GENEVA - European countries need migration for their own survival, UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday as he voiced concern about the rise of xenophobia and populism.
'It's clear that without migration Europe cannot survive,' the UN High Commissioner for Refugees told journalists after being asked about the election campaign in Britain.
Guterres said that in developed nations 'populist positions have been gaining ground... xenophobia has developed in several countries' leading to a clampdown on asylum seekers and hardening attitudes towards other migrant communities.
Yet, with low birth rates and ageing populations, migrants were an essential part of European society, he argued.
'What we say in all circumstances to all political parties in elections is that the problems of migration and asylum... need to be discussed in a rational way, and not in an emotional populist way,' Guterres added.
The UN refugee chief recognised the right of each country to define its own migration policy, but underlined that under international law refugees were protected and asylum seekers had a right to access and fair treatment of their claims.
Guterres argued that national debates should focus on how to ensure that ever more multicultural societies could develop in a harmonious manner.
'I think we have to say very clearly that independently of people's desires, all societies are becoming multireligious, multiethnic and multicultural,' he said in response to questioning about attitudes to Muslim traditions.
'Thinking that European societies will become homogeneous again... is a completely absurd illusion,' the former Portuguese prime minister added.
The UNHCR is aiming to launch a global debate on ever more complex and intertwined asylum and migration challenges next year, on the 60th anniversary of the 1951 international refugee convention.
'I am convinced that if the 1951 convention were drafted today it would be worse than it was,' Guterres remarked.
In March, the UN refugee chief dismissed fears of a surge in asylum seekers in rich countries as being based on a 'myth', after data showed that overall requests were largely stable in 2009 at 377,200 in 44 industrialised nations.