Rejecting Muslim refugees encourages ISIS, UN refugee head says

"Refugee movements are not the cause of terrorism," says Antonio Guterres, the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Guterres praises Canada's commitment to welcome 25,000 Syrians

Syrian refugee Khitam, 21, holds her 18-month-old daughter Reeham in her tent at a refugee camp in Lebanon. The UN High Commission for Refugees says about 1,150,000 Syrian refugees are registered in Lebanon. (Bilal Hussein/Associated Press)

Antonio Guterres has just one month left, after 10 years as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to bolster support and battle back "nonsensical" fears about refugees importing terrorism.

"Refugee movements are not the cause of terrorism," he said in an exclusive interview from the UN in New York.

"On the contrary, we have refugee movements because of tyranny, of conflict and of terrorism."

The Paris attacks on Nov. 13, he acknowledges, have tested the resolve of many Western countries to admit more refugees. But he rejects the stubborn belief that the two are inextricably linked.
Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, lauds Canada's commitment to settle 25,000 Syrian refugees. (Melissa Kent/ CBC)

"The big danger comes today from extremist groups that have sympathies, inside countries and communities," says Guterres.

"The homegrown terrorism is a much bigger threat in the recent events."

In fact, Guterres cautions against rejecting Muslim refugees,especially now, warning that ISIS will exploit Western fears to feed its propaganda.

"That is a fantastic argument for them to then try to initiate more people, to recruit more people, saying, 'Look, Muslims are discriminated, Muslims are rejected by the Western world, they are our enemies so if you want to be a true Muslim, join us.'"

Guterres was prime minister of Portugal for six years before he joined  the UNHCR in 2005. Then, the number of displaced people in the world was 38 million and falling. Today, he says sadly, that number is 60 million and growing.

That weighs on him, after a decade of work.

Hope 'never dies'

"Hope is something that never dies. But let's be honest, that when we look at today's world, one gets the impression that things will get worse before they eventually get better."

The recent unprecedented migration of refugees to Europe may be a new crisis, but he says, it's an entrenched problem.

"What is different today is that, for the first time in many, many years, refugees came in big numbers to the developed world."

"And, you know, the rich will tend to ignore that the poor exist until the moment in which the poor knock at the door of the rich or enter their house, and this is what has happened."

Debates in Canada

As Canada prepares to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees, the country is broiling with debates over when, how many, and how fast. In a nasty backlash, a mosque was burned and a woman attacked for wearing a hijab.

Given that pressure, Guterres unreservedly compliments Canada for keeping its promise.

"I would say that this generous offer came in the right moment. Some countries are rejecting refugees, some countries are blaming refugees for their own failures in security, and so the Canadian offer is a special meaning for us."

He is confident that Canada will successfully integrate the refugees, reminding Canadians that the pool of resettlement refugees is more carefully screened and vetted than the refugees streaming on foot across Europe.

Asked for a final message to Canadians before he leaves the UNHCR, he urges: "Please preserve the extraordinary values that make Canada what Canada is."


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.