x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Plight of world's refugees worsening, UN official says

Crises produced more than 800,000 new refugees in the past year, says Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

TUNIS // In the past year, the suffering of refugees across the world has grown worse, says the United Nations' refugee affairs chief.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said the recent surge in conflicts and growing numbers of refugees have left governments and aid organisations scrambling to cope, speaking to The National last week.

"We've witnessed a multiplication of crises, with little capacity of the international community to prevent them and a huge humanitarian impact," he said. "At the same time, old crises seem never to die."

In Somalia, a famine that broke out last summer compounds the problems of 1.46 million people displaced internally by a two-decade-old Islamist insurgency.

Crises produced more than 800,000 new refugees in the past year, Mr Guterres said, with many increasingly cut off from aid organisations by war or obstructive governments.

"The difficulty is getting access to populations in conflict situations," he said. "Because of growing insecurity - but also sometimes because of restrictions that authorities put on humanitarian actors - that access is more limited than it was 10 or 20 years ago."

The Arab Spring uprisings have come as a welcome contrast to such restrictions, Mr Guterres said, as the removal of dictators has allowed aid workers to operate more freely.

The first such dictator to fall was Tunisia's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled last year. That opened doors for the UNHCR. Its four employees in Tunis had been severely restricted by Ben Ali's regime.

"In Tunis, our activity was extremely limited and restricted," Mr Guterres said. "Now we have an office with a regional dimension, with the full cooperation of the government."

The UNHCR worked with interim authorities to receive more than one million refugees who entered Tunisia from Libya during last year's civil war. In December, the organisation opened a new office in Tunis with more than 30 staff whose work spans North Africa.

But, that success stands in contrast to a refugee crisis today in Mali, another by-product of the Arab Spring.

About 160,000 people in Mali have been displaced since late January, when Tuareg fighters who had returned home after serving under Muammar Qaddafi in Libya relaunched an insurgency against the Malian government.

Half of those displaced have fled to neighbouring countries, settling in arid border regions hit by food and water shortages, according to the UNHCR. Their plight is one of many that are largely ignored.

"The focus of the international community is normally centred on crises that have a big political or strategic effect," Mr Guterres said, citing the recent examples of Libya and Syria.

"There are other crises that have the same dramatic humanitarian consequences and really don't attract the same attention," he said. "One is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Or worse, the Central African Republic. Nobody talks about the Central African Republic."

In 1997 the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) three-decade ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko, was ousted by Laurent Kabila. Four years later, Kabila was assassinated amid war involving eight African countries. Sporadic violence continues and 1.7 million people remain internally displaced, according to the UNHCR.

In the Central African Republic, decades of coups and insurgencies have blocked development and undermined governments. Roughly 176,000 people are displaced in the country and 130,000 have fled abroad, says the UNHCR.

Both countries have also been preyed on by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan insurgency known for kidnapping children to use as soldiers, and whose leader, Joseph Kony, is sought by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity.

According to the UNHCR, LRA raids in the eastern DRC since 2008 caused 320,000 people to flee internally and 30,000 to escape abroad. In recent weeks the group resumed attacks following a lull last year, killing at least one person, abducting 17 and prompting 3,000 to flee their homes.