How can the new UN Secretary General tackle the refugee crisis?

Nina Hall outlines three critical ways António Guterres can make a difference.

On 1 January, António Guterres took office as the new United Nations Secretary General. He brings to the job over a decade of experience at the UN and, having served as Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002, he has a deep understanding of the pressures political leaders face. Samantha Power, the US Permanent Representative to the UN, called him a “supremely qualified candidate” and one “who has a passion for using this office to prevent conflict and alleviate human suffering.” The Security Council’s unanimous vote for Guterres in October came as something of a surprise. First, he is not from Eastern Europe, as had been expected due to an informal practice of regional rotation. Second, he is not a woman, despite a strong campaign to elect a woman for the first time and a number of highly experienced and talented female candidates. Facing the greatest refugee crisis in decades, the Security Council chose Guterres, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 2005 to 2015.

With over 65 million people currently displaced worldwide and the vast majority of refugees hosted in the Global South, what type of leadership can we expect from Guterres, particularly on the critical issue of global refugee and migration governance? Guterres was an ambitious, expansionist and politically astute High Commissioner. Although the UNHCR has one of the narrowest mandates of all UN agencies – it was established to offer legal protection to refugees, defined as people fleeing persecution – Guterres saw a much broader role for it as the UN’s displacement organisation. He argued that the drivers of displacement were changing due to population growth, migration, urbanisation, climate change, and food, water and energy insecurity. He argued that climate change “would unseat conflict as the main driver of mass migration in coming years,” and that the international community must develop new international frameworks to protect those it had displaced. Guterres sought to adapt UNHCR’s mandate to 21st century challenges.

A leader of any international organisation needs to command state support for their vision, and states were extremely reluctant to expand UNHCR’s mandate. At a 2011 ministerial meeting they rejected Guterres’ call to offer protection to those falling outside the Refugee Convention. After all, most states fiercely guard their borders and are generally unwilling to open up new legal channels for migration or asylum. However, a small group of sympathetic states backed his call. Subsequently, in 2012, UNHCR worked with Norway and Switzerland (with German support) to establish the Nansen Initiative: a state-led, consultative process to identify solutions to cross-border displacement related to climate change. In October 2015 over 100 states gave broad support to better protect people displaced across borders by disasters and climate change. While there is still no clear mandate for UNHCR to offer this protection, by working in coalition with sympathetic states, Guterres and UNHCR advanced the conversation on displacement related to natural disasters.

So what can Guterres do in his new role as UN Secretary General? There are three critical ways in which the United Nations can make a difference on refugees and migration:

  • First, Guterres can make these issues a priority for the UN, as Ban-Ki Moon did with climate change. Ban summoned states to global summits in New York on several occasions, and lobbied them to take strong actions to curb their emissions and forge a fair, binding international climate agreement. Guterres can seize on states’ willingness to discuss migration and refugees in the UN as they did in New York on 19 September. He could summon states to high-level summits and lobby them to commit to fairer distribution of refugees globally, and to protect vulnerable migrants who fall outside of the refugee convention.
  • Second, Guterres can ensure that the UN’s development and humanitarian agencies are singing from the same song sheet, rather than engaging in turf wars, and all are promoting freedom of movement. As Guterres himself said, “Development cooperation policies must take much greater account of human mobility. Migration should be an option, not a necessity; out of hope, not despair.”
  • Finally, Guterres can use his position as the world’s moral leader and lead a global discussion with refugees, migrants, civil society and the private sector to illustrate the benefits of enabling migration and hosting refugees for all societies. This is particularly important in the aftermath of Trump’s election, the UK’s decision by referendum to leave the European Union, and the increasing popularity of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland and other anti-immigrant, populist parties across Europe. Guterres could well emulate Angela Merkel’s moral stance and turn her challenge to Trump to cooperate on the basis of shared values, including respect for law and human dignity, into a challenge for the world.

A German version of this op-ed (Was kann der neue Generalsekretär der Vereinten Nationen tun, um die Flüchtlingskrise zu lösen?) appeared in Der Tagesspiegel on 2 January 2017.