Remarks to the United Nations Security Council, by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
16 July 2013
Thank you very much for the opportunity to address the Council.
There are now nearly 1.8 million Syrian refugees known to UNHCR in the region. 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 twenty years ago.
This crisis has been going on for much longer than anyone had feared, with unbearable humanitarian consequences. The people of Syria continue to suffer tremendously, a suffering that is now further aggravated by the hot summer temperatures, and particularly distressing during this holy month of Ramadan.
Syria's neighbors have allowed huge numbers of refugees to find safety on their soil, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. But their generosity comes 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 neighboring countries are troubling. The continuing influx could send them over the edge if the international community does not act more resolutely to help.
In Lebanon, there is now not a single village or town that has not been affected by the presence of more than 600,000 registered Syrian refugees. The country's borders remain open, and thousands of people cross every day. But the conflict in Syria is steadily creeping into Lebanon, with the number of security incidents increasing in Tripoli, the South, and parts of the Bekaa Valley. The country's political system is paralyzed and will likely remain so until the Syrian crisis is over.
Elsewhere in the region, access to safety is becoming more difficult for people trying to flee. Sectarian clashes have intensified in Iraq, and the country has shut its borders, slowing arrivals to a trickle. I have been in close contact with the Iraqi authorities to try to overcome this situation. Iraq currently hosts over 160,000 Syrian refugees.
In Egypt, where UNHCR has registered some 90,000 Syrian refugees, the situation has also deteriorated recently. A number of flights from Syria were turned back last week, following a decision to impose visa requirements and security clearance for Syrians, which are difficult to obtain prior to travel. 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.
In Turkey and Jordan, which together host nearly a 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.
There is no question that it is imperative for both countries to ensure their own security in an increasingly tense regional environment. However, I hope the right balance will be found between measures to prevent dangerous infiltrations, and the need to ensure that refugees seeking safety - especially families, elderly people, and women with children - are not stranded in precarious conditions or exposed to the risk of getting caught in the fighting.
Beyond the region, I am also concerned about significant gaps in the protection of Syrians in several European countries that are under much less pressure than Syria's immediate neighbors.
The danger that the Syria conflict could ignite the whole region is not an empty warning. Measures must be taken now to mitigate the enormous risks of spill-over and to support the stability of Syria's neighbors, so as to keep the situation from escalating into a political, security and humanitarian crisis that would move far beyond the international capacity to respond.
The impact of the refugee crisis on the neighboring countries is crushing, and the recent restrictions on access sound an alarm bell which must not be ignored. It is time to recognize that we cannot go on treating the impact of the Syrian crisis as a simple humanitarian emergency.
As the conflict drags on and 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. While Lebanon and Jordan are bearing the heaviest burden, we also should not forget the significant impact the influx has had on the Kurdish region of Iraq, and the enormous efforts made by Turkey in assisting over 400,000 refugees with hundreds of millions of dollars of its own resources.
I therefore appeal to all development actors - 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 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.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I reiterate my call to all States, in the region and further afield, to keep borders open and receive all Syrians who seek protection. But massive international solidarity with the neighboring 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.
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. I still have not lost hope that the Syrian parties themselves, all others who are directly or indirectly involved in the conflict, and the international community as a whole which this Council is mandated to represent, will be able to come together and put an end to the bloodshed.
We have seen too many conflicts fester for too long and then spread like wildfire. We cannot afford to have this happen with Syria.
Thank you very much.