GENEVA - A "negative, xenophobic" wave of anti-refugee populism is receding in Europe and such sentiment will go the same way in the United States too, a veteran humanitarian worker told Reuters on Monday.
Jan Egeland, who heads the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), welcomed election results in several European countries, saying voters must not allow politicians to demonize vulnerable people who had fled their homes.
Egeland, a former United Nations humanitarian affairs chief and emergency relief coordinator, made his comments after the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and the NRC released figures showing there were a record 65.6 million displaced people around the world, including 25.4 million refugees.
The European and U.S. public had shown support for refugees in 2015, he said in an interview. However, the mood had shifted dramatically in 2016, the year when Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, promising to build a wall on the Mexican border and to ban Muslims temporarily from entering the country.
"Stories circulated that terrorism was associated with refugees, which is wrong. Populist politicians overwhelmed every other politician, who became timid beyond belief. We refugee workers were not able to hold our ground, so we lost the battle for public and political opinion," Egeland said.
Egeland saw the tide turning. "The negative, xenophobic populist wave of 2016, I see that ending now in 2017, and thankfully several of the elections in Europe have shown that."
He did not name any of the countries, but in the past year far-right anti-immigration candidates have lost elections in Austria, the Netherlands and France.
"I think there will be also a correction in the United States - that decent normal people will not allow politicians to blame vulnerable women and children who are fleeing for all sorts of ills," he added.
Egeland, a 40-year veteran of humanitarian work, said Uganda had taken more refugees per day in the past year than many European countries accepted in 12 months.
He also criticized some governments for trying to erect physical or other barriers, such as Australia's offshore detention centers on Pacific islands, against migrants.
"All alarm bells should be going," he said. "We have a world in great instability, and it's not going away because Europe and the United States and Australia are frantically building higher walls," he said.
Letting inequality fester was dangerous and destabilizing. "Tens of millions of youths will get the message that you will not really get a job, a legal residency, legal status, a family, a future," he said. "What kind of signal is that, to tens of millions of youths that want to contribute to society? That's why we have to turn this around."
Egeland called for more investment in diplomacy and peacemaking, and more help for refugees trying to return to their homes or integrate into new societies - especially for those needing relocation to a safe new home. REUTERS