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UN Refugee Chief Urges US, Others to Take in More Refugees

U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi speaks to the press during a visit to the Zaatari Syrian Refugee Camp, in Mafraq, Jordan, Feb. 12, 2018.
U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi speaks to the press during a visit to the Zaatari Syrian Refugee Camp, in Mafraq, Jordan, Feb. 12, 2018.

The head of the U.N. refugee agency on Monday appealed to the United States and other nations to take in more displaced people, speaking from a camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, one of the main host countries.

Filippo Grandi also said that the number of Syrians being deported from Jordan to their war-ravaged homeland "decreased dramatically" in recent months, in part because of his agency's appeal for more careful reviews of cases.

Jordan is believed to have deported several thousand refugees since last year, mostly on security grounds. Rights groups have said deportations often take place quickly, without a thorough investigation.

Only about 15,000 Syrian refugees, out of close to 660,000 registered in Jordan, have opted to leave the kingdom for Syria since 2016, Grandi said during a tour of the Zaatari refugee camp.

"So it's a very small number. Why? Because people don't feel secure," he said. "And when you see the war becoming more and more complicated, with more and more actors involved, then you get more worried."

Millions of Syrians have been uprooted since conflict erupted in the country in 2011. Some 5.5 million Syrians have fled their homeland, most finding refuge in nearby host countries. Several hundreds of thousands moved on to Europe, with the help of smugglers taking them across perilous sea routes, while only a small portion have been able to move to the West through resettlement programs.

The United States, which traditionally took in the largest number of refugees, has scaled back its resettlement program under the Trump administration.

Grandi said the United Nations will likely be able to resettle only about 10,000 refugees from Jordan to third countries this year, compared to 25,000 to 30,000 per year in the past.

"Now my appeal to the U.S., to Denmark, to the countries that have reduced, is [to] continue to raise again your quotas," Grandi said.

In Zaatari, which has about 80,000 residents, Grandi visited a new solar power plant that provides electricity to the camp for 14 hours a day.

He also stopped by an employment center where 8,000 Syrians obtained work permits last year for jobs outside the camp.

Meryem Mohammed Shaabi, 47, a mother of four, was at the center Monday to seek a permit to work in a clothing factory in northern Jordan where 50 Syrian women from Zaatari are to be employed by March.

Violence, displacement and closed borders have separated the Shaabi family.

Shaabi's oldest daughter and son-in-law remained in Syria when the rest of the family fled to Jordan in 2013. Shaabi said she would like to see her daughter again, but that it's still too dangerous to go home. "There is no safety there," she said.

Jordan sealed its border with Syria in 2016, after a cross-border car bomb attack killed seven Jordanian border guards.

Some 50,000 displaced Syrians have been left stranded in a makeshift camp on the border known as Rukban.

The border closure severely disrupted what had already been intermittent aid deliveries from Jordanian territory to Rukban. Camp residents live in tents or mud brick shelters in harsh conditions, with insufficient food and water, and lacking basic medical supplies.

Grandi said that the Rukban crisis should be solved "in Syria," echoing Jordan's position that it has no obligation to take in those stranded at the berm or allow regular aid deliveries from its territory.

Grandi also said his agency would keep pressing the Syrian government and opposition forces to allow humanitarian access to besieged areas, such as Eastern Ghouta and Idlib.

"The borders of Syria are closed. People cannot go out. So they will have to escape desperately, within Syria," Grandi said, "Civilians must be accessed by humanitarian organizations wherever they are, because it's their suffering that keeps us awake at night.