News Stories, 15 June 2005
GENEVA, June 15 (UNHCR) – Mr. António Guterres today started work as the 10th UN High Commissioner for Refugees by reaffirming his commitment to the protection of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people around the world.
The former Portuguese prime minister, 56, officially assumed his duties as UNHCR chief today after several weeks of familiarisation visits to the agency's headquarters in Geneva, meeting staff members, senior managers as well as UNHCR field representatives from Africa and Europe who were in Geneva for previously scheduled regional meetings.
As High Commissioner, Mr. Guterres heads a staff of 6,000 people who protect and assist more than 17 million refugees and others of concern in 115 countries. He was nominated for the position on May 24 by Secretary-General Kofi Annan and formally elected three days later by the UN General Assembly to a five-year term. He succeeds former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, who served as UNHCR's head from January 2001 until February of this year.
Mr. Guterres told refugee agency staff that he had assured Mr. Annan that he would be "firm in asserting the core values of the office and that refugees and states alike should expect a principled, effective and committed UNHCR."
"My conviction is strong," he said. "I believe the millions of people – women, children, and other vulnerables – who depend on us for protection should expect nothing less from the High Commissioner for Refugees."
Mr. Guterres noted that finding safety in today's world was becoming increasingly difficult. While developing countries least able to afford it host most of the world's refugees, many industrialised nations continue to impose ever stricter controls on asylum.
"All of us bear a responsibility for ensuring that those genuinely in need of international protection receive it," he said, adding that more also needs to be done for the estimated 20-25 million internally displaced people who are uprooted within the borders of their own countries.
Mr. Guterres is planning his first field mission, to Uganda, next week. He will spend World Refugee Day next Monday, June 20, with refugees in a camp in northern Uganda.
Commenting on this year's World Refugee Day theme – Courage – the High Commissioner said, "Over the past five and a half decades, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has had the privilege and the responsibility of helping more than 50 million uprooted people rebuild their lives. Throughout UNHCR's proud history, we have been constantly inspired by the incredible courage of the refugees we help and protect. While every refugee's story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage – the courage not only to survive, but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives."
Before joining UNHCR, Mr. Guterres spent more than 20 years in government and public service. He served as the Portuguese prime minister from 1996 to 2002, during which he spearheaded the international effort to stop the atrocities in East Timor. As president of the European Council in early 2000, he co-chaired the first EU-Africa summit and led to the adoption of the so-called Lisbon Agenda. He founded the Portuguese Refugee Council in 1991, and was part of the Council of State of Portugal from 1991 to 2002.
From 1981 to 1983, Mr. Guterres was a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, as well as chairman of the Committee on Demography, Migrations and Refugees.
The new High Commissioner is married and has two children.