UNHCR chief visits Syrian border, calls for international support

News Stories, 20 June 2013

© UNHCR/J.Kohler
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres speaks with newly arrived Syrian refugees at a Jordanian government receiving centre just inside the border.

SYRIAN-JORDAN BORDER, June 20 (UNHCR) In the hours before dusk, people wait along the windswept border between Jordan and Syria, desperate for the opportunity for safe passage. Arguments break out. They shout across a berm at Jordanian soldiers who calmly guard the border. They want to know if now is the time to cross.

A soldier gives the word and they run. They run as fast as they can. Fathers drag their sons. Women, children, old men and old women move as fast as their legs will carry them. They run because they are thirsty, hungry and desperately afraid. They are the most recent refugees from Syria's two-year civil war.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, a witness to the night's crossing, walks along a dirt road to meet the group of 400 new arrivals. "It's very important for the international community to express full solidarity with the refugees themselves and with the neighbouring countries," says Guterres. "Only massive international solidarity can allow them to be able to go on responding to the needs of the Syrian refugees."

The High Commissioner is in Jordan as part of a visit to the region to mark World Refugee Day, which falls on June 20 each year. Earlier in the week he visited Lebanon and met with refugees and government leaders.

In Jordan, he has visited with government officials, humanitarian workers and refugees. The purpose of the visit is to draw attention to the plight of Syrian refugees and to call on the international community to support them and the people in neighbouring countries who have been playing host to them.

"I have come to Jordan on this World Refugee Day to stand by the people of Syria in their time of acute need," Guterres said in a statement. "I also want to salute Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and all the countries in the region for being generous havens that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives."

"There is hardly a town or a city in Jordan that is not host to Syrians," he added. "It is much the same in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. That hospitality is a remarkable demonstration of humanity against a backdrop of depravity."

At the same time, he called on world leaders to find a political solution. "We will continue to do everything we can to aid and alleviate the suffering of Syrians," said Guterres. "But the cascade of death and destruction is spreading fast and I repeat my call on those with political responsibilities to overcome their divisions and come together to do everything in their power to stop this war."

Among the latest arrivals from Syria, the cost of that war, and the need for support and hospitality, is painfully apparent. A wounded man has been shot near the belly. He is taken away by an ambulance.

An elderly woman dressed in black beckons to soldiers for help. She shakes with exhaustion. She has been walking for hours. No food. No water. A crowd gathers around her until soldiers take her to safety. She sips a bottle of water held by her son. They fled the village of Rafik near the Israeli border, 10 days ago. "I carried her on my back," he explains. "There was shooting all the time during our journey. We just kept walking."

A woman named Zainab says she doesn't know her age. "Maybe I am 80," she says. "Maybe I am older." She says that she fled alone from a Damascus suburb after her home was bombed into rubble. Neighbours and passersby pushed her wheelchair to the border crossing and finally rolled her across the dirt and stone road into Jordan.

There are signs in this group that conditions in Syria are getting worse. Earlier this year, refugees would cross the border laden with personal belongings. They carried olive oil for their families already in Jordan, large suitcases, even their pets. Now the bags are smaller and the feeling of desperation more palpable. As long as the fighting continues, Syrians will have no choice but to take what they have and flee, and rely on the kindness of strangers.

By Melissa Fleming and Greg Beals on the Jordan-Syria border