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United Nations Security Council (7592nd Meeting). Briefing on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria. Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. New York, 21 December 2015

Speeches and statements

United Nations Security Council (7592nd Meeting). Briefing on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria. Remarks by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. New York, 21 December 2015

21 December 2015

As Delivered

Madam President,

Thank you very much for your kind words. It was a privilege for me to serve in the UN, and serve the most vulnerable of the world's vulnerable.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Nearly one million people have arrived by boat in Europe this year, more than 50% Syrians. UNHCR just published a survey of over twelve hundred of them, and the findings confirmed something we have long suspected: Syria is experiencing a massive brain drain. 86% of those we interviewed have a secondary education. Almost half have gone to university. One can only imagine the disastrous consequences of such an exodus on the future post-conflict reconstruction of Syria.

The enormous suffering and displacement inside the country continues, and the Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator just spoke about the humanitarian situation that generate them. The fact that two-thirds of the Syrians we interviewed in Greece had left the country in 2015 - with 37% coming directly from Syria after just a few days in transit - shows how unbearable things have become. That is why it is so urgent to achieve the ceasefire foreseen in the Vienna talks and in the recent Security Council Resolution.

It is also obvious that Syrian refugees in the region are descending deeper and deeper into poverty. A recent joint study by UNHCR and the World Bank found that nine in ten Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon live below the respective national poverty lines. Not having been allowed to work legally, refugees are increasingly vulnerable, dependent on scarce humanitarian assistance, and forced to go into debt to feed their families. This has a particularly devastating impact on children - they drop out of school, go to work, or get married early. Only half of all refugee children are in school. We are also worried that increasing numbers of people have no documentation, which puts them even more at risk, as many new refugee arrivals are not registering due to obstacles and safety concerns. In addition, thousands of children being born to Syrian parents in exile face a potential risk of statelessness. They are not stateless, but they face that risk for lack of registration.

The refugee crisis has had an enormous impact on host countries and communities, affecting all aspects of daily life, from housing and unemployment to general price levels and public sanitation. The economies of Lebanon and Jordan have lost billions and billions of dollars as a result of the Syria conflict.

We know Syrians will go on trying to reach Europe until there is a fundamental change in the factors that are pushing them to leave.

There must be more international support to refugees and to their hosts, and humanitarian assistance has to match the level of the needs. Even with the recent surge in funding triggered by the refugee influx into Europe, the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (the 3RP) was only 52% percent funded, with dire consequences for many families.

Massive investments are required in support of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to prevent refugees from slipping further into destitution and to help governments cope with the increased pressure on health and education, water, electricity and other public infrastructure. Of course such longer-term strategies need a stronger link between development and humanitarian efforts than is currently the case. The 3RP was a first step in this direction, but what is really needed is a change in bilateral and multilateral development cooperation policies and rules that would enable middle-income countries such as Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey to benefit from several development instruments they are currently excluded from. I hope the upcoming London Conference will not only mobilize support for the vast humanitarian needs in the region, but also for longer-term approaches that combine self-reliance for refugees with effective international solidarity and responsibility-sharing with the host countries and communities.

We need a "New Deal" between the international community - Europe in particular - and Syria's neighbours. It is clear that without education for their children, access to the labor market and protection against poverty, more and more Syrians will see themselves left with only one option - moving on. After having seen their homes destroyed, their neighbours killed, their loved ones disappear; after having fled multiple times within Syria, faced poverty and lacked basic services in exile, they try to get to Europe to rebuild their futures - and it breaks my heart to see these families, who have already suffered so much, forced to put their lives into the hands of criminal smugglers and traffickers who exploit them, rob them of their last savings, violate their most basic human rights and often outright leave them to drown in overcrowded, unseaworthy boats. That is why I strongly support the idea of a massive programme for resettlement and other forms of admission to European countries and further afield, one that is large enough to help put an end to the tragedies of the Aegean Sea and the chaotic movement through the Balkans. Because if things continue as they are right now, I fear not only for the lives of refugees, but for the future of European asylum, as restrictive measures are already spreading all around, like a virus that also risks contaminating other parts of the world.

Ultimately, the fact that so many Syrians arriving in Europe are now coming straight from Syria demonstrates that the violence and human rights abuses inside the country are only getting worse, and that the true solution for this humanitarian tragedy must be found inside Syria.


As High Commissioner for Refugees, it is clear that my focus is on the people who have had to flee this war. But in this last meeting, allow me a few words as a citizen of the world, because we face much more than a refugee emergency. The Syria-Iraq crisis - because that's what it has become - also has an enormous impact on regional stability and global peace and security. While the restoration of the Caliphate may have been an aspiration for several groups since its abolishment by Atatürk, we now have, for the first time, a terrorist organization that has the political objective of building a state and that effectively controls a large territory from which it can plan strikes anywhere in the world. This is a radical change even when compared to the worst of international terrorism we have seen so far.

The link to regional, European and global security is clear. Tens of thousands of young foreign fighters from around the world are in Syria or Iraq today. We know many of them will travel back home, and we know the risks this entails.

But as legitimate as these concerns are, we must not forget that - despite the rhetoric we are hearing these days - refugees are the first victims of such terror, not its source. They cannot be blamed for a threat which they're risking their lives to escape. Yes, of course, there is a possibility that terrorists could try to infiltrate refugee movements. But this possibility exists for all communities - and homegrown radicalism is by far the biggest threat, as all the recent incidents have shown. Those that reject Syrian refugees because they are Muslims are the best allies in the recruitment propaganda of extremist groups.

This war has to end, and quickly. The longer it drags on, the more difficult it will be to keep paying for its consequences. The EU just decided to give 3 billion euros to Turkey - for a plan of action to limit the onward movements. Three billion euros, for the country that has the strongest economy in the region. The total cost exceeds this by far, and will continue to rise, as will the price of the future reconstruction of Syria.

But more importantly, if the conflict does not end quickly, this might be the end of Syria as we know it - and the same is true for Iraq. We are all aware of the complexities of the situation which the end of World War I created in the Middle East - in the words of David Fromkin, that was "a peace to end all peace". But we must not allow today's sectarian divide to escalate to the level of the wars of religion that flattened large parts of Europe in the 16th and 17th century. And let's not forget that religious wars are always essentially political ones.

The lessons of history show that peace cannot wait. The world needs a surge in diplomacy for peace, and I strongly hope that Vienna will be a key step for peace to be reestablished as the number one priority on the international agenda.

Thank you very much.