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Enhanced support for Syria refugees vital amid COVID-19 pandemic – UNHCR chief

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UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi tells donors enhanced support is needed to prevent refugees and their hosts from slipping “deeper into poverty and despair.”

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called on Tuesday for greater support for countries hosting Syrians displaced by nearly a decade of conflict, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation even more difficult.

“Very grave economic crises are gathering pace, and persistent gaps and vulnerabilities are being exposed. And after nearly a decade of sheltering some of the world’s most vulnerable people, host countries and communities have been hard hit,” Grandi said.

He was speaking by video link to the Brussels IV Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region.

The scale of displacement triggered by the war in Syria is vast, he said. Globally, the number of people forcibly displaced by conflict, violence and persecution has doubled over the last decade to 80 million. One in every six is Syrian, including 5.5 million living as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt and millions more who are displaced inside their own country.

The pandemic has exacerbated those challenges, Grandi said, citing the example of Lebanon, a country that hosts nearly 900,000 Syrian refugees and has one of the highest concentrations of refugees in the world.

“In Lebanon, seven out of 10 of refugee households have lost their livelihoods, and are barely surviving. They are more afraid of hunger than of the coronavirus. Women and children are especially exposed. Mounting economic pressures generate tensions and undermine social cohesion,” Grandi said.

He urged donor countries to provide an enhanced aid package in support of host countries. The Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (the 3RP), for which US$6 billion is required in 2020, was just 20 per cent funded prior to the conference.

Bilateral development support and investments by international financial institutions also remains vital, he said, noting the importance of UNHCR’s collaboration with the World Bank.

“We cannot afford to let refugees, and their hosts, slip deeper into poverty and despair, with consequences that will reverberate, that are reverberating already, across the region and beyond,” he said.

He also noted that refugees continue to speak of a future back in Syria, while at the same time speaking of concens that they wish to see addressed, ncluding security, rights, and shelter as well as access to education, health care and work. He called for support to refugees who freely choose to exercise their right to return, noting that UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, will continue to work with the Syrian Government and others to improve the situations of communities they are returning to.

“It is vital that such returns are freely chosen, and not driven by despair or pressures in host countries, Grandi said. He added that allowing sustained humanitarian access would help build confidence among refugees.

This week’s conference in Belgium is the fourth annual gathering aimed at coordinating international support for Syrian refugees an