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“Syrian refugees are the victims. They’re not the perpetrators.” - UNHCR’s Volker Türk

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“Syrian refugees are the victims. They’re not the perpetrators.” - UNHCR’s Volker Türk

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It's been called one of the worst crises in modern history. Seven years on, the war in Syria continues and there's no end in sight. What began as peaceful protests against an undemocratic regime turned into a full-scale civil war. Syrians took to the streets to air their discontent with Bashar-al-Assad's government. He responded with a heavy hand, cracking down against dissent. Unrest and violence escalated.

But it was clear that the fight went far beyond Syria’s borders. Regional and world powers stepped in – Iran and Russia on Assad's side; Saudi Arabia and the United States backing rebel opposition groups.

Syria became a proxy battleground... fertile for jihadist groups to flourish and take control.

In 2014, so-called Islamic State seized large parts of the country’s north-east. It's now been largely driven out of its urban strongholds.

But that's little comfort for ordinary Syrians. A country destroyed… half of Syria’s population… some 11.6 million people, many of them women and children, had their lives shattered.

For more on the situation in Syria seven years since the war started, we’re joined by Volker Turk, the UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection

So let’s talk about protection, or the lack thereof, seven years on where are we?

Its’ one of the biggest single most important refugee crisis in the 21st century. And there is no end in sight. So we have over 5.5 million refugees in the neighbouring countries. Inside Syria, we have over 6 million people internally displaced. We have about 3 million people who are in hard to reach areas and in besieged enclaves, they can’t get out, they live on sometimes grass, in horrible conditions. It reminds us of the Middle Ages and that’s what people live through every day Inside Syria, but also outside Syria as refugees.

There are other ongoing crises. As we know, Yemen is another humanitarian crisis. What makes the Syrian story so different and so difficult?

It is a very long crisis, the vast majority of the Syrian population, of the civilians who bear the brunt of the violence, of the conflict, of the persecution, they really are depending on outside help. In Jordan for example, 80 percent are below the poverty line. That in some countries, even in Lebanon, in some areas 70 percent are even below the extreme poverty line. Many of the children are not able to go to school for example.

UN Security Council resolutions, we have truces, ceasefires, political negotiating, so all these, they seem to have minimal impact if at all. What updates can you give us from the ground?

Well it is of course one of the tragedies of this particular crisis, that 3 million people are in hard to reach areas or areas that are actually besieged. About 27 percent we were only able to reach last year, which means that people do not get urgent humanitarian assistance.

In Europe there is this growing anti-immigration sentiment, and people express that sentiment at the ballot boxes. We’ve seen it in recent elections, and one of the core arguments of those calling for stricter border controls, including on refugees, is security. You’ve refuted this view, you said that security and refugee protection are complementary. How so?

Whenever people enter a country, it is extremely important that security procedures are put in place to ensure that those who have committed crimes, who are not part of the civilian population, they are identified. But I can assure you, that the systems that states have put in place these days, are very robust. There is the asylum process, it is one of the most vetted, rigorous processes that exists, as is the resettlement process. So these legitimate security concerns that populations have can be met through a proper determination of who these people are. It is important to also make that message very clear: that refugees, Syrian refugees who come to Europe are people who flee violence, who flee conflict, who flee terrorism. They are the victims of all of this. They are not the perpetrators.