UN chief Ban ki-Moon urges countries to let in more Syrian refugees
'These are people with death at their back and a wall in their face,' says UN commissioner for human rights
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday urged governments around the world to let in more people from Syria and "counter fear-mongering" about refugees.
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Ban spoke at a one-day conference in Geneva meant to further efforts to resettle Syrian refugees.
"This demands an exponential increase in global solidarity," Ban told the gathering of officials from over 90 countries.
The UN refugee agency wants to find places abroad over the next three years for one-tenth of the 4.8 million Syrian refugees who are crowded into countries in the surrounding region.
"I ask that countries act with solidarity, in the name of our shared humanity, by pledging new and additional pathways for the admission of Syrian refugees," said Ban. "These pathways can include resettlement or humanitarian admission, family reunions, as well as labour or study opportunities."
The conference heard appeals for solidarity from the countries surrounding Syria.
"These are people with death at their back and a wall in their face," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said.
Turkey, which hosts some 2.7 million Syrians, said the UNHCR's target of resettling 10 per cent of the refugees in the region is a good start but not enough.
To date, 179,000 places have been pledged, according to Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees.
Ban said countries can benefit from accepting refugees as they can bring new skills and experience to aging workforces.
"Attempts to demonize them are not only offensive; they are factually incorrect," he said. "I call on leaders to counter fear-mongering with reassurance, and to fight inaccurate information with the truth."
Italy, Sweden make concrete pledges
Italy and Sweden were among very few countries to make new concrete pledges to resettle refugees at the morning session, an annual increase of some 1,500 and 3,000 refugees respectively, but not all of them would be Syrians.
"Sweden has continued to provide a safe haven for people fleeing the war and persecution in Syria, as well as other parts of the world. Last year over 163,000 people, 51,000 of those from Syria, applied for asylum in our country — the highest number per capita in all of Europe," said Sweden's justice and migration minister Morgan Johansson.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom said: "We have reviewed our resettlement procedures and are taking steps to shorten the timeline for resettlement without compromising the robust security screening procedures in place. We have significantly increased the number of interviewing officials at our refugee processing centers in the region so that we can resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of September," she said, referring to commitments already announced by the Obama administration.
European Union Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said 4,555 refugees from Syria's neighbours had been resettled in 11 EU states in its first scheme for 22,504 people established last July.
"If we want to effectively close the backdoor to irregular and dangerous migration routes, we have to open a safe and legal window," he said.
The Russian Federation said it was doubling places for Syrians eligible for free university studies to 300.
"My country is working on strengthening the ceasefire and assisting the (Syrian) government in combating terrorist groups," Gennady Gatilov, a Russian deputy foreign minister, said.
Norway's state secretary Marit Berger Rosland pointed to a trend of some Syrian applicants giving up as their plans change.
"Norway and other resettlement states are now experiencing that a number of Syrians are withdrawing, either before they have been interviewed or even after they have been accepted for resettlement."
Calls for a united international community
Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the refugees were facing increasing obstacles to find safety.
"We must find a way to manage this crisis in a more humane, equitable and organized manner. It is only possible if the international community is united and in agreement on how to move forward," Grandi said.
The five-year conflict has killed at least 250,000 people and driven nearly 5 million refugees abroad, mostly to neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
'Lebanon is on fragile ground'
"If Europe were to welcome the same percentage of refugees as Lebanon in comparison to its population, it would have to take in 100 million refugees," Grandi said.
Lebanon's minister of social affairs, Rachid Derbas, said his country of 4 million was struggling to host 1 million official refugees and another 1 million Syrians who have not registered.
"Lebanon is on fragile ground and is taking on a heavy burden. If Lebanon fails, and is crushed by the burden, it may itself be a source of concern for the High Commissioner," he warned.
The European Union sealed a deal this month with Turkey, which hosts 2.7 million Syrian refugees, that is intended to halt illegal migration flows to Europe in return for financial and political rewards for Ankara.
Turkey's deputy foreign minister, Ali Naci Koru, called the deal a "game changer".
Ban, referring to UN-led efforts to end the war, which resume in Geneva in April, said: "We have a cessation of hostilities, by and large holding for over a month, but the parties must consolidate and expand it into a ceasefire, and ultimately to a political solution through dialogue."
Aid reaching few Syrians
Meanwhile, desperately needed aid has reached only 30 per cent of Syrians living in besieged areas and less than 10 per cent in hard-to-reach areas this year, even with the recent cease-fire, the UN humanitarian chief said Wednesday.
Stephen O'Brien told the Security Council that many of the 4.6 million Syrians in need in these areas can't be reached because of insecurity and obstruction by combatants.
Since the cessation of hostilities came into effect one month ago, he said there is "a glimmer of hope," citing far fewer civilians killed and injured and progress on humanitarian access.
But O'Brien stressed that the UN and its partners are still "a long way from the sustained, unconditional and unimpeded access" required under international law and UN resolutions.
with files from Reuters