Statement by the High Commissioner at the Brussels V Conference on Syria
Good afternoon from Geneva and greetings first and foremost to my co-panellists Maciej Popowski and Achim Steiner.
Achim already laid out the scene very well in terms of what the so-called 3RP is about, so let me add a few remarks from the perspective of UNHCR.
Ten years on and life has become harder, not easier, for Syrian refugees, and for many people in Turkey, which because of this remains the largest refugee hosting country in the world, but also of course in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Countries that have and continue to generously host Syrian refugees. The coronavirus – it has been said – has compounded their hardship and suffering, and the number of people in need and their level of desperation has never been higher.
Millions of refugees are now more poor. Nine out of 10 refugees in Lebanon are now living in poverty, a near doubling from 2019. Economic downturns related to the pandemic and lockdowns have also pushed more than four and a half million more Jordanian, Lebanese, and Iraqi hosts below the poverty line.
With families unable to make ends meet, refugees have been forced to take desperate measures to survive. And it is very stark. They reduce meals; they drown in debt; they pull children from school. Mental health problems are on the rise. So are incidents of gender-based violence. Far too many parents make the devastating decision to subject their daughters to early marriage.
The burdens of exile – both for the refugees and their hosts – are heavy.
Yet, as Achim said very clearly, throughout this decade, Syrians – and their hosts – have shown extraordinary fortitude and courage.
Their determination continues to be inspiring. The international community must demonstrate its own determination to help them. Not with words, but with action.
A few proposals:
First, we must increase immediate donor support to the humanitarian and development programmes, including to weather the storm created by COVID-19.
The many gains that we have made over the years in education, healthcare and livelihoods are at risk of being undone by the pandemic and its related consequences if greater donor support is not forthcoming. And Achim spoke about this and I want to really strongly echo his appeal. Financial support to the Syria Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (the 3RP), which includes over 270 international and national partners, must remain a top priority.
I really want to thank those donors who are continuing to step-up and show their commitment to Syrians and to the region. But it is worrying – and indeed deeply concerning – to see signals from a few donors that they are reducing their aid budgets. This is not the time. Refugees and their hosts are already facing hardship and are in urgent need, and the situation in Lebanon for example – exacerbated by the political and economic crisis – is extremely worrying. The consequences of leaving humanitarian and resilience requirements unmet will affect everyone in that country very negatively, with potentially serious ramifications throughout the wider region.
Second, the international community must continue to support host countries, whose economies have been hit hard by the pandemic, and yet continue to protect and help those in need. We need to see greater bilateral financial support so that host countries can include refugees in national economic and social protection packages, as many have done with health and education services over the past decade.
Together with the World Bank, regional development banks, other international financial institutions and bilateral donors, we have achieved a lot. We must not waver in this support. As economies continue to be affected by COVID, we need to ensure greater opportunities for the economic self-reliance of refugees – as was noted earlier on in the first segment by the Foreign Minister of Jordan – while also supporting social safety nets for all.
Third, countries around the world can do more to share the responsibility for protecting Syrian refugees by increasing their intake through resettlement and other legal pathways. At the start of 2021, we estimate that some 587,000 Syrians living in the region are in need of resettlement. But at most, only tens of thousands have been resettled every year and this figure has been going down. I appeal to states to step up their efforts in this area too.
Finally, when it comes to the return of refugees, of which I have heard so much in this conference, we must – may I say – listen to them.
Most refugees tell us that they want to go home to Syria. But they are not ready just yet. They are worried about insecurity, lack of shelter and services like education and health, as well as their inability to earn a basic living back home.
While working constructively to address these concerns, it is imperative that we continue to help them and their hosts.
Now is not the time to cut funding.
And we must also guard against any forced or coerced return from any country.
But for those who do make the free and informed choice to return, it is critical that the international community support them, including by scaling up assistance in areas of return.
Refugees themselves will be the best judges of when they can return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity. Let’s listen to them and support them and their futures, free of any politicisation.
Thank you very much.