Obama urges Americans to open their arms to refugees in Thanksgiving message

Floats gather on Central Park West prior to start of the 89th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Floats gather on Central Park West prior to start of the 89th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Barack Obama on Thursday (Nov 26) delivered a Thanksgiving message in which he compared modern refugees to the pilgrims whom the holiday celebrates, urging Americans to open their arms to the potential immigrants.

"Nearly four centuries after the Mayflower set sail, the world is still full of pilgrims - men and women who want nothing more than the chance for a safer, better future for themselves and their families," Obama said in his weekly address, referring to the boat on which the pilgrims arrived in the New World.

Thanksgiving was first celebrated by the group after fleeing religious persecution in England. For many Americans, it has become a family-oriented day marked with an enormous meal of roast turkey, an assortment of side dishes and a slice or two of pie.

"I've been touched by the generosity of the Americans who've written me letters and emails in recent weeks, offering to open their homes to refugees fleeing the brutality of ISIL," Obama said, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

Immigration has taken centre stage as an important issue ahead of the 2016 presidential race but reached fever pitch following the deadly Paris attacks earlier this month.

The shootings and suicide bombings have stirred fears in North America and Europe that jihadists could seek to blend in with refugees in order to strike later.

Obama himself faces a barrage of opposition to his own plan to resettle 10,000 refugees in the coming year.

"People should remember that no refugee can enter our borders until they undergo the highest security checks of anyone travelling to the United States," Obama said.

"That was the case before Paris, and it's the case now."

Obama also reminded listeners that Thanksgiving was not just an opportunity for people to give thanks for their personal blessings.

"On this uniquely American holiday, we also remember that so much of our greatness comes from our generosity," he said.

Meanwhile in Tokyo, UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres warned that closing borders on Muslims fleeing violence by ISIS is counterproductive and only risks helping the group grow stronger.

Guterres' speech in the Japanese capital to an audience of diplomats, NGOs and university students came as European countries are increasingly inclined towards tightening immigration rules in the worst refugee crisis the continent has faced since World War II.

"The idea that Europe can announce the closure of borders to Muslim refugees or reject Muslim refugees is only an argument that will suit perfectly Daesh in its campaigns against Europe," Guterres said, using another name for ISIS.

Policies that try to keep refugees out could also assist it "to recruit people in the same European countries," he added. "It's necessary to look at the complexity of the security situation and understand that the problem does not come from refugee movements," he added.

Sweden, one of the most open European countries with 80,000 asylum applications received in the past two months, said on Tuesday it would drastically tighten its asylum rules in a bid to stem the flow of migrants coming to the country.

A former Portuguese prime minister, Guterres reiterated comments made on Wednesday that the Paris attacks cannot be blamed on refugees, stressing that the perpetrators were "home-grown".

"It is always possible for a terrorist organisation to try to infiltrate a (refugee) movement that is not properly controlled," he said.

Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who is due to complete his 10-year tenure at the year-end, added: "Refugees are the victims of terrorism, and the refugee movements are the consequence of terrorism."