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UN chief marks World Refugee Day; comments on Russia, Syria, U.S.
BY 2017-06-21 10:01:15

UNITED NATIONS, June 20 (Xinhua) -- UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, hours before flying to Uganda to show solidarity with refugees there, marked World Refugee Day on Tuesday with pleas for acceptance of the world's 65.5 million refugees and expressing hope they would integrate into their host societies.

The former UN refugee chief held his first formal news conference at UN Headquarters since becoming UN secretary-general on Jan. 1. The nearly hour-long session touched topics ranging from refugees and migrants to the Syria conflict, the Qatar rift and a vacuum in international relations.

Refugee Day is "full of emotions for me," Guterres said in his opening remarks. "It is impossible to be 10 years as (UN) high commissioner for refugees ... without changing your life."

"Indeed, not only witnessing the suffering of people but also learning (about) the extraordinary courage, resilience and capacity to permanently generate hope of refugees is something that has changed my perspective of the world and, to a large extent, changed my life," Guterres said.

"We are witnessing the largest number of refugees ever," he said. "Refugee protection is an obligation under international law -- the (1951 Refugee) Convention and many regional instruments of binding nature."

"By and large, international law was respected" while he was refugee chief, Guterres said. "The situation has considerably changed now."

"We are seeing more and more borders being closed ... refugees being rejected," he said. "We are seeing the opportunities for resettlement in richer countries of refugees coming from the global South being decreased in number."

"This is particularly worrying, especially when associated to forms of political populism, xenophobia, racism, in which refugees become a target, many times being accused of being part of the terror threat when refugees are not terrorists -- they are the first victims of terror, they are fleeing terror; that is why they are refugees," the UN chief said.

However, he added, "We are still witnessing a very large number of countries doing an enormous effort to provide protection to refugees in very dramatic circumstances."

Guterres said he was leaving Tuesday night on a "message of solidarity" to visit the 1.3 million refugees in Uganda -- 950,000 from South Sudan alone -- and to express gratitude to the country for "providing them not only with protection, but even with plots of land and the capacity to live not in camps, but in the society, in a way that is much more humane."

He was later asked about their rights and responsibilities, whether they are refugees fleeing conflict or economic migrants seeking a better life. Guterres said that refugees have specific rights, migrants do not, other than human rights.

"Refugees or migrants have the obligation to respect the laws of the countries in which they are," Guterres said. "This is absolutely crucial and they need also to make an effort to integrate into the society and the society to make an effort to create conditions to make that integration harmonious."

Asked about escalating tensions between Russia and the United States on air strikes in Syria, the secretary-general said he was concerned.

Russia has said it would target U.S. aircraft in their operational airspace over Syria following the U.S. shooting-down of a Syrian bomber following its attack near U.S.-supported fighters on the ground.

"I strongly hope that there will be a de-escalation of the situation, because these kinds of incidents can be very dangerous in a conflict situation in which there are so many actors and in which the situation is so complex on the ground," he said. "I hope that this will not lead to any escalation of the (Syrian) conflict that is already as dramatic as it is."

The UN chief was asked why he was pushing for a regional solution to the rift between Qatar and the other Gulf states.

"That is what normally happens," he said. "But, of course, if countries or entities that have leverage over the parties to a conflict can help, that, obviously, will always be welcome."

"I don't think that United Nations has a leverage over the parties to the conflict that make our direct intervention more effective than the support to, namely, a mediation like the Kuwaiti one, or, if the United States gets engaged in that mediation, that, of course, will be welcome if they are able to do so in an effective way," Guterres said.

On the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to back out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, the secretary-general said, "We have been quite actively engaged in trying to make sure that all ... other countries, stay the course. And also I'll say, noting with a lot of interest, the mobilization of the U.S. society, the cities, the businesses, the civil society ... are a signal of hope that we very much encourage."

Guterres said that while it is possible to have a vacuum in nature it is not so in international relations.

"If the United States disengages in relation to many aspects of foreign policy and many aspects of international relations, it will be unavoidable that other actors will occupy that space," the UN chief said. "I don't think this is good for the United States, and I don't think this is good for the world."

He also said the proposed budget sent to the U.S. Congress drastically cutting funding for the United Nations "would create an unsolvable problem to the management of the UN, but the process is still in the Congress."

Guterres said he would soon go to Washington to meet with members of Congress. "I think we always must engage positively and constructively with any administration in the world, but... so the financial question is still to be seen," he said.

(Editor:Li Zhaoqi) (From:xinhua)
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