World leaders warn of rising xenophobia

By Carole Landry in New York

Hundreds of life jackets were placed on the shore of the New York waterfront as world leaders met to highlight the plight of refugees and migrants. Photo / AP
Hundreds of life jackets were placed on the shore of the New York waterfront as world leaders met to highlight the plight of refugees and migrants. Photo / AP

United Nations member states adopted a plan on yesterday to tackle the biggest refugee crisis since World War II amid dire warnings about rising xenophobia in Europe and the collapse of countries bordering war-shattered Syria.

The first-ever UN summit on refugees and migrants kicked off a week of high-level diplomacy as world leaders take part in the annual General Assembly meeting, dominated this year by the conflict in Syria.

Speaking at the summit opening, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein made a rousing appeal to confront "race-baiting bigots", recalling that the refugee crisis stemmed from the world's failure to end the war in Syria.

"This should not be a comfortable summit," he told the gathering at the UN General Assembly.

"The defenders of what is right and good are being outflanked in too many countries by race-baiting bigots, who seek to gain, or retain, power by wielding prejudice and deceit at the expense of those most vulnerable," he said.

World governments adopted a non-binding political declaration pledging to uphold the rights of refugees, help them resettle and ensure they have access to education and jobs.

A record-breaking 65 million people are on the move worldwide, fleeing wars such as the carnage in Syria, repression and poverty, including 21 million refugees competing for too few resettlement opportunities.

Now in its sixth year, the war in Syria has driven nearly 9 million people from their homes while an additional 4 million have fled to neighbouring countries or are making the perilous journey to Europe.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Tammam Salam, whose country of 4 million has taken in 1.5 million Syrians, appealed for urgent help.

"Barring a massive effort from the international community, Lebanon runs the risk of a serious collapse," he said. "My country is in serious danger."

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said the stakes were also high for his country, which has seen more than 1.2 million migrants cross its border over the past year.

A failure to confront the refugee crisis would unleash xenophobia, he warned.

"If we fail to support this, the political repercussions will be felt not only in Greece but everywhere," he said.

"We will give space to nationalistic, xenophobic forces to show their face for the first time since the Second World War."

Turkey, home to 2.7 million Syrians, said no country can afford to turn its back on the refugee crisis.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon launched a global campaign against xenophobia, saying it would seek to "turn fear into hope" at a time when welcoming migrants and refugees has become a divisive issue.

US President Barack Obama will host a second summit today, when some 40 countries are expected make new offers of aid, either by taking in more refugees or supporting access to education and jobs.

- AFP

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