Washington — U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi says the asylum system in the United States has become "unmanageable" and that his agency supports "a gradual improvement towards a more effective and humane migration system."
In an interview with VOA, Grandi said such reform is a complex operation that will take years to achieve, but that he is encouraged by what he has seen from the Biden administration after a big cut in resettlements during the Trump administration.
"We support that because that is the indispensable piece in a broader exercise to handle human mobility in Central America, which includes the movement of people that are refugees because they flee from violence, from persecution, from discrimination," he said. "That work has to be done at every level, has to be done in the countries of origin -- mostly Honduras, El Salvador, to an extent Guatemala -- has to be done in the countries of transit, including Guatemala itself and Mexico, and has to be done at the border."
The maximum number of refugees allowed into the United States fell from 85,000 in 2016 to 18,000 in 2020. The Biden administration has boosted the cap to 62,500 refugee admissions this year, with plans to boost it further to 125,000.
Grandi said in addition to the decline in U.S. capacity, the coronavirus pandemic also helped to drastically affect refugee resettlement throughout the world during 2020. He said the total number of resettlements fell from about 100,000 in 2019 to 34,000 last year.
"We had to suspend resettlement travel simply because there were no more flights," he told VOA. "We couldn't use the routes because they were not operating. These are realities that are now being slowly overcome, but it will take some time."
Grandi said the coronavirus pandemic has made it clear that countries "can't cope alone" and that governments sometimes need help explaining to their citizens the value of programs to help refugees.
"They need international support, especially when they embark on policies that may be difficult, even controversial, for their own domestic audiences," Grandi said. "International support helps explain to their populations the importance of these very good policies."
He highlighted progress in Colombia, which in February announced 10-year protective status for 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans.
"Already more than one million Venezuelans have entered the first phase of the registration. This is amazing," Grandi said. "And also, in a situation in which Colombia itself has difficult challenges -- the pandemic, the social and political unrest, residual displacement from the conflict, the peace process. So, in the middle of all this, I think that for Colombia to embrace a very forward-looking inclusive refugee and migration policy is very important."
However, Grandi said Colombia's action represents "one of the bright spots in this very negative picture."
He cited the continuing challenge of spike in the number of people being forced to leave their homes, a number that rose by 3 million people last year to reach 82.4 million at the end of 2020, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency UNHCR.
"It means that wars, discrimination, bad governance, often combined with other factors like climate change, inequality and poverty, demographic imbalances, all of this has not stopped human mobility, especially the forced aspects of human mobility," Grandi said. "The secretary general issued many calls for a global cease-fire. Frankly, it was not really heeded."
Despite the ongoing challenges, when asked what message he has for refugees, Grandi said, "Don't lose courage."
"We draw ourselves encouragement from your resilience. Don't give up and we will be there with you to help you move on," he said.
VOA Spanish service's Celia Mendoza contributed to this report from Columbia.