United Nations Security Council (7433th Meeting), Open Briefing on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria, Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, New York, 24 April 2015
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We are all longing for a shred of hope, for some good news, but since my last briefing to this Council, things have only gotten worse.
The regional spillover effects of the Syrian conflict are taking on dramatic proportions. 14 million people are now displaced due to the interlinked crises in Syria and Iraq. Security threats to neighbouring countries are growing.
As a result, we have been observing a steady deterioration in the protection space for Syrians trying to escape the conflict. Security concerns in the region have led to border management measures that also limit refugees' chances of reaching safety.
It is my duty as High Commissioner to ask governments to continue letting civilians seek protection. But the conflict and the resulting refugee influx, in the absence of sufficient international solidarity, have had such an enormous impact on neighbouring countries that we are now seeing a growing "host fatigue" as the distinguished Ambassador of Jordan said in our last meeting, and, in some areas, harsher policies imposed on refugees. There are increasing tensions between communities, as local families struggle harder to cope the longer the conflict drags on.
As humanitarian agencies, we are doing the best we can. But what we are able to provide is far out of proportion with the needs. Living conditions across the region are deteriorating, and there is insufficient international support to cover even the most basic humanitarian necessities.
The World Food Programme, our privileged partner, was forced to reduce its food voucher programme by 30%, which has far-reaching consequences for refugee families. Our own cash assistance programme in Jordan targets only those most at risk, but with current funding levels we reach just 22,000 households - less than two thirds of those who should qualify even with the strictest criteria. And with an estimated 100,000 urban refugee families in Jordan living below the absolute poverty line, these interventions are little more than a drop in the ocean.
As a result, dangerous coping mechanisms are on the rise, with more and more families forced to send their children to work or marry off their teenage daughters. There are also reports of refugees resorting to survival sex to make ends meet.
With conditions in the neighbouring countries worsening and refugees getting increasingly desperate, more and more are attempting the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. This month alone, twice as many people drowned as during all of 2013.
We have long been calling on Europe to reinstate a robust search and rescue capacity and to focus on saving lives at sea, crack down on smugglers and traffickers as well as create more legal avenues to safety for persons needing protection. These include expanded resettlement, humanitarian admission, flexible visa policies, family reunification, or academic and sponsorship schemes.
The unbearable tragedy in the Mediterranean can only be tackled through genuine international cooperation. I sincerely hope the measures announced in Luxembourg and Brussels this week represent a first step towards collective and effective European action.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
One thing is clear: the situation in the region has become utterly unsustainable. After Iraq became so dramatically engulfed in the Syrian conflict with the attacks on Mosul and Tikrit last year, I do not know where the next disrupting shock will take place. I only know that it will come, and that things risk getting even worse.
We all know that ultimately, the only way to stop this from happening is a political solution to the conflict. There is no way around this, and it is high time that all those who have an influence on actors in Syria put aside their differences and come together to create the conditions to stop the fighting.
But as long as that remains a distant prospect, we must do everything possible today to prevent a further deterioration of the regional situation - a descent that could otherwise become irreversible.
First, some immediate priorities must be addressed: providing more humanitarian aid to refugees and vulnerable host communities, and stopping the horrific loss of life in the Mediterranean.
But second, there has to be massively increased support to the neighbouring countries. The funding announced in Kuwait last month to support the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan is an important signal of hope and must now be disbursed quickly. But it is also essential for the structural investment programmes presented by the host governments to receive development funding from the international community.
This requires a fundamental review of development cooperation policies. Because Lebanon and Jordan are middle-income countries, the World Bank is not allowed to give them grants to help deal with the severe demographic shock they have endured. We have to redress this and other serious inadequacies in the global development cooperation architecture.
Bilateral and multilateral development cooperation policies should include among their first priorities the countries that not only host large refugee populations, but are also fundamental pillars for regional stability and a "first line of defense" in ensuring the collective security of the international community. This is true for Syria's neighbours but also for countries like Cameroon, Niger and Chad that border north-eastern Nigeria, or for those around Somalia. The fact that some of these are middle-income countries should not exclude them from this priority.
The World Bank is now exploring various possibilities of making large-scale concessional financing available to Lebanon and Jordan, through the combination of bilateral grants with its own usual loans. If this strategy shift can materialize, it could go a long way in helping these countries cope, and even support a more positive attitude towards self-reliance and economic participation of the refugees themselves.
I very much hope that governments coming together in such fora as the Annual Meetings of the World Bank and the IMF, the G20 or the G7 later this year will support these and other proposals. This is the time to adapt to today's fundamentally changed reality linking conflict, stability and development.
Third, we have to recognize the increasingly protracted nature of this refugee crisis. UNHCR's ultimate priority objective remains voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity, in line with what most refugees prefer. But we have to recognize that for Syrians, this option is not immediately in sight.
In the meantime, neighbouring countries will require adequate help to manage the vast economic, demographic and fiscal impacts of the refugee influx. The extraordinary efforts made by Turkey, where Syrians now have access not only to free education and health care, but also to the labour market, are an enormous step forward. With more support across the region, we could help turn refugees' situation around from one of dependency and unsustainability to one where their economic self-reliance becomes an option, allowing them also to contribute to the development of their host societies.
The situation in the Middle East is a cancer that risks spreading and metastasizing. If things continue this way, we could see future developments spin out of control, independently of our will and with increasingly dangerous global consequences.
We cannot let that happen. And this is not just a question of solidarity with those who bear the brunt of this crisis. It is a matter of preserving the very foundation of who we are, and of ensuring our common interests.
Thank you very much.