Up to €4.4bn pledged to help refugees inside Syria and on borders
Leaders warn of social upheaval in own countries if assisted returns not sped up
Destruction following an airstrike in the jihadist-held city of Idlib in northwestern Syria on March 14th. Photograph: Muhammad Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty
Foreign ministers have pledged as much as $5 billion (€4.4 billion) to help Syrian refugees inside the country and on its borders, as European officials consider the possibility of large-scale refugee returns later this year.
At a pledging conference in Brussels on Thursday, both Jordanian and Lebanese leaders warned of social upheaval in their own countries if assisted returns to Syria did not speed up. It is likely that 2019 will be the first year since the eight-year civil war started in which the numbers returning are not exceeded by new refugees or internally displaced.
The Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri – leading a coalition government riven over the refugee issue and its political approach to Damascus – said: “The competition over scarce resources and jobs has put the relationship between host communities and displaced under severe tension. These conditions could lead to widespread discontent and elevate the risk of violence.”
Jordan’s foreign minister Ayman Safadi, admitting the country was midway through a tough austerity programme, said fatigue by the donor community could not be an option, adding that the situation was “alarming”.
He said: “It is becoming a hard sell to tell a Jordanian you are not working because a Syrian has taken your job.” Jordan has issued 130,000 work permits to Syrians since 2016.
The UN has appealed for $3.3 billion (€2.9 billion) to spend inside Syria in 2019, and $5.5 billion (€4.8 billion) for refugees and host communities in neighbouring countries.
Mark Lowcock, the UN humanitarian affairs co-ordinator, said it was helpful that pledges emerging from the conference were arriving early in the year, making it easier to plan. He said: “Some 6.2 million people inside Syria are still displaced from their homes, and 4.7 million still need help with shelter. Two million children inside Syria are out of school.”
But the conference was being held alongside an upsurge in violence in Idlib province, and Mr Lowcock warned that a large-scale assault by the Syrian government and its allies could lead to the largest humanitarian crisis of the 21st century.
The EU pledged an annual €560 million for 2019-2021, as well as extra cash for Turkey. The US offered $397 million (€351 million), but Germany is the single largest national donor, announcing on Wednesday it was “making available” €1.4 billion.
Ireland pledged a further €25 million , bringing its total contribution to more than €140 million since 2012.
Federica Mogherini, the EU external affairs commissioner, warned that “a new zone of no war and no peace” might lead to a frozen conflict, which could place unbearable pressure on the already weakened economies of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Ms Mogherini warned: “Some are starting to believe the future of Syria will inevitably be that of a divided country with limited sovereignty, insecure, not democratic and sectarian.” However, she insisted a war won on such a basis would not bring peace.
Jasmine El-Gamal, a visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), said in a new paper that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was “playing a double game” in which he pretended to want refugees to return – but then placed security and practical obstacles in their way.
Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner for neighbourhood policy, insisted: “refugees need to return under conditions of safety and dignity, when, and only when, it is of their own will. Those conditions do not currently exist.”
“Idlib is controlled by a terrorist organisation. Reprisals have taken place in areas retaken by Damascus. Property rights are being actively undermined. There is continuing uncertainty over issues of civil documentation, and no one knows if education certificates will be recognised.
“Damascus appears intent on screening returnees for ‘loyalty’, slowing and manipulating the issue of return. There are no ‘winners’ in this conflict. But we must seek to minimise the number of ‘losers’ in the interest of creating lasting stability in future.” – Guardian