By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 11 – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday appointed Italian diplomat Filippo Grandi as the next head of the United Nations (U.N.) refugee agency, a position that Denmark’s former Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt had been openly lobbying for.
Grandi, who will take over the main organization on the front lines of the biggest global refugee and migration crisis since World War Two, has held a number of senior U.N. posts. Grandi already has years of experience at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency he will lead.
From 2010 to 2014 he was head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). He takes over the UNHCR top job from Antonio Guterres of Portugal, who leaves at the end of next month, the U.N. press office said in a statement.
Grandi’s appointment will have to be confirmed by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly. The confirmation is unlikely to encounter any resistance, diplomats said.
Two other top candidates for the post, the diplomats said, were Jasmine Whitbread, the British-Swiss head of humanitarian organization Save the Children, and Achim Steiner, the German-Brazilian head of the U.N. Environment Program.
The announcement will likely be a disappointment for Thorning-Schmidt, who was seeking the job since she stepped down in June after four years as Denmark’s prime minister.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, U.N. diplomats and officials told Reuters that Ban had recently decided against appointing Thorning-Schmidt, who while prime minister helped Denmark craft some of Europe’s most restrictive immigration policies.
Some of Thorning-Schmidt’s policies drew criticism of Denmark by the UNHCR. Danish officials did not have an immediate reaction to the announcement.
“The (secretary-general) does not want to be seen supporting the kinds of policies that Denmark and other European countries are pushing,” a Western diplomat said before Wednesday’s announcement, adding that Ban is very supportive of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “more refugee-friendly policies.”
Merkel’s willingness to accept large numbers of Syrian refugees has resulted in criticism at home and across the European Union.
The UNHCR expects refugees and migrants to arrive in Europe at a rate of up to 5,000 per day this winter. Most are fleeing the civil war in Syria, though many are leaving Iraq and Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, Ban disregarded a request from a large number of U.N. members to keep Guterres, UNHCR chief since 2005, at the helm of the UNHCR for an extra year to cope with the worsening refugee crisis. (Additional reporting by Sabina Zawadzki in Copenhagen; Editing by Grant McCool and Leslie Adler)