The number of refugees who have fled Syria for neighbouring countries has topped five million people for the first time since the civil war began six years ago, according to the UN’s refugee agency.
Half of Syria’s 22 million population has been uprooted by a conflict that has now lasted longer than the second world war, the figures released by the UNHCR show, with 6.3 million people who are still inside the country’s borders forced from their homes.
The figure of five million refugees “fails to account for the 1.2 million people seeking safety in Europe”, the International Rescue Committee, an aid organisation, noted. Nearly 270,000 of these applied for asylum in Germany last year.
The UN agency urged Europeans not to “put humanity on a ballot” in elections in France and Germany this year, where far-right candidates opposed to refugee arrivals could make gains.
A surge in violence in Aleppo, as government forces backed by Russian airstrikes retook Syria’s second city at the end of 2016, resulted in 47,000 people fleeing to neighbouring Turkey, it said. Camps for internally displaced people close to the Turkish border also hold those who have fled the fighting in northern Syria.
The latest arrivals into Turkey mean the number of Syrians who have fled the country for neighbouring states stands at more than five million, four years after the UNHCR announced that one million people had fled.
The five million figure includes refugees who have been resettled in Europe, but the UN high commissioner for refugees urged Europeans to do more to help share a burden that is still largely falling on countries bordering Syria, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, with more in Iraq and Egypt.
Turkey alone has nearly three million Syrians, the UNHCR pointed out. In Jordan, 657,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the UN, but the government says the true figure is 1.3 million. Tens of thousands of Syrians live in two large camps, Zaatari and Azraq, but the majority live in homes and flats, able to access the job market but competing for scarce employment.
The situation is more complicated in Lebanon, where the government refused to allow the establishment of formal camps (it has 12 Palestinian refugee camps, mostly dating back more than half century).
The UN says about one million Syrians are in the country, though the government says the figure is higher, with many living in dismal conditions in informal camps.
“Oxfam calls on rich countries to show their support for Syria’s neighbours that have welcomed these refugees and to resettle at least the most vulnerable 10% of Syrian refugees by the end of 2017,” said Oxfam’s executive director, Winnie Byanyima.
On the same day the figures were released, a 29-year-old Syrian man set himself on fire at a migrant camp on the Greek island of Chios. Video footage posted on social media showed the man holding a petrol can and addressing camp residents and then catching fire as a policeman approached.
The Syrian sustained burns to more than 90% of his body and was in a critical condition in hospital on Thursday night, the Greek news agency ANA said. The policeman who tried to save him was taken to hospital with burns.
Thousands of people, many of them Syrians, are stuck on Greece’s Aegean islands as a result of an EU-Turkish agreement that curbed the influx of migrants and refugees to the EU.
Elsewhere in Europe, France and Germany are both gearing up for crucial elections, with far-right candidates seeking to exploit public fears about immigration.
A UNHCR spokesman, Babar Baloch, said: “This is not the time to shun Syrian refugees. Our hope is that humanity will not be put on a ballot.
“Europe went through this during the second world war and there were many countries which supported Europe. Syria is currently going through this trauma and it now needs the world’s support. We should not be turning our backs on people in need.
“The solution to the crisis in Syria is political but, in terms of support, it is humanity that is needed. We are asking other countries to come forward and help those countries neighbouring Syria that are hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees to share responsibility for resettlement and humanitarian admissions. Those desperate refugees are in need of resettlement.”
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has defended her government’s immigration policy in the face of criticism from the anti-refugee Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which will contest seats in the elections in September.
Speaking at a conference of the centre-right European People’s party in Malta on Thursday, Merkel said: “We had done too little in the past, that is why we took in refugees – because it was the right thing to do.”
The US had pledged to resettle 64,000 Syrians but the Trump administration is seeking to reduce the number. Baloch said the agency’s efforts to help resettle Syrians in the US were continuing amid court battles over the issue.
He said the UNHCR’s five million figure was the result of an update of the numbers on registrations and preregistrations, rather than a running tally. “We haven’t identified the five millionth refugee, it is more about getting the data from the registration authorities and incorporating that into the data,” said Baloch.
The number of Syrian refugees is rising at a slower rate than in previous years. Last March, the figure had reached 4.8 million.
Baloch said the UNHCR was not expecting sharp rises in future. “We have been talking about close to five million for a while. Whilst significant increases of refugee numbers ... are not currently expected, much will depend on whether a political solution to the conflict can be delivered or found.
“Peace is essential, but for that we need global responsibility and solidarity shared.”
The EU is to hold a summit on the Syria crisis in Brussels next week. A group of 28 aid agencies including Oxfam, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee have urged the US, European and other governments to reverse recent measures that limit refugees’ right to asylum.
The group warned that territorial gains by the regime of Bashar al-Assad should not be used to compel refugees to return to Syria.
It said: “Syria is not a safe place for millions of refugees to return to. The prevailing conditions which caused people to flee in the first place still exist in the country and any returns that are not voluntary or safe run contrary to international law.”
Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, urged nations to honour existing promises of help and to do more to help. “To meet this challenge, we not only need additional places but also need to accelerate the implementation of existing pledges,” he said.
Last year, a pledge conference in Geneva agreed to resettle 10%, or 500,000, of all Syrian refugees by 2018. So far, only 250,000 places have been made available.
“These generous pledges are a welcome and important symbol of solidarity and responsibility sharing by the international community. If we are to achieve our goal, we now need to accelerate these efforts in 2017 and beyond,” Grandi said.
- This article was amended on 30 March 2017 to make clear that the five million referred just to refugees from Syria who have fled to neighbouring countries.
Source: The Guardian