UN refugee agency pleads for more help
Washington - Five years ago, when Filippo Grandi visited Syria as head of the UN Palestinian refugee agency, he said he’d never imagined that the uprising in the southern city of Deraa would lead to civil war. Now, as the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), he reflected on the consequent humanitarian and political catastrophe.
“The human cost is quickly becoming incalculable,” Grandi said. “It’s not just the suffering, the death of 250,000 to 300,000 people. It’s also the destruction of an entire country — the infrastructure, economy, society — which, in spite of all the shortcomings in governance, was very vibrant, diverse and multicultural and ancient culture with its visible signs.”
Grandi said local, regional and global parties have failed abysmally to resolve the conflict, which has drained resources from other humanitarian disasters and resulted in a refugee crisis unparalleled since World War II.
Grandi’s UNHCR and smaller relief organisations are overburdened. Between 11 million and 12 million Syrians have fled their homes. About 4.5 million have left Syria, most settling in neighbouring countries.
Turkey shelters more refugees than any other country. The populations of Jordan and Lebanon have swelled with desperate Syrians. Others trying to feel the war are internally displaced, served by Syrian and expat relief workers Grandi called heroic.
Since 2013, inadequate support and loss of hope for a political solution have generated what the UNHCR calls a “secondary movement of people” to Europe, often through human smuggling operations.
Iraqis and Afghans fleeing their own conflicts have followed the Syrians. About million refugees have entered Europe through Greece.
When they arrived, there was not enough solidarity among EU countries. That resulted in disorder at the borders. Austria, Germany and Sweden took in most of those fleeing. Then, national, not EU, borders became the focus, culminating in the closure of the Balkans route and leaving economically beleaguered Greece with 50,000 migrants unable to travel elsewhere.
Since Grandi spoke March 15th at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Turkey has agreed to readmit many refugees in exchange for more resources and freer movement to Europe for its citizens.
To solve the crisis, governments and humanitarian and international development organisations must work together, he said.
“These situations are not just humanitarian,” Grandi said at the Brookings Institution. “They also have important developmental dimensions. It’s a very old discussion. I remember more than 20 years ago when the UNHCR launched with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) the Brookings Initiative, right here in this institute, on precisely this theme. I was part of that. I’m very glad to see that under pressure of a crisis it is bearing some fruit.”
He voiced hope that the ceasefire and Geneva peace talks would allow the UNHCR, other relief organisations and developmental actors to put resources in place.
So far though, “assistance to refugees, which the UNHCR coordinates, has been forthcoming but insufficient”, Grandi said.
Every year, donors contribute only 50% of the amount relief organisations collectively request. Most of the money realised necessarily goes to cover the urgent needs of refugees, not to education or livelihood and local community development. To date, the international community outside of the Middle East region has donated $2 billion to aid Syrian refugees.
In contrast, Turkey estimates it has invested more than $8 billion in helping all refugees in the country and has liberalised its labour laws to accommodate 2.7 million Syrian refugees. Cash-strapped Jordan and Lebanon cannot afford to spend billions on the refugees’ futures.
Still, Grandi said he was hopeful that donors would pay all of the $11 billion they pledged in February in London, mostly to assist internally displaced Syrians and fund refugees’ long-term needs.
At least until there is a durable peace and Syrians can voluntarily return, governments must consider legal pathways to resettlement, he said.
“On March 30th,” Grandi announced, “I’m chairing a meeting in Geneva proposing to all states in the world to take in Syrian refugees to relieve some of the responsibility carried mostly by Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and share it more widely. We hope that the United States, as a lead country in resettlement in general, will also become a lead country in resettling Syrian refugees.”
Countries, not only in the industrialised north but also in the less developed south should offer jobs, scholarships, family reunification and humanitarian visas to get refugees out of countries of first asylum, Grandi said, adding that refugees could then contribute to the workforce and eventually help rebuild Syria.
“It’s a global phenomenon, so the response must be global,” he said.
“Finally, may I say here at Brookings in Washington that it is very important, perhaps most important, that the United States continues to stay the course. That in itself is an act of leadership, even when there will be difficulties, shortcomings, setbacks and violations. It is important because the price that has been paid is already too high.”