Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region
Thank you, Co-chair,
In the course of a decade, the number of people forcibly displaced globally has doubled, to almost 80 million people. One in six of them is a Syrian.
Behind these figures lie deep and complex stories – stories of ruptured lives, exile and uncertainty.
Stories, however, also of resurgent hope, and renewed opportunities, as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt opened their doors, and kept their doors open, and international support took shape – through the Kuwait, London, and now the Brussels cycle of conferences. Stories of courage and resilience, as a generation of children returned to school, work opportunities opened up, and social safety nets were established for millions of vulnerable refugees and host community members. Meanwhile, the search for solutions continues, as some 5.5 million Syrian refugees across the region continue to assess their future, against a changing landscape inside Syria.
The pandemic however has opened a new chapter, placing the investments and advances of recent years in jeopardy, at risk. Very grave economic crises are gathering pace, and persistent gaps and vulnerabilities are being exposed. And after nearly a decade of sheltering some of the world’s most vulnerable people, host countries and communities have been hard hit.
For refugees, an already precarious existence has been thrown into disarray. Work opportunities in the informal sector – the primary source of income for refugees – have all but disappeared. In Lebanon, 7 out of 10 of refugee households have lost their livelihoods, and are barely surviving. They are more afraid of hunger than of the coronavirus. Women and children are especially exposed. Mounting economic pressures generate tensions and undermine social cohesion.
Movement restrictions have also impacted solutions. Resettlement travel – the travel of refugees from one country of asylum to another – was largely suspended, but is now restarting. Even so, we anticipate that only one out of every 25 Syrian refugees estimated to be in need of resettlement will be able to depart this year, a figure constantly decreasing since a peak of almost 50,000 in 2016. Additional places, as well as complementary pathways for education, labour and family reunification, are badly needed – and this is also an ask of this conference.
I wish to thank governments and communities across the region for holding fast to their values, and for including Syrian refugees in health and other response plans, and overstretched services. Humanitarian programmes, with donor support, have also been adapted and scaled up.
But these generous measures must be matched by commensurate funding, political and economic support, on the basis of shared responsibility. Now, more than ever, it is critical that we stay the course.
In this regard, I have two main ‘asks.’
First, an enhanced aid package for host countries – to help them withstand economic pressures and sustain services to all in need. Supporting the self-reliance of refugees provides dignity, contributes to host country economies, and builds their ability to contribute to a future back in Syria.
The 3RP is a tried and tested modality for supporting national efforts. Of over US$6 billion required this year, just 20 percent of needs were funded prior to this conference. Bilateral development support, and investments by international financial institutions, are vital, complementary and remain essential. Our ongoing collaboration with the World Bank is providing very important evidence-based analysis to inform targeted programming. We cannot afford to let refugees, and their hosts, slip deeper into poverty and despair, with consequences that will reverberate, that are reverberating already, across the region and beyond.
Second, let us support the right to return, and preserve its voluntary nature.
Most refugees continue to speak of a future back in Syria. Yet they also tell us of their concerns: security, rights, shelter; access to education, services, and work. They tell us these must be addressed for them to feel confident returning, and for solutions to emerge. Accordingly, UNHCR will continue to work with the Government of Syria and other stakeholders to improve the situation of communities they are returning to. We must continue to listen to refugee men, women, girls and boys, and to be guided by their hopes and choices, and not by politics.
Some, of course, are already taking steps to return. That is their right and it must be supported at every step, including in their home communities in Syria. Indeed, as temporary border restrictions are eased, voluntary returns are slowly resuming. In this regard, sustained humanitarian access and assistance to areas of return will help build confidence. But it is vital that such returns are freely chosen, and not driven by despair or pressures in host countries. Addressing potential triggers of premature return – including socio-economic pressures – is essential.
In closing, I wish to reiterate my plea for an international posture that allows, finally, solutions to the Syria conflict to emerge, and that creates space for communities to recover. In the meantime, we must ensure that the progress made pending solutions is not reversed, and that solidarity and support are redoubled at this very important moment.