UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Tuesday urged countries against restricting cross-border access for Syrian refugees while warning that immediate measures must be taken to mitigate the enormous risks of spill-over and to stabilize Syria’s neighbours. “I reiterate my call to all states, in the region and further afield, to keep borders open and receive all Syrians who seek protection,” Guterres told a meeting of the UN Security Council by video link from Geneva. “Massive international solidarity with the neighbouring countries is central to making this appeal successful. Resettlement and humanitarian admission opportunities can complement this as useful, even if limited, measures of burden-sharing,” he added.
The High Commissioner said that access to safety in the region was becoming more difficult for people trying to flee, joining the almost 1.8 million Syrian refugees known to UNHCR in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. “Two-thirds of them have fled Syria since the beginning of this year, an average of over 6,000 people a day. We have not seen a refugee outflow escalate at such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide almost 20 years ago,” he revealed.
He noted that sectarian clashes had intensified in Iraq, and the country has shut its borders, slowing arrivals to a trickle. Iraq currently hosts more than 160,000 Syrian refugees. In Egypt, where UNHCR has registered some 90,000 Syrian refugees, a number of passenger flights from Syria were turned back last week, following a decision to impose visa requirements and security clearance for Syrians.
“While I fully understand the challenges Egypt is currently facing, I do hope that the country will continue to extend its traditional hospitality to Syrian refugees, as it has done since the beginning of the conflict,” Guterres told the Security Council.
He added that in Turkey and Jordan, which together host nearly 1 million Syrian refugees, “the authorities are now carefully managing the borders with Syria, mainly due to national security concerns. The borders are not closed – refugees continue to cross – but many can only do so in a gradual manner.”
He urged governments to do all they could to find the right balance between measures to prevent dangerous infiltrations, and the need to ensure that refugees seeking safety – especially families, elderly people, and women with children – were not stranded in precarious conditions or exposed to getting caught in the fighting.
Meanwhile, the conflict is steadily creeping into Lebanon, the only country whose borders remain completely open and which has to date taken in more than 600,000 registered refugees. The number of security incidents has been increasing in Tripoli, the south and parts of the Bekaa Valley, Guterres said, while adding: “The country’s political system is paralyzed and will likely remain so until the Syrian crisis is over.”
The High Commissioner stressed that the generosity of host countries towards refugees was coming at an increasingly heavy price. “While Syria continues to drain itself of its people, the prospects for a political solution and an end to the fighting remain poor and the warning signs of destabilization in some neighbouring countries are troubling. The continuing influx could send them over the edge if the international community does not act more resolutely to help,” he stressed.
“The recent restrictions on access sound an alarm bell which must not be ignored,” Guterres said. He urged the international community “to recognize that we cannot go on treating the impact of the Syrian crisis as a simple humanitarian emergency.”
He said that as the conflict dragged on, “a longer-term approach is needed, focusing on development assistance, especially for those countries and communities that are most seriously affected by the refugee crisis.”
To this end, he appealed to international financial institutions, UN organizations and national and regional development agencies “to cooperate with the concerned governments in formulating and supporting community development programmes that will assist these states to cope with the impact of the crisis in Syria.
“Some concrete steps have already been taken, by the World Bank, the EU [European Union] Commission, and several donor countries. But what is needed now is a well-coordinated and comprehensive plan of action to help ease the pressure on the most affected host countries and allow them to continue sheltering refugees. UNHCR, with its extensive presence on the ground, is fully prepared to support such an effort,” he said.
“What I am asking for today is essential to mitigate the risk of an explosion that could engulf the entire Middle East. But only a political solution for Syria, and an end to the fighting, can fully stop this risk,” Guterres concluded.
Security Council meeting 7000 summary:
The world was not only watching the destruction of a country, but also that of a people, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs said today of the crisis in Syria, stressing in a briefing to the Security Council that the statistics “hide an unfolding humanitarian tragedy”.
Despite the help provided thus far and the tireless work of humanitarian staff, considerable gaps remained in the response, said Valerie Amos via video-teleconference from Geneva. Also briefing the Council from Geneva was António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, while Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, briefed from New York on behalf of Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Ms. Amos said the location of the most vulnerable Syrians was known, but humanitarian organizations were still unable to gain access to them due to the fighting, insecurity and bureaucratic impediments. While authorization had been granted to enter some areas, including rural Damascus and Homs, reaching the severely affected populations had proved impossible. Significant humanitarian supplies just a few kilometres from her office were going undelivered, added Ms. Amos, who is also the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator.
Despite the desperate situation of some 2.8 million people, it had been difficult to reach them with assistance over the past two years, she continued, urging a mix of approaches designed to empower interlocutors, lift bureaucratic constraints, facilitate free passage of supplies and demilitarize medical facilities. Among other steps, it would be necessary to prioritize humanitarian corridors in order to ensure safe passage for aid convoys, she said, adding that funding in the billions of dollars would also be required.
