UNHCR and Syria's neighbours announce joint push for expanded international support for countries hosting large refugee populations

Press Releases, 4 September 2013

With two million refugees having fled Syria, government ministers from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey announced with UNHCR today that they had agreed to jointly seek an urgent and major expansion of international help for the region.

Lebanon's Minister of Social Affairs Wael Abu Faour, Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, joined High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in expressing serious concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the region, and the devastating impact this is having on countries hosting large Syrian refugee populations.

In an agreed statement, the High Commissioner and the Ministers said, "We are facing the dramatic escalation of the Syrian conflict, namely with the use of chemical weapons. We strongly appeal to the international community to overcome existing differences and come together to stop the fighting. All actions that are creating refugee flows need to cease. A political solution to end this cycle of horror is urgently needed. There is no humanitarian solution to the Syrian crisis; rather there needs to be a political solution that ends the humanitarian crisis."

Wednesday's agreement now paves the way for a High-Level Segment at ministerial level to be held on September 30 as part of UNHCR's annual Executive Committee gathering. Those discussions will seek to build consensus for large-scale commitments incorporating humanitarian and emergency development support. This would include the involvement of international financial institutions.

Based on numbers of refugees who have registered or are pending registration, Syria's neighbours are today hosting more than two million Syrian refugees, compounding already growing strains on their structures and economies. Some 720,000 of these refugees are in Lebanon, 520,000 in Jordan, 464,000 in Turkey and 200,000 in Iraq. Egypt is hosting an additional 111,000 Syrian refugees. The real figures are believed to be higher still as not all people register with UNHCR. The impact on these countries has been profound:

In Lebanon, the economic and social repercussions with over one million Syrians present are devastating and create huge pressures on the local populations. The number of Syrians currently registered as refugees or pending registration is equal to more than 18 per cent of the country's population, with groups of refugees scattered across 1,400 localities. The impact is alarming, particularly on the delicate demographic structures, with serious security implications. Health, education, and water and sanitation systems have all exceeded their capacities.

In Jordan, despite limited resources, a strained economy and overstretched services and infrastructure, the Syrian refugee influx has swollen the population size by 11 per cent, with 140,000 in camps. the overwhelming majority (480,000) of Syrians are in Jordanian cities and villages. This increase has constituted an enormous pressure on Jordanian resources, services and infrastructure and it must be kept in mind that a sudden increase in a population by 11 per cent constitutes a serious security threat for any country. The cost of hosting refugees in 2013 solely in relation to electricity, water, education, health, municipalities, subsidised goods, and protection and reception, has now reached $2.016 billion.

In Iraq, already contending with security problems and large-scale internal displacement of around one million people before the Syria crisis began, the 160,000-strong Syrian refugee population has been swollen further by the recent influx of more than 40,000 people from areas of conflict in north and northeast Syria. As well as those in camps, thousands of these refugees are living among the local population in situations that will become economically unsustainable without more help.

In Turkey, the government has responded to the Syrian refugee influx with US$2 billion in support. Refugees are spread across 21 camps where they receive shelter, health care, security and other services. Almost a quarter of a million Syrians are already documented living outside of camps in urban locations, with many more pending registration.

UNHCR's Executive Committee meeting on 30 September will bring together ministerial delegations from UN member states, heads of UN agencies and development actors, as well as international financial institutions and NGOs. Planning for the humanitarian aspects of the Syria situation has to date been done on the basis of periodically updated inter-agency response plans the most recent iteration of which was a $4.4 billion appeal launched in June some $3 billion of which was to meet humanitarian and host community needs this year in the immediate surrounding region.

As of end August, the component of this appeal that deals with the surrounding region was approximately 40 per cent funded.

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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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