UNHCR leader warns of moment of truth for Syria, risk of unmanageable crisis

News Stories, 27 February 2013

© UNHCR/N.Daoud
A group of Syrian refugees crosses into Jordan earlier this month. UNHCR chief António Guterres told the UN Security Council in New York that Syria was facing a moment of truth.

NEW YORK, United States, February 27 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Wednesday warned that a "moment of truth" was approaching in Syria and that the international community must not allow the situation to deteriorate further.

Noting the risk of the conflict in Syria spilling over into the region, the High Commissioner told the UN Security Council in New York that "what is happening in Syria today risks escalating very quickly into a disaster that could overwhelm the international response capacity political, security related and humanitarian."

Guterres stressed: "This must not be allowed to happen."

Describing the current situation facing Syria as a "moment of truth," the High Commissioner said: "The humanitarian situation is dramatic beyond description. The refugee crisis is accelerating at a staggering pace, month after month."

The head of the UN refugee agency, which is running a massive relief operation for refugees in neighbouring countries and for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced, noted that in April 2012, about a year after the conflict began, there were only 33,000 registered refugees in the region.

"As of yesterday [Monday], we had registered or given out registration appointments to 940,000 Syrians across the Middle East and North Africa," he said, adding that since early January, more than 40,000 people had fled Syria every week."

Guterres said that while the figures were "stunning," they did not tell of the suffering, especially within Syria, where an estimated 2 million are internally displaced and more than 4 million affected by the conflict. "We also must not forget the half-a-million Palestinian refugees in Syria who are affected by the conflict," he said.

Noting that three quarters of the refugees were women and children, the High Commissioner said many had lost relatives and most had lost their homes, belongings and livelihoods. "The children pay the hardest price of all," he stressed. "Thousands of young lives have been shattered by this conflict and the future generation of an entire country is marked by violence and trauma for many years to come."

Guterres reminded the 15-member Security Council that host countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq were paying a heavy social and economic price for their generosity and humanitarian spirit.

"Countries of asylum have been very generous and kept their borders open, but their capacity to do so is under severe pressure," said the High Commissioner, who pointed out that Lebanon had seen its population of some 4 million grow by 10 percent because of the influx.

"International solidarity in support of the host countries must be urgently reinforced. This is not a question of generosity, but one of enlightened self-interest," he insisted. "Helping them deal with the consequences of the refugee crisis is imperative, as the preservation of their economic and social stability is in everyone's essential interest."

Guterres concluded that the situation in Syria was likely to "deteriorate further before it gets any better." And he said that if worst-case scenarios materialized, the international community would need to further step up its humanitarian response. "It will also need to be prepared to deal with unpredictable consequences should the situation in Syria explode."

That was why, he stressed, the international community must not allow the Syria crisis and other lingering crises nearby to drag down the region and overwhelm the humanitarian response.

High Commissioner Guterres will be visiting the Syria region between 10 and 15 March, visiting Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.




UNHCR country pages

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

Iraqi Refugees in Syria: 2,000 New Arrivals Daily

The UN refugee agency is increasingly alarmed over the continuing violence in Iraq and distressed about the lack of an international humanitarian response to deal with the massive numbers of people being displaced. After an assessment mission in November last year, UNHCR officials warned that the agency was facing an even larger humanitarian crisis than it had prepared for in 2002-03. But UNHCR and other organisations are sorely lacking in funds to cope with the growing numbers of displaced.

In an effort to fill the massive gap in funding, UNHCR in January 2007 launched a US$60 million appeal to cover its protection and assistance programmes for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey, as well as non Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people within strife torn Iraq.

The longer the Iraq conflict goes on, the more difficult it will become for the hundreds of thousands of displaced and the communities that are trying to help them – both inside and outside Iraq. Because the burden on host communities and governments in the region is enormous, it is essential that the international community support humanitarian efforts.

Posted on 5 February 2007

Iraqi Refugees in Syria: 2,000 New Arrivals Daily

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie meets Iraqi refugees in Syria

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie returned to the Syrian capital Damascus on 2 October, 2009 to meet Iraqi refugees two years after her last visit. The award-winning American actress, accompanied by her partner Brad Pitt, took the opportunity to urge the international community not to forget the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who remain in exile despite a relative improvement in the security situation in their homeland. Jolie said most Iraqi refugees cannot return to Iraq in view of the severe trauma they experienced there, the uncertainty linked to the coming Iraqi elections, the security issues and the lack of basic services. They will need continued support from the international community, she said. The Goodwill Ambassador visited the homes of two vulnerable Iraqi families in the Jaramana district of southern Damascus. She was particularly moved during a meeting with a woman from a religious minority who told Jolie how she was physically abused and her son tortured after being abducted earlier this year in Iraq and held for days. They decided to flee to Syria, which has been a generous host to refugees.

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie meets Iraqi refugees in Syria

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