December 18, 2015 / 3:09 PM / 4 years ago

U.N. refugee chief calls for mass resettlement to save Europe's asylum system

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations refugee chief called on Friday for a “massive resettlement” of Syrian and other refugees within Europe, to distribute many hundreds of thousands of people before the continent’s asylum system crumbles.Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, welcomed an agreement for the European Union’s border agency Frontex to boost its presence in Greece to help register, screen and interview asylum seekers, but said it was not enough.

Refugees and migrants arrive aboard the passenger ferry Eleftherios Venizelos from the island of Lesbos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, December 18, 2015. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

“I mean hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people, not just what has been discussed until now in relation to resettlement,” Guterres said, referring to the EU’s current plan to resettle 160,000 asylum seekers within the 27-member bloc.

“If this is not put in place and the tragedy in the Aegean goes on and the Balkan chaotic situation goes on, I must say I am very worried for the future of the European asylum system.”

Nearly 991,000 refugees and migrants have entered Europe by land and sea so far this year and the number is expected to reach 1 million in the coming days, the International Organization for Migration said on Friday. Many others have drowned on the perilous journey.

“Obviously if Europe had been able to put its act together, in order to have proper reception capacity at entry points, do adequate screenings, distribute people normally and orderly into all European countries, this would be a very small percentage of the European population,” Guterres said.

“We are talking about the number of people coming to Europe by the Mediterranean is less than 2 per 1,000 of the number of European citizens.”

Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister, was speaking to his final scheduled press conference before stepping down after 10 years in the Geneva post.

The number of people forcibly displaced worldwide is likely to have “far surpassed” a record 60 million this year, mainly driven by the Syrian war and other protracted conflicts, his U.N. agency said earlier on Friday.

“I haven’t seen any improvement in the second six months. So my belief is that we will have figures for 2016 that will very probably be worse than the ones for 2015,” Guterres said.

“But there is a global trend for more restrictive policies in the admission of refugees, and in the benefits to be given to refugees, and that is of course extremely worrying for us.”

Guterres said diplomats had to resolve conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, which are driving mass movement of people fleeing war and persecution.

“The result next year depends largely on what will be the progress achieved by these peace negotiations,” he said.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Heavens

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