Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world amid a “staggering” growth in displacement from Syria, the UN high commissioner for refugees said Thursday.
In a briefing to the United Nations Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria, the high commissioner, Antonio Guterres, said the Syrian refugee crisis overwhelmed existing response capacities, with 3.8 million refugees registered in neighboring countries.
“Lebanon and Jordan have seen their populations grow, in the space of a few years, to a point they were prepared to reach only in several decades,” said Guterres. “Meanwhile, Turkey has now become the biggest refugee-hosting country in the world.”
According to the UN refugee agency, Turkey is hosting over 1.6 million Syrian refugees, who have fled a war that has paved the way for extremist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to gain a foothold in the region.
Syria has been gripped by almost constant fighting since peaceful protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011 turned into an armed insurgency.
Urging the international community to share the burden, Guterres said the refugee influx had severely damaged the economies of Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
“The nature of the refugee crisis is changing” and called for “massive international support” for countries that have opened their borders to fleeing civilians,” he explained.
“As the level of despair rises, and the available protection space shrinks, we are approaching a dangerous turning point,” he added.
Lebanon’s population has grown by nearly 25 percent since the war in Syria began in 2011, with over 1.5 million Syrian refugees sheltered in a country with a population of 4 million, making it the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world.
The refugee influx has put huge pressure on the country’s already scarce resources and poor infrastructure, education and health systems, and has also contributed to rising tensions in a nation vulnerable to security breaches and instability.
Meanwhile, Guterres warned that almost two million Syrian refugees under the age of 18, many without access to education or jobs, “risk becoming a lost generation” and over 100,000 children born in exile could become stateless.
“If this is not addressed properly, this crisis-in-making will have huge consequences not only for the future of Syria but for the whole region,” he said.
Moreover, Guterres commended a temporary protection decree issued by Turkey last year to provide Syrians with access to the country’s labor market, as well as free education and health care.
“But despite this positive development in Turkey, it is no surprise that growing desperation is forcing more and more Syrian refugees to move further afield,” he said.
He said Syrians accounted for a third of the nearly 220,000 migrants who arrived in boats to European shores last year.
“Since the start of 2015, over 370 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean — that’s one person drowning for every twenty who made it,” he said.
He warned that thousands more could face death unless Europe decides to “step up its capacity to save lives, with a robust search and rescue operation in the Central Mediterranean.”
According to a December report by Amnesty International, wealthy nations have only taken in a “pitiful” 1.7 percent of the millions of refugees uprooted by Syria’s conflict, placing the burden on the country’s ill-equipped neighbors.
At the time, the London-based rights group blasted as shocking the failure of rich nations to host more refugees.
Amnesty said it was calling for the resettlement of five percent of Syria’s refugees by the end of 2015, and another five percent the following year.
In addition to those who fled the war-ravaged country to become refugees, the UN says more than seven million Syrians are internally displaced.
The refugees face poverty, illness and growing tensions with host communities in their already-impoverished temporary homes.
As the conflict rages, there is little prospect that the more than three million Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries and beyond will be able to return home any time soon.
(Anadolu, AFP, Al-Akhbar)