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United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

During the discussions surrounding the European Union’s recent agreement with Turkey, I often thought of the conversations I had in January with a group of Syrian refugee women who live in Istanbul with their small children. One of them, a mother of five, told me that she was hoping for a safe way to join her husband in Europe, but that  official family reunification or resettlement programmes took so long and have so many requirements, that she had become desperate. She did not see a future for her children, with her husband abroad. And so, she felt compelled to risk her life and that of her children by taking a boat.

EXCERPT FROM HIGH-LEVEL MEETINGWhat can we do to help the Syrian refugee women I met in Turkey, a country that is already hosting nearly three  million refugees? Women who are desperate enough to risk the lives of their children? Our proposal today is that offering alternative avenues for the admission of Syrian refugees must become part of the solution, together with investing in helping the countries in the region. These pathways can take many forms: not only resettlement, but also
more flexible mechanisms for family reunification, including extended family members, labour mobility schemes,
student visa and scholarships, as well as visa for medical reasons. Resettlement needs vastly outstrip the places that have been made available so far. Last year, only 12 per cent of the refugees in need of resettlement, who are usually the most vulnerable, were resettled. But humanitarian and student visa, job permits and family reunification would represent safe avenues of admission for many other refugees as well, including those who are more prone to falling in the hands of smugglers and those with the skills and talents that will be needed one day to rebuild Syria.

EXCERPT FROM HIGH-LEVEL MEETING2There are two issues, however, on which we need to be very clear. First, opening safe and regular pathways for  admission can never be a substitute for countries’ fundamental responsibilities under international law towards people directly seeking asylum on their territory. These pathways are additional measures that are needed as part of a global response. Second, while today’s meeting focuses on Syrian refugees, it is clear that pledges to offer safe avenues for the admission of Syrian refugees must not come at the expense of other refugee populations. UNHCR is ready to support States in practical and operational ways to help process larger number of refugees for resettlement or other pathways from the region, quickly and efficiently. This is feasible if resources are made available.

When Canada announced it was going to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees from the region, UNHCR worked closely with the Canadian authorities to develop special modalities to do this expeditiously. Within less than four months, more than 26,000 Syrian refugees had been screened, selected and prepared to start a new life in Canada: an extremely short time span, if one considers that in regular resettlement programmes the procedure can take months, if not years. So, yes, such programmes can be implemented quickly, safely and rigorously, provided the political will and resources are there to do so.

And while we debate here today on how to address the plight of Syrians fleeing war and violence in their country, we should not – as the Secretary-General reminded us this morning – forget that the most important discussions started a few weeks ago in this same venue. The parties to the Syrian conflict, with the mediation of the United Nations and the support of the international community, have embarked upon a fresh and hopefully decisive attempt to bring peace to Syria.

We cannot leave the neighbouring countries continue to bear the brunt of this refugee crisis. The world must show
solidarity and share this responsibility. Our aim is to find admission for at least 10 per cent of the Syrian refugee population, or 480,000 people, over three years. This may seem a large number, but it is not if compared to the number of refugees the neighbouring countries have been hosting. If Europe were to welcome the same percentage of refugees as Lebanon in comparison to its population, it would have to take in 100 million refugees! We are already well on our way to meeting our goal, with some 179,000 places pledged to date. This conference today is yet another important milestone in helping to ensure that we maintain this momentum over the coming months and years.”

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