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UN seeks to counter Western anti-refugee rhetoric at major forum

FILE PHOTO: A Sudanese woman, who fled the conflict in Murnei in Sudan's Darfur region, walks beside carts carrying her family belongings upon crossing the border between Sudan and Chad in Adre, Chad August 2, 2023. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo reuters_tickers

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – Thousands of U.N. officials, politicians, aid and business groups meet in Geneva on Wednesday to seek solutions to a record displacement crisis as the U.N. refugee agency aims to counter a burgeoning Western narrative that casts refugees as a threat.

A record 114 million people around the world have been driven from their homes, including around 40 million refugees fleeing dozens of active conflicts including in Sudan and Ukraine. Yet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said many Western politicians were becoming less, not more welcoming, in the face of the huge challenge.

“It’s very easy to say: ‘Be careful. These people are coming. They steal your jobs, they threaten your security, your values, and then gain votes like that,” Grandi told Reuters. “You will not get rid of the problem. The problem will remain and you will have done something wrong,” he said.

“The right thing is more complicated, less easy to explain to public opinion … but it can be done. Systems can be improved, integration can be strengthened.”

He did not name the governments but has in the past called Britain’s plans to deport migrants to Rwanda “all wrong” and has suggested improvements for U.S. policies.

UNHCR hosts the Global Refugee Forum every four years under an existing framework to share responsibilities for refugees fairly.

More than 4,000 people are set to attend the Geneva event including eight heads of state and some 30 foreign affairs ministers. Refugees themselves make up about 10% of participants.

Arafat Jamal, UNHCR event coordinator, said some of the objectives were easing pressure on host communities, boosting self-reliance for refugees and creating conditions for voluntary return to their home countries.

“It’s all very well to celebrate the refugee and to compensate countries that are hosting them, but far better it is to find a solution,” he told reporters.

Over the three days, attendees are expected make pledges around specific issues such as education. Currently, only 60% of refugee children are enrolled in school.

Grandi said he hoped there would also be funding pledges to the U.N. agency which has a $400 million shortfall for 2023. He said there is also “great uncertainty” about how much UNHCR’s major donors the United States and Germany can give in 2024.

He hopes the event will also focus attention on neglected crises such as Sudan from which over 1.1 million people have already fled this year amid reports of war crimes by the warring parties.

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber; Editing by Alison Williams)

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