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UNHCR leader warns of moment of truth for Syria, risk of unmanageable crisis

Press Releases, 27 February 2013

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Wednesday warned that a "moment of truth" was approaching in Syria and that the international community must not allow the situation to deteriorate further.

Noting the risk of the conflict in Syria spilling over into the region, the High Commissioner told the UN Security Council in New York that "what is happening in Syria today risks escalating very quickly into a disaster that could overwhelm the international response capacity political, security relate and humanitarian."

Guterres stressed: "This must not be allowed to happen."

Describing the current situation facing Syria as a "moment of truth," the High Commissioner said: "The humanitarian situation is dramatic beyond description. The refugee crisis is accelerating at a staggering pace, month after month."

The head of the UN refugee agency, which is running a massive relief operation for refugees in neighbouring countries and for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced, noted that in April 2012, about a year after the conflict began, there were only 33,000 registered refugees in the region.

"As of yesterday [Monday], we had registered or given out registration appointments to 940,000 Syrians across the Middle East and North Africa," he said, adding that since early January, more than 40,000 people had fled Syria every week."

Guterres said that while the figures were "stunning," they did not tell of the suffering, especially within Syria, where an estimated 2 million are internally displaced and more than 4 million affected by the conflict. "We also must not forget the half-a-million Palestinian refugees in Syria who are affected by the conflict," he said.

Noting that three quarters of the refugees were women and children, the High Commissioner said many had lost relatives and most had lost their homes, belongings and livelihoods. "The children pay the hardest price of all," he stressed. "Thousands of young lives have been shattered by this conflict and the future generation of an entire country is marked by violence and trauma for many years to come."

Guterres reminded the 15-member Security Council that host countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq were paying a heavy social and economic price for their generosity and humanitarian spirit.

"Countries of asylum have been very generous and kept their borders open, but their capacity to do so is under severe pressure," said the High Commissioner, who pointed out that Lebanon had seen its population of some 4 million grow by 10 percent because of the influx.

"International solidarity in support of the host countries must be urgently reinforced. This is not a question of generosity, but one of enlightened self-interest," he insisted. "Helping them deal with the consequences of the refugee crisis is imperative, as the preservation of their economic and social stability is in everyone's essential interest."

Guterres concluded that the situation in Syria was likely to "deteriorate further before it gets any better." And he said that if worst-case scenarios materialized, the international community would need to further step up its humanitarian response. "It will also need to be prepared to deal with unpredictable consequences should the situation in Syria explode."

That was why, he stressed, the international community must not allow the Syria crisis and other lingering crises nearby to drag down the region and overwhelm the humanitarian response.

High Commissioner Guterres will be visiting the Syria region between 10 and 15 March, visiting Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.

For additional information:

  • Melissa FLeming, fleming@unhcr.org +41 79 557 9122
  • Adrian Edwards, edwards@unhcr.org +41 79 557 9120



UNHCR country pages

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie meets Iraqi refugees in Syria

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie returned to the Syrian capital Damascus on 2 October, 2009 to meet Iraqi refugees two years after her last visit. The award-winning American actress, accompanied by her partner Brad Pitt, took the opportunity to urge the international community not to forget the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who remain in exile despite a relative improvement in the security situation in their homeland. Jolie said most Iraqi refugees cannot return to Iraq in view of the severe trauma they experienced there, the uncertainty linked to the coming Iraqi elections, the security issues and the lack of basic services. They will need continued support from the international community, she said. The Goodwill Ambassador visited the homes of two vulnerable Iraqi families in the Jaramana district of southern Damascus. She was particularly moved during a meeting with a woman from a religious minority who told Jolie how she was physically abused and her son tortured after being abducted earlier this year in Iraq and held for days. They decided to flee to Syria, which has been a generous host to refugees.

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Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

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By mid-September, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had crossed the border into Turkey. UNHCR estimates that half of them are children, and many have seen their homes destroyed in the conflict before fleeing to the border and safety.

The Turkish authorities have responded by building well-organized refugee camps along southern Turkey's border with Syria. These have assisted 120,000 refugees since the crisis conflict erupted in Syria. There are currently 12 camps hosting 90,000 refugees, while four more are under construction. The government has spent approximately US$300 million to date, and it continues to manage the camps and provide food and medical services.

The UN refugee agency has provided the Turkish government with tents, blankets and kitchen sets for distribution to the refugees. UNHCR also provides advice and guidelines, while staff from the organization monitor voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Most of the refugees crossing into Turkey come from areas of northern Syria, including the city of Aleppo. Some initially stayed in schools or other public buildings, but they have since been moved into the camps, where families live in tents or container homes and all basic services are available.

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