The world has abandoned Syria’s refugees

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

The United Nations last week released shocking figures for the number of Syrian refugees, marking what Al Arabiya aptly described as “another grim milestone.” However, while much of the media reported a figure of more than 2 million, in fact that represents only those who have registered with the U.N. refugee agency. This means that the actual number of refugees is likely to be far higher.

A breakdown of the number of those registered makes for even more depressing reading: 10 times higher than a year ago, half of them children (three-quarters of them under 11), an extra million refugees in the last six months alone, and 5,000 crossing into neighboring countries every day.

The United Nations describes it as the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide almost 20 years ago. “Syria is hemorrhaging women, children and men who cross borders often with little more than the clothes on their backs,” said the U.N. refugee agency.

There is simply no excuse for the international community to shirk its moral duty to help Syria’s displaced millions.

Sharif Nashashibi

It gets worse, much worse. There are also some 4.25 million Syrians displaced within their country, putting the staggering total of displaced at more than 6.25 million, almost a third of the entire population. There are more Syrians displaced than any other nationality, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

“Syria has become the great tragedy of this century,” a “disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. The only solace, he added, “is the humanity shown by the neighboring countries in welcoming and saving the lives of so many refugees.”

Regional strain

However, that humanity is not limitless. The UNHCR says 97% of the refugees are hosted by countries in the surrounding region - primarily Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt - that are carrying an “overwhelming burden.” Those countries have started placing various restrictions on entry, and there is increasing domestic frustration at the economic, political, security, infrastructural and social repercussions of this colossal influx.

“If the situation continues to deteriorate at this rate, the number of refugees will only grow, and some neighboring countries could be brought to the point of collapse,” said U.S. film star Angelina Jolie, who is a UNHCR special envoy to Syria.

On my regular trips to Amman, those I speak to tell me that people are fed up of indefinitely hosting refugees from all over the region, who they view as a drain on Jordan’s limited resources.

This is hardly surprising, since a country with a population of just over 6 million is hosting around half that number in refugees (2 million Palestinians, 515,000 Syrians, 450,000 Iraqis, and others). This has even led to violent incidents. Jordan’s Za’atari camp, which hosts Syrian refugees, is now the second-largest refugee camp in the world, and the country’s fourth-largest city, according to Amnesty International.

Likewise, Lebanon - whose population is around 4.3 million - is hosting over a quarter of that number in refugees (700,000-plus Syrians, more than 450,000 Palestinians, and others). Many of my relatives from Aleppo have fled to Beirut, where they say they are increasingly viewed with hostility - unfortunate, but again unsurprising.
The sad fact is that Lebanon and Jordan are shouldering the largest burden, but are the least equipped to do so. Lebanon, which does not even have camps for Syrians, has the added explosive element of pre-existing sectarianism and deep-rooted divisions over Syria that are being exacerbated by the refugee influx - a contributory factor to the rising nationwide instability.

Turkey is also suffering, hosting almost 500,000 Syrian refugees when it previously said it could not handle more than 100,000. This has reportedly cost Ankara close to $2bn so far. Though Iraq is hosting relatively fewer refugees (around 170,000), the numbers are rising fast as the country’s Kurdish region has recently opened up its border. Egypt, which hosts some 111,000 Syrian refugees, has been criticized by human rights organizations for its clampdown against them since the overthrow of President Mohamed Mursi.

International responsibility

The refugee crisis is as huge as the shameful stain on the international community for contributing to it. Its paralysis and divisions over Syria, and certain countries’ and organizations’ direct military and political involvement, has prolonged and intensified the conflict that has displaced so many people. Furthermore, the world’s lack of support for the refugees and host nations is the reason why living conditions are so dire.

“The world risks being dangerously complacent about the Syrian humanitarian disaster,” said Jolie. In June, the United Nations launched the largest humanitarian appeal in its history, and the UNHCR has called for “massive international support,” saying aid agencies are “worryingly underfunded.”

However, the response has fallen woefully short of the estimated $4.4bn currently needed, not just in terms of money pledged, but also pledges honored. The United Nations was $3.1bn short as of July, meaning that only 30% of the necessary funds for basic needs have been received.

