December 5, 2016 / 1:42 PM / 8 months ago

U.N. refugee chief warns EU against carrot-and-stick approach to migration

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi speaks during a news conference in Amman, Jordan, October 24, 2016.Muhammad Hamed

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Linking aid for countries in the Middle East and Africa to how they manage migration can create dangerous precedents, the United Nations top refugee official warned the European Union on Monday.

Overwhelmed by the arrival of more than a million refugees and migrants in 2015, the EU has tightened its external borders and sought to strike deals with countries along main migration routes to contain the flow of people.

Under the most prominent such collaboration, it promised Turkey an initial 3 billion euros in aid for Syrian refugees living there, accelerated EU accession talks and visa-free travel to Europe for its citizens.

In exchange, Ankara has increasingly prevented people from leaving its shores for Greece, which was the main gateway to Europe last year but is now much less active.

But with a crackdown in Turkey following July's botched coup straining ties with the EU, President Tayyip Erdogan has warned that Turkey could open the gates for a new wave of migrants.

"Support to host and transit countries should be driven by solidarity, not strict conditionality," Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told a seminar in Brussels.

"Caution should be exercised in linking financial aid to other benefits and migration controls. This sets precedents, raises expectations that may not always be met, and can ultimately even allow host governments to use population movements as a pressure point, or even a threat."

Grandi, who has held the post for a year, said the deal with Turkey has also encouraged other governments to seek money from the EU for hosting refugees.

Brussels is now in talks with host and transit countries in Africa and has threatened to make billions worth of development aid conditional on how they handle migration.

NOT A "EUROPEAN CRISIS"

Grandi criticized as "patchy" the bloc's response to the uncontrolled influx seen in 2015, which exposed bitter divisions inside the EU. Member states are still at loggerheads over how to handle those who made it to Europe and deserve asylum.

Grandi was presenting a new set of proposals on how the EU should overhaul its refugee policies and migration management, which both collapsed last year as member states shut borders that are normally open in a bid to control the flow of people.

They include creating a common registration system for refugees entering the bloc, preparing standby capacities to receive them and helping solve conflicts that drive people from their homes.

"Resolving forced displacement is unavoidably linked to conflict resolution. The EU has often played an important role in this regard in the past. This role, let me be frank, appears to be in decline," Grandi said.

He stressed the number of people who made it to the EU last year only amounted to some 0.2 percent of the bloc's 500 million-strong population, compared to Lebanon where Grandi said one person in every four is a refugee.

He said last year's funding for international humanitarian assistance globally reached a record of $28 billion but still only covered just over half of identified needs.

"This is not primarily a European crisis. Of the 65 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, almost two-thirds are inside their own countries. And of those that have fled as refugees, 86 percent remain in developing countries in their own regions," Grandi said.

Editing by Catherine Evans

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