AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
I'm joined now by Peter Sutherland of the United Nations. He's the special representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration.
Welcome to the program.
PETER SUTHERLAND: Thank you very much.
CORNISH: Now, the European Union has a plan to relocate upwards of 60,000 migrants over two years, and a voluntary agreement. Now, given that 300,000 migrants have arrived this year alone, does that plan reflect the reality of the situation?
SUTHERLAND: I think it's a political figure that the European Commission, who proposed the plan, consider it most likely to pass. In fact, it is an inadequate figure, as your question implies. It's nothing like enough. But the reaction to the plan - which has been mixed, to the say the best of it - proves just how difficult it is to get member states to cooperate, as they should do in dealing with a very serious crisis.
CORNISH: This gets at another issue. European countries have opposed calls for increasing refugee quotas, right, these quotas to help spread out the number of migrants. What's your response to countries like, say, Spain, that say, look, we have an unemployment rate of 23 percent - it doesn't make sense for us to take on more people?
SUTHERLAND: The quota system that has been proposed by the commission takes account of the individual circumstances of each country. And incidentally, it should not just be shared by Europe. It should be shared by the United States and the rest of the world community, as well's the case for an example with the Vietnamese boat people in the past. Because over half of those who are coming across the Mediterranean are refugees, not economic migrants.
CORNISH: Should there be a distinction between refugees and economic migrants?
SUTHERLAND: Absolutely. In 1951, the world recognized that those who were being persecuted - as for an example, the Jewish people had been persecuted during the period of the Third Reich, Hitler, and so on - that they had a particular right to sanctuary. But of course, there are economic migrants who are in terrible circumstances and they also have to be given humanitarian help. But it is different.
CORNISH: You've talked about how the rest of the world needs to share in this responsibility, but it doesn't seem like they are. And what can the U.N. do to push that conversation forward?
SUTHERLAND: Well, there is some help and there has been help in the past, including from the United States. I think there needs to be more. I think that the United Nations has to provide a forum and an articulation of the issue that brings it to the attention of the world.
CORNISH: But you brought up the example of Vietnam. I mean, what impetus would it take for people to come to an agreement to force their hand?
SUTHERLAND: I don't think you're going to get - because of the importance of national sovereignty, you only get voluntary cooperation and involvement.
CORNISH: But you can understand people's frustration with where this conversation seems to be going?
SUTHERLAND: Yes, I can, and I'm not suggesting there's a magic wand to solve the problem. I mean, in the end of the day, the problem is caused by wars, some of which one can argue we all should've done more to avoid, and there's no easy solution to these situations. But we can mitigate it and we can do things to improve the situation of people in terrible, terrible dilemmas that risk their lives.
CORNISH: Well, Peter Sutherland, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.
CORNISH: Peter Sutherland is the U.N.'s special representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.