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UNHCR Says Refugee Protection Under Threat

  • Lisa Schlein

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, warns protection for refugees and asylum seekers is under threat from rising intolerance and fear of terrorism. Mr. Guterres told delegates attending the opening of the UNHCR's annual refugee conference that refugees are not terrorists, they are victims.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres says he knows he is swimming against a tide of popular belief that refugees and asylum seekers are the victimizers and not the victims. He says he is dismayed at the rising intolerance against people who are fleeing persecution, but are viewed with suspicion.

He decries the rise in, what he calls political demagoguery and populist media campaigns aimed at cynically manipulating public opinion. He says these tactics play on peoples' fears and prejudices.

"The rise of populism has led to a systematic and willful confusion in the public opinion, mixing security problems, terrorism, migrant flows and refugees and asylum means challenging the notion that refugees and asylum-seekers are agents of insecurity or even terrorism rather than its victims," he said.

Unfortunately, he says, there are many situations where the concept of asylum is misunderstood, where it is equated with terrorism.

Mr. Guterres appealed to the representatives of 68 countries attending the meeting to confront this populist approach. He says the must protect refugees and asylum seekers who are among the most defenseless people in the world.

He notes that an increasing number of countries are hardening attitudes against asylum seekers and closing their doors to them at a time when the number of refugees is at its lowest level in almost a quarter century. There are an estimated nine million refugees worldwide.

But the High Commissioner notes there are up to 25 million internally displaced people. They are victims of conflict who have been forced from their homes, but who remain in their own country. Because they have not crossed an international border, they are not considered to be refugees and are not entitled to protection under international law.

Mr. Guterres says it is the primary responsibility of the state to take care of internally displaced people. He adds the inability of the international community to address this problem is its biggest humanitarian failure.

"The plague of internal displacement demonstrates all too clearly that racism, xenophobia, ethic conflict, violent nationalism and religious fundamentalism are still alive and strong in our world today. We can defeat them only in the name of tolerance, not a value of any specific civilization but of civilization itself," he said.

Unlike refugees, internally displaced people do not have a single U.N. agency that cares for their needs. They survive through ad hoc assistance from a variety of U.N., intergovernmental, and non-governmental aid agencies.

The UNHCR is responsible for the protection of internally displaced people, for camp management and shelter. Several of its biggest operations are in Sudan's conflict-ridden Darfur province, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Colombia.

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