Europe must accept more refugees, UN tells regional leaders

Refugees Welcome graffiti in Nicosia, where the ARLEM plenary was held. [James Crisp/Flickr]

Europe must accept more refugees, and offer more financial support to countries neighbouring Syria, if it wishes to alleviate the migration crisis, the United Nations today (19 January) told EU and Mediterranean city leaders.

Damtew Dessalegne, of the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said that countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan had been hardest hit by the influx of people fleeing Syria’s brutal civil war.

“We recognise countries neighbouring Syria have made the most fundamental contribution of all in response to refugee crisis to their great expense,” Dessalegne told delegates at the Euro-Mediterranean Regional and Local Assembly (ARLEM) in Nicosia, Cyprus.

“Humanitarian aid from the EU has been unquestionably generous but it is not enough,” he said, “[the situation] also needs Europe to accept more refugees.”

ARLEM brings together local authorities from the three shores of the Mediterranean, including members of the EU’s Committee of the Regions. It will submit a report, including the UN evidence, to the European Union.

Dessalegne said the number of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide exceeded 60 million, the most seen after World War 2.

“One in every 132 people in the world today is someone who has been forced to flee their home,” he told city leaders.

Syria’s civil war remained the single largest source of refugees on the planet. 11 million people have fled Syria, with 4.4 million fleeing to neighbouring countries.

6 million refugees were children, according to the UN. More than half of those living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Syria are children.

A dramatic shortfall in humanitarian aid had forced many Syrian refugees into debt, said Dessalegne. “Nine in ten Syrians live below the respective poverty lines, this has a particularly devastating impact on children. Only half of refugee children are in school,” he said.

“In this situation, Europe appears like a salvation,” he added, explaining why so many chose to make the dangerous journey to the EU.

This had led to chaotic scenes with thousands trekking through the EU. Although the bloc had ignored repeated warnings about the migration crisis over five years by countries such as Greece, the European Commission had taken steps to address the crisis in a more co-ordinated manner, he said. 

The leaders of the 28 EU member states, and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davuto?lu, agreed in November last year a deal to stem the flow of refugees to Europe, coupled with an unfreezing of accession negotiations, and an initial €3 billion assistance package.

>>Read: EU and Turkey agree on €3 billion refugee deal

Amman city manager Fawzi Masad told EURACTIV that Jordan needed more EU funds to cope with the crisis.

>>Read: We need more EU money to cope with the refugee crisis

The Euro-Mediterranean Regional and Local Assembly (ARLEM) is holding its plenary session in Nicosia, Cyprus. ARLEM brings together local authorities from the three shores of the Mediterranean, including members of the EU’s Committee of the Regions.

The European Union has agreed on a plan, resisted by Hungary and several other ex-Communist members of the bloc, to share out 120,000 refugees among its members, a small proportion of the million plus refugees that reached Europe's borders from the Middle East, Africa and Asia in 2015.

The EU is also courting Turkey with the promise of money, visa-free travel, and new accession talks if Ankara tries to stem the flow of refugees across its territory.

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