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UNHCR Warns Asylum Under Threat

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres is warning that the principle of asylum is under threat.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, says people in genuine fear of their lives increasingly are being refused asylum by governments laboring under popular misperceptions. He says security concerns and confusion in public opinion between migrants and refugees are eroding the institution of asylum.

"Critical developments are taking place-many of them, unfortunately, deliberately encouraged by populism in both politics and the media, taking us in the wrong direction. We must be vigilant and remain a voice for reason and tolerance," he said. "To preserve asylum is also to firmly oppose all forms of refoulement and guarantee respect for international refugee law."

Guterres told the annual UNHCR meeting that international refugee law cannot be replaced by national legislation, extradition treaties or redefined by bilateral arrangements.

The High Commissioner calls the neglect of tens of millions of internally displaced people one of the international community's greatest failures.

There are an estimated 24 million people displaced within their own countries. This is about twice the number of refugees around the world. But he says they remain largely unprotected because they have not crossed an international border. He says U.N. agencies are working together to try to ease the plight of the millions that have been forced to flee their homes because of civil strife. Each agency has a different responsibility in caring for the displaced.

The UNHCR, he says, primarily takes care of protection, emergency shelter, and camp coordination and management. He says this new collective approach is meeting with some success. For example, he says aid agencies have helped return more than 300,000 internally displaced people in Uganda.

"At the same time, faced with a situation like Darfur, the role of organizations such as ours is severely constrained. That may seem intolerable, but, yet our desperation is nothing if compared with the one of the victims and millions of displaced," added Guterres. "In the absence of a clear framework for the exercise of the so-called responsibility to protect, the international community remains basically powerless. And, the insecurity bred in Darfur has spread to Chad and threatens the Central African Republic itself.

Guterres agrees illegal migration is a problem that must be resolved. He says the UNHCR is not in the business of managing migration, but it is in the business of helping people in need of international protection. He says governments must enact measures to protect refugees, and vulnerable people such as women victims of trafficking and unaccompanied minors.