"The international community woke up very late to this reality. But at least it woke up," the U.N. refugees chief says
He says refugees in countries neighboring Syria "are faced with such incredible dilemmas"
The King of neighboring Jordan says "we have reached our limit"
“The international community woke up very late to this reality. But at least it woke up,” Filippo Grandi told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday. “Now we can do some work really to stabilize the people.”
“But let me insist, the only solution is political. Otherwise the war will continue, and next year we’ll be here again or in another capital, asking again for billions of dollars. For how long can we do that?”
Donor countries gathered in London on Thursday pledged more than $10 billion to help alleviate what the United Nations calls the “world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.”
The United Nations’ response to the Syrian crisis last year was only 56% funded, falling more than $3 billion short of requirements. The situation was so critical that the World Food Programme was forced to cut food rations in refugee camps by an average of 50%, the agency said.
“I don’t have yet the percentages for this year, but I have every reason to believe that it will be much higher,” Grandi said. “People were hungry in the Middle East, a region which has not seen hunger for a long, long time.”
“Germany pledged half of the food needs – to cover half of the food needs of the World Food Programme. This is extraordinary.”
The strain and lack of opportunities in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey – the Syrian neighbor countries that have borne the heaviest burden of the humanitarian disaster – have led to increasing desperation among Syrian refugees.
There are 4.59 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, the United Nations says, and 6.5 million displaced within Syria.
That lack of opportunity, combined with the funding shortfalls that inhibited even the most basic standard of living, has contributed to the massive flow of desperate refugees to Europe over the past year.
Grandi, who took office at the beginning of the year, saw that desperation firsthand when he visited refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
“These people are faced with such incredible dilemmas,” he said. “They were talking about whether it was necessary for them to take some of those boats across the Mediterranean as the only way towards a better life.”
“I discouraged them, of course. But then, what’s the alternative?”
Mothers, he said, told him their children “must go to school here, otherwise we have to go somewhere where they can go to school.”
Jordan seeking help
Jordan came to the London conference with a very specific agenda: Help us, or it is all going to collapse.
“Looking into the eyes of my people, and seeing the hardship and distress they carry,” King Abdullah said, “I must tell you, we have reached our limit.”
They came asking not only for more humanitarian funding, but for the kinds of trade deals that would help their economy and lead to a more robust and long-term solution for an enormous influx of people.
The U.N. has registered 636,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan – about one refugee for every 10 Jordanians.
Though a deal has yet to be finalized, the European Union wants Jordan to allow Syrian refugees to obtain work permits, thus lessening, in theory, their need to make the perilous journey to Europe.
“I think if the package goes through, we will see a massive increase in work permits in Jordan,” Grandi said. “I’m pretty sure about that.”
“I hope that this will change, because what all the refugees always tell us is, ‘Allow us to work. This is so much more dignified than receiving humanitarian assistance.’ And it’s true.”
Hope amid the crisis
While the funding is undoubtedly necessary, desperation fueled by the escalating war in Syria will continue to push refugees to flee the country.
Just this week, the Syrian government, backed by Russian airstrikes, launched an offensive on towns surrounding Aleppo.
Prospects for a political solution remain far from hand. U.N.-brokered peace talks were put on ice this week, postponed until the end of the month.
Escalation on the ground in Syria, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, had “undermined” the negotiations.
“When you do the work that I do,” Grandi said, “you have to remain hopeful to an extent.”
“At least they haven’t stopped talking; they postponed the next session.”