UN refugee chief calls for open borders during war, more burden-sharing from wealthy nations

ROME – The U.N. refugee chief on Monday urged all countries to keep their borders open and offer protection to refugees fleeing violence since “new crises multiply and old crises never end.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres spoke after some European nations including Italy have shown resistance to opening their doors to people feeling unrest and violence across North Africa and the Middle East.

Guterres spoke of an “impression” seeded across Europe that all refugees were coming to the continent. But, he said, “it’s simply not true that refugees are moving massively to the north.”

A report released Monday by UNHCR said four-fifths of the world’s 15.4 million refugees are hosted by developing countries.

In Libya, for example, about 1 million people – not all of them refugees – have fled to neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt since the beginning of the violence, Guterres told reporters in Rome. Less than 2 per cent of that number have crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

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“My appeal to all states of the world is to keep the borders open to all those who seek protection and are entitled to receive protection,” he said. He also called for a “new deal in burden- and responsibility-sharing” in the handling of refugees, saying wealthy countries should offer more support to countries in the developing world, since they are bearing the brunt of refugee crises.

Guterres was marking World Refugee Day and the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, aimed at protecting civilians and prisoners in time of war. On Sunday he went to Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island where some 20,000 people arrived after fleeing unrest in Tunisia and Libya. Angelina Jolie, a goodwill ambassador for the refugee agency, also toured the island.

Guterres called on the Italian government not to send people back to Libya.

The conservative government of Premier Silvio Berlusconi signed an agreement last week with Libyan rebels meant to stem the influx of migrants. The government includes a xenophobic party, the Northern League, as a junior partner, and the interior minister handling the crisis, Roberto Maroni, is a prominent League official.

The deal, among other things, allows for the deportation of immigrants without proper status, prompting concerns that it might prevent refugees from being properly screened for asylum claims.

“I don’t believe that we can consider that the present Libyan situation is conducive to any kind of return into Libya,” Guterres said Monday. “Imagine what would happen if the Tunisians and Egyptians would have returned the 1 million people.”

He said the best way to handle the situation is to grant access to the territory to migrant boats, and then assess whether or not the people on board are entitled to protection.

However, Guterres said he was impressed by sea rescue operations that have been carried out by Coast Guard officials off Lampedusa in the past months.

Later in the day, Guterres met with Maroni, the Italian interior minister, who has been in charge of handling the migration crisis. A statement from the ministry sought to play down any controversies, focusing on co-operation, the UNHCR’s call for burden-sharing and its commitment to support the democratic transition of “Arab spring” nations.

According to the report released Monday, more than a quarter of the world’s refugees are in just three nations: Pakistan, Iran and Syria.

Those figures don’t include the latest wave of people displaced by this year’s unrest in North Africa. Guterres said Monday that “at the end of 2010 we had the highest number of refugees and internally displaced people of the last 15 years.”

Palestinians make up one-third of the world’s refugee population – a total of almost 5 million people – many of whom have lived in neighbouring countries all their lives.

Aside from the 15.4 million refugees – a small increase of 153,000 since 2009 – UNHCR also counted 27.5 million internally displaced people and 850,000 asylum seekers last year.


Associated Press Writer Frank Jordans contributed from Geneva.

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