New UNHCR boss seeks mass resettlement of Syrians from border states as Germany closes door to North Africans


The new chief of the U.N. refugee agency said Monday the world should find a fairer formula for sharing the burden of Syria’s crisis, including taking in tens of thousands of refugees from overwhelmed regional host nations.

Filippo Grandi, who assumed his post earlier this month, heads an agency grappling with mounting challenges as Syria’s five-year-old civil war drags on. Humanitarian aid lags more and more behind growing global needs, including those caused by the Syrian conflict.

More than 4 million Syrians have fled their homeland, the bulk living in increasingly difficult conditions in neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, while hundreds of thousands have flooded into Europe.

Grandi came to Jordan after a stop in Turkey. Later this week, he is due in Lebanon. He visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan after meeting with King Abdullah II in the capital, Amman.

His agency, UNHCR, hopes to raise money for refugees at a London pledging conference in February, followed by an international gathering in March in Geneva where countries would commit to taking in more refugees.

“I think we need to be much more ambitious” about resettling refugees, Grandi said. “We are talking about large numbers … in the tens of thousands.”

“What is needed is a better sharing of responsibilities, internationally, for a crisis that cannot only concern the countries neighboring Syria,” he said.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees entered Europe in 2015, often with the help of smugglers who ferried them across the Mediterranean in dangerous voyages.

Grandi said it was time to create legal ways for some refugees to leave overburdened host countries.

Grandi and his Jordanian hosts also discussed a potentially contentious issue — the fate of some 17,000 refugees who have amassed on the Syrian-Jordanian border, with numbers rising rapidly in recent months.

They are stranded in a remote desert area, with Jordan only admitting several dozen each day after stringent security checks. UNHCR has warned that the refugees face deteriorating conditions, including lack of adequate shelter.

Jordanian government spokesman Mohammed Momani said Sunday that Jordan believes Islamic State supporters are among the refugees, many of whom fled areas of Syria currently under Islamic State control.

Momani said Jordan’s security is a priority, suggesting a change in the current admissions policy is unlikely. He said aid workers are given access to the area and that Jordan will fly the refugees to any country willing to accept them.

Momani said Jordan has not shifted from what it calls an “open border policy” toward refugees, even though the number of admissions has dropped sharply since the early days of the Syria conflict.

Grandi said Monday he has “asked for is for this rhythm of admissions (to Jordan) to increase and to be expedited,” and that the dialogue with Jordan is constructive.

Andrew Harper, the UNHCR chief in Jordan, said the agency is trying to address Jordanian security concerns, but “we will not set up a camp in an insecure environment” on the border.

Germany meanwhile wants to limit migration from North Africa by declaring Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia “safe countries,” officials from the ruling coalition said on Monday, cutting their citizens’ chance of being granted asylum to virtually zero.

The initiative follows outrage over sexual attacks on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve blamed predominantly on North African migrants that sharpened a national debate about the open-door refugee policy adopted by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Europe’s most populous country and largest economy has borne the brunt of the continent’s biggest refugee influx since World War II. Some 1.1 million asylum seekers arrived in the country in 2015, most fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Merkel’s conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), agreed on Monday that Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia — troubled by unrest rather than full-blown conflict — should be designated safe countries.

The step is intended to reduce the number of arrivals from these countries and make deportations easier, CDU general Peter Tauber said after a meeting of senior party members.

Earlier on Monday, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Berlin wanted to discuss with other European Union states designating Morocco and Algeria as safe countries.

On Sunday, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said Berlin could cut development aid to countries that are not willing to take back citizens whose asylum applications were rejected.

Asked about Germany’s policy toward Algeria and Morocco, Gabriel told ARD television: “There cannot be a situation where you take the development aid but do not accept your own citizens when they can’t get asylum here because they have no reason to flee their country.”

To help integrate refugees and defuse social tensions that have escalated since the Cologne attacks, Gabriel called on Monday for an extra €5 billion ($5.45 billion) a year in public spending on police, education and daycare.

“We can only manage the double task of integration, namely accommodating the new arrivals and also preserving the cohesion of our society, if we have a strong state capable of acting,” he said after a meeting of his senior Social Democrats (SPD), the coalition partner in Merkel’s government.

He said Germany needed 9,000 more police, 25,000 new teachers and 15,000 day care workers, while funds for public housing should be doubled.

His proposal is expected to be approved at federal and state level in coming months.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble wants to avoid the government taking on new debt in 2016, but he has admitted this may be difficult due to the ballooning refugee costs.

Part of those costs will be covered with the surplus from last year’s budget, which was a bigger-than-expected €12.1 billion.