Global migration chief 'disturbed' at dangers of xenophobia

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The anti-migrant sentiment taking hold in a slew of nations facing an influx of refugees is disturbing, dangerous and puts people’s lives at risk, said the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Concern and suspicion about migrants is based on stereotypes, fear of national identity loss and a “post-9/11 security syndrome,” said William Lacy Swing, director general of the Geneva-based intergovernmental IOM.

“Every person entering from abroad is potentially a terrorist, exacerbated now with what happened in Paris,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

The Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, which killed 129 people, triggered concern that extremist militants could enter Europe amid the thousands of arriving migrants and prompted calls for nations to tighten their borders.

The waves of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere fleeing conflict-ridden homelands have fueled an “unprecedented anti-migrant sentiment,” he said.

“We’re very disturbed at the widespread anti-migrant sentiment that can lead to xenophobia and risks to migrants,” he said. “The concern I have about a lot of statements that are being made on the public record right now is that it puts migrant lives at risk.”

The head of the IOM, which has 162 member states and offices in more than 100 countries, spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation during a visit to New York.

Showing evidence that migrants contribute to productive societies is part of solving the current crisis, Swing said.

“All of our countries have always been open to new influx of people and it’s always benefited us,” he said. “So you have to come back to that again and again and give them figures, give them data, show them.”

With more than 200 staffers in Syria, the IOM has helped more than 3.6 million people there with services including shelter, water and sanitation, an IOM spokesman said.

More than 4 million Syrians have sought refuge outside their country since civil war erupted in March 2011.

Asked if he would consider reaching out to political leaders stoking anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the United States, Swing said: “We may have to. We probably will have to.”

Swing said he would ask that they “look inside their own souls and see how do they evaluate how the U.S. and other countries developed with migrant labor and migrant brain power.”

Swing has publicly praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her open-door refugee policy and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has pledged to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees by the new year.