, where many of the uprooted have been relocated.

Situated some 120 kilometres from the dangerous border area with Nigeria in Cameroon's Far North region, Minawao camp is currently home to 33,000 Nigerian refugees, mainly from Borno state. Many of the arrivals are traumatized and in need of material and psycho-social help. They told the High Commissioner of losing their homes and belongings as well as members of their families. Some were injured. In total, an estimated 74,000 Nigerians have found refuge in Cameroon while cross-border incursions from Nigeria have displaced 96,000 Cameroonians. UNHCR photographer Hélène Caux also visited Minawao to hear the individual stories.

Victims of Conflict in Nigeria Find Safety in Cameroon Camp

UNHCR chief meets Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

On 1 August, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres travelled to northern Burkina Faso with the United States' Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BRPM), Anne Richard. In Damba camp, they met with Malian refugees who had fled northern Mali in the past six months to escape the ongoing conflict and political instability. To date, more than 250,000 Malian refugees have fled their homes and found refuge in neighbouring countries, including 107,000 in Burkina Faso alone. The UN refugee agency has only received one-third of the US$153 million it needs to provide life-saving assistance such as shelter, water, sanitation, health services, nutrition and protection to the refugees. UNHCR fears that the volatile political and humanitarian situation in Mali could lead to further outflows to neighbouring countries.

UNHCR chief meets Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie joined UNHCR chief António Guterres on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they met with boat people who have fled unrest in North Africa.

More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have crossed the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and descended on the small island since the beginning of the year.

The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador flew to Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Cameroon: High Commissioner Meets Nigerian RefugeesPlay video

Cameroon: High Commissioner Meets Nigerian Refugees

In Minawao camp, Cameroon, Nigerian refugees get a chance to tell their stories to High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres during his visit.
Jordan: Winter Camp VisitPlay video

Jordan: Winter Camp Visit

Syrian refugees living in Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan are still trying to overcome the damage done by the storm that hit the region last week. On his second day visiting Jordan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres visited the camp to see the impact of the damage. He was also able to hand them the key to their new home, a caravan that arrived part of a convoy to help those living in tents at the camp.
UNHCR: An Appeal for AfricaPlay video

UNHCR: An Appeal for Africa

The High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, called for more attention and help for African nations dealing with new and old displacements.