UNHCR Middle East and North Africa Bureau Director Amin Awad: Return of Syrian refugees should not be linked to political processes
UNHCR Middle East and North Africa Bureau Director and Regional Refugee Coordinator for the Iraq and Syria Situations Amin Awad has visited Moscow for consultations with representatives of various Russian agencies and given an interview to Interfax in which he speaks about the humanitarian situation in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, as well as the migrant crisis in Europe.Question: Mr. Awad, let’s talk about your visit to Moscow. What topics did you discuss with the Russian government?
Answer: The Middle East now has so many crises. We have the crisis that ended with ISIS in Iraq, we have the conflict that’s going on in Libya, we have the conflict that’s going on in Yemen, we have this cross-Mediterranean movement of hundreds of thousands of people during the last few years, we have the Syrian conflict, the refugee issues. It was mostly the Syria issue that I have discussed with the government. Now that the conflict is in the new stage, hostilities went down, and there is a new phase in the country.
Q.: Russia has been long advocating for the return of Syrian refugees to start as soon as possible. However, the European countries say the time hasn’t come yet and insist that the political process should move forward first. What is the UNHCR’s position on the matter?
A.: We have never linked the movement of refugees to political processes, nor political settlement. We linked it for years to conditions inside the country that are conducive to the return, [meaning] that the environment should be conducive in the sense that refugees would have physical security, safety, that they would return in dignity and return voluntarily. And it is their decision, so we cannot link it to anything.
Q.: On the whole how do you assess the current humanitarian conditions in Syria?
A.: We work with the government of Syria to remove obstacles to the return. There remain obstacles. There are mines, there is mass destruction, there are also issues with livelihood, services and so on and so forth, and we work with the government of Syria to remove those and to create conditions or the environment that is conducive to the return of refugees and the [internally displaced persons] IDPs.
Q.: In your opinion how soon could these conditions be met?
A.: Some people have already returned fr om Lebanon and Jordan, whatever they hear fr om their relatives, friends and neighbors about the conditions, situation, and environment there - they make their own decision.
Q.: And what are the figures at the moment, how many refugees are located in the neighboring countries and how many have returned?
A.: We have five or six million people in the surrounding countries, and people who are returning, there are thousands of them, not too many. I think that the return will pick up the pace as people feel more comfortable going to their homes as conditions or the environment becomes more conducive.
Q.: How much money would it cost, according to your assessment, to bring them back? Does your agency need any additional funding to help the displaced return to their homes?
A.: Absolutely. There is a need for money for the recovery, for reintegration, for rehabilitation, for services, be it house and kitchen, livelihood, electricity – light is very important as people need light for safety, for movement from one place to another, for education. So there is a lot of humanitarian infrastructure that needs to be repaired and put in order, and there are many other issues that refugees think about, their livelihood for example, education for their children.
Q.: But have you made an estimate, do you have specific figures?
A.: If you ask the development and rehabilitation kind of agencies - they have that plan of infrastructure, if you ask us - we make assessment of what it takes reintegrate refugees and the IDP’s. But we don‘t have a total figure yet, and our assessment is continuing.
Q.: In your opinion what is Russia’s role in this process? Do you think it played a positive role in bringing refugees back?
A.: Yes, they are playing a positive role, also as a broker in the peace process. And being it has presence in Syria they have been very much vocal and active in coordinating with all to ensure that people do go back, but they also agree that they should go back on the UN-shared conditions and principles, which is in safety, dignity, voluntarily.
Q.: Let’s turn to the Rukban refugee camp. We’ve seen reports from Geneva that the next UN humanitarian convoy is about to be dispatched to the area. Can you name the dates?
A.: I don‘t have the dates, but think I can tell you that the situation in Rukban should be solved, and that refugees and internally displaced persons should return to their homes. The situation now, this winter, with many people there living in very critical conditions, we should not extend the situation by providing assistance month after month but by trying to find solutions to every person, every family there to go back to their homes.
Q.: And what about United Stated, do they stick to their commitments in terms of ensuring safety of the convoys?
A.: With the first convoy we did from Syria, it was very safe, all the parties committed themselves, and the convoy was successful. Now the situation does not need a convoy after convoy. The situation needs to be solved, it needs a solution.
Q.: Does it mean that you support the initiative to dismantle the camp – there were talks about it between Jordan, USA and Russia, do you think it has a chance to move forward?
A.: I think that it all depends on the people. And they have the contention survey of the people in the camp, and they talk about wh ere they are coming from, what are the problems at home, why they cannot go back and try to find very specialized assistance to support each and every family in the camp.
Q.: Do you share Moscow’s concern that the camp is becoming a safe haven for the terrorists?
A.: Well, that is not to be confirmed by us. We are not military, we are not on the ground, we went in to visit, to deliver. But one has to be very careful, if the situation gets out of control and there are bad elements there to keep people against their will, than that is a concern, an international concern.
Q.: Let’s turn to Lebanon – there was a certain conflict between the Lebanese authorities and the UNHCR over the refugee plan, has it been resolved?
A.: Yes. That was a misunderstanding actually. There hasn‘t been a problem. I think that now we and the government of Lebanon, the government of Russia and the Syrian government, we kind of converged on the principle of return, on the roadmap, on the processes and the time it takes for those people to return voluntarily, in safety and in dignity.
Q.: So the situation is fully resolved?
Q.: Is the situation with the refugees heading to Europe through Libya still critical or is it becoming better?
A.: The numbers have gone down, and it has become better. But I think that one has to look at the sources of this problem, why people are moving in the first place and why smugglers and traffickers are targeting people to move. I think that the business model of these smugglers and traffickers has to be defeated by addressing the root causes, and the root cause is that many people are in need of economic support that is why they move. Some others are moving because of prosecution, they are fleeing wars and they should be given a free access to really cross borders and seek refuge. But mostly people who are coming through the Mediterranean (especially the Central Mediterranean) into Europe are migrants, not refugees.
Q.: Do you talk to the Libyan authorities about this problem? The country is divided, do you maintain dialogue with all of the factions to solve the crisis?
A.: We deal with government departments that deal with the issues of refugees and migrants and deal with the reception of refugees and IDPs, and we deal also with the government department that are dealing with IDPs - Libya also has hundreds of thousands of IDPs, not migrants. And we need to support them, we need to assist them to go home, we need to assist them wh ere they are displaced. So, Libyan people themselves also need support. The focus is always on the migrants, on the refugees, on the foreigners, but Libyans themselves need help. We are in touch with many authorities in Libya provided that they have a legitimate business to do with us, as far as assistance and protection of people is concerned.
Q.: What is your assessment of the humanitarian situation in Yemen? Now that the talks are underway in Sweden do you think it will get better?
A.: The humanitarian situation there is dire, but I think it is not late to reverse the encroachment of famine provided that the national committee deploys very quickly humanitarian missions to cover the whole country and also deals with the situation as it is. Now that the talks are continuing I don‘t want to dwell into Yemen in order for us not to interrupt the talks.