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Syrians arrive at a camp for internally displaced persons on the outskirts of Azaz town, 5 kilometers south of Bab al-Salam and Turkey’s closed Öncüpınar border post on February 6, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

(Geneva) – Representatives of 92 countries failed to pledge more than a slight increase in resettlement places for Syrian refugees at a high-level UN meeting on March 30, 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the meeting’s host, had asked for a dramatic increase in resettlement pledges, to 480,000, for Syrian refugees over the next three years.

Countries have made a total of 179,000 pledges for Syrian resettlement and other forms of legal admission since 2013. As of the end of February, only 25,142 people had actually been admitted in response to those pledges. But the high-level meeting produced pledges for only 6,000 more refugee and humanitarian admissions.

“The Syrian refugee conference might more accurately have been named ‘Global Responsibility Avoidance,’” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, which are carrying the load for the rest of the world on Syrian refugees, didn’t even leave with so much as empty promises, as one government after another backed off.”

UNHCR had called for a combination of resettlement pledges and other safe and legal pathways, such as humanitarian visas and private sponsorship, to accommodate 10 percent of the 4.8 million Syrian refugees in the region. The meeting fell well short of that goal. Key resettlement countries, such as the United States and Australia, made no additional pledges over existing commitments. Other important countries, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, have made no refugee resettlement pledges whatsoever – Russia said it would provide 300 student scholarships and Saudi Arabia said it already hosts one million Syrian “guests.” Last July, the European Union agreed to resettle 22,500 Syrian refugees from the region over the next two years. As of today, 4,555 have been admitted.

The backdrop to the Geneva meeting is the European Union-Turkey agreement, which calls for the return of all Syrian refugees arriving irregularly on the Greek islands, while resettling one other Syrian refugee in Turkey for each one sent back there.

In addressing the high-level meeting, the high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said, “Opening safe and regular pathways for admission can never be a substitute for countries’ fundamental responsibilities under international law toward people directly seeking asylum on their territory.”

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