Addressing a one-day, high-level conference in Geneva on Syrian refugees, senior United Nations officials stressed the needs to provide resettlement and other answers for their plight, urging third countries to share those responsibilities with Syria's immediate neighbours.
“We are here to address the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time … This demands an exponential increase in global solidarity,” Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the gathering at the United Nations in Geneva, attended by the representatives of 92 countries together with governmental and nongovernmental organizations.
Some 4.8 million Syrians have been forced to flee across borders by five years of war, while another 6.6 million are internally displaced. While talks are underway to find lasting peace, the UN chief said more countries need to step up and provide solutions for Syrian refugees.
“The best way to offer hope to Syrians is by ending the conflict,” Mr. Ban said. “But until such talks bear fruit, the Syrian people and the region still face a desperate situation. The world must step up, with concrete actions and pledges. All countries can do more.”
The 30 March conference is one of several key events in 2016 to do with Syria's refugees. It follows February's London Conference on Syria at which donors pledged $12 billion to help those in need in Syria and in the surrounding region along with the needs of communities in host countries.
“Now these pledges must be honoured,” the Secretary General said.
The conference, which was also attended by 10 inter-governmental organizations, nine UN agencies and 24 non-government organizations, comes in the run up to the General Assembly's summit meeting on refugees to be held in September.
Resettlement to third countries and other pathways
The focus of today's gathering is the need for expanded, multi-year programmes of resettlement and other forms of humanitarian admission, including involving countries that till now have not been involved in such initiatives.
Conference host Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, emphasized that the responsibility for caring for refugees should not be left to Syria's immediate neighbours alone, but should be more equitably shared.
“The magnitude of this particular crisis shows us unmistakably that it cannot be business as usual, leaving the greatest burden to be carried by the countries closest to the conflict,” Grandi told the gathering, also attended by representatives from key refugee-hosting Governments.
“Offering alternative avenues for the admission of Syrian refugees must become part of the solution, together with investing in helping the countries in the region,” he added.
Among solutions identified to end their plight is resettlement to third countries. Mr. Grandi highlighted a programme in which the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) worked with Canada to screen, select and prepare more than 26,000 refugees to start a new life in just four months.
With support and financial backing of sponsors across Canada, nearly 9,000 Syrian refugees have been able to begin life anew. Credit: UNHCR
Grandi said other pathways include more flexible mechanisms for family reunification, including extended family members, labour mobility schemes, student visas, scholarships, as well as visas for medical reasons.
“Resettlement needs vastly outstrip the places that have been made available so far. Last year, only 12 per cent of the refugees in need of resettlement, who are usually the most vulnerable, were resettled,” Grandi said.
Some pledges of additional resettlement and other humanitarian admission places are expected to be announced today. However, given the present complex international context and with Syria's conflict continuing, additional places will be needed over the coming months and years, in particular to address the needs of the most vulnerable refugees and to relieve pressure on Syria's neighbours.
Ever wonder how a child feels when forced to flee home? Leaving behind your loved ones and prized possessions is a traumatic separation. This is Mustafa’s story. Credit: UNICEF
480,000 resettlement places needed by end of 2018
The total number of resettlement places for Syrians now stands at 179,000. In line with refugee situations elsewhere, UNHCR estimates that some 480,000 places may be needed before the end of 2018.
Ahead of the conference, Alice Jay, the Campaign Director of Avaaz, handed over a petition to Grandi carrying over 1.2 million signatures in support of refugees. The petition, collected since the summer, calls for increased resettlement and reunification of families alongside financial support to countries on the frontline of the crisis, among other things.
Avaaz, meaning 'voice,' is a global citizens' movement which campaigns in 15 languages on six continents. A selection of photographs and messages of 'Refugees Welcome' from 23,000 Avaaz members around the world is being shared on a screen outside the conference hall.