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Refugee chief calls for more tolerance

Guterres was giving his first news conference as UN High Commissioner for Refugees

(Keystone)

The new head of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has called on governments and civil society to protect refugees and not treat them like terrorists.

Speaking in Geneva on Thursday, Antonio Guterres said the heightened security risk should not stop countries opening their doors to asylum seekers.

"Refugees are not terrorists, they are in fact often the first victims of terrorism," Guterres told his first news conference as High Commissioner for Refugees. He said asylum seekers should receive better protection in Europe.

"Muslim refugees should not be held responsible for acts committed by other people claiming the same faith," the former Portuguese prime minister said. But he also called on Muslim communities in Europe to "tackle the hatred" in their ranks.

Guterres, who took over at the agency last month, denounced the "increasing populism, which creates a huge confusion in the public mind between a legitimate concern over security and migration, asylum and refugees".

Last year Switzerland was criticised directly by the UNHCR for plans to tighten its asylum policy. The Geneva-based agency said that at a time when asylum requests were dropping across Europe it saw no need for governments to make their asylum laws more restrictive.

The changes to Switzerland’s law were drafted by Justice Minister Christoph Blocher, a member of the rightwing People’s Party which takes a hard line on asylum.

Protecting children

Guterres issued a reminder that most refugees were received by developing countries. He said rich countries were under an obligation to help poorer countries accepting refugees.

He said the UN must step up protection for children of refugees and also for people displaced within their own countries.

The UNHCR chief said protecting the children of refugees had been one of the most difficult problems for his agency, especially when they were either unaccompanied by or separated from their families.

Guterres took over from Ruud Lubbers who resigned at the start of the year amid allegations of sexual harassment.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Switzerland recorded 14,248 asylum requests in 2004.
This was 32.3% less than in 2003.
At the end of 2004, there were 55,103 asylum requests pending.
1,555 people were granted refugee status in 2004 (1,636 in 2003).
10,080 were declined refugee status.

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In brief

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) supports 17 million refugees in 115 countries.

Aged 56, the former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres took up his post as High Commissioner on June 15, 2005.

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