Top U.N. refugee official sounds alarm on Syria

Top U.N. refugee official sounds alarm on Syria

In Amman Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama and Jordan’s King Abdullah II discussed the growing international refugee crisis due to the Syrian civil war. Back in Washington, the U.N.’s top refugee official spent the week pressing officials and lawmakers to do more to respond to the calamity.

"What we are facing now, today, obviously is an urgent need for international community to help in humanitarian assistance to catch up to the challenges that we are facing as the countries bordering Syria," Abdullah said standing alongside Obama in Amman. "And not only do we need to look at the ability to stockpile humanitarian supplies to the Syrian people inside the country, but also to be able to assist those that have fled."

Jordan has 460,000 Syrian refugees, about 10 percent of the country’s overall population, and the Zaatari refugee camp is now Jordan’s fifth-largest city. Obama announced Friday that the United States will provide Jordan with $200 million to help alleviate the pressure caused by the refugee crisis.

"This will mean more humanitarian assistance and basic services, including education for Syrian children so far from home, whose lives have been upended," Obama said. "And the international community needs to step up to make sure that they are helping to shoulder this burden.

In Washington, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres met with administration officials and lawmakers for several days this week in an effort to build more support for those fleeing the violence in Syria. There are now more than 1 million Syrian external refugees total and the numbers are spiraling upward, he said in an interview with The Cable.

"The U.S. can play a very important role by leading by example and at the same time, in its diplomatic contacts with many countries, helping to create the conditions for those in need of protection to get it, for borders to remain open, for people to be granted refugee status, and to see their rights respected," he said.

While in town, Guterres met with Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Anne Richard, National Security Staff officials Gayle Smith and Steve Pomper, and Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Carl Levin (D-MI), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). He also met with staffers from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senate Appropriations Committee, and the offices of Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

"The key message was that not only Syria is today a dramatic humanitarian emergency with staggering escalation of the conflict and dire humanitarian consequences, but more than that, the Syrian conflict represents a serious risk for regional and even global peace and security," he said. "So, this justifies a wake up in the international community, a much stronger commitment to find a solution even if that solution has been difficult to achieve, but also to increase the solidarity with the refugees and the other victims."

Guterres said that the growing instability of neighboring countries like Lebanon and growing pressures on countries like Jordan are raising the risk of instability that would have cascading effects for regional and world security, furthering heightening the need for increased aid.

"That is not only a matter of generosity but it is vital to protect the interests and the security of the United States of America," he said.

The scale of the crisis and the long-term fallout means that existing humanitarian budgets are not sufficient to respond to the Syria situation while also addressing other crises around the world. Therefore, Guterres is calling on countries such as the United States to create special budgets for Syrian humanitarian aid this year. He said he was encouraged by his meetings on Capitol Hill on the issue.

There is a gap in the regional refugee program between the needs and the money received of about $700 million for just the first half of 2013, Guterres said. Three Gulf countries have pledged $300 million each, and if those pledges come through, that would at least meet needs until the second half of this year.

Some have criticized the U.N. for working in regime-controlled areas inside Syria and with NGOs that have some level of cooperation with the Syrian government. Guterres said that there are victims in both regime- and rebel-controlled parts of Syria and that the U.N. is committed to helping them all.

"To support those victims living in horrible conditions has nothing to do with supporting the regime," he said. "And the people displaced in government controlled areas are not necessarily government supporters."

Guterres also testified at a March 19 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that also featured testimony by Richard, USAID Assistant Administrator Nancy Limbourg, and experts including Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski.

Malinowski testified that the aid provided by the United States was not enough and was not recognizable because it was not branded, leading the refugees to wrongly conclude that America was on the side of the Syrian regime. He said the U.S. government should defer to aid providers on whether the aid should be branded, but added that the best thing the U.S. can do is work to stop the killing as soon as possible.

"Some aid was crossing, some of which I know the United States was paying for. Literally no person I met among the ordinary people in the north knew that the United States was providing that. And everybody asks, you know, ‘Why isn’t the international community here? Why aren’t they helping us?’" Malinowski said. "And that anger was directed particularly at the United States, partly because they knew I was American, but I think partly because they just see the United States as the driving force in world affairs, the most powerful country. They believe we can do a lot more."