The rush of millions of people to gain refuge in Europe during the Syrian civil war has permanently transformed the worldwide response to those forced to flee their homeland, the UN refugee chief said on Monday.
Filippo Grandi said the era of refugees isolated and dependent on basic supplies in refugee camps was eclipsed in the Syrian crisis. Instead a unique response emerged, in the region as well as in Europe, that has focused on integrating Syrians and Iraqis into cities.
“The Syrian crisis was a turning point in so many ways,” Mr Grandi said in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. “Not just because of the scale with 6-8 million Syrians forced out of the country. Not just its intractable character. Because so many moved toward Europe and found refuge in cities.
“This led to a groundbreaking response centred around inclusion, education and jobs, with mixed but important results. For Syrians this means in Lebanon, this means in Jordan and this means in Turkey.”
Four out of five of the 60 million refugees on the planet fled towns and cities and ended up in urban areas. A new set of global agreements – one for refugees and one for migrants – are being drawn up to provide a framework for integrating new arrivals into cities.
The landmark New York Declaration at the UN General Assembly last year called for officials to bring forward the blueprints, which are supposed to go beyond the traditional humanitarian response. Diplomats engaged in the project hope to start active negotiations next year and for the compacts to be concluded and ratified within a few years.
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Mr Grandi said the new model for integrating refugees was already emerging on the ground. He was keen to take an integration-led approach with the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar. The compacts that emerge from the New York Declaration would provide important legal backing for refugees to be given new opportunities to rebuild their lives in the cities.
“The Global Compact for Refugees and the Global Compact for Migration take on these key concepts,” he said. “Inclusion is the name of the game.”
The high commissioner for refugees appeared at a series of events on Monday to promote his initiative. At the Concordia Summit for Sustainable Development Goals, Mr Grandi urged business engagement with refugees. He also called for educationalists, sports bodies and faith leaders to have a redefined role.
After a meeting with mayors from around the world, he said: “Cities are front-line players in dealing with refugees — UNHCR ready to step up its engagement with mayors around the world.”
Andreas Hollstein, the mayor of Altena, Germany, said that contrary to worldwide perceptions, European cities needed and welcomed the refugees who had arrived since 2015.
“Given the demographic changes in northern European economies it makes much sense to integrate refugees in our towns and cities,” he said. “This is not a one-way street for us. We will need to get to know other cultures, other religions and we will all be richer for it.”
Mr Grandi said he had reacted to the US debate over sanctuary cities, in which some are refusing to comply with president Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal aliens, by trying to highlight the urban lifestyle that most modern refugees have lost.
“Many of them flee from cities. I reacted to events in the United States by going to Aleppo and standing in front of the ruins and making a point: that many of the people coming from here had normal lives until they were destroyed by war,” he said.
Kasam Reed, the mayor of Atlanta, warned that politicians and officials had to be more active in resisting hostility to refugees and migrants. “We are being outpassioned by some folks with very nasty motives,” he said. “We need to raise our voices now.”