"This person here," said Poul Hartling, 65, talking about himself with an air of incredulity, "is the protector of all the refugees in the world."
That is close to 10 million people. In one way or another Hartling, a former prime minister of Denmark and since 1977 the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, must find ways of coping with all of them.
They are the boat people of Southeast Asia, the persecuted tribesmen of Africa, Afghans fleeing the Soviet war machine, and soon, as the governments that invited Hartling here to Central America fear, they may include thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans displaced by the growing turmoil in their homelands.
They are not Cubans, however, at least not as far as Hartling is concerned.
He is not convinced that the majority of Cubans now flooding the United States were fleeing political persecution so much as seeking to join relatives or find economic opportunities. "We have to differentiate between refugees and immigrants," said Hartling. "I never said the Cubans were refugees. My feeling is that case by case you can find refugees among them. But taken as a whole you cannot say they are refugees."
It is obviously a sensitive point with him. He reiterates, "We are not saying that any Cuban coming out of Cuba is a refugee. No never. Not. Not."
As a result, though the United States is one of the principal financial contributors to the high commissioner's office, it is getting only limited help from Hartling's staff in this currrent crisis. Primarily they are concerning themselves with the resettlement of those few Cubans who do not want to remain in the United States or those President Carter has said cannot.
"We are not looking into 100,000 cases but only into a few hundred," Hartling said.
For all of Washington's anxieties, the high commissioner suggested, the United States is capable of coping with the Cuban influx on its own. Hartling's resources are put to work in areas that have no means of helping the uprooted masses who flow across their frontiers.
Hartling talks about the suffering millions in Africa who make up almost half of the world's refugee population but are largely ignored outside their own continent. "They die in the jungle," he said. "They say to me 'Can't we find a border to cross? We want to be boat people.'"
Hartling believes as most people who deal with refugees do, that the preferred solution to their plight is repatriation. The second alternative is temporary resettlement in nearby havens, usually referred to as countries of first asylum.
The least-favored solution is permanent resettlement, but it is for many the only solution. And for many of these this means they will find new homes in the United States, which accepts more refugees for permanent resettlement than any other country in the world. Currently, for instance, 14,000 of about 25,000 Indochinese being resettled each month are destined for the United States, according to Hartling.
The high commissioner does not like to speculate about the future. "We do not go around the world looking for problems," he said. But as he visits Venezuela, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico he is meeting with government officials who are extremely concerned about the potential for a new explosion of refugees in this area within a few years and quite possible within a few months.
Central America is just beginning to recover, a year later, from the massive flow of refugees out of Nicaragua. At the height of the fighting last June and July 100,000 Nicaraguans fled to neighboring Costa Rica and Honduras while another 800,000 people were displaced within its borders. Altogether they made up close to half the population.
The high commissioner's office has plowed almost $5.5 million into their repatriation, including health and agricultural programs "so they will have something to return to," as Hartling put it.
The high commissioner also took on the responsibility for several hundred families of former Nicaraguan National Guardsmen who sought asylum in Honduras after their defeat at the hands of the Sandinistas. Partly to avoid political problems with Nicaragua, these people were never officially declared refugees and are now, with some difficulty, being absorbed into Honduran society.
But even as the Nicaraguan crisis is drawing to a close, refugees are beginning to flow out of El Salvador in ever greater numbers. Officially they only number in the hundreds at the moment, but, as the terrorism of left-wing guerrillas, right-wing extremists and an increasingly active Army increases, some of Salvador's neighbors fear as many as half a million people may try to excape that tiny, densely populated country.
Guatemala meanwhile is also the scene of rising violence. If anything resembling full-scale war breaks out there, floods of refugees, many of them uneducated and largely unskilled Indian farmers, could be expected to cross the border into Mexico.
Many Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees could also be expected to come to Nicaragua, which is struggling just to keep its own people fed, or to Costa Rica, which is already, in Hartling's words, "A Noah's ark or a Babylon, if you like," of refugees.
The potential for crisis is enormous, not only for this area but for the United States. Washington must cope not only with the officially acknowledged refugees for whom Hartling is responsible, but with thousands of people who, under slightly different circumstances would be eligible for asylum in the world's eyes but are now considered and treated as illegal aliens.
According to U.S. immigration officials in Mexico City substantial numbers of Salvadorans are apparently slipping into the United States. Some of them are technocrats and low level Salvadoran government employees who pay as much as $500 to smugglers to fly them to the Mexican-U.S. border and slip them across. Poorer Salvadorans are making their way on buses with the same goal.
They seek the physical security and the economic promise of the United States, hoping it will be their country of first and last asylum, at least until peace is restored in their homeland.
Congressman Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), whose constituents are concerned about the Cuban refugee camp at Fort Chafee and who visited Nicaragua earlier this week as part of a special presidential mission, is attempting to organize a hemispheric conference to cope with refugee problems. Alexander found that the Nicaraguans were willing to help and tentative plans were laid to hold such a meeting within the year.
Yet, as Hartling makes clear, the basic problem will never be solved until most of the refugees can go back to their homelands. In this and in many other parts of the world, that time seems increasingly remote.