Mr. Guterres painted a similarly grim picture, declaring: “We have not seen a refugee flow escalate at such an alarming rate since the Rwandan genocide.” Syria’s neighbours had provided shelter to a huge number, but the impact on them was crushing and the continuing influx could send them “over the edge”, he warned. While Lebanon and Jordan bore the heaviest burden, the impact on Iraqi Kurdistan should not be forgotten, nor the effect on Turkey owing to the 400,000 refugees who had sought safety there.
He went on to point out that Turkey and Jordan together already hosted more than a million Syrian refugees, yet their borders remained open. The impact of the crisis could not continue to be treated as a simple humanitarian emergency, he emphasized, appealing to all development actors, international financial organizations, the United Nations, as well as regional and national development agencies, to cooperate in formulating and supporting schemes to help those countries cope. The Office of the United nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with its extended presence on the ground, was “fully prepared” to support such an effort, he said.
At the same time, the High Commissioner appealed to all States in the region to keep their borders open, while urging “massive international solidarity” aimed at sharing their burden and mitigating the risk of an “explosion” that could engulf the entire Middle East. He stressed that he had not lost hope that the Syrian parties themselves, as well as the international community as a whole, would come together and end the bloodshed. “We have seen too many conflicts fester for too long and then spread like wildfire,” he said. “We cannot afford to see this happen with Syria.”
Mr. Šimonović said the increasingly brutal violence in Syria had spread significantly, recalling that he had reported months ago that at least 92,000 people had been killed between March 2011 and the end of April 2013. Of those killed, at least 6,500 were minors under the age of 10. Children were also being detained, tortured and recruited as soldiers, he said, adding that at least 86 child combatants had been killed in the hostilities. The approximately 5,000 monthly killings demonstrated the drastic deterioration of the conflict.
He went on to note that, since April, Government forces and militias had moved to uproot opposition groups from Aleppo, Damascus and rural Damascus, through the use of indiscriminate and disproportionate force, including aerial bombardment with tactical ballistic missiles and cluster bombs in densely populated areas. Hundreds of women and children had been killed and thousands of others injured, he said, adding that many remained under siege in miserable humanitarian conditions.
In an alarming escalation, armed groups also continued to kidnap, kill, perpetrate violence and threaten reprisals against civilians, he reported. Many such groups were reportedly engaging in military operations in populated areas. Detailing the growing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, he warned that large-scale operations across the Syrian border indicated that inter-communal massacres were “now a real risk”.
Moreover, the influx of foreign fighters in support of both sides was endangering regional security, he continued. Urging States to discourage them and to halt the supply of weapons to both sides, he called upon countries with influence over the parties to support a political solution, and the parties themselves immediately to initiate negotiations in order to protect civilians. Fact-finding and human rights monitoring teams could provide impartial substantive analysis leading to greater human rights protection and advocacy, he added.
BASHAR JA’AFARI ( Syria) said his Government continued to shoulder its responsibility towards its people and to meet their humanitarian needs, despite economic, political and media pressure. Those pressures included unilateral measures imposed by some States against the Syrian people, pressure exerted on the national currency, as well as support given to armed groups entering Syria from neighbouring countries. The Government had participated effectively and seriously in negotiations, which had led to the adoption of the Fifth Humanitarian Support Plan, he said, adding that it maintained constructive cooperation with the United Nations system.
Outlining his Government’s recent humanitarian efforts, he described projects to bring displaced families back to their homes, meet their basic needs and provide them with temporary financial assistance. More than 800 temporary housing units had been set up throughout the country, with schools and other facilities. Reconstruction and infrastructure maintenance were under way, and measures had been taken to facilitate the work of United Nations agencies. The number of non-governmental organizations in Syria had also increased, he said.
Noting that United Nations cooperation was governed by the Charter, he said the Government was fully committed to working within that framework, and stressed that the United Nations and its Member States should also show full respect for the Charter and for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. “Dealing with civilians should not be done in a selective, opportunistic or politicized manner.” In a similar vein, nobody attending today’s meeting had mentioned the blockades imposed on humanitarian groups by armed terrorists across Syria, he pointed out, emphasizing that some 2 million civilians in Aleppo and in some villages were suffering the effects of terrorism and also deserved mention.
He reported that, in Homs, the Government had formally invited the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to provide assistance alongside the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Some within the United Nations justified their determination to provide international relief by maintaining that the Syrian Government had not done so, he said, emphasizing that the statistics on outside assistance spoke for themselves: 60 per cent went to regions in which armed groups were operating. Lack of financing remained a major handicap to implementing the relief plan, he said, noting that despite the recent launch of a United Nations humanitarian appeal, only 30 per cent had been funded to date. Without timely funding, basic survival would be in jeopardy, he warned.
“We are facing unprecedented terrorism from armed groups,” he said, adding that they had arrived from all corners of the earth to kill civilians in Syria. The new face of terrorism was transnational in nature and negatively affected everyone. Terrorists funded by Governments hostile to Syria intended to declare an Islamic State in the north of Syria by the end of Ramadan, he said, emphasizing that, unless Member States recognized those dangers, there would be no peace for anyone. They would one day regret their actions against the Syrian people, he warned.
