GENEVA (AP) — Europe should boost its efforts to integrate newcomers from places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.N. refugee agency chief said Tuesday, calling it "one of the great challenges" of the future.
After more than 1 million people poured into the continent in 2015, High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in an interview that it is time for the European Union to engage in a reasoned debate on the issues of refugees that tore at its core.
"There's a time now to have this rational discussion — beyond the politicization of some of these issues, beyond the manipulation that some irresponsible politicians are carrying out, using this pretext to just get votes," Grandi said Tuesday.
"More thinking and more resources" should go into the integration of refugees, he said, because if done properly, it could "counter xenophobic tendencies, violent rejection and propaganda against foreigners" that have accompanied the influx at times.
Grandi spoke to The Associated Press at UNHCR's Geneva headquarters ahead of two summits in New York on refugees and migrants on Sept. 19-20 — including one convened by U.S. President Barack Obama — near the start of the U.N. General Assembly ministerial session.
One of the important "deliverables" in New York will be to promote "the notion of acceptance and inclusion," he said.
"We believe the time has come to look at integration programs more systematically, and this is, I think, one of the great challenges of the future," said Grandi, an Italian who previously headed the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees and took over at UNHCR in January.
The influx to Europe has slowed, all but drying up through the favored route of last year — via Turkey across the Aegean to Greece — though hundreds of migrants still risk the far deadlier trek between Libya and Italy.
The massive inflows last year prompted a red-hot debate that ripped at the EU's fabric because countries like Germany and Austria were more welcoming, Greece and Italy more burdened, and a number of mostly eastern European countries resistant to take in refugees.
Work remains. Fewer than 4,000 people have been relocated from Greece and Italy out of the 160,000 that their EU partners had agreed to take in at the height of the crisis last year, Grandi said, but the relocation program was "picking up a bit."
Grandi says Europe also needs to handle possible rejections of asylum requests "with efficiency, so that people don't end up in limbo and disappear."
In the first quarter of 2016, the bloc granted asylum to nearly 90 percent of Syrian applicants, to about three-fourths of Eritrean applicants, and 62 percent of Iraqi applicants, according to the EU's statistics agency.
Overall, Grandi said that he hopes the summits will produce "a stronger sense that refugees and migrants are a shared international responsibility." He wants to move beyond a predominantly "humanitarian" response in the past to refugee crises by bringing in "development actors" like the World Bank from the start.
"Traditionally, they have come in after sometimes many years," he said. "Look what happened in Syria: It took five years for the response to the Syrian refugee crisis — the largest today in the world — to really include these development actors.
"Education, for example ... has always come in second place after food and shelter," Grandi said. "There is a growing realization that those are areas that also need to be looked at if we want to address properly this phenomenon."
Grandi also pointed to relatively unsung "major host countries" like Kenya, Pakistan, Iran, Ethiopia, Uganda and Ecuador that today host 85-90 percent of refugees in the world, "and they are not rich countries."
As for the Syria crisis, he alluded to a UNHCR target in March to resettle 10 percent of more than 4.5 million Syrian refugees mainly in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan — or at least 450,000 people — to other countries, but said only about 200,000 had been resettled so far.
"We are very far from that target. So we hope the New York summit will further that discussion," he said.