Interview with Panos Moumtzis, UNHCR Regional Coordinator for Syrian Refugees

The humanitarian situation in Syria is  “quite complex and dangerous,” said Panos Moumtzis, UNHCR Regional Coordinator for Syrian Refugees, in this interview with the Global Observatory. “At the moment, we are seeing two-to-three thousand refugees on a daily basis crossing the border.”

“We are seeing entire villages, communities, fleeing for safety, crossing the border. Three quarters of the refugees who are crossing are women and children. Half of them, in fact, are children,” he said.

“Our concern is that the humanitarian situation is deteriorating at quite a fast speed at the moment, and that the international community’s ability to respond to this humanitarian need and funding is not at the same speed,” he said.

Mr. Moumtzis discussed the challenges in providing basic necessities for these refugees in different countries, including Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, which have all experienced tremendous rainfall and flooding over the past two weeks.

“In the camps, in Zaatari camp in particular in Jordan, we had a section of the camp that became completely flooded. Over a hundred families woke up; the tents were washed away, children standing in the cold in the middle of the night. We were able to transfer the families to a safer location. We opened the schools, we had some prefabs where people moved into.”

“Our bottom line, of not just my job but the one of all our colleagues, is to make sure that every family who crosses the border, every individual, they have shelter above their head, they have the basic life-saving food, medical, water, assistance,” he said. “Because refugees, when they arrive, they cross the borders bringing with them nothing more than the clothes they’re wearing.”

The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, IPI Senior Policy Analyst.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Jérémie Labbé : We are pleased to have on the Global Observatory today Mr. Panos Moumtzis, Regional Coordinator for Syrian refugees, who was appointed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in March 2012. Mr. Moumtzis, thank you for joining us.

To start, could you please give us a brief overview of the humanitarian situation in Syria and neighboring countries today?

Panos Moumtzis : The humanitarian situation in Syria is actually quite complex and dangerous. In fact, we really look at it as one of the most dangerous and complex situation in the world in 2013. Inside Syria, we have just launched an appeal where we’re asking about half a billion dollars to support 4 million people—this is 2 million internally displaced and 2 million other people within Syria who are in need of humanitarian assistance, and at the regional level, our plan is to support over 1 million refugees with the one billion dollar required in the coming next six months. The humanitarian situation: we have seen it deteriorate quite significantly over the last year, but particularly over the last six months, with, of course, huge concerns on questions of protection of civilians inside Syria, the level of insecurity, which has led people to really become displaced within Syria, and many of them to cross the border into neighboring countries.

At the moment, we are seeing two to three thousand refugees on a daily basis crossing the border. Just in the last thirty days, we have received more than 100,000 Syrian refugees. We are seeing entire villages, communities fleeing for safety crossing the border. Three quarters of the refugees who are crossing are women and children. Half of them, in fact, are children. This is a children’s crisis.

The situation is dramatic, and unfortunately, we have not seen any improvement. On the contrary, we really continue to see a deterioration every week, every day. The refugees cross 24 hours a day. We have people who see them moving in the mornings, and others who cross at night. We, as relief workers, also have to respond to this crisis by having relief teams 24/7 to be able to assist these refugees, to help them at the most disparate moment in life when they try to flee for safety and come out of the country.

JL: Specifically, how does the unusually harsh winter weather affect refugees crossing the borders, and how does it affect the humanitarian response as well?

PM: The last two weeks have been particularly harsh. I was in Jordan, and for one week Jordan received a tremendous rainfall. Actually, two thirds of the yearly rainfall happened in seven days in Jordan. This led to tremendous flooding, not just in the areas where the refugees are in Zaatari camp, but also for the totality of the country. Actually, the Jordanian army had to intervene in many villages of local populations to help.

In the camps, in Zaatari camp in particular in Jordan, we had a section of the camp that became completely flooded. Over a hundred families woke up; the tents were washed away, children standing in the cold in the middle of the night. We were able to transfer the families to a safer location. We opened the schools, we had some prefabs where people moved into. We had to provide additional blankets, additional heaters, extra support—and this is several humanitarian agencies that were working in the camp.

