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Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; Briefing to the General Assembly

Speeches and statements

Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; Briefing to the General Assembly

25 February 2014

25 February 2014

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for the opportunity to address this Assembly today. While my colleagues have briefed you on the situation inside Syria, I will focus on the neighbouring countries, where nearly 2.5 million Syrians have now registered as refugees - a figure that could exceed 4 million by the end of this year if current trends continue.

Five years ago, Syria was the world's second largest refugee-hosting country. A fter three years of conflict, Syrians are now about to replace Afghans as the biggest refugee population worldwide.

It breaks my heart to see this nation that for decades welcomed refugees from other countries, ripped apart and forced into exile itself. And I am humbled by the incredible generosity with which Syria's neighbours, in turn, shelter its refugees today.

Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt continue to receive hundreds, even thousands of Syrians every day, seeking safety from one of the worst conflicts the world has seen in a long time. Neighbouring countries have provided that safety since the beginning, at an 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.

Let me give you a few examples. Measured against the total population of Lebanon, the number of Syrian refugees currently registered there would be equivalent to nearly 15 million in France, 32 million in Russia or 71 million in the United States. 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. I leave you to imagine the crushing economic and social effects such a situation would have on your own countries.

Turkey has already spent over 2.5 billion dollars of its own budget on assisting Syrian refugees, having received ten times as many Syrians as the entire European Union.

Jordan is also reeling under the refugee presence, estimating the related cost at some 1.7 billion USD so far. In this resource-poor country, the Government is paying hundreds of millions worth of additional subsidies to ensure refugees have access to affordable water, bread, gas and electricity. And in northern Iraq, the population of Dohuk governorate has increased by over 10 per cent due to the refugee influx.

But the crisis also puts heavy pressure on ordinary people. 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.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The human tragedies this conflict has created are ghastly, and although refugees may have found shelter from the fighting by crossing a border, they have not escaped their trauma and psychological wounds. Children are hardest hit, and over 1.2 million of them are now living as refugees. Little Waffa in Lebanon 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 is the only provider for his three younger siblings. Maram, not yet two, got separated from her parents when crossing the Mediterranean by boat and spent weeks in an orphanage waiting for them to be released from detention in another country and reunited with her.

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 become separated from their families during flight. Child labor is a wide-spread phenomenon. Children who have seen, for nearly three years now, things no child should ever see, have been wounded physically or psychologically. With every day the fighting drags on, these children are at risk of losing their future forever. That is why UNICEF, UNHCR and other partners have launched a "No Lost Generation" strategy focusing on education, protection from abuse, and psycho-social care, which I hope will receive strong international support.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Much has been said about the profound implications this crisis has on regional and indeed global peace and stability. Recent events in Iraq's Anbar province are clearly linked to what is happening in Syria. So is the multiplication of violent incidents in Lebanon. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nearby, and so is the economically crucial Gulf region. Everyone here knows that a further destabilization in the Middle East could have disastrous consequences for the rest of the world.

In this context, I have three appeals to make to you today.

First, there needs to be more international support to Syria's neighbours. Helping host countries to preserve the asylum space for people fleeing the conflict is crucial for regional stability. They need strong financial assistance, not only for immediate humanitarian priorities, but also for the structural, longer-term development needs the crisis has created.

Several mechanisms are already being established by host governments together with the World Bank and UNDP, such as the Road Map for Stabilization in Lebanon and the National Resilience Plan in Jordan. These and other national efforts must receive robust international support.

My second appeal is for all countries - including and especially those beyond the region - to allow Syrians to find refuge on their territories. There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where even people fleeing a conflict as horrific as this one are being pushed back from land borders or have to risk their lives at sea - submitting themselves to appalling human rights violations by smugglers and traffickers - because they have no other way of reaching territories where they hope to find asylum.

And third, as the conflict rages on and the neighboring states are already stretched beyond capacity, I hope more third countries will provide Syrian refugees with additional forms of protection. This includes resettlement, humanitarian admission programs, and more flexible visa arrangements and family reunification mechanisms, so as to allow Syrians to find safety without having to resort to high - risk entry channels like the ones I have mentioned.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

There is no military solution to this conflict, and the needed political one is not yet in sight. It is my profound hope that the ongoing negotiations, with the support of Member States that have influence over the parties, will eventually help pave the way for an end to the fighting. But one thing is clear: humanitarian needs - both within Syria and in the surrounding region - will remain high for years to come.

In that context, it is crucial that all parties implement the recent Security Council resolution, so as to alleviate the human suffering. As more and more refugees are telling us how impossible it was to cater for even their most basic survival needs inside Syria, real progress on implementing the resolution could also help to relieve pressure on the countries in the region.

Syria's neighbours are making enormous sacrifices to protect those fleeing, a fundamental contribution to regional and global stability. For the international community, extending them the support they need to continue doing this is not a matter of generosity, but rather it is in their own best interest, as the world continues to watch Syria disintegrate in bloodshed.

Thank you very much