UN Syrian refugee resettlement conference yields few initial pledges

Wealthy countries promised only 7,000 new places for resettling Syrian refugees from the Middle East at a UN pledging conference on Wednesday, getting UN efforts to create several hundred thousand such places off to a slow start.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had convened more than 90 countries in Geneva to lobby for the raising of resettlement pledges from currently 178,000 to 480,000 in the coming three years.

However, UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi ended the conference on an optimistic note.

The high commissioner for refugees said that resettlement pledges had not only risen to 185,000 by Wednesday evening, but that governments had also presented additional scholarship, family reunification and humanitarian visa programmes for Syrians.

"Altogether they could provide solutions to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees," he said.

Countries will have other opportunities to pledge safe and legal immigration pathways for Syrians in the coming months, including a UN summit on major migration flows in September in New York, Grandi said.

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.

"If Lebanon itself fails and is crushed under this burden, it might itself be a source of concern for the high commissioner for refugees," Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Rachid Derbas pointed out.

"We are here to address the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time," UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon said. "This demands an exponential increase in global solidarity," he added.

Grandi stressed that the 480,000 spots requested by UNHCR are no substitute for countries' obligations to process asylum requests filed on their territories.

The resettlement schemes and other visa programmes are aimed especially at vulnerable groups including women, children and people with medical needs.

On Wednesday, Italy and Sweden were among the few countries that offered to expand their long-term resettlement and integration programmes, while other countries offered additional visas on humanitarian grounds and scholarships.

Germany and Canada are 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.

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 - 21:14

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