GENEVA - The U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, welcomed the start of a European Union relocation program with the departure of a first group of asylum seekers Friday from Italy to Sweden. The high commissioner said he hopes to build on this asylum program during a two-and-a-half-day mission to Greece.
Guterres is set to begin his mission on Saturday on the Greek island of Lesbos. This is the main entry point for most of the more than 428,000 people who have crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey this year. He will meet with political leaders in Athens on Sunday and Monday.
The aim of his trip is to assess the humanitarian response to the Mediterranean crisis and see how best to support these efforts. He said Greece alone cannot handle the overwhelming number of refugees and migrants coming mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
“This is a European crisis and it needs a European response. There is no way this can be solved on a country by country basis,” said Guterres.
Guterres said the overwhelming numbers of people arriving in Europe are creating tension and chaotic conditions for many countries. At the same time, he noted this is a horrible experience for those arriving.
He told VOA the only way to avoid this situation is to address it seriously at the entry point. He said it is essential to have effective reception conditions to receive the thousands of people who are arriving.
The UNHCR has just wrapped up a weeklong international refugee conference, which examined crisis situations in many parts of the world. Guterres said caring for 60 million refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people around the world is a daunting prospect.
He said it is difficult to interest countries in refugees, but with the recent media attention to this issue, he said refugees now figure high on the political agenda of many countries. He said conference participants recognize this is creating opportunities for aid agencies to address the plight of refugees as never before.