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UN agency calls on Syria’s neighbours to keep borders open for refugees

Newly arrived Syrian refugees in Jordan after crossing the border.
UNHCR/J. Kohler
Newly arrived Syrian refugees in Jordan after crossing the border.

UN agency calls on Syria’s neighbours to keep borders open for refugees

The United Nations refugee agency today called on countries around Syria to keep their borders open for refugees, while also stressing the need for “urgent and robust” international support for host countries and aid agencies.

There are already over 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). With the violence worsening inside Syria, the agency expects that more people will continue to seek safety in neighbouring countries.

While commending the Governments of neighbouring countries for hosting so many people, UNHCR voiced concern about reports that many Syrians trying to flee might be stuck at the border in extremely dangerous areas.

“We are also disturbed by accounts indicating there may be restrictions imposed on those wishing to leave Syria,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told reporters in Geneva.

“We call on all parties to protect civilians and allow safe passage for those wishing to flee.”

UNHCR fully acknowledged the legitimate concerns of neighbouring countries, but it is essential that civilians fleeing violence have access to safety under all circumstances also in accordance to international law, Ms. Fleming said.

“At the same time, it is critical that the international community provides urgent and robust support to refugee hosting countries and humanitarian operations to enable them to continue to receive and address the growing needs of Syrian refugees. These countries should not be left to shoulder the burden alone,” she stated.

“We therefore also encourage all countries, not just those bordering Syria, to keep their borders open to offer protection to Syrian refugees.”

The spokesperson added that UNHCR and its partners are stepping up efforts and appealing for new funds to support the refugee population with a full range of life-saving and life-sustaining assistance.

The refugees are among the 8.3 million people now in need of humanitarian assistance as a result of the conflict in Syria, where over 70,000 civilians have lost their lives since the uprising seeking to oust President Bashar Al-Assad began in March 2011.

UN agencies and their partners are continuing to assist the 6.8 million in need inside Syria. In Geneva, agencies voiced their concern about the plight of civilians trying to flee the besieged city of Al-Qusayr.

Ms. Fleming said refugees were telling UNHCR that the city was virtually cordoned off and was impossible to flee. Some said the city was empty, while others said all civilians had moved to one neighbourhood of the city and were pretty much trapped.

Meanwhile, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said it assisted 1,000 families displaced from Al-Qusayr this week with food rations for one month, including rice, sugar, vegetable oil and lentils. Those families had reached the town of Hesieh at night on foot with only the clothes on their backs. They were sheltering in two schools, tents or with local families.

“These people have been under siege inside Al-Qusayr for months and this is the first time WFP has been able to reach them,” spokesperson Elisabeth Byrs told reporters. The agency estimated that around 500 families remained in Hesieh while others had fled to Damascus or sought refuge in Lebanon or Jordan.

Working with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), WFP is also providing a specialized peanut-based nutrition product known as Plumpy’doz to prevent and combat child malnutrition in Syria. The supplementary feeding programme is expected to reach 50,000 displaced children living in public shelters and will then expand to reach up to 100,000 vulnerable children between the ages of 6 months to 36 months through health centres. Children in shelters in a number of cities around Syria have already received the product.

UN aid agencies and their partners, who appealed for $1.5 billion at the start of the year for the humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis, are expected to announce a revised funding appeal on 7 June.