UNHCR’s Guterres on the Syrian refugee crisis

Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), sounded very anxious in the Turkish capital this week when I had a chance to speak to him at the Swiss Hotel about the future of Syria. He was unequivocally clear that the Syrian refugee crisis may explode in the coming weeks and months, predicting that the number of registered refugees will double or triple the 1 million mark that was recently recorded. He seemed much more worried about the prospect of a “spillover” impact of the refugee crisis on neighboring countries in the volatile Middle East than the civil war in Syria.

He started with Lebanon, saying that the country is a great source of concern for the UN based on its fragile state, with shadows of the past creeping up. He also cited the spike in violence in Iraq where Shiite-Sunni clashes are on the rise. He highlighted Jordan, which was experiencing great economic difficulties under the International Monetary Fund (IMF) austerity package. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is looming on the horizon, Guterres pointed out, also adding the tensions in the Gulf region and the Strait of Hormuz to the list of worries.

From the picture he drew, it was clear that the UN is bracing itself for the catastrophic results of the ongoing civil war in Syria, one which may pull other countries into the conflict. Lebanon sits in the middle with a fragile political system, divided along Sunni and Shiite groups. There have already been incidents along the Syrian-Lebanese border area where the opposition fighters backed by Lebanese Sunni groups have clashed with embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists and the Hezbollah armed by Iran. The refugee influx into Lebanon, which has exceeded 1 million according to Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, is disturbing the precarious balance of Lebanese society.

In Jordan, where the refugees have topped some 900,000, the Syrian crisis is taking a huge toll on the already struggling economy. Guterres, a Portuguese diplomat, said he understands how the Jordanians feel, coming from a country that is also struggling with its third year of recession during its worst downturn since the 1970s. Lisbon’s austerity efforts in return for a $102 billion financial bailout package which it received in May 2011 shrank the economy by 3.8 percent in the fourth quarter. Unemployment stands at 17.6 percent, the third-highest rate in the 27-nation EU bloc after Greece and Spain. Unlike Portugal, however, Jordan’s relatively small economy, hit by rising energy prices and falling trade, was also battered by the soaring number of Syrian refugees in the small Arab nation.

I was in Jordan two week ago, visiting the Zaatari camp being run by the UNHCR and talking to senior officials in Amman. When I raised the issue with Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ansour, he described the refugee crisis as a “big blow” to the Jordanian economy. The government has spent more than $600 million in the last year alone, with only a third coming from international donors. I was taken to ground zero at the Dunibh checkpoint overlooking the valley where Jordan and Syria completed the Unity Dam in 2007 across southern Daraa province — the birthplace of the rebellion. On the horizon, you could also see the Golan Heights, where some 20 UN peacekeepers had been detained briefly last week. It was heart wrenching when I saw Jordanian soldiers picking up refugees who had illegally crossed the border with what little they were able to carry. Most were women and children. Refugees crossing into Jordan were averaging some 3,000-5,000 a day at the time. Jordan, with little resources, is trying to manage this crisis as best it can.

The UN refugee chief was very frank during the question-and-answer session, admitting that he personally feels frustrated with the refugee crisis. “I do not have the instruments to stop this,” Guterres lamented, appealing to political authorities to put a stop to the bloodshed. Recalling that the UN Security Council is divided on Syria, he asked for humanitarian access to the people in Syria, although he did not utter words “humanitarian corridor.” “Access is needed everywhere,” he emphasized, adding: “There are several ways to approach this. We do not just suggest one method.” He noted that “it is important to create conditions for access everywhere.” I believe that Guterres understands the bitter reality in the divided UN over Syria very well and is doing his best to manage his organization in a way to help with the escalating refugee crisis in the Middle East. He does not say it, but I sense that he will very much welcome the establishment of a humanitarian corridor in Syria.

Guterres is worried that the Syrian refugee crisis will be further complicated with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Sunni-Shiite tension in the Middle East, both crises looming on the horizon. Against this background, Guterres singles out Turkey as very important to his organization, saying that it is a potential sanctuary and a fundamental pillar in a very complex situation in the region. Stressing that Turkey is an economically powerful and politically stable country in the region, Guterres said its generous refugee policy is of the utmost important to UNHCR. He is keen to foster strong ties with Turkey because he believes that Turkey’s role will become much more important in the coming days as the Syrian refugee crisis evolves further.

After visiting the camps along the Syrian border areas, Guterres said he was impressed with the way that the government had responded to the refugee crisis. He dismissed rumors that the Turkish authorities are discriminating against refugees on the basis of religion, ethic or sectarian lines, a lie that has been propagated by the Iranian and Syrian media. Guterres signed a cooperation agreement with the Turkish relief agency to fund 10 more registration centers as well as an accord with the Turkish Red Crescent on cooperation in logistics, emergency and contingency support with UNHCR’s operations around the world.

Turkey is hosting some 400,000 Syrian refugees, including the ones who are living in urban centers on their own means. Guterres welcomed the Turkish government’s novel approach to register Syrians living out of the camps because he said that these people have exhausted their resources and are in need of help as well. The authorities have already registered some 41,000 Syrians, with 31,000 waiting to be registered. Turkey says it has spent nearly $1.5 billion when measuring aid according to UN criteria. In terms of cash, the government says its expenditures have risen to more than $600 million. Unfortunately, Turkey has received only $60 million from international partners, with the bulk of it coming from Saudi Arabia.

To me, the lackluster performance on the part of international partners in pitching in for aid points to a much larger, and frankly a worrisome, development in global relief efforts. If you do not provide assistance, however little it might be, to the Syrian refugees, that means that you do not feel like you own the problem; you remain indifferent to the humanitarian tragedy unfolding under the very eyes of the world. I discussed this with Guterres, who said that he agrees with the assessment. But he also said that there are newcomers to the donor pool, referring to the UN-sponsored global donors conference in Kuwait back in January that raised pledges worth $1.5 billion, with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) each promising $300 million, in addition to the traditional ones that use UN channels.

My feeling is that UNHCR is preparing itself for the long haul in Syria, drawing up contingency plans for resettlement options for Syrian refugees to third countries. He said if the conflict is resolved soon, UNHCR may help with the repatriation of Syrian refugees back to their homes, providing cash and other incentives in the post-conflict era. But if it takes longer than expected, as was the case in Somalia and Iraq, he warned that the repatriation of refugees to a third country may be necessary. This worst-case scenario will put the refugee agency in a very difficult position because Guterres acknowledges that the capacity of repatriation for UNHCR is only about 60,000 on an annual basis. Considering that the official number of refugees may climb to 3 million by the end of 2013 according to UNHCR estimates, then the role of Turkey will become pivotal to his agency.

For the moment, the Syrian refugees in Turkey are given a Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which Guterres says the UN is very happy with because a refugee status takes longer and is very complicated process. But if the Syrian crisis lingers longer, Turkey may need to accept that the Syrian refugees are here to stay permanently. With the likely approval next week of a new foreigners’ bill that has been on Parliament’s agenda since last year, Turkey may start better regulating the legal rights of Syrian refugees and start

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