But also, the bad weather has affected Turkey, has affected Lebanon, has affected the whole region, and it was particularly difficult for the refugees who are in the camps. Thirty percent of the refugees are in the camps. Seventy percent are in non-camp settings, in villages or in urban centers. So for those refugees who were in the camps, it’s really harsh. Imagine if you’re in a tent at night with subzero temperatures with your families or your elderly parents. No amount of blankets or heating is going to make it any more comfortable. Of course, it is extraordinary weather we went through, and that necessitated an extraordinary response from the humanitarian agencies that worked in supporting them.

JL: Your position is one of coordination at the regional level. Could you share with us the key concrete responsibilities you have and some of the challenges you face in that function? What does a normal day look like for you?

PM: As the regional refugee coordinator, I am based in Amman, but actually I usually say I am based on the plane because I am often on the road, in between one country and another. My role is really to try and ensure a regional cohesion and effective response, a coordinated approach, first of all within each country as it’s led by the teams inside, but also in between the operations. I am also very much looking into coordinating between the regional refugee plan and the inside Syria plan, because really it’s one situation. One cannot split the inside from the outside.

My work with UNHCR, the UN High Commission for Refugees, is really focusing on the refugee side, and there we have a total of 55 partners. This includes 12 UN agencies, 36 non-governmental organizations (including some local organizations that we work with together hand-in-hand), and it’s a very simple principle. Basically, when you have 55 partners across a number of countries—Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt—it’s extremely important that we agree among ourselves who will do what. We agree among ourselves in order to avoid any duplication, in order to make sure that all areas are covered, in order to make sure that all the basic needs are addressed. Questions of protection, making sure that the borders are open, that when refugees want to flee they can cross the border, making sure that the principle of non-refoulement is respected (that no refugees are forcibly returned back to his or her home, to Syria in this case).

Ensuring that, in terms of the response, we have looked into the issue of gender, of children, of particular needs of elderly, of course liaisoning with the governments of the neighboring countries and looking at them at the regional level, because also these neighboring countries have shown a tremendous generosity and hospitality in maintaining the borders open. Today there are over 640,000 Syrian refugees who are registered or assisted by UNHCR and the partners of the neighboring countries. The actual number may be over a million. In our planning, and in my work as the regional coordinator, we also have to look ahead, look at contingency planning, looking at emergency response.

Our bottom line of not just my job but the one of all our colleagues is to make sure that every family who crosses the border, every individual, they have shelter above their head, they have the basic life-saving food, medical, water, assistance, because refugees, when they arrive, they cross the borders, bringing with them nothing more than the clothes they’re wearing. Many of them are barefoot, many of them arrive in a terrible condition physically, but most importantly, psychological, and the psychological is really crucial, because some of them—many of the children, for example, when we see them arrive at the camps, they get into bed-wetting, they go into a withdrawal, they communicate less, and it takes quite some time to bring some sense of normalcy for them, to bring a smile on their face, and, of course, even more difficult for the grown-ups, because they have lost their homes, they have lost their loved-ones, family members.

And so in my job, the response that we put in place as humanitarian workers has to be appropriate, has to be fast, effective, and of course our job is to be on the front line. And also, the most important part of it is, of course, to make sure we have the resources to move, so in my job—I’ve just come from Washington, I was in Brussels, I talk with donor countries; in a couple of weeks we’ll be in Kuwait in a pledging conference on the 30th of January where we try to mobilize financial support from voluntary contributions from governments around the world, because we need the resources, we need the funding to be able to respond effectively. I feel quite often in my job that we are a little bit like the fire brigade that goes setting off a fire, although the key issue is obviously to resolve the cause of the fire, and this is where the political solution is necessary for this crisis more than anything else.

JL: You mention the issue of funding, and you mention that all together between the funds needed to address the internal situation and the funds needed to address the refugee situation altogether, it reached the quite unprecedented amount of $1 billion, I believe. Are you confident that you will be able to garner those resources? And you mention the travels you’re doing to garner support, but do you think you’ll have to look at other ways to garner the support at the time of financial crisis as today?

