"Don't confuse refugees with terrorists," says Guterres

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has urged the international community to make a clear distinction between refugees and terrorists, while stressing UNHCR's commitment to protecting both refugees and internally displaced people.

High Commissioner António Guterres addressing journalists at his first briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.   © UNHCR/H.Caux

GENEVA, July 22 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has urged the international community to make a clear distinction between refugees and terrorists while stressing UNHCR's commitment to protecting both refugees and internally displaced people.

Guterres made these comments at his first press conference at the Palais des Nations - the UN European headquarters in Geneva - on Thursday, five weeks after taking office as the head of the UN refugee agency.

The High Commissioner shared with journalists his three main concerns. Noting the difficulty of preserving asylum and protecting refugees amid growing intolerance and extremism, he appealed to States, Parliaments, civil society, non-governmental organizations, international institutions, opinion leaders and the media to engage in a permanent effort of public awareness in favour of tolerance, and against all forms of extremism. He noted that a growing populist approach had created a huge confusion in public opinion which mixed legitimate security concerns and the need to fight terror, with migration, asylum or refugees.

"We must all be aware that terrorism is a major threat in today's global society," Guterres said. "We must fight it without any doubt. Nothing can justify terrorism. But we will only be able to defeat terror if we stick to our values, namely to democracy and the promotion of human rights. The institution of asylum is an essential part of democracy and of the protection of human rights. Refugees are not terrorists. Refugees are many times the first victims of terror."

He explained, "If someone wants to be a terrorist and strike anywhere in the world, the most stupid way to try to do this is to enter that country seeking asylum. In many situations, he will probably be put in jail, he will always be under very heavy scrutiny. And if you want to be efficient as a terrorist, you need to act in an anonymous way. So this confusion that often exists in the public opinion between security concerns and asylum issues does not make sense at all."

Guterres said that it was necessary to recognize the right of governments to responsibly manage migration flows at their borders. This could not be done without guaranteeing that refugees have physical access to asylum procedures and to fair refugee status determination, with safeguards against fraud and abuse. Promoting tolerance and valuing democracy were essential tools for UNHCR to fulfil its mandate. UNHCR would never be efficient as an agency protecting refugees and promoting asylum if those values were not cherished by societies, he added.

The High Commissioner's second concern was about the work of UNHCR. "We must more and more see ourselves, and be seen by the outside world, as a protection agency. Protection is the essence of our work," he stressed.

This concept had to adjust to present realities, he added, noting that refugee problems were no longer just a problem within the developed world. The biggest flows of refugees came from developing countries and went to other developing countries. In addition to a strictly legalistic approach, protection was a broad concept that needed to create the full conditions for a space to be open, for rights to be enjoyed, for human dignity to be preserved, and for conducive conditions for return to a safe place that could be called home.

Guterres said his third concern involved UNHCR's actions regarding internal displacement. The agency's mandate was to deal with refugees, who according to the Refugee Convention, were people who fled persecution across an international border. If a person fled persecution but did not cross the border, he or she was not legally considered a refugee but an internally displaced person. But the problems were very similar and the person was entitled to the same kind of protection.

"I want to express here my personal commitment to make UNHCR fully engaged with internally displaced persons," said the High Commissioner. "Fully engaged in the so-called collaborative approach within the UN system, but also cooperating with civil society, non-governmental organizations and all other agencies involved, and with the leadership of the Emergency Relief Coordinator, offering our expertise namely to lead in the areas where that expertise is more relevant, namely protection and return, but also the coordination of camps and emergency shelter."

This approach also meant cooperating with all other agencies in areas where they had superior expertise, for example, UNICEF in the area of children's education and the World Food Programme in the field of nutrition.

Asked about western Sudan's Darfur region, Guterres said the situation there remained very volatile. There was hope that the peace negotiations might be successful in the near future, but the security situation was far from satisfactory and UNHCR's operations there were very difficult, especially in West Darfur where the agency was fully engaged in protection and camp coordination. He said UNHCR intended to expand its activities and broaden its financial support. All operations of international agencies in Africa, and in particular in Sudan, were clearly under-funded at the present moment, he lamented, but that was not an excuse.

Responding to another question, the High Commissioner said he had just come from Brussels where UNHCR was very strongly engaged with the European Commission to create the conditions for the next steps towards forming a European Asylum Policy, not to downgrade the standards of asylum but to upgrade them.

"We need to fight a tendency which might emerge of trying to level at the lowest possible common denominator asylum policies, and on the contrary, to promote as generously as possible, as positively as possible, asylum policies within Europe," said Guterres. "What I said about Europe is true about other parts of the developed world."

Recognizing that the large majority of refugees were now living in the developing world, he added that it was important to help developing countries to upgrade their capacities, to grant asylum and to protect people who sought refuge in those countries. This was another important and very relevant concern for UNHCR.

Guterres became the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner in June this year, overseeing a staff of 6,540 in 116 countries with a mandate to protect 19.2 million people of concern around the world.

By William Spindler