UN urges wealthier countries to open legal routes for migrants (dpa German Press Agency)

Geneva/Beirut (dpa) – Countries need to open their borders to migrant workers rather than treat them as a burden or as criminals, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said Monday in Geneva.

“As workers, consumers and taxpayers, they contribute to the economic growth of all societies, as many studies have demonstrated,” the UN high commissioner for human rights said at the UN Human Rights Council.

“Few in this room can claim that they, or their ancestors, have not benefited from migration,” he added.

His comments came a day before EU interior ministers were to discuss a plan to distribute asylum seekers more evenly across the bloc. So far, the main entry countries – Italy and Greece – have had to deal with a large share of the arrivals.

The controversial topic is also on the agenda of next week’s migration summit of EU leaders.

Zeid welcomed the EU’s new immigration plans, but added that the bloc needed to take a far bolder step and welcome foreigners of all skill levels into their job markets.

Laura Thompson, the deputy chief of the International Organization for Migration, told the rights council that governments should accept that people might flee both conflict and poverty.

“Very often these categories are not clearly distinguishable,” she said.

The debate came amid refugee crises in regions including Europe, the Middle East and South-East Asia.

Senior UN refugee agency official Carol Batchelor said her organization would issue annual statistics on Wednesday that would be “the worst in human history.”

According to Amnesty International, the number of refugees worldwide has exceeded 50 million for the first time since the end of World War II.

The international response to this crisis has been “shameful,” the rights advocacy group said as it called for an international summit focussed on increasing international responsibility and burden sharing.

Noting that 86 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries, Amnesty called on wealthier states to offer long-term settlement to 1 million refugees in immediate need.

It noted that the largest nationality among those making the risky crossing of the Mediterranean to Europe are Syrians. More than 4 million of them have fled their war-torn country.

“Although media reports have regularly characterized those making the journey from North Africa to Europe as migrants, many are in fact refugees,” Amnesty said.

As of 31 May, the number who have drowned crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa this year stood at 1,865 compared to 425 during the same period in 2014, Amnesty said, pointing to the EU’s limited naval border control mission, which was only recently expanded.

In their statements, both Zeid and Amnesty pointed at governments that have refused to let migrants and refugees land, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia.

They also warned against fanning xenophobia against immigrants.

“It can, and will if not treated properly, burst into firestorms of violence,” Zeid said.

In addition, Amnesty criticised the international community for failing to respond to the crises in sub-Saharan Africa, where there are an estimated 3 million refugees, including hundreds of thousands who have fled conflicts in Nigeria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Burundi.

The report called for establishing a global refugee fund to pay for humanitarian aid and support countries hosting large numbers of refugees.