PM: The appeal we have released is for 500 million dollars to cover the humanitarian needs inside Syria and 1 billion dollars to cover the humanitarian needs for the regional refugees, so the total is 1.5 billion dollars. This is the largest humanitarian appeal in history for that length of time. It really demonstrates the catastrophic situation that we’re seeing at the moment because the two appeals together plan or support over 5 million Syrians. This means that about a quarter of the population is being cared for by humanitarian assistance. This is really a significant percentage that we’re seeing and a scenario we’re forecasting up until June 2013, so even 1.5 billion is just for half the year, not even the whole of the year.

So this extraordinary humanitarian and very sad situation requires an extraordinary financial support as well, financial support that is essential to provide really bare minimum life saving assistance. We’re not talking about anything luxurious. We’re talking about giving every individual a simple meal, less than 2000 calories, giving them shelter, giving them the basic assistance. We’re going to the traditional donors, countries around the world who have help us so far, but we’re also going to the so-called non-traditional donors, emerging countries. We’re appealing to individuals, to the private sector, but we’re also appealing for voluntary contributions from governments. We will continue raising our voices until we’ll make sure that the basic needs and funding is in place.

Our concern is that the humanitarian situation is deteriorating at quite a fast speed at the moment, and that the international community’s ability to respond to this humanitarian need and funding is not at the same speed. So what we’re advocating is to make sure that governments, countries, individuals, everybody around the world makes an extra effort to ensure that there is enough funding to support this operation.

We’re also worried, to be honest, that the humanitarian pie, the humanitarian budgets of governments around the world for 2013 are at the same level like they were for 2012, if not less. Actually, many countries, several European countries, due to the economic crisis, these budgets had to shrink. So if we’re seeing on the one hand a crisis that is of this magnitude that we see at the moment, we’re also concerned that funding going for the large deteriorating situation may also deplete financial support for other operations, in Sudan, DRC, Horn of Africa, West Africa, or other parts of the world. So there is a need of a reinforced financial international solidarity with this operation.

It’s about helping refugees, but it’s also about supporting the neighboring countries. The international solidarity is extremely important because the neighboring countries have their own vulnerabilities and sensitivities, and we really have to make sure that when they open the borders, the international community stands next to them to support them. We cannot take for granted the governments of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, who, on a daily basis, receive thousands of refugees. We have to stand next to them and do the right thing.

JL: You mention the important role of neighboring countries in responding to this crisis, yet when looking at it from an external observer standpoint, we see that the different neighboring countries have different responses to the crisis. Like Lebanon has the highest number of refugees, but none are sheltered in camps. Turkey shelters almost all of its refugees in camps with limited access from international agencies, and Jordan has a large share of its refugee population living outside of camps. What does explain the different approaches, and maybe more specifically, why in a situation, or in a country like Lebanon, are there no refugee camps despite the massive presence of refugees?

PM: In our humanitarian response, indeed, we try to tailor make the response according to what made sense, what we had discussed with host governments, what we sat and planned around the table together with the humanitarian actors, the NGOs, or the UN humanitarian agencies on the ground. Indeed, Lebanon has no camps. Over 200,000 registered refugees in Lebanon are all living with host communities, in towns, or in villages. Actually, there are three areas where they are mainly concentrated: the northern of Lebanon in the Walid Khaled area, the Bekaa Valley, and the third part is in Beirut in the southern areas.

I saw in Lebanon a tremendous generosity from host communities; very poor Lebanese families who barely make ends meet in their own home, and yet they would open their front room to host one or two families. It’s extraordinary to see the generosity of these host communities. Of course, the influence of a camp or no camp has been also a result of a discussion with the host governments. As UNHCR, as humanitarian actors, we would be very happy to help refugees outside camps; actually, it’s a much more humane way, provided one finds accommodations and is able to expand it. It’s much more cost effective to help somebody, and also often this aid benefits the host communities a little bit as well. So it’s not just to the refugees, and that is the plan at least for Lebanon: no camps, and we’re continuing the same way.

