Refugee aid groups at 'breaking point'

Head of UN refugee agency deplores lack of capacity, political will to end conflicts

A Syrian refugee in distress after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos in an overcrowded dinghy in September.
A Syrian refugee in distress after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos in an overcrowded dinghy in September.PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA • Humanitarian organisations attempting to help the soaring numbers of people fleeing conflicts and natural disasters around the world are at "a breaking point", UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres has warned.

"In the last few years, we have seen a staggering escalation of displacement caused both by conflict and by natural hazards," he told a conference in Geneva on Wednesday on the root causes of displacement.

Conflicts and serious crises are raging in 27 countries, and six of them - in the Central African Republic, Burundi, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen - have spilled over to surrounding regions, bringing the total number of countries currently in peril to a staggering 37, the UN said earlier this month.

The conflicts have forced more than 60 million people to flee their homes worldwide, with those escaping violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan especially sparking Europe's biggest migration crisis since World War II.

"The fact that we are seeing so many new crises breaking out, without any of the old ones getting resolved, clearly illustrates the lack of capacity and political will to end conflict, let alone prevent it," Mr Guterres said, pointing out that the number of people forced to flee daily due to conflict and persecution nearly quadrupled between 2010 and 2014.

  • 37

    countries are in peril because of conflicts and crises

  • 60m

    people have been forced to flee their homes

"The result is an alarming proliferation of unpredictability and impunity," he warned.

At the same time, the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events like floods, storms, cyclones and droughts are destroying more livelihoods and pushing even more people to migrate.

"The resulting steep rise in humanitarian needs far exceeds the capacity of the international humanitarian community to provide the minimum core protection and life-saving assistance to all those affected," said Mr Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who is due to complete his 10-year tenure next month.

He urged the international community to stop treating the two main causes of displacement "in silos", stressing that they are intimately intertwined and must be addressed together.

"Violent conflicts, just like human rights violations and persecution, do not erupt in a vacuum," he said, pointing out for instance that the drought that displaced 1.5 million Syrians from rural to urban areas between 2007 and 2010 contributed to the tensions that set off the ongoing devastating conflict.

"The moment has come for a radical change in international efforts to address displacement," he said, warning that the humanitarian organisations trying to respond to the towering needs "are at a breaking point".

"We must stop just dealing with the consequences of displacement, and seriously start tackling its root causes," he said.

The UN official's call came ahead of a European Union summit yesterday, where leaders were due to debate a controversial plan for a new EU force that could shore up borders without the host country's consent to stem a record flow of migrants, including refugees from war zones like Syria.

Amid rising populism and fears that the EU's Schengen passport-free zone could collapse, a divided EU has held a string of emergency summits on the crisis this year to find a solution.

The latest scheme is a new border and coastguard force with 1,500 quick-reaction agents and the "right to intervene" in states that are not protecting their borders properly - whether or not that country agrees.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2015, with the headline 'Refugee aid groups at 'breaking point''. Subscribe