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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.

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

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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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