In Jordan, it was the same situation until the summer when the government decided there was a need to open a camp for a number of internal reasons, so that lead to the Zaatari camp. Even in Jordan today, 80% of the refugees are not in camps. They’re in villages and host communities and rented accommodations, or hosted by their Jordanian brothers and neighbors. Again, in a very generous way, being offered accommodations where they are.

In Turkey, there are 14 camps along the border area. In fact, there are two additional camps that are under construction, in addition to an estimated 70 to 80 thousand urban refugees in Turkey. Turkey has been tremendously generous in terms of hosting, supporting, because all the humanitarian assistance in Turkey actually comes from the government of Turkey. UNHCR is present in the camps. The World Food Programme has started the food voucher program, and UNICEF provides psycho-social support, so we feel there is a very good partnership with the government of Turkey where there is generous support but also openness to look into how to further improve the program of assistance that is delivered on the ground.

In Iraq, the majority of the refugees are of Kurdish origin, and actually most of them go to the northern Kurdish area. There is also a number of them that go to the Anbar areas. What is important for all these countries for us is to make sure the borders are open, and at the moment they are open with the exception of the Al-Qa’im border point in Iraq, which has been closed. Other crossing points in Iraq are open and we have repeatedly appealed to the government of Iraq to ensure that these refugees—we understand there are some sensitivities and issues there—but really to ensure that the refugees are allowed to go in.

One has to look at this generosity also within the context of quite an enormous risk that some of them are taking, because in Lebanon, for example, we saw tremendous sensitivities and vulnerabilities with regards to security. The Lebanese mosaic of politics is so complex that unfortunately we saw in Tripoli fighting with groups being pro- or anti-Damascus, and that presents a risk for Lebanon itself. We’ve seen in Jordan—there will be elections on the 24th of January—demonstrations in the streets with public discontent on prices and unemployment and so on, and so it’s extremely important that we continue supporting Jordan in the best possible way as an international community, because there are also internal sensitivities, and these sensitivities exist with all the countries, and this is where our role is crucial. It’s not just about assistance, but it’s about stability, tailor making the approach in each country, and responding in the most effective way.

JL: Last but not least: a lot of Syrian rebels are civilians who have taken arms, and one can presume that a lot of refugees that have fled the country have links to rebels or are sympathetic to rebel groups. How do you ensure, as the UN refugee agency, the civilian character of refugee camps to avoid the “refugee warriors” phenomenon that was so prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s?

PM: Your question is extremely important, ensuring the civilian character, ensuring that the people we are helping are civilians. To be a refugee—you cannot be a refugee if you are a soldier or a fighter where you are. So from the moment they cross the border, what we do first is have an interview, what we call “registration.” We sit with every family or individual who comes over, and we go through a questionnaire where we try to understand why they have fled, who they are, or what they’ve gone through. If we have the slightest suspicion that this individual or the father or the son have been involved as soldiers or fighters, this person will not qualify as a refugee. Some of the countries have actually set up separate camps where the military go (or ex-military). Usually we require a period of six months of demobilization until the person could reintegrate as a civilian, and during that period that person should not have any military activity.

We’re also—through training and discussion with the host government, with the partners—we really ensure that in all the refugee settings, the civilian character is respected. We cannot have military recruitment and training activities or any of that taking place in the camp because these activities are not by refugees. We’re working with taxpayer funds, and in the registration interviews—but also in the day-to-day work—we do everything possible to ensure that due diligence in ensuring that civilian character of refugee setting.

We cannot afford to see what you described that has happened in the 80s and 90s in today’s context. Clearly, there is a political polarization, there are pro or anti feelings. Refugees can have their thoughts or ideology; that, of course, is their right. But once they are in the camps, once they are in the host countries, they need to respect the law of those countries and, of course, the camps have to be civilian for us to be able to continue assisting them and providing humanitarian aid to them.

JL: Mr. Moumtzis, thank you very much for joining us on the Global Observatory today, and good luck on this important yet challenging task.

PM: Thank you for hosting me today.