The white refugee tents pitched in London's Trafalgar Square this week are meant to underscore a stark message: more people than ever before are being forced by war, famine or natural disaster to flee their homes. In the run-up to World Refugee Day on June 20, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said that the UNHCR last year cared for 25.1 million refugees and internally displaced people. That is the highest level of need ever recorded in the agency's 57-year history 10% more than in 2006 and the upward trend is bound to continue. "We're worried about how the economic slowdown, rising food prices and climate change are creating a new pattern of forced displacement," Guterres, a former Portuguese Prime Minister who took the helm of the UNHCR in 2005, told TIME. "The number of people on the move will increase."
People fleeing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq accounted for almost half of the refugees under UNHCR's care last year, which ended with some 3 million Afghans in Pakistan and Iran and about 2 million Iraqis in Syria and Jordan. While richer countries are becoming increasingly vigilant about fending off migrants of all types from their own borders, the vast majority of refugees get no further than a neighboring country, which is often as impoverished as the one from which they fled. "Iraqi exiles are living in dire conditions in Damascus and Aleppo," says Guterres, whose organization has been encouraging the Iraqi government to pledge $125 million to help displaced citizens. "It's going to take a lot of work to allow them to return, but there is no Plan B: we have to promote national integrity so refugees can go back in safety and dignity."
Pakistan is straining under the burden of hosting more refugees than any other country last year, but Guterres says the UNHCR has secured a promise from Islamabad not to force any back to Afghanistan. Of the 130,000 so-called voluntary returns so far this year, he said, 10% have been unable to get any foothold at all in Afghanistan: "Ten percent of 130,000 is a lot of people," he says. "This is not the moment to push people back."
Nor is it a particularly good moment to be a poor foreigner abroad anywhere: witness last month's violent xenophobic riots in South Africa. "When people are troubled by rising food prices, there are two easy scapegoats: foreigners and the government," Guterres says. "Xenophobia is a very worrying problem, and it's widespread: we've seen refugees murdered in Ukraine, Russia and Western Europe, too."
Technically, the UNHCR's brief doesn't extend to economic migrants, whether South Asians in the Gulf, Mexicans in the U.S., or Africans in Europe. But the distinction between an illegal job seeker and a person seeking sanctuary from war and repression may not be one governments are willing to make, given that so many countries are already skittish over immigration. Last year alone, 20,000 people arrived in Italy by sea, most of them on rickety vessels from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa; about half that number will seek asylum in the E.U. With anti-immigrant sentiment growing, the European Parliament this week passed tough new common immigration guidelines that allow E.U. countries to hold illegal migrants for up to 18 months before expelling them. And in the U.S., Congress has allocated $1.2 billion to extend and improve the anti-immigration fence along the Mexican border. That kind of sentiment and political polarization will not make it easier to help true refugees.
Guterres has no problem with border controls: "Countries ought to have border policies that assure their security and defend migration policy." But he says those arrangements should allow legitimate asylum-seekers to make their claims before they're turned back automatically. "Border management doesn't solve the migration problem," he says in response to a question about U.S. border fence project. "The example is Israel: there are now 7,000 asylum-seekers interned there, who got through the border with Egypt, where it's not exactly easy. You close the door, they come through the window; close the window and they dig a tunnel."
In the process, of course, many migrants are exploited by human traffickers, whose activities Guterres calls "the most horrible crime in today's world, yet we work much harder to fight drug trafficking." He urges governments to keep a generous quota for legal migrants open "so smugglers don't have a monopoly" on getting people over borders especially since the economies of richer countries have come to depend heavily on the labor of migrants. "Just as you can't govern against the market, you can't resolve the global labor market with border controls," Guterres says, advocating a more comprehensive approach to lessening the pressure between the destitute and their destinations. "Migration should happen out of choice, not necessity, " he says. "We have to find more effective policies to help people live where they are."