By William Maclean
DUBAI (Reuters) - The rise of nationalism in rich countries poses a worrying challenge to the tide of migrants fleeing wars, the U.N. refugee chief said on Sunday, urging international cooperation to manage the flows pragmatically "rather than building walls".
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said he was talking to northern countries about how to rebuild respect for the principle of asylum, put under pressure by politicians' misleading portrayal of refugees as a threat.
Asked how concerned he was about the apparent collision between increased refugee flows and growing populism and nationalism in the West, he told Reuters in an interview:
"I am very worried because I think that collision somehow has already happened. You have rich countries that are becoming inward-looking."
"We've seen it in the United States and Europe, and we have seen also unfortunately some exploitation of these fears or this malaise, and linking it to the presence of foreigners. I think this is misleading in a way. Refugees flee because they are afraid."
Last year, vast flows of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa stretched authorities around Europe as they struggled to deal with Europe's largest migrant flows since World War Two.
Over the summer months, many migrants attempted the sea crossing from North Africa to countries such as Italy, with hundreds drowning during the perilous journey.
The migration crisis has fueled support for anti-immigration and anti-EU populists in many countries.
President-elect Donald Trump has promised to build a wall along the Mexican border, deport millions of undocumented immigrants and ban immigration from countries that have been "compromised by terrorism."
Grandi said people would find a way to move whatever obstacles they faced: "Rather than building walls we should address in the proper manner these movements and manage them in a principled and pragmatic way so we can diminish the tensions."
"Global movements by definition cannot be handled by countries individually -- which is what these (nationalist) trends are pointing to -- so it's much better to cooperate internationally."
Asked if helping the refugees was a vote-losing strategy in the West, Grandi replied: "Unfortunately. But it's something that politicians have brought upon themselves."
"Instead of explaining to people that refugees need help, instead of multiplying efforts to help people in their countries or trying to solve conflicts, address poverty, they have ... presented these people as people that come to rich countries, abuse the values or steal the wealth or take jobs away."
He said despite these trends, the impulse to help refugees remained strong in the West, especially the United States, which had a proud tradition of welcoming refugees and migrants.
(Editing by Clelia Oziel)