The new U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, is appealing to governments and the public not to assume asylum seekers and refugees are potential terrorists. In his first news conference in Geneva since assuming his post last month, Mr. Guterres also expressed concern about growing intolerance of refugees in Africa.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, says he is stung by the extent to which refugees are being used as scapegoats and tarred with the terrorist brush. He says he is concerned with what he sees as confusion in public opinion that has caused refugees and asylum-seekers to suffer as a result of legitimate security concerns and the need to fight terror.
The new refugee chief calls terrorism a major global threat that must be fought. But, he says the only way terrorism can be defeated is by promoting democracy and protecting human rights.
"Refugees are not terrorists," he said. "Refugees are many times the first victims of terror. And, let us be frank, if one wants to be a terrorist and strike anywhere in the world, the most stupid way to try to do this is to enter that country seeking asylum. In many situations, you will probably be in jail. You will always have a very heavy scrutiny and if you want to be efficient as a terrorist, you need to act in an anonymous way."
The High Commissioner says he is concerned that an increasing number of countries in Europe are shutting their doors to legitimate refugees, thereby putting their lives at risk. He says he is also concerned that some countries in Africa are turning their backs on asylum seekers.
Mr. Guterres praises Africa, the poorest continent in the world, for its great and long-standing generosity to refugees. But, he says a number of incidents have taken place, which are cause for concern.
"Some of them have forced us even to be very vocal condemning what has been done. And, we remain very concerned with the fact that specific situations of refoulement [forced repatriation], of asylum seekers being returned to the countries of origin, disregarding the concerns with their safety have taken place in Africa."
Just last month, the government of Burundi forcibly deported some five thousand asylum-seekers to Rwanda. The Rwandans began fleeing to Burundi in March, citing fears and threats surrounding the local gacaca genocide tribunals.
U.N. High Commissioner Guterres says rich countries must support Africa, which bears the heaviest refugee burden in the world. He says African operations, in general, are woefully under-funded. As a consequence, he says protection needs in places such as Sudan's conflict-ridden province of Darfur are not being met and important repatriation operations in southern Sudan, Burundi and elsewhere are in jeopardy.