It is inconceivable that the entire world cannot, or rather will not, come up with just $3.1bn! It is not as if the conflict is not receiving enough global attention, but somehow the most large-scale, visible, humanitarian, long-term and potentially far-reaching consequence is being largely ignored. Many governments seem to think that hand-wringing and agonized statements suffice.

The result is that only 10% of children have been able to continue in some sort of education, and only 20% have received counselling; the International Committee of the Red Cross has reported chronic shortages of crucial medical supplies; and “essential services such as food assistance, education, a more reliable water supply system and shelter continue to be seriously underfunded,” says Amnesty International.

Donor hall of shame

A breakdown of what donors have provided makes the situation all the more shameful. The United States has given by far the most to the UNHCR - about $228m - and it says that since the conflict began, it has given more than $1bn to the United Nations, international and non-governmental organizations, and local Syrian groups.

However, this is small change compared with the $3bn it gives annually to Israel, which has one of the most developed economies and powerful armies in the world. In fact, there are at least 25 countries that receive more annual American aid than the U.S. contribution to the UNHCR for Syria, which is in far greater need.

The second-largest donor to the UNHCR is Kuwait, at $112m. The European Union, which consists of 28 states, is a distant third with just $50m. Despite a combined population of more than 500 million, the EU provided protection status last year to just 18,700 Syrian refugees, of whom more than 70% were recorded in just two countries: Germany and Sweden.

“Other countries in the European Union, and elsewhere, can and should do much more,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa program director at Amnesty International. That said, the UK recently pledged $540m for food, medical care and relief items to various agencies.

Russia and China deserve particular condemnation, not just for their substantial military, economic and political support for the brutal Syrian regime, but also for their pitiful contributions to the UNHCR: just $10m and $1m, respectively.

That is no typo - two of the countries most directly involved in the conflict, with a combined population of 1.5 billion, have given just $11m in relief for the massive suffering they are contributing to, while constantly saying they have the Syrian people’s best interests at heart. One would hope that even supporters of the regime in Damascus would find this shocking.

“Russia and China have blocked any meaningful initiative at the [U.N.] Security Council to ensure accountability or improve access to humanitarian aid,” said Human Rights Watch. “Meanwhile, influential governments of the global South, namely India, Brazil and South Africa, have expressed concern for the situation but have not supported concerted action to help civilians in need.”

Furthermore, “none” of the G20 countries - representing 19 major national economies plus the EU - “have done all they could to help save Syrian lives, and it’s high time they did,” added Peggy Hicks, HRW’s global advocacy director. “There are no innocent bystanders to the Syrian conflict.”

Charlotte Phillips, Amnesty International’s researcher on refugee and migrants’ rights, said: “Donor governments should be prepared to take the most vulnerable refugees out of the region and allow them to settle safely in their countries, via resettlement and humanitarian admission programmes.”

Germany has so far agreed to take in 5,000 Syrian refugees via a humanitarian admission program. However, arguably the country most worthy of commendation in this regard - besides of course Syria’s neighbors - is Sweden, which has said it will grant permanent residency status to all Syrian asylum-seekers, whose relatives will be able to apply for family reunification.

There is simply no excuse for the international community to shirk its moral duty to help Syria’s displaced millions. This is surely the most uncontroversial, non-political form of foreign involvement, one that is badly needed but sorely lacking. The result is that Syria is literally losing its future, an entire generation of children (more than 1 million of whom are refugees) that will be forever scarred by things that no child should ever experience.

However, even if the international community finally got its act together and provided the necessary relief, it would be merely a plaster on a huge, festering wound. Without a diplomatic solution to the conflict - and there is none on the horizon - the number of displaced will continue to rise, as will their basic needs and those of the surrounding host nations.

It is estimated that the number of refugees could reach 3 million by the end of the year - that would be an extra million in just a few months. The escalation is almost impossible to fathom, as is the world’s inaction. “But as with all statistics, this only tells us part of the story because behind every number is the human story of someone who has experienced extraordinary loss,” said Phillips.


Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.