United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres says fears of terrorist attacks and growing intolerance towards immigrants must not compromise protection for those fleeing violence. He says asylum seekers are not terrorists but are fleeing very difficult situations.
The head of the United Nations agency for refugees, Antonio Guterres, says growing intolerance towards immigrants and asylum seekers are leading many in Europe to link security concerns to people who have fled situations of conflicts and oppression.
Speaking in Rome during a visit to meet authorities to discuss Italy's immigration laws, Mr. Guterres said the impact of this "populist approach" is to mix everything: terrorism, asylum, migration and security concerns. But, he says this is not right.
"Refugees are not terrorists," he said. "Refugees are the first victims of terrorists and, if anyone wants to be a terrorist and to commit a terrorist act, the most stupid thing to do would be to enter a country requesting asylum. "
Mr. Guterres says there is no reason for the institution of asylum to be jeopardized by security concerns. He says, if the objective is to promote democracy, asylum must be recognized as a central tenet of a democratic system.
He did acknowledge that it can be difficult to distinguish a genuine refugee in need of asylum amid the huge numbers of immigrants traveling to Europe in search of a job and a better life. He says Europe must put in place better procedures to check asylum claims.
"It is extremely important that Europe remains a continent of asylum and it is extremely important that no mixture between terrorism and asylum is made namely in the public opinion and much less of course in any kind of legislation," added Mr. Guterres.
Thousands of immigrants and asylum seekers cross over to Italy from Northern Africa, every year. Many are desperate people who are prepared to risk their lives. Some are fleeing terrible situations in countries at war.
Mr. Guterres says, if people do not have development perspectives in their own countries, the normal reaction for them is to try to find a place where life is possible.
"Without that hope, without that minimum of development perspectives, we will witness in the future flows of populations that will be even more massive than today," he explained. "And, of course, that is a terrible humanitarian impact on the lives of those people. Those people suffer tremendously.
The U.N. refugee chief says the international community must be aware of this and must act preventively. He says there is no security or border policy that can solve the problem.
Mr. Guterres says what is needed is a set of active policies that will favor the prevention and solution of conflicts; the promotion of good governance conditions; and the building of institutional capacities in economic development aid, in debt relief and in access to trade.