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U.S. Deputy Secretary Burns Speaks at UNHCR Excom High-Level Segment
September 30, 2013

Deputy Secretary William Burns speaking at the UNHCR Executive Committee


by Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns

Geneva, Switzerland
September 30, 2013 

Good afternoon.  High Commissioner Guterres – thank you for convening this important meeting to discuss what you have rightly called “a disgraceful humanitarian calamity… unparalleled in recent history.”  I also want to thank the representatives from governments hosting Syria’s refugees for their extraordinary leadership and generosity.

The scale and scope of the crisis in Syria is staggering.  We are witnessing the world’s largest mass displacement in over three decades.  More people have been displaced from Syria than from genocide in Rwanda or ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

The demographic landscape of the region is transforming in front of our eyes.  Seven million Syrians — a third of the country’s entire population — have fled their homes.  More than two million of them are identified refugees — half of them, children.  Countless more have fled Syria to seek shelter and safety elsewhere but remain unidentified, unregistered, and all too often untouched by assistance.

Refugee flows are also transforming the region’s physical landscape as camps grow to the size of cities, and cities and villages grow ever more crowded with refugees.  Za’atri camp in Jordan is today that country’s fourth largest city.  In Lebanon, one out of every four people is a Syrian refugee. And many more refugees live outside of camps in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon than inside of them.

These demographic and physical transformations are placing an enormous strain on host government and communities.  And they threaten to exacerbate already serious resource, security and economic challenges across the region.  Our goal today is not just to raise awareness about these challenges but also to commit to an action plan to address them.

First, we need to increase our humanitarian assistance inside Syria.  At great personal risk and despite enormous obstacles, international and Syrian humanitarian workers are saving lives throughout Syria.  We need to do more to ensure our aid moves across battle lines and across borders and reaches the most conflict-affected areas and the most vulnerable populations.  It is high time for the Security Council to speak with one voice to demand unfettered humanitarian access.

Second, we need to increase our support to governments and communities hosting Syrian refugees.  The hard truth is that the Syrian conflict is no longer just a humanitarian emergency – it is a protracted crisis.  Our assistance should reflect the changing nature of the crisis.   United Nations relief efforts must be expanded and linked to economic development and stabilization undertaken by international financial institutions and development agencies.

Third, a critical task in the weeks and months ahead is to provide more comprehensive protection for those who need our protection the most – especially women, children, and refugees living outside of camps, in cities and villages across the region.  To be effective, we must link today’s challenges to those over the horizon.  We cannot be content with simply alleviating suffering – we need to ensure that Syria’s refugees and their host communities are prepared to recover and rebuild as well.

We should begin by redoubling our efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, human trafficking, and forced or early marriage of Syrian women and girls.  We are already funding nongovernmental and international organizations to mitigate this crisis through adequate medical care and counseling, targeted financial assistance, public advocacy campaigns, and safe shelter.  But more needs to be done.

Last week, Secretary Kerry announced a new U.S. initiative, Safe from the Start, which asks UNHCR, ICRC, and other aid agencies to add protection of women and girls to the short-list of priority actions at the onset of emergencies.  Our new funding will enable our partners to hire specialized staff, conduct more training, and deploy new and innovative programs at the earliest stages of our response.  Some of these measures will take time, but Safe from the Start can make a real difference in the near-term.  We know we have many allies, but we look to others to join us in this important effort.

We also need to do more to protect Syria’s youngest refugees.  According to a UNHCR survey, 20% of schools in Syria have either been damaged, destroyed, or are now being used as shelter, and more than one hundred Syrian teachers and educational staff have been killed.  Almost two million Syrian children have dropped out of school to support their families.

There are obvious implications for the health and safety of these children.  Extended interruptions in learning and the trauma of displacement will take a serious and long-lasting toll on their development.   We need to focus more of our attention on programs to provide children with safe spaces to play, learn, and heal from the trauma of violence and displacement.  We need to make sure that they are not preyed on by extremist groups and militias.  And we need to make sure that they do not resort to begging or informal work that leaves them exposed to further violence and abuse.

There is also an immediate need to aid the non-camp refugees who make up the vast majority of Syria’s refugees.  In fact, the Syrian crisis is one the largest urban refugee emergencies in history.  Reaching non-camp populations is a relatively new challenge.  It requires outreach, identification and registration of refugees in host communities, mapping of services and referral networks, support for livelihoods, and coordination with municipal authorities, local civil society, and development agencies.

We recognize that Syrian refugees place enormous strains on host governments and communities and can exacerbate already serious security and economic challenges.  We urge host countries to refrain from restricting or closing their borders, and to offer refuge to all those fleeing the conflict, including vulnerable Palestinian and Iraqi refugees from Syria.

Finally, we need to answer the High Commissioner’s call for additional funding.  The United States is proud to be the single-largest contributor of humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people.  Last week at the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama announced an additional $339 million – more than half of which will go to Syria’s neighbors.  This brings our total contribution to well over one billion dollars — one-third of the total international response.  We are pleased that a number of countries announced additional assistance at the United Nations General Assembly last week.  We call on other donors to join us in this time of great need by increasing their assistance and channeling it through UNHCR and other reputable international organizations.

The way in which the governments and peoples across the region have so generously opened their homes, schools, and communities to millions of Syrian refugees has inspired us all.  As the nature of the conflict and the humanitarian crisis continues to evolve, so must our response.  But one thing ought to remain constant – our enduring commitment to Syria’s refugees and to all those who offer them protection.

Thank you very much.