Geneva: UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday called for greater global efforts to tackle the Syrian refugee crisis, as he opened a conference on securing resettlement places for nearly half a million of those displaced by the five-year conflict.
“We are here to address the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time,” Ban told the conference in Geneva. “This demands an exponential increase in global solidarity.”
The UN secretary general, a South Korean, recalled his own experience of fleeing his village with his family as a six-year-old during the Korean War sixty years ago and said that for him stories of refugees stranded in camps with meagre resources “have personal meaning.”
“Attempts to demonise people fleeing conflict are not only demeaning, offensive and counter-productive, they are factually wrong,” Ban told journalists after his speech, in an apparent reference to rising anti-migrant rhetoric voiced by some political leaders across the developed world.
The Geneva meet follows a conference in London in February where nations pledged $11 billion (9.7 billion euros) to help manage one of the largest displacements of people since World War II.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that 4.8 million Syrians have fled the country during its five-year civil war, with another 6.6 million people internally displaced.
While calling for a humane approach to care for those displaced, the UN chief stressed that a peace deal must be part of a lasting solution.
“There is no alternative to negotiating a political transition that will lead to a new Syria,” Ban said.
Talks led by Ban’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura paused last week, but the sides remained deadlocked over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the opposition insists must leave power before a transitional government is agreed.
Jihadist forces including the Islamic State group, which is excluded from the peace process, continue to be targeted in the Russian-backed regime’s offensives.
Soldiers were locked in heavy fighting with IS fighters on Wednesday in central Syria after dealing the jihadists a major blow by seizing the ancient city of Palmyra.
A ceasefire between Damascus and non-jihadist opposition forces has broadly held since February 27, but isolated clashes persist in the conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people.
– 10 percent –
The aim of the Geneva meet is to secure relocation pledges from countries — excluding Syria’s neighbours — for 10 percent of Syria’s refugees, or 480,000 people, within three years.
Ban said the 480,000 figure was “a relatively small number,” compared with those being hosted by Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
The British charity Oxfam on Tuesday noted that wealthy countries had so far only resettled 67,100 Syrian refugees — a mere 1.39 percent of those forced to flee.
It identified Canada, Germany and Norway as the only countries who have promised to go beyond their “fair share.”
– EU-Turkey deal –
The UN continues to voice concerns over a deal agreed between Turkey and the European Union, under which all migrants landing on the Greek islands face being sent back to Turkey.
UNHCR and the UN’s rights office have warned that the deal might violate some migrants’ legal right to asylum.
Noting concerns about the deal, Ban described it as “a good start”, as it demonstrated engagement from the EU and Ankara on the Syria refugee issue.
UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi, speaking after Ban, noted that the pact included a larger resettlement programme and therefore may prove to have positive elements in the weeks ahead.
More than one million migrants — about half of them Syrians — reached Europe via the Mediterranean last year, a rate of arrivals that has continued through the first three months of 2016.
Thousands have died making the harrowing journey, often on rickety boats run by people smugglers.
Some European states have temporarily shut borders and called for tough measures to stem the movement of people through the continent.
Ban argued that migrants should be viewed as assets, noting “the famous refugee work ethic” while arguing that welcoming migrants “provides the best way to safeguard economic success as populations (in Europe) grow older.”