The historic deal brokered by the United States and Russia facilitating Syria’s compliance with international chemical weapons norms has drawn wide attention from the international community. And while the work of the joint mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations (OPCW-UN) is critical to enhancing global security, dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons program is overshadowing the more immediate humanitarian crisis facing the region: the ongoing and burgeoning Syrian refugee crisis.
Currently, more than 2 million individuals have fled Syria and 4.25 million have been internally displaced. Efforts to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program have done nothing to quell the violence within its borders or stem the tide of refugees fleeing the country. As the civil war rages on, the provision of assistance to those trapped inside Syria becomes increasingly difficult. The delivery of aid is hampered by rapidly-changing front lines as well as by blockades imposed by armed groups. Meanwhile, many continue to flee the country daily, swelling the already-large ranks of refugees and creating the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) expects the number of refugees to reach 3.2 million by the end of 2013 and increase by another 2 million in 2014. By the end of 2014, OCHA predicts that more than one-third of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million people will be either refugees or internally displaced people (IDPs). Such alarming levels of displacement have serious regional implications, particularly for Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, the countries that currently host the majority of Syria’s refugees.
These nations are already at their limit as they work to provide shelter and services to displaced Syrians. Despite UN appeals to the international community for increased funding, host countries continue to shoulder the bulk of the burden. Both Turkey and Jordan have spent close to $2 billion each caring for refugees with the majority of that money coming from their own coffers. Lebanon, a country of only 4 million residents, currently hosts 750,000 Syrian refugees, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Jordanian authorities likened the presence of Syrian refugees in Jordan to “the United States absorbing the entire population of Canada.” The influx of people in all host countries has a marked effect on local economies, health infrastructure, and education systems, thereby straining both resources and relationships.
With no end to the conflict in sight, the prospect of more refugees requiring a prolonged stay has created an unwelcoming environment for refugees in many countries. There are reports of some refugees facing indefinite detention or deportation back to Syria. Poor camp conditions, tense dynamics with local populations, and harassment from government officials have created a sense of desperation among countless Syrians. Many pay thousands of dollars to smugglers and risk their lives attempting dangerous journeys to Europe in search of asylum. However, reaching Europe does not mark the end of these refugees’ struggles, as they face overwhelmed and inconsistent asylum systems in the European Union.
PHR applauds the difficult work being done in challenging environments on behalf of refugees and the countries hosting them. But we urge the international community to recognize the need for continued support of these efforts and to not allow other issues to overshadow the ongoing displacement crisis in Syria and the region. As winter approaches, these humanitarian needs become more urgent. The international community must seize opportunities to provide assistance and security to those fleeing armed conflict – not just in Syria, but around the globe.