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Intervention of the High Commissioner at the Brussels VI Conference on Syria

Speeches and statements

Intervention of the High Commissioner at the Brussels VI Conference on Syria

10 May 2022
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Thank you very much and thank you Commissioner, for your introduction.

I will share some remarks, and my colleague and friend Achim Steiner - the Administrator of UNDP - will then complement this somehow joint keynote presentation before other interventions.

Let me start with a personal reflection. I have been an aid worker for nearly forty years now. And I have witnessed the suffering of others in many crises, in many countries. Yet the Syria crisis and the suffering faced by the Syrian people affects me profoundly and in different ways.

On the one hand, I have been inspired by the resilience and fortitude of the Syrian families that I have met; of the host communities who have sheltered them, sharing their homes, their schools, their hospitals. Of the parents who have sacrificed, who have adapted, who have learnt new skills, all while keeping their children or trying to keep their children in schools. Of the children themselves, who don’t give up on their dreams even when their futures are in limbo, their opportunities limited by forces outside of their control.

I thank sincerely the European Union for convening this Conference. It is crucial – as mentioned this morning by Josep Borrell and many other speakers - that we do not lose focus on the Syrian people, even as Ukraine and other crises command so much attention. And it must have struck the attention of many that we are talking about 5.7 million Syrian refugees – this is exactly today the same figure of the people that have fled Ukraine. A coincidence but that gives an idea of the magnitude of the challenges that we are facing.

I have also been encouraged by the international response. Tens of billions of dollars have been donated by States that care about the future of Syria and the region, including through the Refugee and Resilience Response Plan – the 3RP – which combines humanitarian and development programming with national leadership and has channelled well over 20 billion USD to the region since 2016.

On the other hand, I cannot hide the fact that the outlook is worrying. I am dismayed that we have now entered the 12th year of this crisis and that the situation for Syrians has in many ways gotten worse, not better.

With every year, Syrian families see their assets further depleted. The vast majority of Syrian refugees are surviving below the poverty line and are being pushed further into debt with less capacity to cope. And with less control over their lives, they are more exposed to risks of exploitation and abuse.

And the impact of the Ukraine crisis on food security and on the world economy is already aggravating this situation.

We see a rise in mental health problems and suicides. Children dropping out of school. Daughters married off far too early – their dreams shattered and their communities robbed of future doctors, engineers, or teachers.

But it is not just refugees who are struggling. As Achim will highlight, no doubt, we have more host community members in need than at any other point during this crisis.  It is critical that donors also help them too; and urgently. I am particularly worried about the situation in Lebanon and encourage greater engagement and support to the Lebanese people in particular.

Across the five 3RP countries, over 20 million people, including more than 7 million refugees (Syrians and other nationalities), asylum seekers and stateless people, as well as almost 13 million impacted host community members need some form of humanitarian or long-term resilience support.  This is the highest number of people in need since this crisis began.

We should all take pause and think of the ramifications if the situation continues on its current path.

So what specifically can be done?

First – we need a renewed and stronger commitment to meet the urgent needs of Syrian refugees and their host communities to prevent a further deterioration of living conditions. This includes funding the appeals for inside Syria and for the region.

Last year’s 3RP was the first in many years where funding dropped below 50 per cent. The indications from this year are perhaps similar. While the 3RP mechanism is not the only funding channel, it remains a vital one in terms of basic needs - keeping food on the family table, ensuring doctors’ visits can happen, and children can go to school, while increasing self-reliance of refugees.

Second – we need to reimagine our support for host countries. This is not just with yearly humanitarian funding in support of the appeals, but through a clear commitment by donors as long-term partners of host countries. Help them on a positive development trajectory for their countries and citizens and ensure they are resourced so they can continue to include refugees in their public services, as we continue to witness in Turkey, in Jordan and elsewhere.

As you have heard me say many times over the past years, the World Bank, other International Financial Institutions, and bilateral donors have played a critical role, for which I am personally grateful. We must sustain and expand this moving forward.

Third – we must refocus attention on what Syrian refugees want most of all – an end to their plight of displacement.

Finding solutions in the current context is not easy, but that cannot be an excuse for inaction. We must address the challenges and work through them.

I hope, for example, that the many increases to resettlement programmes that have been announced in the past months will also be used for Syrian refugees in need. In addition, third country solutions through complementary pathways can also provide a solution both for refugees and for their new countries who may give opportunities to skilled workers, students, athletes or artists.

And we must not forget safe, dignified, and voluntary return, which is of course the preferred solution.

Many Syrians, like almost all the world’s refugees, tell us that they want to return home. Many, however, tell us that they continue to be concerned with insecurity in their home country. With conscription. With the grave economic conditions that result in high unemployment and queues for bread and fuel. With the lack of schools and services, and the absence of safe shelter solutions.

We are listening to them and we are guided by them in our work inside Syria as well. We work with the Syrian government and highlight what refugees tell us are the obstacles to their return and encourage action and - where relevant to our mandate - provide advice and help to remove those obstacles.

At the same time, we are encouraging the rest of the international community to scale up its humanitarian support inside Syria so that return is not prevented by lack of schools, or health clinics; or by the absence of decent shelters, or by the chance to find a job.

And while refugees of course have a right to return home, they also have a right not to be forced or coerced to return. States must therefore continue to offer protection, while the international community steps up its responsibility-sharing with those host countries.

Finally, while I am aware of the deep divisions currently affecting the international community as a result of war in Ukraine, I do hope that in such humanitarian matters, including the complex issues around Syrian refugees, we can lessen or put aside political interests, and instead focus on what is best for the innocent people who have been caught up or affected by more than a decade of conflict and crisis.

For the refugees, the internally displaced, the once children who are now adolescents and even adults; remember – they did not choose this conflict. They did not choose their plight. They need our help and our support today as much as ever.

Thank you.