GENEVA (Reuters) - The U.N's top migration official called German Chancellor Angela Merkel a hero on Friday, saying she had taken a principled stand to support refugees while some European leaders had failed a test of human decency.
Popular support for Merkel has tumbled to its lowest in 4 1/2 years, a poll showed on Wednesday, after 1.1 million migrants entered Germany last year. Mistrust of migrants grew after some were linked to sexual assaults on women during New Year's Eve celebrations in Cologne.
"In my opinion Mrs Merkel is a hero," Peter Sutherland, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's special representative for international migration, told a news conference in Geneva.
"She knew it was a moral issue. She knew she was going to take political attack ... with her popularity affected negatively as a result," said Sutherland, who has headed the World Trade Organization and was non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs.
He praised Sweden's attitude too but said that Europe had overall taken in a "relatively miniscule" number of refugees.
"Some have said we will take refugees 'as long as they are Christian'. What century are they living in? What about the concepts of the dignity of the human being and the equality of man?" Sutherland asked.
European countries prioritizing Christian refugees include the Czech Republic, Cyprus and Slovakia. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said the influx - mainly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans - threatens Europe's Christian roots.
Sutherland told reporters that politicians were influenced by "your proprietors, the press" in depicting migrants unfavorably.
"The evidence is irrefutable. Migrants in general, and in every country in Europe, make greater fiscal contributions than they take in benefits. They’ve lower levels of unemployment and in general a greater interest in education."
The European Union, with a substantial proportion of the global economy, had an obligation to help,
"Why can’t a continent that has over 500 million, living in the most prosperous part of the world, take in a million who come across the Mediterranean every year, and share them on the basis of fair allocation?" Sutherland asked.
Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Ruth Pitchford