Fifteen years into a millennium that many of us hoped would see an end to war, a spreading global violence has come to threaten the very foundations of our international system.
More people fled last year than at any other time in our records. Around the world, almost 60 million have been displaced by conflict and persecution. Nearly 20 million of them are refugees, and more than half are children. Their numbers are growing and accelerating, every single day, on every continent. In 2014, an average of 42,500 people became refugees, asylum-seekers or internally displaced persons, every single day that is four times more than just 4 years ago. These people rely on us for their survival and hope. They will remember what we do.
Yet, even as this tragedy unfolds, some of the countries most able to help are shutting their gates to people seeking asylum. Borders are closing, pushbacks are increasing, and hostility is rising. Avenues for legitimate escape are fading away. And humanitarian organizations like mine run on shoestring budgets, unable to meet the spiralling needs of such a massive population of victims.
We have reached a moment of truth. World stability is falling apart leaving a wake of displacement on an unprecedented scale. Global powers have become either passive observers or distant players in the conflicts driving so many innocent civilians from their homes.
In this world at war, where power relations are unclear, and unpredictability and impunity have become the name of the game, it is now urgent for all those with leverage over the parties to these conflicts to put aside their differences and come together to create the conditions for ending the bloodshed.
But in the meantime, the world must either shoulder collectively the burden of helping the victims of war, or risk standing by as less wealthy countries and communities which host 86% of the world's refugees become overwhelmed and unstable.
Since the beginnings of civilization, we have treated refugees as deserving of our protection. Whatever our differences, we have recognized a fundamental human obligation to shelter those fleeing from war and persecution.
Yet today, some of the wealthiest among us are challenging this ancient principle, casting refugees as gate crashers, job seekers or terrorists. This is a dangerous course of action, short-sighted, morally wrong, and in some cases in breach of international obligations.
It is time to stop hiding behind misleading words. Richer nations must acknowledge refugees for the victims they are, fleeing from wars they were unable to prevent or stop. And then wealthier countries must decide on whether to shoulder their fair share, at home and abroad, or to hide behind walls as a growing anarchy spreads across the world.
For me, the choice is clear: either allow the cancer of forced displacement to spread untreated, or manage the crisis together. We have the solutions and the expertise. It won't be easy or cheap, but it will be worth it. History has shown that doing the right thing for victims of war and persecution engenders goodwill and prosperity for generations. And it fosters stability in the long run.
The world needs to renew its commitment now to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its principles that made us strong. To offer safe harbor, both in our own countries and in the epicentres of the crises, and to help refugees restore their lives. We must not fail.
By António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Picture : Geneva, Switzerland / Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees during the press conference after the Sixty-Third Session of the Executive Committee ( EXCOM ) 2012. UNHCR / Jean-Marc Ferré