For 10 years, before the Security Council picked him to be the United Nations secretary-general starting in 2017, António Guterres was the UN high commissioner for refugees. The former Portuguese leader traveled to dozens of countries that had taken in displaced people, often marveling at one thing: the incredible hospitality of the host people, whether in Africa or Asia. His open gratitude toward such generosity helped reinforce an important quality of leadership in him – one the UN may need right now.
Even though the 15-nation Council did not choose a woman as the new UN chief this time around, Mr. Guterres’s experience of caring for refugees will serve the UN well. The global body has been mostly sidelined by the big powers on political and security issues. But not so on the humanitarian issue of uprooted masses. “The global refugee crisis has moved into the center of the international community’s attention,” Guterres said last year.
He should know. During his time as high commissioner from 2005 to 2015, the number of displaced people nearly doubled to more than 65 million, a result of chronic conflicts such as in Syria. Last year, an average of 24 people a day fled because of violence or persecution. Today, 1 out of 113 people is a refugee.
Toward the end of his term as high commissioner, his office tried to explain the world’s hospitality toward refugees. One research paper by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees noted that “religious faith is becoming ever more important in the current environment....” And Guterres said in a speech that each faith instructs its followers on how to deal with strangers. He noted that all major religions have a tradition of granting protection to those in danger. “Humanitarian values are indeed universal, but are being expressed differently in different cultures,” he said.
Is he right?
A survey earlier this year of 27,000 people in 27 countries, conducted for Amnesty International, found 3 in 4 people favor taking in refugees escaping war or persecution. (China ranks highest on the survey.) Two thirds say their governments should be doing more for refugees.
And a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds 54 percent of Americans say immigration helps the United States more than it hurts. That figure is up from 45 percent a decade ago.
If Guterres serves as UN secretary-general for 10 years, as most of his predecessors have, he might be the right person to rally more countries to help the displaced. He will not only be the UN’s chief diplomat but also the global caretaker of all refugees.