This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Amin Awad – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at his press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
The Syria crisis has been going on for seven years. 5.3 million people are displaced beyond Syria’s borders. Another seven million internally displaced people (IDPs) are displaced [inside Syria]. There is unprecedented destruction – over 500,000 people killed, towns decimated. More than 200 armed groups are fighting in the country. We know of the proxy war, we know of the struggle over Syria, we know its due political importance, we know of the peace negotiations that have been taking place relentlessly during the last six years. Yet, Syria remains, uncontestably, the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time.
Seven million inside plus 5.3 million outside – that’s more than 12 million people [displaced]. Another 10 million who stayed put in Syria, [they] did not leave their homes but they are cut off. They are cut off from livelihoods, from services, education, health, separated from relatives, friends and they are in need of humanitarian assistance. The whole nation is in need of humanitarian assistance. The damage that has happened in Syria and to the Syrian people who are the victims of this war – there are no clear winners, but the losers are very clear. [They are] the people of Syria; The children, the women, the vulnerable, the sick, the frail.
Half of the displaced children are not going to school. Many of those displaced inside Syria have also lost many academic years. We have, no doubt a lost generation. I hope that the international community will support this appeal.
The appeal is for 2018 and 2019. It is an umbrella, a mechanism, a facility called the 3RP – the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan. We have 270 partners – there are NGOs, UN agencies – WFP, UNICEF, UNDP, WHO, UNRWA, ILO and others who have been relentlessly and diligently supporting the refugees and the host communities in the surrounding countries and beyond.
We have four million [people] in host communities that have generously opened their doors, their villages and towns, their services and accepted 85 per cent of the 5.3 million refugees. 85 per cent of Syrian refugees in the five surrounding countries – Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt – they live with the host communities in towns and villages in this region. Only 15 per cent live in camps. So you can imagine the impact on the host communities who have endured by having such a big number in their homes for so long.
80 per cent of refugees who are now in Jordan live below the poverty line. The 1.2 million who live in Lebanon – about 71 per cent of them live below the poverty line. A lot of them are indebted. They live in horrible living conditions. They’ve been ping-ponged from one residential area to another because they cannot pay their rent. They are being evicted.
The [Syrian refugee] children are not going to school. Only 53 per cent are going, 47 per cent are facing a truly dark future because they lost their education opportunities.
Health, education, income generation and social protection and protection – physical or otherwise – are the top priorities of the international response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Food is one acute issue. In 2015 there was an acute shortage of these services because the appeal did not get as much traction from donors and what happened is – the Syrian refugees started to move from the surrounding countries and far abroad and we had that, what I called then, the “Great March”, when one million people walked out through Turkey and then through the Balkan route up to Austria and the rest of the West and Northern Europe.
This year, 2017, has been a very tough year as far as funding. The money has been coming late and the response by the agencies – NGOs or the UN – was also limited. We curtailed and curtailed assistance. The situation is not improving. The situation is becoming more difficult and problems are compounded as people remain in displacement. We are urging the international community and the donors in particular [for support] for many reasons – the vast number of refugees that we have in the region, the geo-political status of this region, the risks that the population of 5.3 million people can bring to an area, a small region already as volatile as it is. If there is no assistance – we have experience of 2015 – we should not repeat that. We should meet the [humanitarian] needs of this refugee population in a timely manner and as soon as possible.
Questions from journalists
Q: You said you’ve had a tough year regarding funding. How bad was it? What makes you believe that the funding for this appeal will be better for 2018?
Amin Awad: Thank you. Only about 53 per cent of the total appeal of USD4.8 billion was received this year. That basically left us well short of our objectives in all sectors and had we had the money that we asked for, we would not have had the shortage of places for children to sit in the classrooms. Nor would we have had such ups and downs; Breakdowns of the food pipeline, and many of the refugees would have not been in debt; n or would they be living in such horrible conditions.
Question: What gives you any hope or belief that now you would have a more forthcoming response from governments and countries?
Amin Awad: Governments in the region – they have been generous. This has been an unprecedented generosity that we have seen. I think, burden and responsibility-sharing is needed here to provide burden and responsibility-sharing for countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt who opened their doors. These are the biggest donors, these are the real donors. They provided the space, the international protection, they protected these people, they harboured them, they opened the bellies of their towns where they live and I think this is 110 per cent of the job.
Now, the material assistance is left to the donors and the international community to really match what these countries have done. And that is not coming through. We have to be prepared for the consequences.
