United Nations Security Council
Open Briefing on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria
Remarks by António Guterres
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
26 February 2015
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Briefing this Council in 2013, I said the Syrian war not only had unleashed the worst humanitarian crisis of our times but also was posing a terrible threat to regional stability and to global peace and security.
This is the reality we face today.
Iraq has seen the most frightening and complete spill-over of an internal conflict into a neighbouring country in recent history. Lebanon has been on near-permanent security alert, and there have been increasing threats even to Jordan in the past months. As many as 20,000 foreign fighters from over 50 countries have reportedly traveled to Syria and Iraq since 2011, with their number nearly doubling during the course of last year.
Meanwhile, the Syrian refugee crisis has overwhelmed the existing response capacities, with 3.8 million registered refugees in the neighbouring countries.
Lebanon and Jordan have seen their populations grow, in the space of a few years, to a point they were prepared to reach only in several decades. One-third of the Lebanese population today is Palestinian or Syrian. Jordan is facing a similar challenge. And Turkey has now become the biggest refugee-hosting country in the world.
In addition, more than 2 million Iraqis were internally displaced in 2014, and some 220,000 sought refuge in other countries.
The continued growth in displacement is staggering. But at the same time, the nature of the refugee crisis is now changing. As the level of despair rises, and the available protection space shrinks, we are approaching a dangerous turning point.
After years in exile, refugees’ resources are long depleted, and their living conditions are drastically deteriorating. I have met middle-class families with children who are barely surviving on the streets and praying to make it through the winter. Well over half of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are living in insecure dwellings – up from a third last year. And a survey of 40,000 Syrian families in Jordan found that two-thirds were living below the absolute poverty line. One father of four compared life as a refugee to being stuck in quicksand – every time you move, you sink down further. With humanitarian appeals systematically underfunded, there just isn’t enough assistance to provide for Syrian refugees.
At the same time, host communities are severely overstretched. The refugee influx has heavily impacted economies and societies, mostly in Lebanon, Jordan and Northern Iraq, overwhelming social services, infrastructure and government resources. International support is far from keeping pace with the magnitude of the needs.
As host countries face growing security risks due to the regional spread of the conflict, and do not get the help they need to cope with the refugee influx, Syrians are finding it increasingly difficult to reach safety. UNHCR’s monthly registration figures in Lebanon have dropped nearly 80 per cent compared to early 2014, and the number of those entering Jordan has also substantially reduced.
Meanwhile, it is important to underline that refugees continue to cross the border into Turkey in significant numbers. The Turkish Government has already spent around six billion dollars in direct assistance to Syrian refugees. In a landmark decision last year, Turkey’s temporary protection decree gave Syrians access to the country’s labor market as well as free education and health care.
But in the global context I described, it is no surprise that growing desperation is forcing more and more Syrian refugees to move further afield. The dramatic situation in the Mediterranean illustrates this, with Syrians accounting for one third of the nearly 220,000 boat arrivals last year.
With the refugee situation growing more protracted and more desperate, almost two million Syrian refugees under 18 risk becoming a lost generation. And many of the over 100,000 refugee children born in exile could face the risk of statelessness. If this is not properly addressed, this crisis-in-the-making could have huge consequences for the future, not only of Syria but also of the region.
As humanitarian resources dwindle, abandoning refugees to hopelessness only exposes them to even greater suffering, exploitation and dangerous abuse. Abandoning their hosts to manage the situation on their own could result in serious regional destabilization, and more security concerns elsewhere in the world.
It should be obvious that in order to prevent this and to preserve the protection space in the region, refugees and host countries need massive international support. The Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (or 3RP) aims to bring together the humanitarian and longer-term efforts of the host governments and over 200 UN and NGO partners. Its programmes are designed to be funded not only from humanitarian, but increasingly from development cooperation budgets.
I hope the upcoming Kuwait III conference will play a determining role in stabilizing the situation in the refugee hosting countries. Beyond the immediate humanitarian priorities, it is crucial that development actors fund the 3RP’s resilience pillar and the host governments’ plans. Countries like Lebanon and Jordan need much more financial assistance – not only to local refugee hosting communities, but also through government budget support for necessary structural investments in health systems, education, water and electricity supply and other public infrastructure cracking under the huge pressure.
As discussed at length during the Berlin Conference, the Syria situation illustrates the dangerous inadequacy of today’s development cooperation policies in a time of multiplying conflicts. To address this, bilateral and multilateral donors, and international financial institutions, should review existing criteria and priorities. It is absurd, for example, that Lebanon or Jordan have no access to World Bank grants because they are considered as middle-income countries.
As High Commissioner for Refugees, it breaks my heart to see Syrian families fleeing from a horrible war, forced to risk their lives again, on unsafe boats, to find protection in Europe. Since the start of 2015, over 370 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean – that’s one person drowning for every twenty who made it. But Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation has ended, and the EU’s Triton initiative is limited both in mandate and in resources. Europe must step up its capacity to save lives, with a robust search and rescue operation in the Central Mediterranean – or thousands more, including many, many Syrians, will perish.
To reduce the number of people getting on boats in the first place, more legal avenues are needed for Syrians to seek protection in third countries. Several States provide resettlement and humanitarian admission programmes, but the needs far exceed available spaces. We believe one-tenth of the Syrian refugees would require resettlement as the adequate solution for their protection situation. Flexible visa policies, expanded family reunification, academic scholarships and private sponsor schemes must complement these measures. Following the example of countries like Germany and Sweden, other States in Europe and the Gulf region should consider offering legal access with more opportunities, so as to alleviate some of the pressure on Syria’s neighbours and give more refugees an alternative way of reaching safety.
Without such alternatives, the number of people taking to the seas will continue to grow. And not only are they facing serious human rights violations at the hands of smugglers and traffickers. We now also see armed groups threatening to enter the smuggling business for their own purposes of sowing fear.
This should remind us that protecting refugees also means tackling racism and xenophobia. In today’s climate of rising panic, it deeply worries me that refugees are becoming mixed up with security concerns, confronting hostility in places where they thought they were safe. In several public debates they are made scapegoats for any number of problems, from terrorism to economic hardship and perceived as threats to their host communities’ way of life. But we need to remember that the primary threat is not from refugees, but to them.
Syrians are now the biggest refugee population under UNHCR’s mandate. As their number keeps growing and they become more vulnerable, the serious repercussions this has across the region only highlight the obvious – the urgent need for the international community to bring together all key actors and to put an end to the conflict.. There are no winners in this war; everyone is losing. But the highest price is paid by the refugees and the other innocent victims inside the country.
Thank you very much.