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UNHCR chief urges neighbours to maintain open access for fleeing Syrians

Press Releases, 16 July 2013

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.

For further information:

  • Melissa Fleming on mobile: + 41 79 557 9122

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  • Dan McNorton on mobile: + 41 79 217 30 11

Remarks to the United Nations Security Council, António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 16 July 2013

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A Face in a Million: the Struggle of Syria's Refugees in Lebanon

They are everywhere in Lebanon - 1 million Syrian refugees, in a land of 4.8 million people. There are no refugee camps in Lebanon. Instead, most rent apartments and others live in makeshift shelters and in garages, factories and prisons. Three years after the Syria crisis began, Lebanon has become the country with the highest concentration per capita of refugees in the world. It's struggling to keep pace with the influx. Rents have spiked, accommodation is scarce; food prices are rising. Meanwhile, a generation could be lost. Half of Syria's refugees are children; most don't go to school. Instead many of them work to help their families survive. Some marry early, others must beg to make a bit of money. Yet they share the same dream of getting an education.

In the northern city of Tripoli, many of the Syrians live in Al Tanak district, dubbed "Tin City." Long home to poor locals, it is now a surreal suburb - garbage piled to one side, a Ferris wheel on the other. The inhabitants share their dwellings with rats. "They're as big as cats," said one. "They're not scared of us, we're scared of them."

Award-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario visited Tin City and other areas of Lebanon with UNHCR to show the faces and suffering of Syrians to the world. Addario, in publications such as The New York Times and National Geographic, has highlighted the victims of conflict and rights abuse around the world, particularly women.

A Face in a Million: the Struggle of Syria's Refugees in Lebanon

Syria Crisis Third Anniversary: A Child of the Conflict

Ashraf was born the very day the Syria conflict began: March 15, 2011. He is the seventh child in a family from Homs. Within a week of his birth, the conflict arrived in his neighbourhood. For months his family rarely left the house. Some days there was non-stop bombing, others were eerily quiet. On the quiet days, Ashraf's mother made a run with him to the local health clinic for vaccinations and check-ups.

When Ashraf was about 18 months old, his aunt, uncle and cousin were murdered - their throats slit - as the boy slept nearby in his family's home. Terrified that they were next, Ashraf's family crammed into their car, taking a few precious belongings, and drove to the border.

They left behind their home, built by Ashraf's father and uncle. Within days the house was looted and destroyed. Photographer Andrew McConnell visited the family at their new home, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, which was also built by Ashraf's father and uncle. Located on the edge of a muddy field, it is a patchwork of plastic sheeting, canvas and scrap metal. The floor is covered with blankets and mattresses from UNHCR. They now face new challenges such as the daily battle to keep the children warm, dry and protected from rats. Ashraf still starts at sudden loud noises, but the doctor told his mother that the boy would get used to it.

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Forced to grow up too soon in Lebanon: Mahmoud

Mahmoud,15, hasn't been to school in 3 years. In his native Syria, his parents were afraid to send him because of the civil war. They ended up fleeing a year ago when, in the early morning hours, a bomb fell on a nearby house. The family, still groggy from being jolted awake, grabbed what they could and fled to Lebanon. Their home and the local school have since been destroyed.

In Lebanon, Mahmoud's father is unable to find work and now the family can barely afford rent.

A month ago, Mahmoud started working for tips cleaning fish at a small shop next to his home. He makes about $60 USD a month. With this money he helps pay rent on his family's tiny underground room, shared between his parents and eight brothers and sisters. Mahmoud is proud to help his family but with the fish shop located in the same subterranean structure as his home, he barely goes out into the sunshine.

Children like Mahmoud, some as young as seven, often work long hours for little pay, and in some cases in dangerous conditions. These children forfeit their future by missing out on an education and the carefree years of childhood. Many are also traumatized by what they witnessed back in Syria.

UNHCR and its partners together with local governments are providing financial assistance to help vulnerable Syrian refugee families cover expenses like rent and medical care, which means there is less need to pull children out of school and put them to work. UN agencies and their partners have also established case management and referral systems in Jordan and Lebanon to identify children at risk and refer them to the appropriate services.

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