UN lobbies rich countries to boost resettlement schemes for Syrians

UN leaders and the main refugee host countries near Syria urged wealthy countries on Wednesday to give nearly half a million Syrians a new home by taking them in under long-term integration schemes.

"We are here to address the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time," UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon said at a UN Syrian refugee conference in Geneva.

"This demands an exponential increase in global solidarity," Ban said.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) convened the meeting of more than 90 countries at the Swiss UN seat, aiming to win new commitments for long-term resettlement, family reunification programmes, work visas and scholarships.

Few new pledges were presented on Wednesday, but countries will have an additional opportunity to offer support in September at a UN summit in New York on large refugee and migrant movements.

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni announced that his country would resettle an additional 1,500 Syrians by the end of next year, in addition to a scheme aimed at offering 1,000 places.

Swedish Justice and Migration Minister Morgan Johansson delivered the news that his country would expand its resettlement programme from 1,900 to 5,000 places by the end of 2018. One third of the places are currently reserved for Syrians.

Until Wednesday, wealthy countries had pledged 178,000 of the 480,000 resettlement spots that are needed for Syrians in the coming three years, according to the UNHCR.

Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and North African countries have taken in 4.8 million Syrians - the vast majority of those who have fled the five-year war in their country.

This task has placed great burdens on state budgets and public services, representatives from these host countries said.

In Lebanon, one in three inhabitants is a Syrian refugee, Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Rachid Derbas pointed out.

"Lebanon is on fragile ground and is taking on heavy burdens. If Lebanon itself fails and is crushed under this burden, it might itself be a source of concern for the [UN] high commissioner for refugees," he said.

UN High Commissioner Filippo Grandi stressed that the 480,000 spots requested by UNHCR are separate from usual asylum procedures. They are aimed especially at vulnerable groups including women, children and people with medical needs.

"Opening safe and regular pathways for admission can never be a substitute for countries' fundamental responsibilities under international law towards people seeking asylum on their territory," Grandi said.

Germany and Canada are among the biggest Western resettlement hosts for Syrians.

Germany has resettled some 40,000 Syrians in addition to hosting hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers.

Canada has recently taken in 26,000 Syrians under a scheme that involves the engagement of businesses, host communities and Canadian families.

"It is quite simply the right thing to do," Canada's Immigration Minister John McCallum said.

Ban said countries should not demonize refugees.

"Today, they are refugees. Tomorrow, they can be students and professors, scientists and researchers, workers and caregivers," he said.

The European Union recently agreed with Turkey to resettle up to 72,000 Syrian asylum seekers from that country, in return for refugees that are to be returned to Turkey.

"We must step up delivery and foster political will," EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said, acknowledging shortcomings of the bloc's resettlement system and of member states' readiness to accept additional refugees.

Avramopoulos told reporters he had received commitments from nearly all EU countries to accept Syrians under this scheme, but he did not say how many places have been pledged.

Last update: Wed, 30/03/2016 - 21:06

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