December 8, 2015 / 10:31 AM / 2 years ago

U.S. campaign rhetoric threatens resettlement of Syrian refugees: U.N.

Migrants wait to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, near Gevgelija, Macedonia November 26, 2015. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

GENEVA (Reuters) - Campaign rhetoric in the United States is harming a vital U.S. resettlement program for Syrian and other refugees fleeing war and persecution, the United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on Monday called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. It was the most dramatic response yet by any candidate to last week’s shooting spree by two Muslims who the FBI said had been radicalized.

UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming, asked about Trump’s remarks, told a news briefing in Geneva: ”What (Trump) was speaking of was an entire population but this also impacts the refugee program.

“Because our refugee program is religion-blind. Our resettlement program selects the people who are the most in need.”

About 120,000 refugees are resettled worldwide each year, including to the United States, the largest recipient under the UNHCR’s program, according to the agency.

This year the UNHCR expects that the total number of asylum-seekers it will ask the United States to take in from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere will be 75,000.

The screening process takes up to two years and UNHCR’s priority is given to the most vulnerable, including women heading families, children needing specialized medical treatment and victims of torture, Fleming said.

President Barack Obama has pledged to bring into the United States as many as 10,000 Syrian refugees fleeing civil war and Islamic State militants. The figure, announced in September, was for the U.S. fiscal year that began in October.

“The (Obama) administration has been standing by the program. This is most scrutinized population coming into the United States,” Fleming added.

“It would be a shame if this were halted at a time when we actually need the world to step up and to help the victims of the terrorism, the violence that is driving so many people from their homes.”

Some 40 U.S. governors had spoken out against the resettlement program, she said.

“We are concerned that the rhetoric that is being used in the election campaign is putting an incredibly important resettlement program at risk that is meant for the most vulnerable people - the victims of the wars that the world is unable to stop,” Fleming said.

Joel Millman, spokesman of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), asked about Trump’s comments, said:

“I will just say what others have said, that prejudice or discrimination based on religion is totally against every Convention that we know of in aiding people in humanitarian emergencies and of course in resettlement.”

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Estelle Shirbon

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