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Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Second International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria

Speeches and statements

Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Second International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria

15 January 2014

Kuwait City, 15 January 2014

Check against delivery

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Within a few years, Syria has gone from being the world's second largest refugee-hosting to becoming its fastest refugee-producing country. It breaks my heart to see the people of Syria, who for decades generously welcomed refugees from other countries in the region, now forced into exile themselves. UNHCR has registered far over 2.3 million Syrians as refugees in the region, and governments estimate the total number of those who fled at over 3 million, including many who have not asked for assistance. That figure might have been even higher if in some situations border management policies had not been impacted by security concerns.

These are stark numbers, but the human tragedies behind them are even starker. Little Waffa, now a refugee in Lebanon, who has barely spoken in the twelve months since she saw her father killed and her house destroyed in Syria. 15-year old Khaled in Jordan, who is the only provider for his three younger siblings. Girls as young as three who already know how to distinguish the sound of gunfire from that of missiles and bombs.

Countries in the region - Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt - have received an unrelenting stream of fleeing Syrians and have provided them protection, at enormous cost to themselves. Few refugee influxes have ever generated this profound an impact on their host countries, with such dramatic demographic, economic and social consequences. The pressure is felt heavily in all areas of daily life, as budget deficits are increasing, growth suffers and jobs, salaries and price levels are affected across the region, leaving local families struggling to make ends meet.

For a tiny country like Lebanon, the presence of over 860,000 registered Syrian refugees is equivalent to 66 million refugees arriving suddenly in the United States, 17 million in Germany and over 280 million in China. As a result of the refugee influx, Lebanon's population has already grown to the level it was expected to reach only in 2050. By the end of this year, the World Bank estimates that unemployment in Lebanon may double, an additional 170,000 Lebanese risk being pushed into poverty and the total cost of the Syria crisis to the country could reach US$ 7.5 billion.

Jordan is also feeling the heavy impact of the refugee presence, estimating the cost of hosting them at some 1.7 billion USD so far. In this resource-poor country, hundreds of millions of additional subsidies are being paid by the government to ensure refugees have access to water, bread, gas and electricity at the same prices as Jordanians. Turkey has spent 2.5 billion dollars on assisting Syrian refugees since the beginning of the crisis, mostly from its own budget. And in northern Iraq, the population of Dohuk governorate has increased by over 10 per cent as a result of the refugee influx.

The neighboring countries' generosity and readiness to shelter refugees from danger is deeply rooted in Islamic law and tradition. In fact, the most beautiful sentence I have ever read on refugee protection is not from the 1951 Refugee Convention, but from the 9th Surat of the Holy Quran, the Surat At-Tauba: "If one amongst the non-believers ask thee for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the word of Allah, and then escort him to where he can be secure." This is a remarkable example of religious tolerance and commitment to refugee protection in Islam.

The generosity of Syria's neighbors needs to be matched by massive international support, in a true spirit of effective burden-sharing, which is essential to preserving the asylum space for people fleeing the conflict. Countries in the region need strong financial assistance, but they also need others to help carry the burden of actually taking in and protecting refugees.

My appeal to all countries - including those beyond the region - is therefore to keep their borders open for those who are forced to flee and seek protection elsewhere. There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where asylum-seekers drown at sea or are pushed back from land borders - a world where people requiring protection are forced to risk their lives, or to submit themselves to appalling human rights violations at the hands of smugglers and traffickers, because they have no other way of accessing territories where they hope to find asylum.

As the conflict rages on and the neighboring countries are stretched already beyond capacity, I hope more countries farther afield will provide Syrian refugees with additional forms of protection. This includes making resettlement spaces available, accepting refugees under humanitarian admission programs, and establishing more flexible visa arrangements and family reunification mechanisms to allow Syrians to find safety without having to resort to high-risk entry channels like the ones I have mentioned.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the region surrounding Syria, we expect the number of refugees to rise as high as 4.1 million by the end of 2014, based on last year's arrival trends. Their needs, as well as those of local people sheltering them in neighboring countries, are enormous. That is why the Syria Regional Response Plan also includes up to 2.7 million members of the host communities, the majority of them in Lebanon and Jordan.

The refugee response plan is the result of a vast joint planning effort involving 106 UN and NGO partners appealing for funding in five countries. The plan was developed in close consultation with host governments, development actors, donors and of course affected populations themselves. Let me highlight here the fundamental role of NGOs in particular, both national and international, who are implementing many of the programmes assisting the victims of Syria's conflict.

The priorities of the plan are: food assistance for over 3 million people, protection activities, shelter and WASH, health (including polio vaccination), education and other basic needs. I would like to highlight three protection concerns in particular that shape our common response.

First, the plight of Syrian children - 1.2 million of them are refugees, with over 4 million more impacted by the devastating conflict inside Syria. An entire generation of young Syrians is being shaped by violence, displacement and a lack of education and opportunities. Two thirds of the refugee children, and 3 million more inside Syria, are out of school. Thousands have become separated from their families when they fled their homes. Child labor is a wide-spread phenomenon. Children who have seen, for nearly three years now, things no child should ever have to see, have been wounded physically or psychologically, or both. We need a coordinated global effort, and strong support from donors, to ensure that these children do not forever lose their future, which would have terrible consequences not only for Syria, but for the entire region. That is why UNICEF, Save the Children, World Vision, UNHCR and other partners have launched last week a "No Lost Generation" strategy focusing on education, protection from violence and abuse, and psycho-social care for Syrian children traumatized by violence. The more immediate requirements under this strategy are included in the appeals we are presenting here today, while the longer-term, structural assistance will be integrated with national plans across the region.

