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Interview: Financial crisis may deepen refugee problems - U.N.

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By Alistair Thomson

DAKAR, Nov 14 (Reuters) - The financial crisis threatens to unleash fresh movements of refugees and may make countries less willing to host them, worsening an already potent cocktail of conflict and climate change, a top U.N. refugee official said.

Erika Feller, assistant high commissioner for protection at U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, urged governments to overhaul their rules to cope with changing patterns of refugee flows and integrate them with other systems regulating migration.

"I think what we're seeing globally is a build-up of adverse factors which are contributing to provoke displacement," Feller told Reuters in an interview in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

"These factors continue to be the traditional ones -- persecution, conflict of various sorts -- but, as they have in the past, they will be exacerbated by economic circumstances of individuals, by competition for declining resources," she said.

UNHCR is helping nearly 33 million refugees around the world, but says the $1.66 billion it has in available funds falls short of the $1.81 billion required, its website says.

The agency is struggling to get emergency help to many of around 1 million people displaced by two years of fighting in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, where a rebel offensive has displaced 250,000 people in a month.

Mounting economic and climatic pressures could prompt more people to flee their homelands in future, Feller said.

"One can reasonably solidly predict that climate and environmental factors will affect the sustainability of staying in one country or another, or one region or another. That will provoke large movements of people as well," she said.

"All countries have to adjust to the changing dynamics of displacement ... There are some dramatic forecasts -- disappearing countries, sinking islands -- that are creating whole new populations of stateless people and displaced persons," she said.

CHANGING THE RULES

Feller, who spoke during a regional meeting on protecting refugees and migrants, praised efforts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to harmonise treatment of refugees within the 15-nation bloc, which already has rules granting freedom of movement for its 250 million citizens.

But she said the financial crisis may cause governments to rethink their policies to accommodate migrants from elsewhere.

"I think we will have to see what impact the financial and global economic crisis will have on the preparedness of governments to continue to receive people from outside the region ... I imagine that this will also be quite a challenge."

Feller said the classical definition of a refugee as fleeing persecution at home was too narrow for the modern world, where multiple economic, environmental and social factors combined to create what UNHCR classifies as refugee situations.

"Many refugee systems around the world will have to catch up with that, however, because too many of the classical systems are built on the definition of persecution," she said.

"Of course it suits many countries to maintain this classical definition because it enables a strict approach to be taken. But it is unrealistic and it doesn't bear any relation to the developing realities of today's world."

(Editing by Pascal Fletcher)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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