The following is a statement given by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, on 14 March 2019 in Brussels, at the Brussels III Conference “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” (13-14 March 2019)
I was in Syria last week. In Damascus, in Homs and rural Hama, I was struck – and humbled – by the extraordinary resilience of people who have lived through experiences almost beyond contemplation; and yet, are determined to rebuild their lives and their communities. Furthermore, amidst grave destruction, areas of remaining insecurity, and lack of basic essentials, including food, medicine, jobs and water, many Syrians are returning home. Humanitarian and other agencies are doing what they can, but as large numbers of internally displaced people, and some refugees, are making this difficult decision and are returning home, the needs increase.
Last week, I also visited Lebanon, one of the five neighbouring countries that together still host more than 5.6 million Syrians – with deep generosity, in very difficult circumstances. There, as in Turkey, in Jordan, in Iraq and in Egypt, despite progress in some areas, life remains a daily struggle for Syrian refugees and the urban and rural communities who host them – their infrastructure, services and local economies remaining under immense strain. If there is a message that must come from this conference, it is that the generosity of host countries must not be taken for granted.
The so-called 3RP, co-led by UNHCR and UNDP, together with some 270 partners, has raised over the years over US$12 billion. And much more has been provided directly to host governments through bilateral and multilateral channels and some very innovative financing arrangements in which the World Bank has played a very important role. I wish to thank you all for your sustained and generous support. And this support must continue.
The needs are becoming more, not less severe. The assets of refugees are depleted. In all the five countries, the majority are in a situation poverty. Children have been, and continue to be, among the most heavily affected – losing out on education and other childhood investments. Bright futures blighted and possibilities taken away. And as I have seen once again in my last visit last week, women and girls are the most exposed.
So, I agree with those who said that a search for solutions for Syrians is more urgent than ever, and also, I would like to stress this year more than last year that this moment of transition has very complex implications.
In this context, I have three requests to make and I am glad to say that they match very much what the representatives of the host countries have said.
First: renewed and more predictable support has to be provided to neighbouring host countries.
Refugee returns I believe will increase as the situation evolves, but large-scale movements back home will take some more time. But returns will continue and increase.
In the meantime, that support to neighbouring countries must be renewed, so that they can sustain that hospitality until it is necessary. The 3RP programme we are presenting is one of the most collaborative and innovative refugee support instruments globally, because it combines humanitarian and development approaches, in support of national efforts. US$5.5 billion are required this year to help 9.4 million people, including refugees and host communities.
Policy investments are needed to expand refugee access to public services, including education and health, and give access until it is necessary to jobs. Jordan and Turkey are to be commended for the tens of thousands of work permits that were issued. And again, in Lebanon I saw how schools are operating double shifts to accommodate Syrian children. Egypt and Iraq, (and I was also in Egypt recently) are pursuing inclusive policies. But these need more predictable investments, including from development actors. The investments made since the London Conference in particular have been substantial, but the concrete dividends are not yet visible to all. And you heard what host country leaders said, it is becoming a difficult sell for them to tell their populations that they have to continue to host large numbers of Syrians.
My second message, echoed one made by the Foreign Minister of Turkey, is that we need more refugee resettlement places.
Because they are a lifeline for the most vulnerable and a key mechanism in the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees for responsibility sharing. The number of places has plummeted in the last two years, with now just one in 200 refugees resettled annually. And other complementary pathways like training schemes and scholarships are also needed.
My third and last request is to place refugees and the internally displaced at the centre of return preparations.
Most refugees as we know, see their future back home inside Syria. We know of 56,000 who have returned through organized movements last year – but the number is surely higher as I heard in Lebanon. And then we should not forget that 1.2 million (internally) displaced people have already returned home. As refugees weigh the prospects of return, security, property rights, legal documentation and military service requirements in Syria are all the key considerations. And so are of course, jobs, shelter and access basic services. If you speak to any refugee in any of the neighboring countries, this is what they will tell you.
I am pleased to say that we are working with the Government of Syria, and others. And I would particularly like to thank the Russian Federation for their cooperation in addressing the concerns that refugees are articulating in respect of return. This of course must take place alongside broader efforts to rebuild peace and stability and give people the means to rebuild their lives. One key issue is that access of UNHCR and humanitarian organizations to areas of return in Syria will be essential and must be given more predictably and more broadly in order to build the confidence that is required.
And then of course, returns must continue to be, as they have been so far, voluntary, well-informed, and not shaped by political considerations. Talking to refugees, placing their perspectives, rights and interests at the centre of decision-making will continue to be critical – as is humanitarian support and support for initial reintegration to those that are returning.
This is a crucial moment. The Global Compact on Refugees that the General Assembly endorsed last December, was shaped largely by experiences in this region and with Syrian refugees. And it is grounded in a commitment to responsibility sharing. Let’s ensure that here where these concepts were born in this region, this commitment is sustained, and the Compact made real, through support and solidarity with the Syrian people, with the host communities and with the host countries.