Third International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria. Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Kuwait City, 31 March 2015

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me express, like the Secretary-General and the Emergency Relief Coordinator, my deep gratitude to His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah for hosting this conference here in the "International Humanitarian Center".

After four years of conflict, we are at a tipping point. It is clear that the world's response to the crisis in Syria cannot be business as usual. The situation is becoming unsustainable.

First, the situation of the refugees themselves. Over 3.9 million are registered in the neighbouring countries, and they are becoming increasingly impoverished and vulnerable, with living conditions deteriorating drastically. Two million people rely on food assistance for their survival. Over a third of all refugees in the region live in substandard shelter - in Lebanon and the urban areas of Jordan their proportion reaches 50%. More than 600,000 refugee children are not going to school. There are serious response gaps in vital health care.

A survey of 40,000 refugee families in Jordan found that two-thirds were living below the absolute poverty line. One in five female-headed refugee households is spending less than 1 Jordanian Dinar per person per day. The situation is worse for refugees who arrived earlier, indicating that the longer they live in exile the more vulnerable they become.

We have this detailed data for Jordan, but we know the situation is very similar in other host countries. There simply is not enough funding to provide all the assistance refugees need.

And secondly, many people speak about donor fatigue. But who is talking about the fatigue of the countries and the communities that have been bearing the brunt of this massive crisis for the past four years? They are dangerously overstretched, and international support is far from keeping pace with the scale of the needs.

It is hard to imagine the economic, social and demographic impact on the economies and societies in Lebanon and Jordan, in Northern Iraq, Turkey and Egypt. The number of Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon would be equivalent to 22.5 million refugees coming to Germany and 88 million arriving in the United States. Jordan is facing a similar situation due to the enormous population increase. Turkey has already spent 6 billion USD in direct assistance to refugees, and issued a landmark decree that gives Syrian refugees access to the labor market. Iraq, on the other hand, has become completely engulfed in the Syria conflict, and hosts Syrian refugees alongside the 2.5 million of its own citizens that have become internally displaced since early 2014.

As host countries not only face growing security risks due to the regional spread of the conflict, but also do not get the help they need to cope with the refugee influx, Syrians are finding it increasingly difficult to reach safety. A massive upscaling of international support to the neighbouring countries is vital for preserving the protection space for refugees, regional stability and indeed global peace and security.

In this increasingly desperate situation for both refugees and host countries, it is no surprise that more and more refugees are forced to move further afield. Since January, 15,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean by boat to seek protection in Europe. With no robust European search and rescue capacity, some 480 people have drowned already in 2015, compared to just 15 in the same period last year. Border surveillance measures alone will not stop this tragedy. This is why we are not only asking the neighbouring countries, but also states in the rest of the world, to keep their borders open for those fleeing the conflict.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (or 3RP) aims to stop this downward spiral, to ensure we can meet refugees' basic needs and prevent them from sliding into abject poverty in increasing numbers. We are requesting continued humanitarian support for core protection and life-saving activities, also to prevent some of the terrible protection risks facing refugees - such as child labor, child recruitment, sexual exploitation and abuse, or early marriages. The appeal also provides for shelter, water and sanitation, minimum health care requirements, and for bringing more children into school.

But this appeal is different from previous ones, in that it recognizes both the immediate and the longer-term imperatives of responding to the crisis by combining a humanitarian and a resilience component. This solid and innovative document was developed in close collaboration with over 200 partners and the host governments. The UNDP Administrator will speak in a few minutes about our common efforts to assist host communities, and to strengthen the ability of refugees and local families to cope with the crisis.

Let me just stress one thing - it is essential that immediate humanitarian needs and longer-term resilience programmes are supported from the totality of resources available to donors. Humanitarian assistance budgets are vastly insufficient to meet even the most basic needs, and development actors must step forward to support the longer-term efforts.

The programmes we are appealing for today have been designed with great emphasis on innovative responses and cost effectiveness. We increasingly use biometric registration and iris scan technology to make targeted assistance to the most vulnerable more effective. Food vouchers and cash grants for very vulnerable families not only allow them the dignity of choice, but we are starting to see that cash grants help to improve overall quality of life. But thousands of needy families are on a waiting list and cannot receive this support unless more funding is made available.

One of the risks that worry me most continues to be the growing threat of a lost generation of Syrian children. With half of all school-aged refugee children and another 2 million in Syria out of school, the number of young people at risk is staggering. They have already lost their childhoods to a terrible war and are now also facing lost futures. Even though humanitarian agencies have made some progress in reinforcing national and community systems to give refugee children better access to education and protection, increasing poverty risks reversing those gains when it forces parents to take their children out of school. With only about 40% of the identified needs funded in 2014, the No Lost Generation initiative needs considerably more support.

Ladies and gentlemen,

With needs as enormous as these, there are many actors in the humanitarian response, from many regions of the world. We cannot afford to not work together as closely as possible and coordinate our efforts, because the gaps are simply too vast and we must make the most of the resources available. And so it is important that the UN system and international and national NGOs work closely with regional organizations and with the many humanitarian actors from Muslim countries.

The Gulf region has shown enormous generosity, with over 2 billion dollars from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries in the past two years to the Syria and Iraq crises, both through multilateral and via their own channels. A significant portion of this support has enabled UN agencies and our partners to reach millions of vulnerable refugees and other persons in need. It has also given donors from this region a stronger voice in the international humanitarian community.

Last year here in Kuwait, I spoke about the deep roots that link modern refugee law to Islamic law and tradition. But there is much more uniting us all. There are a number of studies on the convergence of international humanitarian law and Islamic traditions and legal texts. The Hadith of the Prophet (PBUH) contains the obligation not to attack non-combatants or destroy non-military objects, to respect certain limits of warfare, and to treat prisoners of war humanely - cornerstones of international humanitarian law.

And even if one strictly looks at humanitarian assistance, there are clear parallels between the approach of international humanitarian organizations and Zakat, the third pillar of Islam, which includes the obligation to provide assistance to the poor and the needy, the fuqara and masakeen. And as the Prophet (PBUH) said, the best charity is that which is given without one hand knowing what the other is giving, without boasting about it, and with the first focus being on the needs of the people.

This moment is an opportunity to unite us all. To come together in a common approach that is based on truly shared humanitarian values. We may have different words and traditions for our common principles, but they are just different ways of expressing the same thing. As we prepare for the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul next year, let us make the response to the Syria crisis a launching pad for a new, truly global partnership for humanitarian response.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As I said at the beginning, this is a dangerous tipping point. If we fail to provide adequate support to refugees and their hosts, and to build up their resilience to cope with the long-term pressures of this increasingly protracted refugee situation, we risk a further destabilization of the entire region. It is true that humanitarian action can only be a palliative. As the Secretary-General has said, without a political solution to the conflict, we will only find ourselves with greater and greater humanitarian needs. It is our duty to do everything we can to protect and assist those who face the very worst impact of this violent war - the people of Syria.

Thank you very much.


For further information:

  • In Kuwait, Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 9120