Praising Arab states for their traditional generosity toward displaced people, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees UNHCR) António Guterres has urged them to take a more active role in his agency’s work and called for international solidarity in easing the plight of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing conflict in their homeland.
“Looking back through history, the most direct line between tradition and contemporary refugee law is found in Islam,” Mr. Guterres told the League of Arab States' (LAS) Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Cairo yesterday, noting that the majority of today’s refugees around the world are Muslims.
“From its very beginnings, from the Holy Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet, Islamic law has considered the question of asylum at length and has given the asylum seeker (Al mustamin) prominence, dignity and respect. A community’s moral duty and behaviour always included how it responded to appeals for asylum,” he said.
The current refugee crisis in Iraq has placed an enormous burden on nearby host countries, particularly Jordan and Syria which together host some 1.75 million Iraqis, Mr. Guterres noted, calling it “the biggest displacement crisis in the Middle East since the dramatic events” of Israel’s independence in 1948, forcing one in eight Iraqis from their homes.
“Some 1.8 million Iraqis are currently displaced internally and up to 2 million others have fled the country,” he said. “Last year alone, we estimate that nearly 500,000 Iraqis moved to other areas inside the country.”
With up to 50,000 Iraqis still fleeing their homes inside the country each month, the impact of the crisis was felt first and foremost by the victims themselves. “But two neighbouring countries, Jordan and Syria, have shouldered the heaviest share of the humanitarian burden, with more than 1 million Iraqis now in Syria and up to 750,000 in Jordan,” he added.
“It is important to recognize the extreme generosity of Jordan and Syria, to a large extent left to face the crisis on their own through the lack of effective support from the international community. And here I have no problem recognizing that UNHCR itself has not done enough,” he declared.
He noted that UNHCR was already scaling up its activities in Iraq and the surrounding region, but its humanitarian efforts were still “a drop in the ocean” and could only deal with the symptoms “as a nurse deals with the visible signs of an illness.” Until the political side finds a cure, humanitarians “must go on treating the symptoms,” neighbouring countries must continue offering refuge, and the international community must do more to share the burden.
Calling for a clear, global commitment, he said UNHCR was convening an international conference on the humanitarian needs of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons in Geneva on 17-18 April.
Mr. Guterres, who was today wrapping up a three-day visit to Egypt, also expressed concern about rising intolerance, racism and xenophobia in many parts of the world, including misperceptions about Islam that can negatively affect Muslim refugees in need of international protection.
“Even in the most developed societies, we see the re-emergence of racism, xenophobia and that brand of populism which always tries to generate confusion in public opinion between refugees, migrants and even terrorists,” he said. “Let us be perfectly clear: refugees are not terrorists, they are the first victims of terror.
“The same attitudes have generated widespread misperceptions about Islam, of which Muslim refugees have so frequently been the victims. This is something that we at UNHCR cannot accept. It is our duty to respond, to fight those attitudes and to bring out the truth,” he added.