OTTAWA — The United Nations is bracing for a further increase in the number of refugees this year, as last month’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria adds to a series of crises that has the world looking to Canada for more help.
“The need around the world is enormous,” said Kelly Clements, the UN’s deputy high commissioner for refugees, on a visit to Canada this week.
“It’s the beginning of what we anticipate will be another very difficult year.”
Clements was touring the Middle East last month when the massive earthquake struck, and she headed for the large Syrian city of Aleppo in the immediate aftermath.
She said the shaking woke up UNHCR staff in the early hours of Feb. 6, and they ran into the streets in their bedclothes, standing in the damp snow.
“Despite some of our colleagues losing their houses, having damaged property, worried about loved ones and so on, everybody was back at the office that day,” she said.
“You can see apartment buildings where you could slice a knife through and see household effects, people’s clothes, mirrors on the wall, dressers, etc.”
The Syrian civil war has been underway since 2011 and Clements said parts of Aleppo have sat in ruins for half that time as the “frozen conflict” restored relative peace to that part of the country.
Many parts of Syria are held by warring groups, making the country’s response much slower than Turkey’s instant mobilization of government support. It took the Syrian government a week to loosen up its policy of heavily restricting border crossings, which further delayed the arrival of humanitarian aid.
Still, the UNHCR was able to pull from programs across the Middle East and is now focused on setting up housing. Clements said the agency needs funding to arrange programming for orphans and separated children, as well as for protecting women from gender-based violence.
“Our biggest concern is that when the spotlight is no longer on the earthquake response, even though the tremors may be gone, the needs will still be there,” Clements said.
“These are people that are going to need long-term support from the international community in order to rebuild their lives. It’s not just about rebuilding structures.”
Syria had 21 million citizens when its civil war started 12 years ago. Now, 6.8 million Syrians are internally displaced and 5 million are refugees in other countries.
“Some of our most underfunded programs in the world were part of the Syria situation,” Clements said.
“It has been easy for eyes of the world to move to other contexts that were more topical, more recent, more understandable — but there is no less need in a serious situation.”
Across the border in Lebanon, 1.5 million Syrians are languishing in a country where one-fifth of residents are refugees from other states, the highest proportion on the planet.
Clements, a former American diplomat in Beirut, recalled packing her own medicines on a recent visit, because of the lack of available supply in the country.
Lebanon was years into political deadlock when a large part of its main port exploded in 2020. Inflation has rendered poor nearly all refugees in the country, as well as many Lebanese citizens, Clements said.
“It’s crisis upon crisis in Lebanon, some of its own making in terms of governance,” she said.
She noted that Lebanese people are increasingly shifting from hosting refugees from neighbouring states to fleeing their own country on rickety boats, with the number of deaths at sea rising threefold from 2021 to 2022.
“It tells you the kind of desperation that people have gone to,” she said.
Meanwhile, another frozen conflict in Yemen has produced a humanitarian disaster, as a global appeal for aid reached only a third of its goal this week.
The UN sought US$4.3 billion to restore adequate food, water and health services, but only received US$1.2 billion at a Monday pledging conference.
The country is beset by a violent civil war, an economic blockade and increasingly severe natural disasters. Save the Children argued the funding shortfall “will have a negative impact on the lives of millions of children in Yemen and on the long-term stability of the country.”
On Monday, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan announced $46 million for this year’s Yemen appeal, which has Canada following a global trend of declining funding over the past three years.
“It’s fallen largely off the radar of the international community, and still hugely in need of humanitarian support,” Clements said.
Her agency recorded 65 million displaced people around the globe in 2015, a number that has ballooned past 100 million and by “a conservative estimate” will reach 120 million by the end of 2023, nearly a doubling in eight years.
She commended Canada for being one of the top funders of the UNHCR and for resettling some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees whose needs can’t be met in many developing countries.
But she also is hoping Ottawa increases funding for these needs in the next federal budget.
“We need Canada to be with us even more in 2023 than they were in 2022.”
She argues UNHCR programming has restored dignity to people across the globe by resolving their immediate needs and empowering them to take up employment.
Closer to home, an uptick in asylum seekers entering Canada at Roxham Road has Quebec urging Ottawa to somehow close the unofficial border crossing.
Already, the federal government is busing hundreds of asylum claimants to Ontario and Quebec media have highlighted the lack of safe housing in Montreal for newcomers.
While Clements doesn’t follow Canadian politics, she said she’s confident the country will remain open to helping people in need.
“Canada has traditionally been an incredibly generous country with people, welcoming with open arms refugees, asylum seekers and others,” she said.
“I’m very confident that Canada can find ways to be able to continue to welcome those that need its international protection.”