In the summer of 2013, when asked what he missed most, a 68-year-old Syrian refugee living in Jordan responded, “I miss my dignity.” Two years later, millions more Syrians have been stripped of their dignity as the international community has sat idly by, watching the refugee population swell, while only partially funding the humanitarian response and not offering them any realistic chance of resettlement. World Humanitarian Day reminds us that it is time for the international community to stop burying its head in the sand; countries must open their borders to protect refugees’ lives and to relieve overwhelmed host countries.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are now more than 4 million Syrian refugees living mainly in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Meanwhile, other countries, such as Qatar, have closed their borders to Syrian refugees. Because of the precarious living conditions inside these host countries, many have risked their lives at sea and hiked hundreds of miles across Europe hoping to a find better life. While Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are bearing the brunt of this crisis – and unfortunately are not doing the best job – the international community, in its failure to step up, has exacerbated the situation.
Jordan and Lebanon both had high numbers of Palestinian refugees prior to 2011, and the addition of millions of Syrian refugees has only increased the economic and social burden and overwhelmed public services in the two countries. Lebanon’s population increased by 30 percent with the addition of Syrian refugees, and as anyone could have expected, the country’s overstretched public services has been unable to support this influx. Clinics run by UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations are the only place for Syrian refugees to access free health care services in these countries, but these clinics are not enough. Lebanon never provided free care to refugees and the Jordanian government stopped providing free treatment to Syrian refugees in November 2014. The lack of support from such host countries is not only harming Syrian refugees’ lives, but is also increasing instability in an already incredibly unstable region.
Complicating the situation further, most Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon have settled in already poor neighborhoods. Their unstable living conditions create significant financial stress, and understandably – for many Syrians – paying rent is a higher priority than paying for medical treatment. As a result, there have been outbreaks of communicable diseases such as measles, and a lack of follow-up for chronic diseases such as kidney failure. One out of five Syrians in Jordan taking medication for chronic diseases have stopped their medication – 50 percent of which are the direct result of financial constraints. In addition to the millions of refugees who need access to health services for chronic and acute illnesses, some individuals injured inside Syria during the conflict have been transported to Jordan and Lebanon for specialized care. However, some Syrians seeking treatment have been turned away at the borders or deported to a “no man’s land” – within Jordanian territory, but outside its official border crossing – where getting access to humanitarian aid is nearly impossible. Until the international community provides increased financial support and acts to take in refugees from these host countries, such deportations will likely increase.
The Turkish government has managed the Syrian crisis differently, as – unlike Jordan and Lebanon – it has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. Turkey has established its own registration system for refugees (outside of UNHCR), which in theory grants Syrians free access to primary and emergency health care services in Turkish facilities. About 90 percent of refugees in camps and 60 percent of refugees outside of camps are able to utilize this system. However, in practice, many Syrians have faced issues due to language barriers and hospitals being over-capacity. Some have also had trouble renewing their residency permits, which are required in order to access services. Ad-hoc clinics run by the World Health Organization and UNHCR help reduce the burden on public facilities, but as the patient load in Turkish hospitals has grown by 30 to 40 percent with the flood of Syrian refugees, these clinics are not sufficient to cover all refugees in need of care.
Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey cannot continue supporting millions of Syrian refugees while other countries such as the United States have welcomed fewer than a thousand. The international community should follow the examples of Syria’s neighbors and take action to improve the lives of Syrian refugees, who have already suffered through four and a half years of conflict. The 2015 Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP), a country-driven plan in partnership with UNHCR addressing humanitarian needs for refugees, is only 25 percent funded, and the number of Syrian refugees is increasing with each passing day. Gulf and European countries and the United States must step up financially and fully fund the 3RP. They also must speed up their registration processes, allowing Syrians to legally seek refuge, rather than forcing them to risk their lives in makeshift boats and forests in an attempt to recover the dignity they have lost.