Remarks to the United Nations Security Council by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Statements by High Commissioner, 18 April 2013

18 April 2013

As delivered

Mr. President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all, I want to thank you for this new opportunity to address the Security Council on the Syrian refugee crisis.

Re-reading what I said in my last intervention in late February, I am almost tempted to limit my present statement to just ten seconds. Everything I said last time is still true, but it all got much worse. And if nothing politically dramatic happens, things will go on getting worse for the months to come.

Mr. President,

In December, refugees were fleeing Syria at a rate of about 3,000 a day. In January, that number grew to 5,000. Since February, 8,000 people have been crossing Syria's borders every single day. That's 400,000 new refugees in the seven weeks since my last briefing to you.

As of yesterday, counting only those registered or waiting to be registered, there were 1,367,413 Syrian refugees across the Middle East and North Africa. Including the internally displaced, a quarter of the entire population of the country has been forced to leave their homes. The plight of the Palestinian refugees inside Syria also remains dramatic.

But these stark numbers say little about the horrendous suffering of a people, the progressive collapse of a state, and the physical destruction of a country.

Let us be very clear: there is no humanitarian solution for the Syrian crisis. That is why it is so dramatic that we are not even seeing an inch of progress towards a political solution.

And so we, as humanitarians, are forced to go on planning for the impossible. Together with our 60 partner organizations and the host states, UNHCR is now preparing the fifth version of our Regional Response Plan to assist the ever-growing number of refugees. The Emergency Relief Coordinator is leading similar efforts to update the humanitarian assistance plan inside Syria.

This process is still on-going, but the preliminary planning figures are terrifying. If nothing changes, at the present rhythm there may be up to 3.5 million Syrian refugees by the end of this year, and up to 6.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance inside the country.

This is not just frightening, it risks becoming simply unsustainable. There is no way to adequately respond to the enormous humanitarian needs these figures represent. And it is difficult to imagine how a nation can endure so much suffering.

I know that, as High Commissioner for Refugees, I should confine my remarks to the scope of my mandate. But as a citizen of the world, I cannot refrain from asking: Isn't there any way to stop this fighting to open the door for a political solution?

But while we continue to wait for a miracle to happen, it is our duty to do everything we can to protect, assist and respect the dignity of all those Syrians who have sought safety abroad mainly in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.

For this to be possible, all humanitarian actors involved need levels of financial support that are out of proportion with the established humanitarian aid budgets of traditional donors. Together with my colleagues from UNICEF, WFP and OCHA, I have been asking governments and parliaments to establish extraordinary funding mechanisms for the Syria crisis.

I am also extremely grateful for the generous recent contribution from the government of Kuwait to multilateral aid agencies, and hope others will follow this example. We cannot let the Syrian people down, especially as Syrians were always extremely generous in hosting refugees from other countries and sharing their resources with them.

Mr. President,

Syria is much more than a humanitarian crisis. In my last intervention before this Council, I spoke about the real risk of the conflict spilling over across the region, and of the situation escalating into a political, security and humanitarian disaster that would completely overwhelm the international response capacity.

The first step necessary to avoid such an escalation is for the international community to provide massive support especially to the two countries that are most dramatically impacted by the Syrian conflict and the refugee outflow it has caused Jordan and Lebanon.

All of Syria's neighbors need international solidarity, and one should not forget that Turkey in particular has been making an enormous financial investment of more than 750 million dollars just in direct assistance to over 300,000 Syrian refugees. However, Jordan and Lebanon, each hosting about a third of the registered refugee population in the region, must be provided with especially solid support.

For Lebanon, the Syrian crisis has become an existential threat. The population has grown by more than 10 per cent if one counts the registered Syrian refugees alone. Most of them are staying in the country's poorest regions. But taking into account refugees who are not seeking registration, and Syrian migrant workers, some even estimate that up to a quarter of the population of Lebanon may now be Syrian.

Refugees are staying with local families and scattered across nearly 1,200 different towns and villages. Some Lebanese households host more than 25 Syrians under their roofs.

The political wisdom of Lebanon's leadership has so far kept the country out of the Syrian conflict. But security incidents along the border pose a serious challenge for Lebanon. In addition to facing dire economic consequences because of its neighbor's internal turmoil, Lebanon has not received any direct international support over the past many months. This has to change urgently. International solidarity must match the enormous effort the country has been making to step up the response to the Syrian crisis and to deal with its staggering implications for the Lebanese economy and delicate social and political balance.

Jordan is also coming under tremendous pressure as a result of the conflict next door. Completely dependent on energy imports, and with water scarcity becoming a major problem, the Jordanian economy was struggling already before unrest broke out in Syria. But the situation has become increasingly fragile since 2011. Like in Lebanon, the Syria crisis has caused a significant drop in revenues from trade, tourism and foreign investment, compounded by the impact of a very large refugee influx.

Jordan's economic indicators are worrying, with unsustainable public and external deficit levels, and the country has had to apply tough austerity measures. My appeal to the international community is to extend the massive financial support Jordan needs with the understanding that its economic adjustment requires sufficient flexibility to prevent levels of social unrest that could entirely jeopardize the stability of the country.

Mr. President,

I know from the experience of my own country what austerity means, and what impact it has on society. But in Jordan, the regional context is infinitely more fragile than in Southern Europe, and the social and political risks are incomparably higher.

Helping Syria's neighbors deal with the human fallout of this terrible conflict is crucial for preserving the stability of the entire region. This is not just another refugee crisis what happens in Syria and in the neighboring countries potentially has much wider, even global, implications. By keeping their borders open to thousands of refugees fleeing day after day, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and others are doing an extraordinary service to the international community. Failure to give these countries the support they need to continue providing sanctuary to so many suffering Syrians would not only mean to abandon a people, and a whole region. It would be the world's blindness to its own best interest.

Thank you very much.