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City of Initial Refuge

The refugee situation in the Middle East

Only six percent of the world’s refugees reach Europe. The bulk of the people who fled Syria before the war sought shelter in the neighbouring countries, particularly in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and in Iraq. Of the nearly 5 million registered Syrian refugees, approximately 1.1 million are living in Lebanon. It is estimated that there are, in addition, several hundred thousand unregistered refugees and children born without papers. With a population of about 4 million inhabitants, Lebanon is the country that has so far absorbed most of the Syrian refugees in proportion to its population, by quite some margin. Despite suffering from the consequences of civil war, and being marked by political instability and a collapsed infrastructure, this country is making an enormous contribution, especially its cities and municipalities. These cities in Lebanon, Jordan and other “first countries of refuge” urgently need support.

City to city aid

In view of the worsening refugee crisis, particularly in the wake of the Syrian war, the City of Zurich wishes to support the refugees by making a contribution. In September 2015 the City Council of Zurich launched an action programme for refugees, which includes local and international interventions.

The City has made an international commitment aimed at sustainably supporting a so-called “City of Inital Refuge” in Lebanon by addressing the challenges arising from the large migration of refugees. The aim is not only to concentrate on providing support to the refugees unilaterally, but also to take into account the local population, which must bear the main burden when having to deal with the currently tense situation. To implement the project, the city is cooperating with the Swiss relief organisation, Solidar Suisse, which has many years of experience in humanitarian aid as well as a profound knowledge of the institutional and political situation on the ground.

“City of Initial Refuge”: a two-part project

The City of Initial Refuge project is divided into two parts.

Phase 1: “Community Support Projects” (CSP)

As part of the first subproject, the City of Zurich finances three “Community Support Projects” in southern Lebanon. These projects are introduced and implemented by the municipalities themselves, while the participatory approach that has been adopted means that all those affected can be involved in conceiving the projects, including the Syrian refugees. One project involves the renovation of a school in Homin el Fawkaa, so that more refugees from Syria can be accommodated. The second project involves the renovation and equipping of a hospital in Kaakyet El Jeser. There is a great deal of tension in the area between the mainly poor local population and the refugees. Our aim is to help both groups benefit and thereby reduce the tensions. As part of the third project, a well is to be built in Qsaibet. Due to significant population growth and the pollution of many sources of drinking water by the unsupervised digging up of septic tanks, many municipalities no longer have a sufficient supply of clean drinking water available.

Project duration: December 2016 - April 2017

Phase 2: Temporary project partnership

In a second subproject, the City of Zurich wants to enter into a temporary project partnership with a Lebanese community focused on a specific area of activity. The aim is to support a community by providing services to the population, e.g. building infrastructure and public services. Here, too, it is crucial that the aid be given to the local population as well as to the refugees.

Project duration: approx. 2 – 3 years


At the request of Pope Francis, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences invited the Mayor of Zurich, Corine Mauch, to a meeting of European mayors about the ongoing refugee crisis. Pope Francis sees the cities of Europe as playing a crucial role in overcoming the challenges of the refugee problem. The exchange of experiences between mayors from all over Europe took place on 9 and 10 December 2016 in the Vatican. The Mayor of Zurich reported on Zurich’s action plan for its refugee policy and, in particular, on the support it was providing to a first city of asylum in Lebanon.

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