The former foreign secretary David Miliband has called for 1 million Syrian refugees in the countries bordering their homeland to be given work permits, saying it is a “fiction” to suggest the Syrian war will end soon.
Speaking before a London conference on Syria hosted by David Cameron and Germany’s Angela Merkel, Miliband urged the international community to lift the “legal and financial barriers” that prevent refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey from working.
As the first full day of formal peace talks got under way in Geneva, Miliband, now director of the New York-based International Rescue Committee, said: “Life is getting harder and harder for Syrian refugees. Five years into the crisis, their savings are exhausted, they are struggling to get aid, and they are increasingly unable to support themselves and their families.
“We must do everything we can to lift the legal and financial barriers that prevent Syrian refugees from working. Syrian refugees deserve not just a life but a life worth living.”
Proposing 200,000 work permits in both Lebanon and Jordan as well as 600,000 in Turkey, he added: “The conference has to end the fiction that the Syrian civil war is going to end any time soon.”
Thursday’s conference will be attended by officials from around the world including from Iran’s foreign minister; the first visit by the Iranians to London for 12 years. It aims to raise funds for a multibillion-dollar UN appeal for 2016 and redirect the aid focus on to jobs and education for the refugees as well as humanitarian access inside Syria.
On Monday UN officials said placing towns in Syria under siege was a potential war crime that could be prosecuted. There were reports that the Syrian government would allow another aid convoy into Madaya, one of the worst-affected besieged towns, where aid agencies say residents have been dying of starvation.
Britain’s foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, was in Jordan on Monday to try to persuade the government in Amman to offer work permits in return for EU trade concessions and additional global aid. The issue is controversial in Jordan, where the economy is being upended by the scale of the refugee crisis.
King Abdullah of Jordan on Tuesday warned the country cannot continue to take in Syrian refugees unless it receives significant help. “The psyche of the Jordanian people, I think it’s gotten to a boiling point,” he told the BBC. “Sooner or later, I think the dam is going to burst and I think this week is going to be very important for Jordanians to see, is there going to be help – not only for Syrian refugees, but for their own future as well.”
Jordan’s prime minister, Abdullah Ensour, said on Monday his government might provide 150,000 work permits over several years in return for Jordan receiving $1.6bn over three years to fund its schools, healthcare and jobs infrastructure. The work would be distributed equally between Jordanians and Syrians.
In Geneva, the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura met Syrian opposition officials, but a planned session with the government team was postponed. It had already seen De Mistura on Friday when the long-awaited negotiations got under way.
“This is the official beginning of the Geneva talks,” said De Mistura. He said the opposition “are insisting that the Syrian people, while we are having talks on the future of a political solutiondeserve to hear and see a reduction in the violence on the ground. We feel they have a very strong point.”
The UN envoy said he would be meeting the Syrian government team on Tuesday morning and the opposition again later in the day.
Opposition negotiators repeated their demand for the implementation of a UN resolution calling for end to airstrikes and sieges and for humanitarian access and the release of detainees before they would enter into substantive discussions. De Mistura has said he plans to run proximity talks, shuttling between the two Syrian parties because of the unbridgeable gaps between them.
The anti-Assad team was awaiting the arrival of its chief negotiator, Mohammed Alloush, representative of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) group, which is backed by Saudi Arabia and tolerated by western governments but considered terrorist by Bashar al-Assad. It controls the countryside east of Damascus.
Other Syrian rebel groups have issued a statement expressing support for the opposition negotiators, who are anxious to achieve results to justify their presence in Geneva while Syrian government and Russian airstrikes continue. The opposition is under heavy pressure from the US and Britain to participate fully in the talks.