Filippo Grandi said the ministerial conference, to be opened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on March 30th in Geneva, would be the first of its kind ever organized by the world body.
“This is a bit unchartered territory,” said the 58-year-old Italian, who took over the UNHCR helm less than a week ago after Antonio Guterres of Portugal stepped down after a decade in charge.
He told journalists in Geneva that the conference would “ask states to pledge places, not money,” and would “be limited to Syrian refugees because they are the most urgent problem.”
The conference, he said, was desperately needed to help better manage the refugee crisis sparked by Syria's brutal civil war, which has lasted nearly five years and killed more than 250,000 people.
Most of the more than four million people who have fled war-ravaged Syria have found refuge in surrounding countries, which have come under enormous pressure.
As the war has dragged on and conditions have worsened in surrounding states, Syrian refugees have increasingly set their sights on Europe and account for a majority of the more than one million migrants who risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean to the continent last year alone.
Nearly 3,800 people drowned or went missing attempting the perilous journey in 2015, according to UNHCR.
“We have to urge states to increase the possibility for refugees, especially in countries burdened by large numbers of refugees . . . to facilitate the exit of refugees from these countries, not through trafficking, but through what we call legal pathways,” Grandi said.
“Organizing this movement rather than leaving it in the hands of those that are basically criminals, I think has a lot of advantages,” he added.
Grandi voiced his support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has come under fire at home as the country struggles to cope with nearly 1.1 million asylum seekers last year last year alone, insisting her welcoming stance toward migrants was “an example” to follow.
But he expressed deep concern over moves by some European countries to close their doors to the migrants and refugees moving though the continent.
“Setting limits, erecting barriers, closing doors is not the message that we would like to come out of Europe,” Grandi said.
He warned that “the rest of the world is looking at what Europe is doing in terms of asylum.”
“If Europe starts setting limits, pushing back, erecting barriers, being hostile, the rest of the world will follow, and the rest of the world has a bigger burden,” he cautioned, pointing out that only ten percent of refugees worldwide are in Europe.
Grandi has taken the helm of the UNHCR as the agency is dealing with record levels of displacement worldwide.
The number of people displaced by war and violence hit a record high in 2015 of more than 60 million — surpassing even the 50-million mark reached during the Second World War.