UNITED NATIONS (AP) — When Antonio Guterres became the U.N. refugee chief almost 10 years ago, the world counted 38 million people displaced by conflict and persecution and the number was declining. Today, it's more than 60 million and rising.
As he prepares to step down at the end of the year, Guterres delivered a wide-ranging speech to the refugee agency's executive committee in Geneva on Monday stressing the importance of upholding the 1951 convention on protecting refugees, especially in light of Europe's refugee crisis, and how essential it is to build a positive relationship between the Western and Muslim worlds.
The "interlinked mega-crises" in Iraq and Syria have uprooted 15 million people, he said. And in the last 12 months, 500,000 people have fled their homes in South Sudan, 190,000 in Burundi, 1.1 million in Yemen and 300,000 in Libya. Tens of thousands are fleeing gang violence in Central America. And there has been little or no improvement in the crises in Central African Republic, Nigeria, Ukraine and Congo, he said.
The world is faced with 15 conflicts that have erupted and or reignited in the past five years. And more than two-thirds of refugees worldwide are Muslim, Guterres said, stressing the world must counter "the backward narrowness of xenophobia."
He said events of recent months in Europe "have illustrated the battle of compassion versus fear, of tolerance versus xenophonia."
"There is a critical urgency to both counter Islamaphobia and to reduce the appeal of extremist ideologies for younger generations," Guterres stressed in the speech, which was also released at U.N. headquarters in New York.
He said his Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is overwhelmed trying to provide safety, protection and aid for the tens of thousands of people fleeing war and persecution.
Donors provided a record $3.3 billion last year to UNHCR last year but this was "vastly insufficient to cover even the bare minimum" of the humanitarian budget, he said. And this year, the 33 U.N. appeals to provide humanitarian assistance to 82 million people around the world are only 42 percent funded, and UNHCR expects to receive just 47 percent of what it needs by the end of the year, he said.
Most urgently, Guterres said, the refugee agency needs $215 million for Africa to pay for already authorized expenditures, including 14 new refugee camps and the expansion of seven others.
"Today we face an existential dilemma for our capacity to deliver in Africa, and I appeal to our donors to help us reduce this shortfall before the end of the year," he said.
A relatively small number of refugees can return home — just 126,000 last year, only 11 percent of the number repatriated in 2005, Guterres said. And the number of people being displaced around the world every day as a result of conflict has quadrupled from almost 11,000 in 2010 to 42,500 last year.
The refugee chief said the spike of Syrian refugees coming to Europe this year is mainly due to three factors.
Many Syrians have lost hope that a political solution to end the war is near and after years in exile their resources have run out and living conditions have deteriorated, he said. But "the trigger" is UNHCR's funding shortfall and its struggle to provide cash and shelter to the growing number of vulnerable families ahead of winter, he said.
"As a result, more and more people have embarked on the desperate journey to Europe, despite the enormous risks and cost this entails," Guterres said. "To be honest, in these circumstances, I would probably do the same with my own family."
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report from Geneva.