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U.N. Refugee Chief: Western Leaders Stir Up ‘Hatred for the Stranger, for the Immigrant’

The U.N.’s refugee agency wants to resettle 400,000 Syrian refugees worldwide -- just as anti-immigrant rhetoric hits a generational high.

The new head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), Filippo Grandi of Italy (R) listens to a Palestinian woman during a visit to an area in the central Gaza Strip which was recently flooded following heavy rains, on February 2, 2010. Israel's military has reprimanded two senior officers for the firing of shells, which contained white phosphorous, in a populated area near a UN compound during the Gaza war, the army said. AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS (Photo credit should read MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images)
The new head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), Filippo Grandi of Italy (R) listens to a Palestinian woman during a visit to an area in the central Gaza Strip which was recently flooded following heavy rains, on February 2, 2010. Israel's military has reprimanded two senior officers for the firing of shells, which contained white phosphorous, in a populated area near a UN compound during the Gaza war, the army said. AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS (Photo credit should read MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2011, as the world focused on Egypt’s revolution and looming foreign military strikes in Libya, Syria was but a burgeoning bit of unrest in an otherwise chaotic Middle East. Five years later, the ongoing civil war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels seeking to oust him has helped spawn the worst refugee crisis in generations — and the highest level of hatred toward migrants to go with it, a top U.N. official said Tuesday.

It’s hard for U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi to see what might be the next initially-overlooked crisis on the world’s horizon. “There’s very little that is not boiling already, so there’s very little choice left of places that could go wrong,” Grandi ruefully told a small group of reporters. “This crisis has been an eye-opener for many.”

Tuesday marked the five-year anniversary of Syria’s civil war, and it came at a cautiously optimistic time in a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced millions more. U.N.-brokered peace talks are underway in Geneva and — perhaps more importantly — Russia is abruptly withdrawing its military forces that for nearly six months helped to protect Assad from the rebel groups seeking to oust him. The move by Russian President Vladimir Putin could ultimately pave the way for Assad’s departure as part of a broader political transition in the war-torn country.

But the war’s estimated 4.8 million Syrian refugees confront the world with a double-barreled crisis that almost certainly will endure for years to come — not just where to settle the victims, but also to ensure they aren’t greeted by hatred and mistrust in their new homes.

Grandi, on the job for two months, has a plan for the first: Later this month, he will issue an appeal for member states to accept at least 10 percent of Syria’s refugees. That’s 400,000 people who need to be resettled, including about 170,000 whom nations have already promised to take.

The second question is much harder: How to persuade an increasingly xenophobic West to accept refugees with compassion instead of suspicion?

“The language has become horrendous,” Grandi said. “That type of very hatred-filled language, we haven’t heard in a long, long time.” He puts the bulk of the blame on weak leaders who refuse to calm fear about immigrants amid sinking economies and terror threats.

“There are unfortunately irresponsible politicians that manipulate these two fears or concerns and transform them into hatred for the stranger, for the immigrant,” Grandi said. “This has become such a huge trend for some sectors of the political spectrum. I don’t think they are the majority here or in Europe. But, unfortunately, because so many people have some of those fears, they listen to that, and that’s dangerous.”

Grandi refused to call out specific offending states or political leaders. But his comments came as Americans vote in presidential primary elections in five states for Republican candidates who have promised to severely limit the number of Muslim refugees and other immigrants entering the United States. GOP front-runner Donald Trump, whose campaign has been marked by violent rhetoric, has called for shutting down mosques and temporarily barring Muslims from entering the United States.

Most of the Syrian refugees UNHCR is hoping to resettle live in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan — all of which are straining to remain economically stable. Grandi said financial support helps, with an estimated one-third of UNHCR’s $7 billion annual operating budget spent on Syria’s refugees. But more importantly, he said, the refugees need a place to live in a world where states are putting up walls and shutting down borders.

Though he expressed mild disappointment with Washington’s reluctance to accept more than 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, Grandi predicted more would be welcomed in the future.

“My appeal would be, let this continue; this is a very important part of U.S. leadership in the world,” he said.

Photo credit: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

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