By Catherine Cheney, World Politics Review
This article was reprinted with the permission of World Politics Review, where it was originally published.
The United Nations reported last week that the number of refugees from Syria has now surpassed 2 million, even while more than twice that many people are internally displaced. Combined, the numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) mean that the intensifying conflict has forced one-third of the Syrian population from their homes.
Those who have managed to escape Syria altogether have largely fled to Lebanon and Jordan, and in such large numbers that they now amount to nearly 20 percent of the population in those countries, according to Bessma Momani, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Sahr MuhammedAlly, senior legal and amends adviser at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, noted that refugees tend to flee across the nearest international border so that their starting point within Syria largely determines where they end up outside of it.
Conditions in some of Syria’s neighbors are better than in others.
In Lebanon, a country of 4 million providing a temporary home to 700,000 refugees, the government has not allowed the United Nations to establish official refugee camps, “because of the fear they will become permanent,” Momani said.
Life in these improvised refugee camps means life without sanitation, electricity and clean water, as compared to U.N. camps in other countries.
But still worse are the conditions of Syria’s estimated 4.25 million IDPs, who in addition to “squatting in gardens and parking lots and any place they can make into a quasi-camp,” in Momani’s words, also remain in the line of fire.
“The displaced persons are living in tents or in abandoned buildings,” MuhammedAlly said. During an April trip MuhammedAlly took to Syria and Turkey, displaced Syrians told her they had fled because their homes were destroyed in airstrikes or looted and burned by government militias, or because of heavy shelling that rendered their neighborhoods unsafe.
“Displaced persons are constantly on the move because there is no guarantee that having moved to a different location, they will be safe from cluster bombs or air strikes,” she explained. She added that Syrians of every sect, and both government and opposition supporters, had fled their homes, but that most of the refugees and IDPs were coming from opposition-dominated areas where the fighting is heaviest.
There are many reasons Syrians who leave their homes remain in the country, ranging from age to expense to fear of retribution. “People over a certain age refuse to go. . . . That puts a burden on their children, who do not want to leave an elderly parent behind,” Momani said.
Beyond the problems of finding safe passageways out of the country and securing the funds to pack up and leave for Lebanon or Jordan, where the cost of living is higher than in Syria, Momani explained that being seen as defecting carries dangers for people in high-powered positions.
“People in the upper echelon of the power structure can’t defect until they secure a safe passage for all their family members first,” she said; otherwise they create risks for themselves as well as “perhaps another 50 people.”
Meanwhile, some IDPs MuhammedAlly interviewed in April simply felt it was “better to die in their own country.” MuhammedAlly met Syrians returning to Syria after having fled to Turkey who told her they would rather die at home than be treated as second-class citizens in Turkey. “We have lost everything in Syria. We are going to die in Syria,” she recalled them saying.
Aid workers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are working to support Syrian refugees in coordination with other groups, such as the Norwegian Refugee Council, MuhammedAlly said.
And while the world is focused on chemical weapons and a possible U.S. military intervention in Syria, MuhammedAlly said the world must step up efforts to ease the suffering of millions of Syrians. “Only 4 percent of UNHCR funding requirements for Syria are funded, leaving a gaping hole in the humanitarian agencies’ capacity to provide adequate assistance to Syrians,” she said, noting that the U.S. has given the most to UNHCR, at $228 million, with Kuwait offering $112 million, the European Union $50 million, Russia $10 million and China $1 million.
“Moreover, Syrians inside the country face life-threatening assistance gaps—from food, clean water, medicine, vaccinations for newborns—because they have little access to assistance. The Syrian government has insisted that all humanitarian aid must be sent from government-held territory, making it difficult to get aid to people in opposition-held northern Syria. States should do more to support cross-border aid by humanitarian agencies to help civilians in need,” MuhammedAlly said.
Momani also emphasized that beyond providing assistance to refugees and IDPs, the international community needs to start planning for their resettlement. “Some communities have been wiped off the map and there is nothing to go back to,” she said. “So the world needs to think creatively about absorbing more refugees in these countries. As long as they are refugees they are in limbo.”