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World

U.N. Agency Wants U.S. To Be An Example By Taking In More Refugees

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

An alarming number is hanging over a summit at the United Nations today - 65 million. That is how many people were displaced from their homes in 2015, many of them refugees escaping conflict. President Obama is hosting this summit today at a moment when the United States plans to increase the number of refugees it resettles annually to 110,000. But Obama faces political opposition. And he has struggled to get funding from Congress for that resettlement.

We spoke to Filippo Grandi. He is the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. And he's pretty accustomed to political debates over refugees.

FILIPPO GRANDI: Well, of course there are politicians everywhere that will use these arguments for their own electoral or other reasons. These remain a minority of politicians. And it is important that leaders such as President Obama stay the course on this particular one.

GREENE: Although I guess, you know, you say it's a minority of politicians, but we have a leading presidential candidate in this country who's talked about shutting the borders of the United States for at least a period of time to Muslims entering the country. How concerned are you about being able to sustain a number like 110,000 a year?

GRANDI: I won't certainly comment on the presidential campaign. Certainly, I would disagree with reducing this figure with whichever administration comes after the Obama administration. And we would certainly argue that the United States must continue to show leadership in this area.

GREENE: One of the central criticisms of the United Nations has been that statements coming from the U.N. at moments like this can sound so optimistic. But then once, you know, these plans get back to countries and there are - is political opposition, then reality sets in. Can you blame people for looking at summits like this and wondering whether this crisis really can be confronted in a real way?

GRANDI: I don't blame people for thinking like that. But I think that the difference here is that there is a sense of shared preoccupation and interest. Everybody now has realized that refugee crises, migration crises are not anymore isolated humanitarian problems that can be handled through traditional means and limited resources.

GREENE: You said that you're praising the United States for increasing these numbers to 110,000. What exactly, beyond increasing those numbers, would you tell President Obama the United States could do more of now?

GRANDI: Well, I would certainly say stay focused on supporting refugees where they are in their majority. The bulk will remain in countries neighboring conflicts, or sometimes even in the countries in conflict as internally displaced people. But more than anything else, I would say invest politically in stopping wars.

GREENE: You mentioned the neighboring countries. Aren't some of them just completely overwhelmed right now? I mean, I think of Lebanon as one example.

GRANDI: Many are, and not just Lebanon. Lebanon is a very good example because of its small population and high number of refugees. But, you know, I'm just back from Uganda where at the northern border with South Sudan, the country has seen over the summer several thousand people per day crossing over from one of the most neglected crises in the world, that of South Sudan, a very young country that has been lacerated by civil war almost since the beginning of its existence.

GREENE: I'll just finish with this. I mean, I can't even imagine your job. I mean, you're dealing with crises that we hear about, like Syria. You're going to a place like Uganda and seeing what you describe as a hidden crisis. You're traveling the world, seeing people in such desperate need. What is it like when you put your head down at night and reflect on all this?

GRANDI: That I cannot afford to despair. So I have to continue fighting on. The current attention on the theme of refugees and migrants, which will be translated into these big summits, is encouraging.

GREENE: Mr. Grandi, thank you very much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

GRANDI: Thank you.

GREENE: Filippo Grandi is the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.