The second concern is preventing and responding to sexual violence risks against women. Even when they leave behind the conflict inside Syria, women remain at significant risk including early marriage, domestic violence and sexual exploitation. For refugees, a lack of secure housing and limited opportunities for education and livelihoods exacerbates these risks further. Our joint response with partners under the RRP therefore focuses on building up the capacity of service providers, authorities and communities themselves to prevent sexual and gender based violence and to provide the appropriate assistance to survivors. Empowering women through livelihoods opportunities and education is an important aspect of these efforts.

The third area is winterization. With the generous support of donors, UNHCR and its refugee response partners have been able to provide in recent months the biggest winterization program ever carried out in a refugee operation, focusing on 1.1 million particularly vulnerable people. The appeal for the current year includes continued support for the on-going winter - one of the harshest in several decades - as well as requirements to prepare for the next one. Our successful experience this year has shown us that early planning and predictable funding are key in avoiding the worst for refugee families, many of whom live in tents, unheated or even unfinished buildings.

We know that the amount we are asking for to assist Syrian refugees - some 4.2 billion USD - is huge. That is why we have used three important instruments in preparing our response plan: prioritizing our requirements, targeting our assistance according to vulnerability assessments, and increasing our efficiency.

First, prioritization. Taking into account the fluctuating situation inside Syria as well as complementary national and development strategies that are being established across the region, the budgetary needs in the Regional Refugee Response Plan are presented under a 6+6 month formula. A thorough revision is foreseen in June, to adjust requirements for the second half of the year. In addition, all projects fit into one of three categories to facilitate prioritization: saving lives, preventing the deterioration of vulnerabilities, and strengthening the capacities and resilience of refugees and the communities hosting them.

Regarding the targeting of our interventions, this is being implemented across the region so as to ensure the highest possible effectiveness and impact. Some 70% of the registered refugees in Lebanon receive food assistance, based on a thorough needs assessment. Some 125,000 out of the over 570,000 registered Syrians in Jordan have been targeted for monthly cash assistance, as they represent the most vulnerable portion of the population.

Third, efficiency. We are increasingly using cash and vouchers instead of material assistance, for the most cost-effective use of donor funding. Apart from having much lower transactional costs, cash transfers and vouchers also give refugees more choice, dignity and autonomy, and represent a significant contribution to local economies. We are also using more and more biometrics technology for registration and assistance provision.

The refugee response plan is presented alongside relevant projects by several host governments and aims to align humanitarian interventions closely with those of national structural programs supported by development actors. A number of mechanisms are already being established by host governments together with the World Bank and UNDP, such as the four-track Road Map for Stabilization in Lebanon and the National Resilience Plan in Jordan. In the Kurdistan region of Iraq, UNHCR is working with other agencies and development actors to foster closer engagement with regional authorities in addressing the longer-term structural needs created by the Syria crisis. Going forward, there needs to be robust international support to these national efforts, for both immediate and longer-term requirements.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my profound hope that the upcoming discussions in Geneva will help pave the way for the situation in Syria to improve. But we must all be clear about one thing: humanitarian needs will continue to remain very, very high for the foreseeable future.

We are deeply grateful for the extraordinary support donors have provided to refugee activities throughout 2013 - more than 2 billion dollars in total that have allowed the partners engaged in the refugee response to scale up assistance quickly as refugee numbers continued to rise. Thanks to this support, over 2 million refugees received protection, registration and food assistance; 1.6 million people were supported with non-food items and cash to cover their basic needs; 840,000 refugees received help with shelter and some 1.25 million visits to primary health care facilities were covered. Some 660,000 children benefited from education assistance.

But despite the extraordinary support we received, we all know that the magnitude of humanitarian needs surpasses available funds.

I would like to make a special appeal to donors from this region. Muslim societies have a long-standing tradition of charity and humanitarian support to those in need, which is reflected in the third pillar of Islam, the zakat. The generous and extremely important contribution which Kuwait provided through the multilateral system has helped us to save thousands of lives in 2013, with agencies making enormous efforts to ensure that the maximum amount of funding reaches people in need directly.

All of the countries of the Gulf region have made very important efforts to help the victims of the Syria crisis. In Zaatari camp in the Jordanian desert, the world's second largest refugee camp, more and more Syrian families are accommodated in thousands of container prefabs donated by GCC countries. Public campaigns especially in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have raised millions of dollars from individuals to assist Syrian refugees. UNHCR, like others, is actively cooperating with a number of NGOs and Red Crescent societies from the GCC region.

But I believe it is important to strengthen this cooperation further. I believe that aid from the donors of this region to Syrian victims could be even more effective and have an even larger impact if at least part of these efforts were channeled through multilateral organizations. This would also give these countries a stronger voice in the international humanitarian community, commensurate with their traditional generosity.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Syrian refugee situation requires continued massive international solidarity, not only for immediate humanitarian priorities, but also for the structural, longer-term development needs which this crisis has created in the host countries. With your support, we were able to alleviate at least part of the terrible human suffering last year. We need that support to be reinforced, with the necessary flexibility to allow us to deliver aid where it is needed most.

But in the end, all of us know that the real solution can never be humanitarian. I therefore pray that the upcoming discussions in Montreux will be a real step towards ending this horrific bloodshed.

This conflict has not only caused one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades, but it is also the biggest threat to global peace and security the world has seen in a long time. For the international community, responding to the needs we have presented here today is therefore more than a question of generosity. It is, in fact, a matter of enlightened self-interest.

Thank you very much.