Question: Following up on that, where is it [funding] not coming through? Your major donors are the United States, the European Union and these countries and so forth, I don’t think that the Arab countries are particularly generous in the past? Has this changed and have you seen contributions falling down from your traditional big donors, like the United States and maybe also the EU?
Amin Awad: From the outset I would like to say I am very grateful to the generosity of donors. These contributions are made on a voluntary basis, there are no binding rules. If you look back at the last six years, I don’t think the international community collectively in solidarity stayed the course. Our appeals are very clear, it’s to the whole international community: There is US$25 billion, that is the bill that the UN and international community puts out almost every year. If you look at the last 2 years, $23 billion to $25 billion. Then if you look at Syria, yes, the Syria situation we are at 53 percent. If you look at other countries in Africa, I am afraid it is nine per cent, 11 per cent, 13 per cent.
If you walk into the camps of refugees in Africa at sunset around five or six o’clock you hear children, below the age of five crying. Why? Because they are going to bed hungry. Funding is not coming, the system has to be fixed, somehow. Now talking about the Arab donors and others and the Western donors, yes, they have been staying the course, they have been delivering on pledges, not equally, some are, some are not. It depends from one year to another, maybe they have other priorities in other parts of the world, other sectors, but the Arab world, when you look at Kuwait one, Kuwait two and three, 1.3 billion was generously paid by Kuwait alone and others and we are trying as much as possible to encourage donors, potential donors, traditional donors or new and make sure that we have a good solid beginning for each appeal we launch.
Question: You mentioned something which you were unable to do because of the lack of money. But were there programmes which you actually had to cut that were operating but you no longer had the money in order to support them?
Amin Awad: Yes, in many areas: In health, in education, in food, in community services, in protection in shelter, in winterization. For example, we are supposed to provide for 3.4 million refugees during winter time. As of 11 December we had received only about 50 per cent of that funding. We are not able to provide stoves, we are not able to deliver kerosene, we are not able to deliver enough thermal blankets, and we are not able to winterize tents, we are not able to drain rainwater and snow from camps, we are not able to do engineering work to insulate some of the buildings, people are sitting in cold and open buildings. If you look at indications why we are at 50 per cent. 47 per cent of the children are out (school), there are not enough classrooms.
We are not supporting the governments in Lebanon or Jordan or Iraq to put more classes, to put more teachers, to open their systems which are stretched. The health sector is also stretched and the generosity of the neighbouring countries really saved the day but yet host communities and refugees are not getting the healthcare that they should get. These are just a few examples. Refugees are not living in luxury, they are living in horrible daily survival and not to talk about the psychological stress that they go through, day in and day out. They feel and some of them tell us that every time they wake up they look at a very dark future because they face the unknown.
Question: You say you are having difficulties with funding for hosting countries. Turkey has the largest number of Syrian refugees worldwide – 3.3 million. Turkish authorities said last week that they spent so far US$30 billion for the refugees. Do you have any specific plans for Syrian refugees in Turkey?
Amin Awad: Turkey received 3.3 million refugees. All of them live, except five to ten per cent, in camps. They all live in towns and villages throughout the 81 provinces of Turkey. The figure that you quote, the figure that I heard that Turkey recorded that they have contributed is US$30 billion since the influx of the Syrian refugees six or seven years ago.
Yet, I think, the refugees in Turkey – despite the generosity of the Turkish government – I won’t say they are living in luxury. About 55 per cent are going to school, the others are not. Despite the good programmes that were put in place to employ Syrian refugees and open the [labour] market for them – a lot of them remain unemployed because of the economic challenges.
But, overall I think, the most important thing for us when it comes to talking about the neighbouring countries in particular and Turkey is not an exemption – the most important thing is that they opened their doors, they offered a place of protection, of refuge, and that is for us is more valuable than anything else. But, of course, the material assistance and the wellbeing of refugees and the day to day life is very important.
Question: Regarding the borders – Lebanon closed the border, Turkey, Iraq and so forth. That seems to be a big problem. What are you going to do about that?
Amin Awad: Borders are managed. In some instances are closed. Many of these countries cite security, cite economic crises, internal upheaval, xenophobia, tensions and all of that is happening. But some refugees are still coming. Lebanon, we should just mention, is still accepting vulnerable cases, medical cases, so is Turkey. Not only that borders are closed – we are even seeing refoulement, we’re seeing expulsion, people sent back. And our job is to force, demarche these countries in the region to do better than they did before and keep their borders open. And the same applies, as a matter of fact, to the rest of the continent.