The crisis in Syria is getting worse every day. Over 1.6 million people have fled to neighbouring countries, and more than 4 million are displaced within Syria. That is more than the entire population of Ireland, forced to leave their homes by brutal conflict.
These figures, while staggering, don’t capture the horrific suffering of women, men and children caught up in the death and destruction inside Syria. There are increasing reports of girls and boys being deliberately targeted, abused, raped and killed. Women recount chilling stories of sexual violence indicating that rape is being used as a weapon of war. Millions lack basic essentials such as food, water and medicine.
In the face of such horror, it is deeply distressing that there continues to be no political solution – the only way to bring peace – in sight. Humanitarian assistance cannot be the solution to the crisis in Syria. But as the fighting rages on, organisations like mine must continue doing everything we can to relieve the worst of the suffering and assist those in dire need.
To deliver relief, humanitarian agencies and the countries on Syria's borders need more international support. Together with more than 80 partner organisations, the UN has recently issued the biggest humanitarian appeal in its history, seeking over four billion dollars to help Syrians inside and outside the country. Many states, including Ireland, a long-standing supporter of UNHCR, have provided much-needed funding. But as the needs continue to grow, it is painfully clear that donors' traditional aid budgets will not be sufficient, and exceptional funding will be needed to respond to this exceptional crisis.
In addition to funding, there are practical measures all European Union member states can take to provide access to protection for people fleeing Syria. At the invitation of Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, I came to Dublin earlier this year to outline what is needed to the justice and home affairs ministers of the EU.
First, people fleeing Syria must be granted access when they approach the borders of EU states. Most EU states are doing this already, but more must be done to ensure Syrians asking for protection are allowed to seek safety wherever they arrive. Second, access to fair asylum procedures must be provided. Many Syrians will meet the criteria for refugee status or international protection and should be recognised as refugees as quickly as possible. However, practice is wildly divergent across the EU, with some states recognising no Syrians and others recognising almost all Syrians as refugees. The overall refugee recognition rate in Ireland has risen from a very low base in 2010, and I welcome that of the small number of Syrians seeking protection in Ireland, over 80 per cent have been recognised as refugees.
Third, more needs to be done to bring together family members affected by the crisis. This means speeding up the processing of applications for family reunification and providing visas to Syrians to allow them to join family members lawfully resident in the EU. It also means states should be pro-active in reunifying family members who have become scattered across EU states in their search for asylum. The discretion to do just this is afforded to EU states under existing regulations.
Fourth, for those in situations of heightened vulnerability, the possibility of resettlement is needed. Many states, including Ireland are already participating in the resettlement of small numbers of refugees out of Syria. In addition, Germany has recently launched a programme to admit 5,000 Syrian refugees under simplified procedures, including many vulnerable people. I hope other states will follow Germany's example to extend solidarity and support to countries neighbouring Syria who are experiencing the greatest impact of the refugee crisis. We have appealed to states to make places available for the humanitarian admission of a further 5,000 refugees displaced from the region.
A significant achievement was reached last week when, under the Irish presidency of the Council of the European Union, the Common European Asylum System was completed and adopted by the European Parliament. While a few states, including Ireland, have not opted into the full package, the common system nonetheless offers the possibility of enhanced protection within the EU. Together with the Charter of Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Refugee Convention, the laws, practices and values are in place for us to do what is right by Syrians seeking protection in Europe.
Looking beyond what we can do for Syrians who make it to Europe to seek asylum, there is a compelling case for active international solidarity with Syria's neighbours. A very small proportion of those fleeing Syria (less than 2 per cent) have come to Europe. The overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees have sought sanctuary in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
Lebanon, a country with roughly the same population of Ireland and struggling to maintain its delicate social balance, has already seen its population rise by more than 15 per cent due to the refugee influx. Jordan’s huge existing economic difficulties are exacerbated by the additional population pressure. In this volatile context, humanitarian action is crucial, not only to assist the victims, but also to help maintain regional stability as the conflict increasingly threatens to spill over Syria’s borders. In this context, international support is not only a matter of generosity, but of enlightened self-interest.
Today on World Refugee Day, I renew my call to those in positions of influence to do all they can to seek a political solution and support humanitarian relief.
We must not abandon the people of Syria, and I count on the Government and people of Ireland to do all they can in this regard.
António Guterres is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and a former prime minister of Portugal