At least 15 countries have agreed to set up special quotas for fugitives fleeing Syria’s civil war, marking a shift in international thinking about how to deal with the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, the head of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said Tuesday.
The countries, including the United States and many in Europe, agreed to help resettle civilians fleeing the 30-month-old conflict, António Guterres, the high commissioner for refugees, said at a news conference. He was speaking on the sidelines of a meeting in Geneva attended by senior officials from the four countries that have absorbed most of Syria’s refugees — Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq — and other aid-giving countries.
The offers came as Lebanon’s president, Michel Suleiman, told the United Nations General Assembly in New York that his country was being overwhelmed by the flood of refugees from Syria. His minister of social affairs, Wael Abu Faour, told diplomats in Geneva on Monday that they risked “losing a major ally” if they did not provide more support.
“Nothing of significance has materialized so far, not one hospital, not one school,” Mr. Faour said. “We are more than disappointed. We are frustrated. It has been more than two years of advice, of lessons, of promises and nothing.”
More than two million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries since the start of the conflict, and international aid agencies believe that millions still inside the country have been driven from their homes. A World Bank assessment of the impact of Syria’s conflict on Lebanon released last week said refugee arrivals, now approaching a million and representing close to a quarter of the population in Lebanon, had overwhelmed public services and risked driving up poverty.
“We in Europe must not only keep our hearts and wallets open, but also our borders,” said Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union’s commissioner for humanitarian affairs and crisis response.
Mr. Guterres said that the refugee agency had received offers to resettle 10,000 people, but that some of the countries, including the United States, needed more time to consult with government departments before making a firm commitment on the number of Syrians they would accept. He said he hoped that the number of those resettled would eventually rise significantly.
But more important than the numbers, Mr. Guterres suggested, is that world powers recognize that they need to shift from emergency humanitarian relief to more comprehensive and longer-term social and economic intervention.
“Everything is being put in place for effective development-related programs,” said Mr. Guterres, citing the involvement of international financial institutions like the World Bank in discussions with aid agencies and the most refugee-affected countries. The next step will be starting appeals to finance these programs, Mr. Guterres said, but “I believe the right atmosphere and the right vision has been established.”
Mr. Guterres said he hoped that the progress on aid would help efforts to convene a peace conference in Geneva and achieve a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict.
The debate on providing more aid came, however, with renewed demands for international pressure on the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to remove barriers to delivery of humanitarian assistance inside the country.
“It is high time for the Security Council to speak with one voice to demand unfettered humanitarian access,” William J. Burns, the American deputy secretary of state, said at the meeting.
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