With Syria on brink of ‘abyss,’ UN agencies urge neighbouring countries to keep borders open

Syrians stream from their war-torn country into Iraq's Kurdistan region. Photo: UNHCR/G. Gubaeva

27 August 2013 – The heads of two United Nations relief agencies today welcomed the hospitality of Syria’s neighbouring countries which are currently hosting some two million refugees, and appealed to them to keep their borders open amid a growing exodus of Syrians fleeing the protracted conflict.

“Syria could be on the edge of an abyss. This war has resulted in a humanitarian calamity without parallel in recent history,” said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres. “When a war sweeps up a nation, there can be nothing more important to its people than open borders.”

Mr. Guterres, along with Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) Ertharin Cousin, is currently in Baghdad, Iraq, which is home to 200,000 Syrians.

“Now is the time for the global community to come together to ensure the violence ends and the healing begins,” Ms. Cousin said. “The children of Syria are depending on us not just to meet their needs today but to provide hope for a better tomorrow.”

Mr. Guterres and Ms. Cousin expressed their appreciation to Iraq for welcoming fleeing Syrians and working with UN organizations to address their basic needs in spite of security challenges in the region as well as a population of 1.1 million Iraqis who are internally displaced.

During their visit, Mr. Guterres and Ms. Cousin met senior Iraqi officials, who expressed their concern about meeting the needs of rising numbers of refugees as well as security problems and worry that the conflict could spread.

The UN officials noted that the presence of thousands of refugees creates a tremendous stress on communities, and pledged to actively engage development actors to help host communities so their infrastructure is bolstered and their burden is eased.

They called on donors to boost funds to assist Syrian refugees in Iraq as needs escalate. In the last two weeks alone, 46,000 Syrians crossed the border in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. They also thanked Government of Iraq for its announcement of a donation today of $10 million to UNHCR to assist refugees in the country.

Ms. Cousin noted that in Iraq food assistance is provided to refugees primarily through a voucher – a food delivery mechanism that allows refugees to purchase groceries in local shops and help stimulate the host country’s economy.

“A WFP voucher gives refugees the ability to access the food available, support the local economy and makes them feel more welcome by the local community,” said Ms. Cousin. She noted that food is readily available in the Kurdistan region but that refugees lack the means to feed themselves without humanitarian assistance.

The two UN officials will proceed tomorrow to northern Iraq to visit refugee camps sheltering thousands of Syrians.


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