NAWAF SALAM ( Lebanon) declared: “Time and time again, we and others have warned against the potential spillovers of the Syrian conflict into neighbouring countries.” The potential dangers of failing to end the conflict were now turning into reality, he said, noting that increasing cross-border fire, as well as incursions from Syria into his country, were threatening its security and stability. “We strongly condemn all such acts, whoever their perpetrator and whatever their alleged reason might be,” he emphasized. The Government of Lebanon remained fully committed to its policy of dissociation from the conflict and to the terms of the Ba’abda Declaration of 12 June 2012.
Another dramatic impact of the Syrian conflict was the massive influx of refugees into Lebanon, now estimated at nearly 608,000, compared to 129,000 at the end of 2012 and 28,500 in mid-July 2012, he said. That represented a rise of more than 460 per cent since the start of this year, a 20-fold annualized increase. In reality, however, the numbers were much bigger. The Lebanese General Security Directorate put the number of Syrians inside Lebanon at 1.2 million, he said, attributing the discrepancy to the failure of many Syrians to register as refugees. They could also be unwilling or afraid to do so for political or sectarian reasons.
He said Syrian refugees were now found in more than 1,400 locations in his country, and their numbers had come to exceed those of local inhabitants in 30 per cent of those locations. Approximately 77 per cent of the refugees were women and children, and 66 per cent of those were in north Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, the regions closest to the Syrian border and also the country’s poorest. Amid the continuing violence in Syria, the number of refugees and others displaced to Lebanon was projected to reach 1.2 million by the end of 2013, or the equivalent of more than one fourth the smaller country’s own population. “Madam President, it is as if your country, the United States of America, were going to have an influx of over 75,000,000 refugees, or over twice the population of Canada,” he pointed out. “Can you imagine the impacts of an influx of such magnitude on your own country?”
There were also severe economic effects, he continued, citing among other things, the anticipated further decline in consumer confidence and the consequent slowdown in economic activity. Faced with uncertainty, private investment had declined and inflationary pressures were mounting. Trade activity had also been widely affected, while insurance and freight costs had spiked. The refugee crisis had strained local resources, thereby increasing insecurity, crime, social tensions and labour competition, he said, adding that beyond the fiscal cost, the influx had also strained public services.
Yet, Lebanon, he said, well aware of its humanitarian responsibilities and legal obligations, and in view of its historical ties with Syria, would neither close its borders to those fleeing the horrors of violence and destruction, nor extradite the refugees. Nor would it stop delivery of basic humanitarian assistance. However, it was Lebanon’s right to ask all members of the international community to share the burdens of the refugee crisis, whether in terms of numbers or assistance, he said, adding: “Clearly, Lebanon cannot cope by itself.” A coordinated and comprehensive response in the amount of $1.7 billion was needed to fund its part of the fifth Syria Regional Response Plan, covering 2013. Direct support to strengthen the Government’s national capacities and essential public services was of crucial importance, he stressed. No less vital was securing direct funds to meet the needs of Lebanese host communities.
MOHAMED AL-HAKIM (Iraq) called attention to several measures by his Government to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. It had contributed $10 million of the $40 million pledged at the International Donors Conference on Syria, held in Kuwait, he said, adding that Iraq had also provided $400 monthly in financial assistance for Syrian families and $150 a month for unmarried Syrians. The Government also provided social services to its Syrian “guests” by opening school doors, providing medical services and giving financially capable Syrians the freedom to choose where they wished to settle within Iraq.
Turning to the security and political situation, he said his Government had sought a peaceful resolution from the outset of the Syrian conflict. Opposed to any military or foreign intervention, Iraq called on all sides to end financial and military support to Islamist militant groups, as that could only further complicate matters. The conflict’s negative effects on the region and Iraq were clear, he said, urging the Syrian Government to “make way for international organizations to reach all civilians trapped in areas of conflict”. Iraq was also worried about the reported use of chemical weapons, particularly given that its own people had previously suffered the use of those internationally prohibited weapons.
LEVENT ELER ( Turkey) demanded: “How many more wake-up calls are necessary for the international community to effectively address this crisis?” The Syrian regime, in trying to suppress the legitimate demands of its people through the indiscriminate use of violence had declared an “all-out war” against them and had been escalating its attacks every day. That bloodshed must come to an end through a political solution and a meaningful transition, while preserving Syria’s territorial integrity and political unity, he said. The international community, the United Nations in particular, had a vital role to play in that regard.
He said that from the Turkish side of the border, the crisis could be seen to threaten regional and international peace and security while also imposing a grave burden on Syria’s neighbours. “The neighbouring countries cannot and should not be asked to face these pressing challenges alone,” he emphasized. Turkey, exerting its utmost efforts to respond to the ramifications of the Syrian crisis, was currently hosting more than 200,000 Syrians in 20 camps at a cost exceeding $1.5 billion. While financial support was needed, that alone would not be sufficient, he said. Full, unimpeded and safe humanitarian access, as well as creative new methods, was needed in responding to the crisis.
The meeting began at 10:05 a.m. and ended at 11:19 a.m.