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UNHCR chief urges neighbours to maintain open access for fleeing Syrians

Press Releases, 16 July 2013

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Tuesday urged countries against restricting cross-border access for Syrian refugees while warning that immediate measures must be taken to mitigate the enormous risks of spill-over and to stabilize Syria's neighbours.

"I reiterate my call to all states, in the region and further afield, to keep borders open and receive all Syrians who seek protection," Guterres told a meeting of the UN Security Council by video link from Geneva. "Massive international solidarity with the neighbouring countries is central to making this appeal successful. Resettlement and humanitarian admission opportunities can complement this as useful, even if limited, measures of burden-sharing," he added.

The High Commissioner said that access to safety in the region was becoming more difficult for people trying to flee, joining the almost 1.8 million Syrian refugees known to UNHCR in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. "Two-thirds of them have fled Syria since the beginning of this year, an average of over 6,000 people a day. We have not seen a refugee outflow escalate at such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide almost 20 years ago," he revealed.

He noted that sectarian clashes had intensified in Iraq, and the country has shut its borders, slowing arrivals to a trickle. Iraq currently hosts more than 160,000 Syrian refugees. In Egypt, where UNHCR has registered some 90,000 Syrian refugees, a number of passenger flights from Syria were turned back last week, following a decision to impose visa requirements and security clearance for Syrians.

"While I fully understand the challenges Egypt is currently facing, I do hope that the country will continue to extend its traditional hospitality to Syrian refugees, as it has done since the beginning of the conflict," Guterres told the Security Council.

He added that in Turkey and Jordan, which together host nearly 1 million Syrian refugees, "the authorities are now carefully managing the borders with Syria, mainly due to national security concerns. The borders are not closed refugees continue to cross but many can only do so in a gradual manner."

He urged governments to do all they could to find the right balance between measures to prevent dangerous infiltrations, and the need to ensure that refugees seeking safety especially families, elderly people, and women with children were not stranded in precarious conditions or exposed to getting caught in the fighting.

Meanwhile, the conflict is steadily creeping into Lebanon, the only country whose borders remain completely open and which has to date taken in more than 600,000 registered refugees. The number of security incidents has been increasing in Tripoli, the south and parts of the Bekaa Valley, Guterres said, while adding: "The country's political system is paralyzed and will likely remain so until the Syrian crisis is over."

The High Commissioner stressed that the generosity of host countries towards refugees was coming at an increasingly heavy price. "While Syria continues to drain itself of its people, the prospects for a political solution and an end to the fighting remain poor and the warning signs of destabilization in some neighbouring countries are troubling. The continuing influx could send them over the edge if the international community does not act more resolutely to help," he stressed.

"The recent restrictions on access sound an alarm bell which must not be ignored," Guterres said. He urged the international community "to recognize that we cannot go on treating the impact of the Syrian crisis as a simple humanitarian emergency."

He said that as the conflict dragged on, "a longer-term approach is needed, focusing on development assistance, especially for those countries and communities that are most seriously affected by the refugee crisis."

To this end, he appealed to international financial institutions, UN organizations and national and regional development agencies "to cooperate with the concerned governments in formulating and supporting community development programmes that will assist these states to cope with the impact of the crisis in Syria.

"Some concrete steps have already been taken, by the World Bank, the EU [European Union] Commission, and several donor countries. But what is needed now is a well-coordinated and comprehensive plan of action to help ease the pressure on the most affected host countries and allow them to continue sheltering refugees. UNHCR, with its extensive presence on the ground, is fully prepared to support such an effort," he said.

"What I am asking for today is essential to mitigate the risk of an explosion that could engulf the entire Middle East. But only a political solution for Syria, and an end to the fighting, can fully stop this risk," Guterres concluded.

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Remarks to the United Nations Security Council, António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 16 July 2013

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